[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Smith on Plokhy, 'The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Nov 20 19:05:24 MST 2016

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Sun, Nov 20, 2016 at 7:51 PM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Smith on Plokhy, 'The Last Empire: The Final
Days of the Soviet Union'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Serhii Plokhy.  The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.
New York  Basic Books, 2014.  520 pp.  $32.00 (cloth), ISBN

Reviewed by Robert J. Smith (Air War College)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Dr. Plokhy presents an intriguing and well-documented argument that
the fall of the Soviet Union was less the destiny of a corrupt,
mal-designed, or even untenable system that was unsustainable in the
long term as it was the product of political choices made in the
moment by individuals who found themselves with new opportunities.
His narrative is an intriguing read and while not unique it is an
outlier from the general understanding of the fall of the USSR in
both popular and academic literature. Plokhy's distance from the
action combined with access to key participants with such a variety
of perspectives gives this work a more balanced outlook than works
written by those closer to the events.

I found coverage of the different treatment of various regions both
insightful and prescient. Explanation of how Soviet and then Russian
officials viewed the actions toward independence of Baltic states (or
republics, depending on time frame) Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia
differently than Slavic states/republics like BeloRus, the Russian
Federation, and Ukraine, or the Central Asian states/republics or
even the Caucasus region, provides an valuable way to understand some
of the actions taken under the Putin regime in the past decade.
Soviet officials, Mikhail Gorbachev particularly, recognized that the
Soviet Union would not, could not, remain without the full
participation of the Slavic regions. Russian officials, Boris Yeltsin
included, were sure that no confederation or organization of states
could exist with Ukraine. Plokhy notes that on September 10, 1991,
one of Gorbachev's advisors, Georgii Shakhnazarov, proposed an
anti-independence campaign in Crimea and the Donbas. He said, "It
should be stated plainly and clearly, without constraint, that those
regions are historical parts of Russia, and it [Russia] does not
intend to renounce them if Ukraine should wish to cease being part of
the Union" (p. 259). Insights such as these clearly paint the
background for the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea and
support for separatists in the conflict in Ukraine in the 2010s.

While I stated earlier that this work is more balanced than some of
the first-person accounts of events surrounding the fall of the
Soviet Union and the rise of the Russian Federation, it is not
without some perspective bias. For much of the work the Bush
administration's attempts to balance a desire for democratic
processes and support of the elected Russian president Yeltsin with
the need for continuation of the Soviet Union, and for Soviet
president Gorbachev to support arms control and other international
relations goals. Plokhy notes in several sections that the Bush
administration seemed to side with the center and Gorbachev rather
than the republics and independence most of the time (pp. xiv-xv,
204, 206-209, 404 for example) and thus should not receive credit for
contributing to the fall of the USSR. At the same time he
acknowledges that throughout the process the leaders of the Soviet
republics regularly sought and competed for Bush's attention and
approval. In the epilogue Plokhy says that "George Bush's policies
contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union but they often did so
irrespective of the desires of his administration, or even contrary
to them" (p. 404). For a book with such a nuanced view about the
interpersonal relationships between and among Soviet officials, this
conclusion demonstrates a lack of understanding of the personal and
professional relationships found in US institutions.

I would commend this book to anyone who wants to gain a greater
appreciation for the importance of the individual in public policy,
international and domestic. It would also be a great choice for a
course that examines the importance of culture and cultural
perspective in diplomacy and international relations.

Citation: Robert J. Smith. Review of Plokhy, Serhii, _The Last
Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union_. H-War, H-Net Reviews.
November, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=43545

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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