Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy

The last of the old European empires was the USSR. All the other empires had fallen decades ago German, British, Ottoman. Through sheer terror and propaganda USSR had survived. A detailed analysis of the last days of the Soviet Union, its major players and events are captured in this book by Serhii Plohky. The book can be used as a text book in schools, it captures minute details and always keeps an objective tone about the last days of the last empire.

USSR was a collection of republics, some were willing others were forced in the union. Russia and Ukraine being the largest nations in the USSR. Russia was the powerhouse, and the pivot of the USSR. USSR was ruled by the communists, starting from Lenin, Stalin to Nikita Khrushchev and so forth..

USSR was the antithesis to the USA. Much of the world was divided in two blocs pro USA or NATO or pro USSR, the Warsaw countries. The two had often come close to destroying each other and the world with their powerful nuclear weapons. Hell bent on wiping each other out, the final days of the soviet union forced the two to become sort of allies.

USSR, like an unhappy marriage had run its course and the parties involved wanted a divorce. Russia felt that it carried the weight of the other countries, Ukraine wanted total independence and wanted to ally with the western European nations, Baltic nations wanted freedom and the Muslims nations of central Asia wanted to form their own separate bloc. In the middle of all this was the President of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Gorbachev was a clairvoyant leader. He and the much underrated US President Sr George Bush, wanted peace and friendship between the two behemoths. After years of enmity they had cut down a sizable portion of their nuclear arsenal and moved closer to each other than they had ever been in decades. Bush and Gorbachev also shared a personal bond, they were good friends, and Bush and his cabinet were a supporter of Gorbachev. Even though the republics wanted sovereignty, Gorbachev wanted USSR to persist. It was pretty simple, all the republics wanted out but had that happen USSR would collapse and Gorbachev would lose all power. USA, wanted Gorbachev to stay because:

  • Army reported to Gorbachev
  • He had control over the nukes, in a non-existent USSR the fate of the nukes would be unclear, making the world a very dangerous place
  • No central authority could lead to civil war and sectarian violence
  • He provided stability and  was friendly with the west and was diplomatic and reasonable
On the other side was Russian leader Boris Yelstin and Leonid Kravchuk, leaders of Russia and Ukraine respectively. These democratically elected leaders saw Gorbachev and his regime as an impediment to their own rise and their nation's freedom from the communist regime. Much of the book is frantic negotiations between Bush, Gorbachev, Kravchuk and Yelstin. And so, as history was witness Gorbachev could not save USSR, a Ukraine referendum for Independence sealed its fate. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned from his position as president of the USSR and to the shock and awe of people around the world the communist behemoth and the cold war ended. 

This insightful look into history teaches us so much, and dispels so many notions. America never wanted USSR to collapse, it wanted USSR to persist, to allow America to deal with Gorbachev rather than the boorish Yelstin and the unknowns of the other republics. USSR was an empire, and much like other empires the colonies rose up against the imperialists and destroyed the empire. Russia did not weaken after the collapse, it kept the nukes, the oil reserves and the bulk of the Army not to mention the permanent seat at UNSC. Ukraine dealt the body blow to the USSR with the referendum, thus earning the enmity of the soviet loyalists and ultra nationalists like Vladimir Putin. In the end Gorbachev was left without any power and/or status, although he will go down in history as one of the greatest politicians who ever lived. Simply because he refused to use force to quell the republics.

I thought the book was a tad too long, going so much into details. I got bored a few times, some details could have been skipped. I'm going to rate this three out of 5 stars.

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  1. I remember the shock well, Rishi. The communist bloc just fell apart. Who could have foreseen it? I know things were not alright in that part of the world but later when I saw the carting-off of the statues of Lenin and others from East European countries, I did feel a tad sad. We had grown up in Hindi-Rusi bhai bhai environment, so it was definitely momentous for us.

    Anyway, all that is history now and as a new year begins, I wish you the very best. 2017 Mubarak.

    1. Thank you Neer and very happy New year to you too! About the Indian Russian bonhomie can never forget the role they played during Indo-Pak war of 71, literally insulating us from China and the US.


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