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The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union

Category: Book
By (author): Plokhy, Serhii
Subject:  HISTORY / Europe / Eastern
  HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union
  HISTORY / Modern / 20th Century
  POLITICAL SCIENCE / World / Russian & Former Soviet Union
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: June 2015
Format: Book-paperback
Pages: 544
Size: 8.24in x 5.66in x 1.48in

Additional Notes

From The Publisher*On Christmas Day, 1991, President George H. W. Bush addressed the nation to declare an American victory in the Cold War: earlier that day Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as the first and last Soviet president. The enshrining of that narrative, one in which the end of the Cold War was linked to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the triumph of democratic values over communism, took center stage in American public discourse immediately after Bush's speech and has persisted for decades-with disastrous consequences for American standing in the world. As prize-winning historian Serhii Plokhy reveals in The Last Empire, the collapse of the Soviet Union was anything but the handiwork of the United States. On the contrary, American leaders dreaded the possibility that the Soviet Union-weakened by infighting and economic turmoil-might suddenly crumble, throwing all of Eurasia into chaos. Bush was firmly committed to supporting his ally and personal friend Gorbachev, and remained wary of nationalist or radical leaders such as recently elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Fearing what might happen to the large Soviet nuclear arsenal in the event of the union's collapse, Bush stood by Gorbachev as he resisted the growing independence movements in Ukraine, Moldova, and the Caucasus. Plokhy's detailed, authoritative account shows that it was only after the movement for independence of the republics had gained undeniable momentum on the eve of the Ukrainian vote for independence that fall that Bush finally abandoned Gorbachev to his fate. Drawing on recently declassified documents and original interviews with key participants, Plokhy presents a bold new interpretation of the Soviet Union's final months and argues that the key to the Soviet collapse was the inability of the two largest Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine, to agree on the continuing existence of a unified state. By attributing the Soviet collapse to the impact of American actions, US policy makers overrated their own capacities in toppling and rebuildingforeign regimes. Not only was the key American role in the demise of the Soviet Union a myth, but this misplaced belief has guided-and haunted-American foreign policy ever since.
Review Quote*Winner of the 2015 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize

Wall Street Journal
"A stirring account of an extraordinary moment…what elevates The Last Empire from solid history to the must-read shelf is its relevance to the current crisis."

Financial Times
"A fine-grained, closely reported, highly readable account of the upheavals of 1991."

"Serhii Plokhy's extraordinarily well-timed new book…makes a convincing case that contrary to the triumphalist American narrative of Cold War victory, or the more recent paranoid Russian narrative of Cold War defeat, the U.S. never anticipated the breakup of the Soviet Union-in fact, the U.S. tried to use what little influence it had over the situation to prevent it.... Plokhy makes a convincing case that the misplaced triumphalism of the senior Bush's administration led to the disastrous hubris of his son's."

Telegraph, UK
"A fascinating and readable deep dive into the final half-year of the Soviet Union."

Spectator, UK
"[A] superb work of scholarship, vividly written, that challenges tired old assumptions with fresh material from East and West, as well as revealing interviews with many major players."

Sunday Times, UK
"[An] incisive account of the five months leading up to the Union's dissolution.... His vibrant, fast-paced narrative style captures the story superbly."

Mail on Sunday, UK
"Our memories of the upheavals of 1989-91 blur into one picture, with the Soviet collapse indistinguishable from the fall of the Berlin Wall, the death of communism and the end of the Cold War. Now along comes Serhii Plohky…to bring part of that historical blur into focus in a day-by-day account of the Soviet empire's final five months.... Plohky's account of the coup is a riveting thriller…"

Literary Review, UK
"Almost a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the actions and reactions of the main figures.... Very relevant to today's Ukrainian crisis…The dramatic events of the second half of 1991 are very well recounted."

Times of London, UK
"Serhii Plokhy's great achievement in this wonderfully well-written account is to show that much of the triumphalist transatlantic view of the Soviet collapse is historiographical manure."

Pittsburg Tribune-Review
"Especially provocative given current affairs, this book doesn't dismiss U.S. Cold War policy's contributions but contends the USSR fell mainly because of its imperial nature, ethnic mix and political structure, with the inability of Russia and Ukraine, the biggest Soviet republics, to agree on continuing unity as the straw that broke the Soviet camel's back."

Ukrainian Weekly
"A meticulously documented chronicle of the evil empire's demise.... [Plokhy]is the voice Ukrainians have been yearning for."

Library Journal, Starred Review
"Plokhy's cleanly written narrative presents a clear view of the complex events and numerous parties involved in the Soviet Union's demise as well as the reasons that the Soviet government could not ultimately rein in Ukrainian and Russian national movements. VERDICT: Plokhy's fine scholarship should be set alongside such great works as David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb and Vladislav M. Zubok's A Failed Empire. An excellent text for historians, students of current events, and anyone fascinated with political intrigue."

Publishers Weekly
"One of a rare breed: a well-balanced, unbiased book written on the fall of Soviet Union that emphasizes expert research and analysis."

"[Plokhy] provides fascinating details (especially concerning Ukraine) about this fraught, historic time."

William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era
"Serhii Plokhy's fine book combines a colorful, fast-paced narrative with trenchant analysis of key players in the Soviet collapse: Gorbachev and Yeltsin battling each other to the bitter end; President George H. W. Bush encouraging the former ‘evil empire' to stay together, while unintentionally facilitating its demise; Ukrainians' all-out push for independence turning out to be the coup de grace. By far our best account yet of the death spiral of the USSR."

Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History
"At last, a definitive account of the breakup of the USSR: for the first time, Serhii Plokhy tells the story not just from the point of view of Moscow, and not from Washington, but also from Kiev and the other republics where many of the most important decisions were actually made. If you don't understand what really happened in 1991, and if you don't remember the roles played by the former Soviet republics, then you'll find it impossible to understand the politics of the region today. This book usefully eviscerates some of the remaining mythology about the end of the Cold War, and is an indispensable guide to the tensions and rivalries of the present."

Rachel Polonsky, author of Molotov's Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History
"Serhii Plokhy's dramatic account of the high politics behind the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be more timely. Serhii Plokhy examines the choices, fears, personal conflicts and geopolitical delusions of the principal actors in the drama in the US and across the republics of the disintegrating USSR. While the world was spared a nuclear apocalypse, the seeds of new tragedies were sown. As Serhii Plokhy sees it, the mistaken belief that the US had ‘won the Cold War' led directly to the hubris of the Iraq invasion of 2003. Now, in the context of what many see as a new Cold War between Russia and the West, it is crucial that we understand what really happened in 1991. The Last Empire is a brilliant work of political narrative: vivid, original, urgent and, above all, wise."

Vladislav Zubok, Professor at the London School of Economics
"Serhii Plokhy's masterful book provocatively places Ukrainian independence as the central factor in the Soviet Union's collapse. Gripping reading, full of surprises and revelations for everyone, especially on the American role in this revolutionary event."
Biographical NoteSerhii Plokhy is Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. A recipient of Harvard University's Walter Channing Cabot award and author of Yalta: The Price of Peace, Plokhy lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.