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Saturday, 13 September 2014

Review: Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire


This is a fascinating, well-written account of the final months of the Soviet Union. Though Gorbachev is presented as a much rougher, power-hungry figure than I had imagined, the book impressed me as balanced and nuanced particularly in its account of the "dance" between Yeltsin's Russia and Kravchuk's Ukraine in the last five months of 1991 - the period from Gorbachev's house arrest in Crimea by the ill-fated Moscow putschists to his 25 December resignation as President of the Soviet Union. This makes for very interesting reading, especially now in 2014 in the context of the armed Russo-Ukrainian conflict which post dates the completion of this book.

Plokhy has had access to important primary source material, including transcripts and notes on conversations between the first President Bush and Gorbachev, Yletsin and Kravchuk. He has also interviewed some of the important participants in the events of 1991. The book includes a great deal of surprising detail.

Ukraine was important to Russia both symbolically and practically. Yeltsin did not want it to slip away from a "Slavic Union" which would leave Russia with just much-smaller Belarus to face towards the Islamic republics - the half dozen Central Asian Stans. 

It was also still the case, as it had been in 1917, that Ukraine was important to feeding Russia and it is an extraordinary fact that, as Plokhy describes it, in 1991 the Mayors of Leningrad and Moscow were preoccupied with food shortages - there wasn't much in the shops and they feared that by winter 1991 - 92 there would be nothing. It could have been 1917  - 18 all over again. Russian history is often about the question, Who is going to be hungry? In the 1930s, Stalin decided that it would be Ukraine - the food it produced was needed in Russia.

This is one reason why I disagree with one of Plokhy's conclusions:

The death of the Soviet Union differed from that of other empires in that the resource-rich metropolis cut off its former colonial possessions from easy access to those resources. Russia stood to benefit from the loss of its imperial possessions more than any other empire of the past (page 399)
This may be true of oil and gas, but it is still not true of food - nor even of cotton which Uzbekistan produced for the metropolis. I discuss some related issues in my review on this site of Alexander Etkind's Internal Colonization (reviewed on 9 June 2012)

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