Vladimir Putin calls it ‘the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century’, a viewpoint which explains much of his recent behaviour. Few others anywhere in the world, particularly people who live around Russia’s borders, would agree that the collapse of the Soviet Union was anything to lament. From Riga to Tbilisi and from Kiev to Tashkent, Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as leader of the USSR and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, remains a day to celebrate.
With nearly a quarter of a century’s hindsight it still seems astonishing that a great superpower and, with it, an entirely different way of looking at the world — Soviet-style communism — disappeared almost overnight and with practically no bloodshed. Two years earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen, the Soviets abandoned their colonies in Eastern Europe, and the 40-year-long ideological and military rivalry between East and West — the Cold War — seemed over. But at the beginning of 1991 few people predicted that the USSR itself would implode. Pundits talked of a long decline, like the Ottoman empire, limping on for generations. So how did it fall apart so swiftly?
The Ukrainian-born Harvard academic Serhii Plokhy’s dramatic reconstruction of the last days of the Soviet Union is 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.
Several recent books have covered this territory. Plokhy’s starting point follows others. By far the biggest factor was the selection in 1985 of Mikhail Gorbachev as Communist party boss in Moscow. Three Soviet leaders had died in as many years and the gerontocrats in the Kremlin thought they were selecting a younger, vigorous version of themselves, who would maintain Soviet power, Marxist-Leninist faith and the USSR’s imperial glory. In fact they had chosen a true reformer who aimed to save communism by ending the ideological conflict with the West and fixing the ailing state at home.
He failed lamentably in the latter cause. By 1991 the economy was in dire straits; food queues in Moscow were longer than they had been after the second world war. But his buzzwords perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) transformed Soviet politics and unleashed forces he could not control — most ominously for the USSR, nationalism in the Soviet republics.
Gorbachev never stood for election himself, but he did introduce a semi-free press and the most open democracy there had been in Soviet history. From these emerged an opposition and a rival for power: Boris Yeltsin.
Politics is invariably personal and the extreme loathing between the two is the main leitmotif in the book. Plokhy writes well about the strengths and weaknesses of each. Both achieved great things but both had gigantic flaws. Neither emerges altogether well here. Yeltsin’s drunken boorishness and refusal to ignore any perceived slight was matched by Gorbachev’s extreme vanity, occasional cruelty and excruciating pomposity that drove even his admiring aides to despair.
Little of this is new, though Plokhy’s narrative makes it fresh. His account of the tragicomic coup in August 1991, in which diehard communists aimed to turn back the clock and impose a neo-Stalinist regime, is masterly. The farcical putsch ended within three days. As the joke went in Moscow at the time, you knew communism was dead when the Bolsheviks couldn’t even mount a proper coup.
Much of the book tells of the five following months and Plokhy has unearthed important new material from archives in Kiev, Moscow and the US which reveals a far more complex and little understood story. It was the demand for independence in Ukraine that drove the breakup of the USSR. Once sovereign, Ukrainian refusal to remain in any union, however loose, dictated the timing of the split.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants a better understanding of events in Ukraine now. Plokhy has come up with a good scoop: new evidence showing that in 1991 Yeltsin wanted a ‘Slavic’ union of Russia with Ukraine, separate from the USSR. If that proved unobtainable, he wished to grab for Russia the Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine around Donetsk, which are in the headlines today. This is not so different from the presumed wishes of his hand-picked successor, Putin. Yeltsin was stopped by Gorbachev and another of the prominent characters in this book, the Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk, reviled in Kiev now as a communist throwback. Ukraine’s modern history might have been different if Kravchuk had buckled under Russian pressure then; his role has never been forgiven or forgotten in the present Kremlin.
In his last State of the Union speech in January 1992, the first President Bush triumphantly boasted that America had ‘won’ the Cold War through its ‘biblical’ efforts. It was myth-making of a dangerous kind, but a theme that is still believed in much of the West. Plokhy punctures the myth, with the help of telephone records from the George W. Bush Presidential Library showing that far from wanting to see the back of the ‘evil empire’, the President wanted desperately to preserve the Soviet Union and made urgent pleas to many of the leaders of the republics not to seek independence. Only when the split was a fait accompli did he reluctantly accept it.
Bush was cautious, unimaginative and he liked certainty. An old Cold War warrior — a former CIA chief — he knew where he was with the Soviet Union; he saw insecurity with several new successor states. He also worried about what would happen to the Soviet nuclear arsenal if four independent republics had the Bomb. These were entirely reasonable concerns. It was the inflated rhetoric about wanting to see the back of the USSR and always respecting the wishes of its people which, as Plokhy suggests, wreaked of hypocrisy.
The triumphalism about the Cold War has sounded hollow for many years. The US and the West ‘contained’ the Soviets for four decades and the arms race weakened them. But when the crunch came it was Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who liberated themselves in 1989. The best thing about the ghastly, blood-soaked history of the USSR was the manner of its going. As this masterful book shows, Soviet citizens destroyed the Soviet Union using ‘people power’ and democracy, not outsiders and not through violence. The tragedy since is that a Tsar-like figure has emerged in Moscow who mourns the old country’s passing and appears to have an ambition to recreate a new version of his own.