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The Last Empire: If Only

Bennett Muraskin
November 14, 2014
by Bennett Muraskin Discussed in this essay: The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serghii Plokhy, Basic Books, 2014, indexed, 489 pages. gorbachev-yeltsinTHE COLLAPSE of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was a pivotal event in modern world history. The first self-proclaimed socialist state and by far the largest country in the world, which at one time commanded the allegiance or sympathy of millions of people on every continent, dissolved before our very eyes and split into fifteen independent states. How did it happen? What was the role of the U.S., the Soviet Union’s antagonist in the Cold War, in this process? Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, is well qualified to attempt an answer. Surprisingly, President George Bush (the elder) sought to prolong the life of the USSR and keep Mikhail Gorbachev in power, for reasons that are not hard to discern: The Cold War had ended a few years earlier with the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989 and its announcement of the “Sinatra Doctrine” in October 1989, encouraging their former satellites in Eastern Europe to go their own way. Gorbachev had also proved to be accommodating to U.S. policy in Cuba and the Middle East, and on the issue that concerned Bush (and Reagan before him) the most: nuclear disarmament. In fact, according to Plokhy, Gorbachev was so desperate for economic aid from the West to shore up the failing Soviet economy that he was even willing to have the Soviet Union join the International Monetary Fund. In return, Bush promised to ask Congress to grant the Soviet Union economic aid and most favored nation trade, but could not deliver. Most of the concessions in their negotiations came from the weaker Soviet side. When it came to the future of the Soviet republics, Bush originally drew the line at support for independence for the Baltic states and got into political trouble with Ukrainian Americans for failing to advocate for Ukrainian independence. Bush condemned the coup that temporarily ousted Gorbachev in August 1991, but played no role in bringing him back to power. IN MARCH, 1991, the peoples of the Soviet Union voted in a referendum to maintain its existence as a “renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed.” By the end of the year, however, the Soviet Union was no more. How this happened makes for a fascinating story and Plokhy tells it well, centering on the rivalry between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and on the role of the Ukraine in any reconstituted federation. Gorbachev had been the prime minister of the Soviet Union since 1985. In March 1990, he was elected president of the Congress of People’s Deputies as the result of semi-free elections. Gorbachev introduced economic reforms (perestroika) and political liberalization (glasnost), but lost popular support due to the deterioration of the Soviet economy. The Soviet republics, beginning with the Baltic states, saw their opportunity and began to head for the exit. Yeltsin, who had on the losing end of a power struggle with Gorbachev since 1987, was elected president of Russia by its people in June 1991, beating out Gorbachev’s preferred candidate. Yeltsin had already resigned from the Communist Party and denounced communist ideology, and as soon as he was elected he asserted Russia’s “sovereignty” to make its own laws. A rising star, his popularity soared to new heights in August, 1991 when he stood firm against the attempted coup by the Red Army and KGB against Gorbachev, which Gorbachev survived but with his authority radically diminished. Power had shifted to Russia in the person of Boris Yeltsin, and he used it to enact reforms that further moved Russia toward a capitalist economy. Yeltsin seemed willing to sign a new union treaty based on the results of the March referendum, but Ukraine was not. Leonid Kravchuk, the head of the Ukrainian state, reacted to the failed coup by resigning from the Communist Party and declaring Ukraine an independent state, subject to a referendum. For the next three to four months, Gorbachev scrambled to save the Soviet Union in one form or another. He asked for another nationwide referendum on the future of the Soviet Union. He eventually agreed to a confederation of states adorned with a weak central government. Yeltsin, meanwhile, slowly starved every Soviet institution of funds, leaving Gorbachev a figurehead. The days of the Soviet Union were numbered. Gorbachev finally had no choice but to resign. Virtually no one rallied to his defense. The death knell rang when the Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence in their December 1991 referendum. Russia immediately recognized the results. In light of current events, it should be of interest that this referendum succeeded in all sections of Ukraine, including Crimea and the Russian-speaking provinces of the East. PLOKHY DESCRIBES IT as a chain reaction. When Ukraine decided to complete independence, Russia gave up on any form of union because it would be badly outnumbered by the non-Slavic republics. The non-Slavic republics, in turn, could not imagine a union without Russia. The Soviet empire had finally crumbled. Some may mourn the dissolution of the Soviet Union or the failure to form a more decentralized entity, but the peaceful nature of its demise is in any case praiseworthy. For this Plokhy credits Yeltsin and the cautious attitude of the Bush administration. Bush comes off as a wise statesman for adopting the diplomatic approach promoted by his Secretary of State James Baker rather than the coercive approach promoted by none other than the Darth Vader of American politics, Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense. However, as the Bush administration began to prepare for the post-Soviet era, the task was entrusted to Cheney and his undersecretary Paul Wolfowitz. Their "Wolfowitz Doctrine" proclaimed U.S. victory in the Cold War and a U.S. right to wage preventive war to maintain our military dominance on the world stage. This was the model for younger President Bush’s misbegotten Iraq invasion in March 2003, for which we are still paying today. The days of empire may not yet be done upon our planet -- but the "lone superpower" empire envisioned by Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al is already in collapse as the shortest-lived empire in history. THE WORDS “socialism” and “communism” barely appear in The Last Empire because Plokhy believes that by 1990-1991, if not before, the concepts were ideologically bankrupt and had bankrupted the economy throughout the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, Kravchuk and eventually Gorbachev all resigned from the Communist Party, and for a time it was officially banned. The working class makes a fleeting appearance in the book with a reference to threats of a general strike in the Ukraine, but their cause was not socialism but political independence. With the Soviet Union in its death throes, Gorbachev never appealed to the working class to come to its or his rescue. The future, nearly everyone believed, lay in democratic capitalism. Did the peoples of the former Soviet Union get what they wanted? Probably not, but that is beyond the scope of Plokhy’s excellent book. What is clear, however, is how seventy-plus years of Soviet rule discredited the very idea of socialism and did grievous harm to the socialist cause worldwide. My only criticism of Plokhy is that he gets bogged down in so much detail that he sometimes sounds more like a reporter rather than a historian. In every other respect, The Last Empire, is a gem. Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents magazine and the author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.