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  • Nationalism, Triumphalism, and the Final Months of the Soviet Union
  • Artemy M. Kalinovsky
Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. 520 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2014. ISBN-13 978–0465056965. $32.00.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last president of the Soviet Union, resigned on Christmas Day in 1991. Gorbachev’s advisers had originally planned the announcement for 24 December, Christmas Eve, but decided to wait a day so that television viewers in the United States could celebrate their holiday in peace. As Serhii Plokhy explains in his lively, engaging book on the last six months of the USSR, Gorbachev’s resignation speech was just the last of a series of performances played out by the Soviet leader, his rival Boris Yeltsin, and the other republic leaders for US audiences.

Discussions of the Soviet collapse tend to focus on causal factors—including the relative importance of nationalist mobilization, the “exit” of communist elites, or the relative impact of events in Eastern Europe.1 Most accounts tend to treat the postcoup period as essentially a process of protracted agony, in which the question of the USSR’s future was more or less already settled. The exceptions have either been memoirs by Gorbachev’s associates [End Page 228] or works on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union and Russia.2 The main achievement of Plokhy’s book is to bring together the high drama of that short period—the political struggles between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the attempts to win over Central Asian leaders, and the rapidly changing situation in Ukraine. Plokhy is not dismissive of long-term causes—on the contrary, he insists on the importance of the “nationality question” for understanding the Soviet collapse (409). Throughout the book, however, he emphasizes the importance of contingencies in this period.3

As Plokhy shows, republican leaders were dealing with two problems in the wake of the August putsch. First, the public mood had changed. If earlier in the year referendums seemed to show substantial support for preserving some sort of union, after the coup the calls for sovereignty and even independence became much louder. Republican leaders who had hesitated to denounce the coup had to fight for their political lives by reinventing themselves as democrats and nationalists. Second, even those who were eager to preserve some kind of union—including the leaders of the Central Asian republics, who counted on investments from the center to prevent economic collapse and to smooth any kind of economic transition—were wary of a union too heavily dominated by Russia. With Yeltsin rising as a political force in 1991 and increasingly dominating not just Russian but Soviet politics, leaders like Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov began to think they might be better off alone.

Although Plokhy touches on the role of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other republics, it is Russia and Ukraine that are at the center of his story. Plokhy is especially effective explaining how Ukrainian nationalism developed as a potent political force even as the communist elite in the republic became alienated from Gorbachev. Although the Ukrainian party had supported the coup, the leadership and Leonid Kravchuk himself quickly came out in favor of independence in the wake of the attempted putsch. What made the Ukrainian declaration of independence in August particularly damaging for the union was that it was the first case of a communist-controlled legislature taking the lead. Similarly, Plokhy demonstrates convincingly how important the “Russia first” sentiment, shared by some of Yeltsin’s advisers and increasingly by Yeltsin himself, was in the political struggles of 1991. Yeltsin, who was initially a [End Page 229] supporter of a strong Soviet Union, became one of the most enthusiastic contributors to its dissolution. The role of other republics, by contrast, is given relatively little treatment. True, Kazakhstan’s Nazarbaev, usually left out of the story, emerges as a major political player. But we learn relatively little about the political dramas within the republics themselves, where pro- and antiunion forces were mobilizing, sometimes in unpredictable ways.4 We also get little sense of the content behind various proposals to keep the union together...


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pp. 228-232
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