This essay reviews a recent book by Serhii Plokhii, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. Focusing on the role of the USSR's union-republics, especially Russia and Ukraine, in the breakup of the country, the book explains why efforts to hold the Soviet Union together ultimately proved abortive. The book, like earlier literature, debunks tenacious myths about the dissolution of the Soviet Union—myths that have been discredited before but are worth rebutting again—and provides an in-depth account of the final weeks of the USSR.

Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 489 pp. $32.00.

The end of the Soviet Union is all too often conflated with the end of the Cold War and the demise of Communism. Serhii Plokhy sees clearly that these were three distinct phenomena, with the breakup of the Soviet state occurring some two years after the two other developments. The Cold War, in its most meaningful sense, ended when the countries of Eastern and Central Europe became independent and non-Communist in 1989–1990. Those were also the years in which the Soviet Union itself ceased to have a Communist political system. As Plokhy correctly observes (p. 396), “Gorbachev managed to maneuver the party out of supreme power long before it was banned in Russia” by Boris Yeltsin in the wake of the aborted August 1991 coup. With the creation of an executive presidency separate from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1990, the party's Politburo ceased to be the highest policymaking body within the Soviet Union, becoming merely the highest collective organ of a party that was ceasing to wield state power.

The increasing hostility of CPSU Politburo members to Mikhail Gorbachev in the course of 1990 was fueled by the knowledge that power was slipping out of their hands—not only, of course, into the hands of Gorbachev but also into those of the leaders of several of the Soviet republics, especially Yeltsin in the Russian republic. The CPSU had lost its “leading role” (the long-standing euphemism for its monopoly of power) de facto even before it lost it de jure with the amendments in March 1990 to the Soviet Constitution. The party had also ceased to be characterized by “democratic centralism,” another long-standing euphemism, which signified a strictly centralized and hierarchical party with extremely circumscribed scope for intraparty discussion. By 1988 the CPSU had become an organization in which the wide variety of views its members already expressed in private were increasingly out in the open. By early 1989, party members were even competing against one another, on radically different policy platforms, for seats in a new legislature endowed with real power.

Important as it is to distinguish conceptually the end of the Cold War, the end of Communism in Europe, and the end of the Soviet Union, that is not to deny that the phenomena are interlinked. The jettisoning of long-held Communist doctrine, together with transformative change of the political system, not only made possible the end of the Cold War but also put the Soviet state under severe strain. The liberalization and the subsequent partial democratization of the Soviet political system were preconditions for the emergence of openly expressed nationalist sentiments, heard most insistently in the Baltic republics. It can hardly be doubted that a majority of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians would have opted for independent statehood years earlier had that been even a faint possibility in the pre-perestroika era. However, they were well aware of the dire consequences that would have followed any such demand.

In addition to the new tolerance and developing pluralism in Moscow in the second half of the 1980s, the still more dramatic changes in Eastern Europe greatly raised the expectations of the most disaffected of Soviet nationalities. To see the peoples of Eastern Europe send their own Communist rulers packing, to witness the ending of the limited sovereignty that had characterized the East-Central European states’ relationship with the Soviet Union, and to observe Soviet troops staying in their barracks while all this was happening could hardly fail to radicalize and embolden Estonians, Lithuanians, and Latvians in the first instance. Expectations were raised despite the fact that even reformist Soviet leaders made a sharp distinction between secession of parts of their multinational state, which they, in contrast to Plokhy, did not perceive as an empire (whether “the last” or, as is more likely, far from the last), and the changes in Eastern Europe. The Baltic peoples, Georgians, and western Ukrainians could, in the light of the new tolerance at home and abroad, realistically pursue a more substantial devolution of power than they had possessed hitherto and begin to regard independent statehood as something more than mere wishful thinking.

The ending of the Cold War in its ideological dimension—a radically changed political discourse—accompanied by vastly improved relations between the Soviet Union, on the one side, and the United States and Western Europe, on the other, by 1988–1989 likewise gave encouragement to nationalists and separatists within the Soviet state. They could appeal for moral support to friends abroad and calculate that the leaders in Moscow would be reluctant to jeopardize their newly friendly relations with the West, and with the United States in particular, by undertaking a domestic crackdown, especially in the Baltic states, whose annexation by the Soviet Union had never been recognized by the U.S. and other Western governments. Nevertheless, the holders of key positions in the power ministries, who had many allies in the party leadership, were fully prepared to launch precisely such repression. Gorbachev was put under prolonged pressure to institute martial law, for which yet another euphemism, “presidential rule,” had been invented. So Plokhy goes too far when he writes that Western pressure meant that Gorbachev had no choice but to eschew “prolonged use of force” and to play, instead, “according to the constitutional rules” (p. 403). Presiding over the gradual crumbling of the Soviet edifice put him in danger of domestic overthrow, and thus he did have a choice and by no means a straightforward one. His own values were more important than pressure from abroad for his refusal to use the instruments of coercive force that, prior to the August coup, were at his disposal. His deep aversion to bloodshed is a major part of the explanation of the fact that, with the exception of the use of force in Baku, all the crackdowns, organized and implemented by people who were to put the Soviet president himself under house arrest on 18 August 1991, lasted for one night and were ended by Gorbachev the next day. Aleksandr Yakovlev, in his fullest volume of memoirs (which are in many respects critical of Gorbachev), exonerates him from blame for killings in the Baltic states and in Georgia. He notes that the future putschists were guilty of numerous provocations. They wanted bloodshed and wished to involve Gorbachev in it, but he always insisted that national and other conflicts should not be resolved by force. The last Soviet leader, Yakovlev says, went into history “without blood on his hands.”1

Plokhy emphasizes the decisive role of Ukraine in the breakup of the Soviet state. All the aforementioned features, though, constitute the essential context in which Ukraine's political evolution must be seen. That became rapid change in 1991 when in the March Soviet referendum a majority of respondents from Ukraine supported a “renewed Union,” but at the beginning of December of the same year they overwhelmingly rejected the union and embraced separate statehood. The sudden conversion of Leonid Kravchuk from the opportunist who had accepted the August 1991 coup as a fait accompli to vigorous defender of a Ukrainian drive for independence owed almost everything to the failure of nerve of the putschists in the face of both Gorbachev's and Yeltsin's condemnation of their attempted takeover, bolstered by the civic resistance to the coup of large crowds of people in Moscow and other cities.2 Nevertheless, for both Gorbachev and Yeltsin, from their different perspectives, a union without Ukraine was unthinkable. Therefore, the clear-cut embrace of independence in the Ukrainian referendum of 1 December 1991 meant that the Soviet Union was doomed to extinction, even before the meeting of Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Stanislaŭ Shushkevich in Belarus on 8 December that unilaterally pronounced its last rites. Once Ukraine had opted for independence, all Gorbachev's attempts to win support for a new and voluntary loose federation or, as a fallback, for acceptance of a confederation were in vain.

Even more unthinkable, however, than a Soviet Union without Ukraine had been a union (renamed or otherwise) without Russia. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) accounted for approximately 80 percent of the Soviet state's territory. As early as June 1990 Yeltsin had come out in favor of Russian “sovereignty” and had contended that a new “federative agreement” was needed in which Russian law would have supremacy over federal legislation.3 Given that by this time Yeltsin was already chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, his declaration was a serious blow against the union. Yeltsin's direct election as Russian president a year later gave him enhanced democratic legitimacy and a decisive edge over Gorbachev, whom he sought to oust from the Kremlin. Although there was a strong element of personal ambition in all this—even some who were not opposed to Yeltsin did not dissent from the view that his chief political strength was “his unfailing instinct for power”—maximizing the prerogatives and autonomy of Russia while undermining the union were the means.4

Plokhy notes an apparent shift in Yeltsin's positions as he asserted himself in the period between the August coup and the lowering of the Soviet flag from the Kremlin on 25 December. Plokhy suggests that Yeltsin by now was interested in saving the union, provided that he, not Gorbachev, would be the person calling the shots within it. Plokhy goes so far as to say, “Yeltsin, who had prevented the coup plotters from saving the USSR, now adopted that mission himself” (p. 398). There is little reason to doubt that Yeltsin would have been more than content to wield power throughout the entire Soviet territory had that been a viable option. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, he and some of his closest advisers, while they continued to undermine Gorbachev, showed no enthusiasm for Ukrainian separation from Russia. Plokhy notes that Yeltsin authorized his press secretary, Pavel Voshchanov, to say that “if any republic breaks off Union relations with Russia, then Russia has the right to raise the question of territorial claims” (p. 176).

Yeltsin's own actions, however, in weakening the Soviet state, as part of his struggle for power with Gorbachev, had been sufficiently successful that the likelihood of his taking Gorbachev's place in the Kremlin could not attract the most disaffected republics back to the idea of remaining under Moscow's rule. The prospect that Yeltsin would displace Gorbachev was all the less enticing because the Russian president's style of rule, despite his rhetorical support for democracy, was generally a good deal less conciliatory and inclusive than was Gorbachev’s. During these last months of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin's position vacillated. He certainly did not appear to members of Gorbachev's team as someone who was intent on preserving even a radically transformed Soviet state. Andrei Grachev, who was at Gorbachev's side as his press secretary and an adviser during these final months of the USSR, notes that on 14 November “Yeltsin, backed by Shushkevich, said that he was against a unified state, much to the surprise of the other leaders, who thought that the draft [of a new Union Treaty] they were discussing had already received his endorsement.”5 Later in that same discussion Yeltsin compromised and came up with the odd formulation of “a confederal state,” which Gorbachev, eager for an agreement, did not directly contest, although he continued to stress the importance of a center that could administer a joint foreign and defense policy.6 Plokhy notes that although Gorbachev was ready to make far-reaching concessions to Ukrainians to keep them in a renewed union, offering them the second position in the party before the coup and, after it, the prime ministership in a reconstituted union, Yeltsin and his entourage offered only “a Russia-dominated confederation” (pp. 401–402).

If we look much further back than the perestroika period to see who was responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet pseudo-federal state, Plokhy suggests that the prime suspect should be none other than Iosif Stalin. Plokhy makes the somewhat paradoxical but, on the whole, persuasive point that a Soviet Union might have survived had Stalin not grabbed the Baltic states and parts of Poland, especially the city of L’viv, which in the late 1980s became “the center of nationalist mobilization for Ukrainian independence” (pp. 400–401). The Baltic states set the pace in seeking greater autonomy and then independence, with Georgia, Moldova, and western Ukraine not too far behind. Just as some countries of East-Central Europe acquiring independence served as an example for others, so the idea and prospect of secession from the Soviet Union proved contagious.

More questionable is Plokhy's view that all Soviet republics were equal in constitutional terms and that particular rights could not be accorded to one without being accorded to all. In fact, through almost the whole of the Soviet period, the Russian republic had no separate party organization with its own Central Committee. Instead, Russians and RSFSR-based officials “merely” constituted the dominant component of the CPSU. The fact that the party organs were part of the “unwritten” rather than the written constitution of the USSR is not to say that they were anything other than the most important political institutions in the country. The Russian republic, unlike the others, also did not have its own Academy of Sciences, although it contained the most important all-union institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences.

Moreover, for a federal or quasi-federal state to be asymmetrical is not uncommon. Spain, for example, is both constitutionally (Andalusia, Basque Country, Catalonia, and Galicia) and fiscally (Basque Country and Navarre) asymmetrical.7 Understandably enough, Plokhy is dismissive of the distinction made in the discourse of some reformist Soviet politicians (Gorbachev included) between “sovereignty” and “independence,” suggesting that for the rest of the world these amounted to the same thing. It is possible, though, to view them as the equivalent of what in the nationality politics of the United Kingdom has historically been called “home rule” (the equivalent of “sovereignty”) as distinct from independence (meaning separate statehood). For many decades a large majority in Scotland has favored “home rule,” and this was institutionalized in the last years of the twentieth century with the introduction of a Scottish parliament and government as part of a comprehensive program of asymmetrical devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (but not, to the chagrin of some English conservatives, to England). It is arguable, of course, that this process, as in the Soviet case, could be a stepping-stone to separation (although resistance to overwhelming support for “home rule” would have accelerated that outcome). Indeed, support for Scottish independence has grown so fast in the 21st century that the only alternative to the breakup of the United Kingdom may involve the far from easy task of designing an asymmetrical federal system in which one nation (the English) has almost 85 percent of the population. In comparison, Russia accounted for only 50 percent of the population of the Soviet Union.8

On many of the big questions Plokhy sets the record straight. Perhaps none is more important than his correction of the notion that the United States sought, and achieved, the breakup of the Soviet Union. That this was an American aim is quite broadly assumed in the United States—and the end result often claimed as a triumph—and is even more widely believed, as the years go by, in Russia. In showing this to be remote from historical reality, Plokhy is following in the footsteps of a well-informed minority of authors, among whom none has written more authoritatively than Jack F. Matlock, Jr., from the vantage point of having been U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991 and, before that, the official chiefly responsible for the Soviet Union on Ronald Reagan's National Security Council.9 Among the most senior members of the U.S. government, only Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was eager to switch U.S. support from Gorbachev and preservation of a Soviet Union (with the exception only of the Baltic states) to backing for the most restless republics, including support for Yeltsin, who was restless on his own and Russia's behalf. And even Cheney did not adopt that position until early September 1991, more than a fortnight after the coup against Gorbachev had failed.10 President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft took longer to alter their positions, and they were adapting themselves to change on the ground in the fast-disappearing Soviet Union rather than abandoning their own predilections.

Although the August putsch and its failure accelerated the fissiparous trend in the Soviet Union and it was fast becoming clear that breakup was going to occur, the U.S. government as a whole took pains not to push, or to be seen as pushing, that process forward. Not until late November did the Bush administration indicate that, following a “yes” to separate statehood in the 1 December referendum in Ukraine, the United States would recognize Ukraine's independence. Prior to that, the administration took the view that for “one superpower to support the dismantlement of another could only create a backlash and lead to direct political conflict” (p. 263). At an earlier time this would even have led to military conflict. In addition, many in Washington, as well as in the European capitals, were concerned about the security of the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal, and the nightmare possibility of “loose nukes” was another reason for supporting both the political longevity of Gorbachev, a leader with whom relations of trust had been developed, and the stability, if it could somehow be maintained, of a democratizing Soviet state.

Transnational influences were indeed important for the breakup of the Soviet state, but they did not come primarily from the United States. The impact of the countries of East-Central Europe gaining independence contributed far more to the disintegration of the USSR than did U.S. policy. And the greatest stimulus to the dramatic change of 1989 in Eastern Europe had come not from the West but from Moscow—the reforms in the Soviet political system and countries’ “right to choose” their preferred political and economic system, enunciated by Gorbachev in his speeches to the Nineteenth Party Conference in June 1988 and at the United Nations in New York in December of the same year. What was decisive was the circular flow of influence from the Soviet Union to Eastern Europe and back again. If force had been applied to crush anti-Communist and pro-independence movements in Eastern and Central Europe, people within even the most disaffected Soviet republics would have assumed they were doubly likely to suffer the same fate. But because Soviet troops remained in their barracks while Eastern Europe was politically transformed, people in the Baltic republics and western Ukraine drew altogether more optimistic conclusions.11 Western governments, meanwhile, understandably made distinctions between, on the one hand, ending the Cold War, the East-European states becoming independent of the Soviet Union, the liberalization and democratization of the Soviet Union (all desirable) and, on the other hand, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a process that was unpredictable both in its short-term and longer-term consequences and potentially dangerous.



Aleksandr Yakovlev, Sumerki (Moscow: Materik, 2003), pp. 519–520.


Plokhy notes on p. 160 that, among highly-placed officials in Ukraine, Volodymyr Hryniov, the deputy speaker (an ethnic Russian from Kharkiv and a supporter of the union), was the one who took the firmest stand against the putschists, going on the radio on the morning of 19 August “to condemn the coup in the strongest possible terms.”


Timothy Colton, Yeltsin: A Life (New York: Basic Books, 2008), p. 185.


Pavel Palazchenko, My Years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: The Memoir of a Soviet Interpreter (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1997), p. 372.


Andrei S. Grachev, Final Days: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995), p. 107. Surprisingly, Plokhy does not refer to this important book by a Soviet insider on the same theme as his own. He does cite Grachev's biography of Gorbachev, although using what was the provisional title for the book, “Gorbachev: Chelovek, kotoryi khotel kak luchshe” (a reference to a remark, in a different context, by Viktor Chernomyrdin). But in the published version in Russian, the book is called simply Gorbachev (Moscow: Vagrius, 2001).


Grachev, Final Days, pp. 108–109.


See Sonia Alonso, Challenging the State: Devolution and the Battle for Partisan Credibility: A Comparison of Belgium, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2012).


See Archie Brown, “The Scottish Question in British Politics,” in Wm. Roger Louis, ed., Resplendent Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics, and Culture in Britain (London: Tauris, 2015), pp. 355–367.


See Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Autopsy on an Empire: The American Ambassador's Account of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (New York: Random House, 1995); and Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Reagan and Gorbachev: How the Cold War Ended (New York: Random House, 2004).


Dick Cheney (with Liz Cheney), In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir (New York: Threshold, 2011), pp. 231–232.


Archie Brown, Seven Years That Changed the World: Perestroika in Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), esp. pp. 213–237; and Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (London: Bodley Head, 2009), esp. pp. 563–565.