Reading Last Empire by Serhii Plokhy
I read The Last Empire to understand American collapse, but they’re very different. The USSR peacefully, democratically dismantled itself. The USA is lighting itself on fire. I’ve written about that here, but this is mainly about what I learned from the book.
The main surprising thing is how badly I’ve misunderstood Soviet collapse. I never really looked into it. America said they won and I took their word for it. But it’s just not true. It couldn’t be. If the USSR fell under the weight of its own monstrosity there would have been protests, military deployments, beatings, killings, even war at the end. But there wasn’t. There were meetings, votes, and an ultimately bloodless demise.
As Plokhy documents, the final five-month demise of the USSR was a peacefully negotiated, largely democratic agreement that secured nukes, prevented war, but unfortunately did little to ease the suffering of millions of everyday people. It was not something America ‘won’ over the USSR. It’s something the Soviet Republics won for themselves.
Plokhy’s book cites extensively from declassified communications from George H.W. Bush and his advisers so you can just read what they were saying. They liked the partner they had in Gorbachev and wanted the USSR (and its nukes) reduced in power but fundamentally intact.
“No one wishes to see the disintegration of the Soviet Union,” wrote George Bush to Gorbachev in the same letter. He was not trying to mislead the Soviet president. Bush and his administration did not intent do kill the Soviet Union by pushing for Baltic independence.
In 1988, when Soviet deputy foreign minister Anatolii Adamishin asked US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Simons, “Please, please, please don’t open a second front in the Baltics,” he was told that the United States had no intention of doing so as it was not US policy to encourage the breakup of the Soviet Union.”
(The Last Empire, pg 243)
Throughout the book you can see the Americans working closely with Gorbachev, as he was doing all the right things. Gorbachev was allowing criticism of the party, opening up the country, and allowing free elections in many of the republics. He was, in short, the best leader the Americans could hope for and a real partner. By all accounts Bush personally liked Gorbachev, and their wives got on exceedingly well. When Gorbachev was briefly detained in an August coup, Bush was quite concerned.
The problem was that on the ground life was shit for people in the Soviet Union and Gorbachev’s reforms were not putting food on the table. If anything, they were putting less food on the table. Devolving democracy to the republics led to those nations asking WTF they were doing in the Soviet Union, especially since the Union was poor.
In essence, democracy was incompatible with the USSR, which had traditionally been held together by force. Hence it was nationalist pressure from democratic Ukraine and Russia that ultimately ended the Soviet Empire, not America yelling at them. While reforms were what the US was asking for, that’s not why the USSR did them. There was real pressure on the ground, from people, elites, and eventually their elected representatives. The USSR didn’t fall because they were an evil empire. They fell because, in the end, they were a good one. Gorbachev just got on TV and left. The ugliest event was that Yeltsin tried to evict him from his government apartment early.
Plokhy calls his book The Last Empire not because it was the last empire ever, but because it was the last ‘classical’ Eurasian empire. While his cousins in Germany and England lost their empires after the World War’s, the Russian Tsar lost merely his head. The old Russian Empire stayed intact and even expanded under the Bolsheviks. This made the USSR powerful but ultimately unstable because there were a diversity of existing national identities within its borders, as much as Stalin tried to deport people around. Once people were able to vote to leave, they did. Actually, just Ukraine did, and then the whole thing fell apart.
The two great historical mistakes I saw in the book were that the US did not enact a Soviet Marshall Plan to make enemies into allies. World War II ended with Germany and Japan becoming staunch friends. The Cold War ended with Russia being pissed off and humiliated, and now they’re trying to troll America to death, with great success.
The other mistake is the idea that the US ‘won’ the Cold War when the USSR collapsed. Even internally, Bush and his team didn’t see it this way, but they made it that way for an election. And that public deception had consequences. Plokhy describes the difference between Bush’s first written statement on the collapse and then what he said on TV.
In the first statement, the ending of the Cold war was presented as a joint effort, achieved with Gorbachev’s active participation. In the television address, it was his resignation that heralded the end of the Cold War, which had come about through the victory of the United States. An ally in bringing the Cold War to a conclusion was turned into a defeated enemy.
(The Last Empire, page 443)
America created an enemy where there could have been an ally. And neither, in true American, Bushian fashion, did they completely defeat them. Gorbachev handed over the nuclear codes and UN seat to the new elected leader of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, who would eventually be replaced by Vladimir Putin. Russia still had a lot of power, and portraying them as defeated was humiliating. That is the great historical mistake of misunderstanding. As Sun Tzu says, if you misunderstand both your enemy and yourself, you are guaranteed to lose.
Hence we live in a timeline where America and the EU are getting trolled mercilessly by Russia, essentially a third world country (in the pejorative sense). Whereas they could have helped the people of the Soviet republics, they just crowed over their downfall, and now they’re eating crow themselves. Europe has its own Brexit, which is surprisingly more shambolic than Ukraine’s exit from the USSR. America is being harpooned by its own propaganda. It’s a mess, and it didn’t have to be this way.
The fall of the Soviet Empire was, I think, as orderly as you could hope for. The people involved all seemed like adults and tried their best. The rise of the former Soviet republics, however, has not been great. That I think largely comes from a failure of understanding our past. America turned victory into defeat by taking credit for what wasn’t theirs. That’s what I took away from The Last Empire. The real credit belonged to the people of those republics. Unfortunately, all they got was suffering in return.