A dour, authoritative look at the last bitter months of 1991 leading up to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Plokhy (Ukrainian History/Harvard Univ.; The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires, 2012, etc.) uses access to newly declassified documents and rich primary sources for a close study of these final decisive months, from the July summit in Moscow between President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Gorbachev’s resignation from the defunct state on Christmas Day. Bush was sympathetic to the travails of Gorbachev and, unlike his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, wanted to proceed with caution as the satellite republics began to peel off from the Soviet motherland under Gorbachev’s new reform policies. The second most populous Soviet republic, Ukraine, was a prize neither Gorbachev nor Boris Yeltsin wanted to lose, however, as underscored in Bush’s unfortunate (for Ukrainian independence) “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he drew a wishy-washy line between “freedom” and “independence.” Events hurtled to a climax as Gorbachev and his family were virtually imprisoned in his Crimean dacha by a “state of emergency” when the KGB hard-liners attempted a clumsy coup d’état—which very well might have succeeded in the old-school Soviet style if Yeltsin had not made a strong, public stance and Bush and the Western media not made their dissatisfaction known. Yeltsin and the Russian Federation emerged triumphant, with Gorbachev clearly in retreat, forced to ban the Communist Party at Yeltsin’s instigation. Once Ukraine grasped the new political landscape, its parliament voted overwhelmingly for independence, causing shock waves throughout the union. Plokhy delineates the nerve-wracking wrangling over maintaining some form of economic union of Slavic republics, up to the very end, while Bush and others supported Gorbachev and a Soviet center—which could not hold.
The author provides fascinating details (especially concerning Ukraine) about this fraught, historic time.