Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George Bush during the G7 summit in London in 1991
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and US President George Bush during the G7 summit in London in 1991 © Rex

This is a narrative with a backdrop as grand as you could wish for: the end of the Soviet Union, the triumph of America, the beginning of an era in which, for a few decades at least, the world would be dominated by one great power.

It is also, according to the Harvard professor of Ukrainian history Serhii Plokhy, one that we commonly misunderstand. An alternative to The Last Empire (we should be so lucky) as title might have been “The Collapse that No One Wanted”, for this fine-grained, closely reported, highly readable account of the upheavals of 1991 makes clearer than any I’ve seen that the three principal actors – Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union and general secretary of its Communist party; George H W Bush, president of the US; and Boris Yeltsin, who became president of Russia in July that year – were to varying degrees resistant to the disappearance of the USSR.

Of Gorbachev this was only to be expected. In both his party and presidential roles, he was sworn to preserve the union of 15 nominally autonomous republics, and had developed an economic and a political strategy aimed at renewing and strengthening that union. Yeltsin was as much a Soviet “product” as the peasant-born Gorbachev, emerging from a poor working-class family to become, through technical skill, intelligence and driving ambition, the first secretary of Sverdlovsk Oblast, one of the USSR’s most productive regions. When brought to Moscow by Gorbachev to join the Soviet leadership, he understood how shaky the general secretary’s rule had become by the late 1980s and had the nerve to create an opening for himself based on a new politics of Russian nationalism, imagining a looser union that, nonetheless, held together the Slav states of Ukraine and Belarus.

Bush was the most curious Soviet-nik of all, since he was heir to an office that had, since the late 1940s, held the baton of leader of the free world, the title taking its meaning in opposition to the USSR. That he should seek to prolong its life was a historical oddity, one brought about by the very unpredictability of the forces that had been unleashed and by his own cautious nature.

Plokhy’s story is that of a year or more of increasingly fraught and bitter negotiations to find a way out of the Soviet cul-de-sac. Gorbachev, for the best of reasons, was the chief architect. He had, in perestroika, set in train a reform that attempted to graft very limited marketisation on to sclerotic but functioning statist systems; then, as that caused the economy to founder and the supply of commodities to become scarcer, he introduced a programme of limited democratisation and freedom of speech, much of which was used to voice complaints about living standards and make ever more ambitious calls for republican self-government. By 1991, the three small Baltic states and Georgia had declared independence and the remaining 11, including Russia, were torn between efforts to stop the rot by asserting communist orthodoxy and stabs at greater autonomy that had, often, an anti-Soviet, nationalist engine powering them.

Yeltsin – who, in spite of his many debilitating depressions and drinking binges, was the one principal actor who had the wind of change at his back and the guts to improvise his way to victory – believed the three tiny Baltic republics could go (and who would miss them?) but that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were, essentially, one. Ukraine loomed particularly large: Plokhy writes that Yeltsin “could not imagine Russia without some form of union relationship with that republic”.

Two men could imagine it – along with a future in which no kind of union would exist. One, sketched in briefly by Plokhy, was Yegor Gaidar, a brilliant young scholar who became Yeltsin’s economic adviser, then acting prime minister, and who forced Yeltsin to recognise that if Russia were to emerge from a crisis in which starvation was a real and present danger, it had to go alone, introducing market reforms and sloughing off dependent republics that would otherwise debauch the currency and beg for subsidies.

The other, accorded a major role in Plokhy’s narrative, was Leonid Kravchuk, who had risen through Ukrainian party ranks to become chairman of the republic’s Supreme Soviet – an elected parliament that, as in Russia and elsewhere, was draining power and moral authority from the centre. Kravchuk, more of a talented opportunist than an idealist, put himself at the head of a nationalist movement drawing its ideological force from the west of his country. But his movement could also count on the adherence of many in the industrial east, both ethnic Russian and Ukrainian, who were attracted by greater democratisation and saw a better future in an independent Ukraine.

Kravchuk became Ukraine’s first president at the beginning of December and wanted nothing to do with Gorbachev’s desperate manoeuvres to preserve something that might be called a “Union”; nor with Yeltsin’s proposals for a looser Slavic association. The spiritual father of that idea was the monumental figure of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who saw Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians “in prerevolutionary terms, as one Russian nation”, and in a 1990 essay, “Rebuilding Russia”, proposed that this should be a state (together with northern Kazakhstan, peopled largely by Russians).

But Kravchuk, like many Ukrainians wary of Russian influence, be it ever so kindly, would not come along. Like Yeltsin, he saw his chance to be leader of a newly formed nation, and he took care to be sufficiently in tune with the Ukrainian mood of the time to take both the presidency, and his country, out of the union.

So on Christmas day (western-style: Russian Christmas is later, on January 7) 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation, and the end of the Soviet Union – as Plokhy puts it, “effectively acknowledging the United States as the sole remaining superpower on the face of the earth”. In a piece of much-noticed symbolism, his Soviet pen didn’t work: a CNN producer gave him the Mont Blanc with which he signed himself into history.

Later, on January 28 1992, George Bush used his State of the Union address to announce that “the biggest thing that has happened in the world in my life, in our lives, is this: by the grace of God, America won the cold war”. What he did not mention was that he himself had struggled to save the Soviet Union, fearing a successful and violent putsch (a flaccid one had failed in summer 1991), a possible civil war and loss of control of the nuclear weaponry – all very sensible concerns.

So worried had he been, and so deeply invested in Gorbachev as the agent for change, that he made a speech, in August 1991, to the Ukrainian parliament – it became known as the “Chicken Kiev” speech, so named by the newspaper columnist and former Nixon aide William Safire – in which he praised the Soviet leader and said that “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism”. But neither civil war nor local despotism appeared, and so Bush was able to take the credit for the Union’s dissolution.

America was left as the sole superpower. But Gorbachev was much more responsible (to blame, many Russians said then, and still do) and Yeltsin played a very large part. For Plokhy, Kravchuk and the Ukrainian nation were equally important. It is a point strongly and comprehensively made, and it gathers force from the continuing crisis in and around that nation as it struggles to orient itself to the west while Russia – whose ruler is just as uncomprehending of its separatism as Gorbachev and Yeltsin but much more aggressive in his opposition – tries to pull it back.

Plokhy, in an epilogue, writes that today’s quarrels – the retaking of Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s drive to keep Ukrainians in a space over which Moscow has large sway, the possibility of ethnic conflict, the pull of the western Ukrainians towards a central Europe now relatively prosperous – were all foreshadowed in the arguments of 1991. Then they were swept aside, as the forces of nationalism and the logic of separate states won out.

If Ukraine does manage to free itself from the Russian embrace, it will be another world-historical moment. It will demonstrate to the next generation of Russian politicians – less vengefully uncomprehending than Putin, we must hope – that common Slav ethnicity does not mandate Russian overlordship and is not incompatible with the democracy and economic reform that one of their better, if more incoherent, rulers tried to introduce.

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor. He was Moscow bureau chief between 1990 and 1996

Photograph: Rex

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