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The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union Hardcover – 3 Jul 2014

4.7 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Oneworld Publications; 1st Edition edition (3 July 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 178074529X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1780745299
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 4.4 x 23.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 305,561 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'In this highly original reanalysis, drawing on rarely used sources scattered from Texas to Ukraine, Serhii Plokhy gives us a whole new perspective on the Fall of the Soviet Union. Did the USA really ‘win’ the Cold War, he asks – or did democracy undo the Soviet Empire from the inside?'

(Ian Morris, Professor of History at Stanford University and author of Why the West Rules – For Now)

'Gripping, vivid and incisive – essential reading for anyone wanting to counter modern Russian myth-making about the Soviet collapse.'

(Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist and author of The New Cold War)

'Indispensable. At last, a definitive account of the breakup of the USSR: for the first time, Serhii Plokhy tells the story not just from the point of view of Moscow, and not from Washington, but also from Ukraine and the other republics where many of the most important decisions were actually made. If you don't understand what really happened in 1991, then you'll find it impossible to understand the politics of the region today.'

(Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gulag: A History)

'A brilliant work of political narrative: vivid, original, urgent and, above all, wise. Serhii Plokhy’s dramatic account of the high politics behind the collapse of the Soviet Union could not be more timely. In the context of what many see as a new Cold War between Russia and the West, it is crucial that we understand what really happened in 1991.'

(Rachel Polonsky, author of Molotov’s Magic Lantern: Travels in Russian History)

'By far our best account yet of the death spiral of the USSR. Serhii Plokhy’s fine book combines a colorful, fast-paced narrative with trenchant analysis of key players in the Soviet collapse.'

(William Taubman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Khrushchev: The Man and His Era)

'A masterful account of the end of the Soviet Union. The narrative tale alone, enriched by reams of new evidence, makes it well worth reading for anyone interested in the making of the contemporary world. But The Last Empire is equally notable for its penetrating analysis. It is particularly revealing on the contradictions built into US policy and on the contributions to the outcome of the many nations of the USSR, including the Ukrainians, whose pivotal role has often been neglected in previous studies.'

(Timothy Colton, Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of Yeltsin: A Life)

'Masterful...  Provocatively places Ukrainian independence as the central factor in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Gripping reading, full of surprises and revelations for everyone, especially on the American role in this revolutionary event.'

(Vladislav Zubok, Professor of International History at the London School of Economics)

'Almost a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of the actions and reactions of the main figures… Very relevant to today's Ukrainian crisis... The dramatic events of the second half of 1991 are very well recounted'

(Literary Review)

‘A superb work of scholarship, vividly written, that challenges tired old assumptions with fresh material from East and West, as well as revealing interviews with many major players... masterly’


‘Serhii Plokhy’s great achievement in this wonderfully well-written account is to show that much of the triumphalist transatlantic view of the Soviet collapse is historiographical manure… The author explains as no one in English has until now, just how central Ukraine was to the viability of any sort of Soviet bloc… it’s bracing and timely… well worth reading’ 

(The Times)

‘Fine-grained, closely reported [and] highly readable’


‘Fascinating and readable… the cast is terrific… beautifully written and studded with such pithy quotations… both compelling and sobering, into how random the whole process of dismantling the world’s biggest country was… Today, Russia has revived, and Putin wants his lost republics back, giving this book an additional relevance’

(Sunday Telegraph, five star review)

‘Incisive… [Plokhy’s] vibrant, fast-paced narrative style captures the story superbly’ 

(Sunday Times)

'A riveting thriller’ 

(Mail on Sunday)

‘Well researched and highly readable… distinctly fresh… Plokhy does a good job of debunking some of the conventional wisdom… His setting the record straight is of more than historiographical significance’ 


 ‘A superb read: a deeply researched, indispensable reappraisal of the fall of the USSR that has the nail-biting drama of a movie, the gripping narrative and colourful personalities of a novel, and the analysis and original sources of a work of scholarship’

(Simon Sebag Montefiore BBC History, books of the year)

About the Author

Serhii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History and Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, where he was also named Walter Channing Cabot Fellow in 2013. A leading authority on Eastern Europe, he has lived and taught in Ukraine, Canada, and the United States. He has published extensively in English, Ukrainian, and Russian. For three successive years (2002-2005) his books won first prize of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies.

Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is not a book about the fall of the Soviet Union as one would think. This book is about the final six months of the Soviet Union seen from the perspective of a handful of top politicians in the USSR and the US. If you are looking for a history of the Fall of the Soviet Union this book is far too narrow in its approach to this question. It is like looking through a very narrow window trying to see a very wide object.

The Book more or less starts at full speed with the situation in the summer of 1991. What condition the Soviet Union was in and how it got there is something the reader must find out from other sources, unless you lived through it at the time. The Book ends when Gorbachev leaves his position as the first and last president of the USSR on December 25th 1991.

This is a very detailed study into what a number of important people said, thought and how they reacted to various events during this period. As such it can work as a sort of encyclopedia if you are looking for that kind of information. For me the book was almost like a flash-back to a period 23 years ago when all these major players were in the news on a daily basis. While reading the story as it is told you will recall other events that took place during this period and of course both before and after but involving the same people.

One of the strengths of the book is that it is actually helping the reader to understand the current events in Ukraina. Reading the standpoint of Mr. Gorbachev today you realize that he had the same view in 1991 and what is driving Mr. Putin was actually driving a number of Russians before him. We might not agree with their views (I certainly don't!) but it is there and deeply entrenched into their minds.

Another thing that is of interest is Mr.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is written in the style of a news reporter covering a huge and breaking story, rather than the more (perhaps subjectively) removed observations of an historian. That style has its weaknesses - in the end we are being asked to accept one person's understanding as complete - but it also means the narrative has great force and the book carries you along.
Within its pages we are face to face with some of the giants of the late twentieth century - a Soviet president adored in the West but losing his grip on power, a Russian president fighting the booze, the Soviets, the nationalists and the reactionaries and a US president trying to save his friend in the Soviet Union, avoid nuclear chaos and get re-elected. It all makes for a fascinating read, especially if you can recall some of the events at the time - not least the fear and shock of the August coup.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I had forgotten so much concerning this period and now I understand far more than I ever did. It`s a fascinating book as Plokhy uses transcripts from Gorbachov, Yeltsin and Bush to great effect. I never realised just how close the USA came to recognising the communist putsch of 1991 and just how much everyone feared for their lives.
With the present situation in Russia as it is, this is an excellent read that explains how they got to this point.
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Format: Paperback
With the collapse of the Soviet Union fast becoming a "hack-neyed" subject of historical study, it's refreshing to read a piece of work which re-energises the period and connects it with events in today's realm of international politics. The author achieves this by emphasising how relevant the Soviet collapse was in beginning a chain of events which directly impacts on the world today. Isn't this the point of history books though?? Well, yes and no, but the author achieves this aim with the most notable contribution here being his identifying both the role of the Ukraine in the Soviet disintegration and also the potential inevitability of ethnic tensions following its break up. Indeed, the book focuses extensively on the role of the Ukraine and how it's independence had a duel impact not only in dividing the Soviet behemoth but also in influencing the United States' Soviet policy.

Plokhy begins with a picture of the Soviet Union in August of 1991. Following a successful and mutually beneficial visit to Moscow by President Bush (Senior) in late July, he subsequently stops in Kyiv on his way home to deliver a speech (the 'Chicken Kiev') effectively attempting to dampen the new flame of Ukrainian independence. Three weeks later, all optimism is destroyed as the KGB and parts of the Army leadership stage the August Coup in an attempt to remove President Gorbachev from power and begin to reverse the liberal reforms of Perestroika. They fail. The coup was to give way to the rise of the new Russian President; Boris Yeltsin. This, in turn was to create an opening for Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian leader, to push a separate agenda for his people and 'nation'.
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Format: Hardcover
I find this is a very important book for all the reasons the positive reviews set out and despite the criticism in details that can be found in some reviews. There are a couple of aspects of the book however that I find very important, in particular given the Ukrainian/Russian dilemma of, in particular, 2014/2015:

- The book claims that the US administration had little understanding of what was going in the Soviet Union, the focus on the Baltic states becoming independent, whilst understandble from an historic point of view, the unwillingness to recognise how quickly Gorbachev was loosing power and that failure of dealing with the emerging national leaders has lead to major counterproductive effects and ended up prompting the non strucutured break up that could otherwise have been better managed. Clearly, the post Soviet states have become more stable and easier to deal with today. Nevertheless, the lack of due diligence on the situation before acting seems like a recurring phenomenon. Whilst one may not agree with all the causal links that the book draws and it is probably fair to say the book only considers the administration and not other voices within the US, the potential for damage seems undisputable.

- If it is true, as the book claims, that there were genuine popular upraisings in Ukraine and Belarus, the question is natural why those uprisings were as unsustainable as they have turned out later. Reversely, if the experience with popular upraisings was so mixed, why do and did administrations in the Western world give so much value to such upraisings, and why, apparently, the efforts to make the results of such upraisings more sustainable are so little?
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