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on 23 September 2014
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. Gorbachevs attempt to keep the Union by creating problems within the various republics. Serhii Plokhy does not tell us in detail but sort of implies that a conflict like the Transdnistrian problem in Moldova could actually be due to Mr. Gorbachevs "helpful" hands.

But the thing is that it is impossible to understand the fall of the Soviet Union without looking at the bigger picture. There is nothing in this book about the war in Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, the hard hitting anti-alcohol campaign of president Gorbachev, the horrible state of the Soviet Economy etc. etc. For a reader without background it is incomprehensible how a former superpower like the USSR could face starvation a mere months after the attempted coup on August 19 1991.

Concentration also only on the top players we get almost nothing on what happened in the Soviet Union outside of the political struggle. There is no attempt to tell us how people were living and what problems they had. Another problem is that there is almost nothing on how the KGB, the Military or the Ministry of Interior Forces acted or reacted during this period. What shape were they in and why did they perform more or less as spectators during these historic events?

Serheii Plokhy tells us that the Soviet Union fell apart because democracy was introduced and people could vote. But voting is just a technical way of deciding a political question. You must know what you vote for or against. Why did they vote against the Soviet Union?

The Book is well written and of interest for those who would like to know what Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Jeltsin said and did during six months in 1991. For those looking for an answer to why the Soviet Union fell apart this book is only a small piece of the puzzle. Serheii Plokhy set out to document what took place at the end of 1991 seen from the perspective of a few major politicians. He has fulfilled this task. I just think he used a too narrow approach.
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on 14 January 2016
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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on 23 December 2014
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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on 12 August 2015
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'. Plokhy's narrative of the events in late August is both clear and enjoyable and really set the scene for events later in the year.

By the time of the coup in August 1991, the Soviet Union was not the nation that it had once been. The Communist Party's hold on power had been loosened, the Russian people had elected Yeltsin as it's new president and Perestroika and Glasnost were the new words in the international lexicon. The coup itself hastened that which it aimed to prevent; the collapse of the Soviet Empire. From then on, Gorbachev was increasingly at the mercy of the opportunist Yeltsin and the whims and demands of the leaders of the other Soviet republics.

Here's where Plokhy's work comes into it's own. The last four months of the year were the most active in the fall of the Soviet Union and Plokhy covers the events in detail. Yeltsin's response to the coup was to isolate Gorbachev. The weakening of the union was virtually inevitable, however, the Soviet President still favoured a major union with a powerful and strong centre, whilst Yeltsin and Kravchuk began to see the benefit of a looser alliance. The United States believed the break up of the Soviet Union would have seriously negative connotations and pushed both Yeltsin and Gorbachev to find a solution that kept the union together. Ukrainian leader Kravchuk had other ideas. The Ukrainian leader pushed for independence and warned both Yeltsin and Bush that an independent Ukraine was not going to be a part of any centralised union. He campaigned on the issue.... and Ukraine voted by over 90% for independence at the start of December 1991.

The fate of the Soviet Union was effectively sealed the moment Garbachev loosened the grip of the Communist Party on Soviet society and initiated reforms. The tide began to flow against the centralised union. The rise of Yeltsin and the other republican leaders of the Slav and Central Asian republics sounded the death knell on the union itself. However, any concept of post-Soviet integrated government was torpedoed by the Ukraine; Central Asia saw no union without Russia, and Russia saw no union without Ukraine. Such was the pull of independence that even the Bush Administration agreed to recognise the wishes of the Ukrainian people. After that, collapse was a given. The subsequent Commonwealth of Independent States contained nine members which were formally Soviet republics with the Ukraine remaining an 'associate' partner only.

Plokhy acknowledges how the issues in the eastern Ukraine today relate to the events of the Soviet disintegration. As a Cold War warrior, current Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the Ukraine as an integral part of Russia and Russian foreign policy and has no desire to see it drift towards a more European future. Clearly, the breakup of the Soviet Union has not yet fully healed. A good book, with quality analysis on the interaction between Bush, Yeltsin and Gorbachev and an excellent, thought-inducing conclusion.
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on 29 March 2015
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?

- The book, with quite some detail dispells the notion that Ukraine is not a state rooted in the minds of its population, and rather sees a major reason for the downfall of the Soviet Union in the Ukrainian upraising. If that is correct and also the reports are to believed that throughout 2013 and 2014 this roots were not always similarly clear, it would seem that Ukraine as a state has lost the trust of its population at least once. Put differently, indirectly the book makes the point that we are overestimating the role of nationalism in the post-Soviet countries, and that patriotic waves may come and go, but we are underestimating the explosiveness of internal developments.

- The book is also enlightening as to how, in the then unstable situations, new rulers emerge. Only in what can probably be seen as states with relatively little existing rulers like Belarus - an in Kyrgystan - amitious, revolutionary scientists have temporarily been able to take power, in Ukraine the later president headed the parliament, then and nowadays the rulers tend to be agile top apparatchiks like Yeltsin.

Unfortunately, the research for CIS countries other than Ukraine and Belarus appears to be much less deep, as if they had had no other option than to follow the example Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had set. How paradoxical their situation was is confirmed by the account of events in Kazakhstan, were Gorbachevs attempt to appoint what he might have believed were reformists to the head of the countries party ended up in alienation of the local elites. In any event, it is at the level Plokhy set where related issues should be taken up.
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on 21 September 2014
Having read an authoritative review, I found that this inducement was well worth the purchase and subsequent read. Although having lived through the demise of the Soviet Empire (USSR), the narrative of the four months in 1991 leading to its dissolution I found masterly and, in particular, explanative of where we find ourselves now, with chaos in Ukraine and having seen the teeth of the new Russia in Ossetia.
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on 24 June 2015
I am no historian and was surprised by this book. With an expectation of a dry analysis of the change from the Soviet Union to the new order, I was greeted with a page-turner more in keeping with a novel. Perhaps that reflects both the extraordinary times and the author's access to sources throughout the decaying Empire and its Cold War antagonists. It entertains and informs in equal measure, reaching out and guiding the reader through dramatic change whilst revealing some of the background to current tensions in the Black sea and the Baltics.
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on 2 October 2014
I am really fascinated by Russian history. This is some I can remember for myself. It is very real. I can remember Christmas Day 1991.I have visited Ukraine and am so saddened by what is happening there now.
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on 6 February 2015
outstanding! did one of the most powerful union of nations
in world history just crumble so quickly ?....and how did its powerbase...Russia
end up with a repugnant bunch of Mafiosi running the it and weep...and worry!!
great read.
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on 19 July 2014
Most detailed and most encompassing chronology of the why and the how of USSR collapse. Also, Putin's reversal blueprint? Possibly.
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