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The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union

4.19  ·  Rating details ·  518 ratings  ·  56 reviews
On Christmas Day 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. By the next day the USSR was officially no more and the USA had emerged as the world’s sole superpower. Award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy presents a page-turning account of the preceding five months of drama, filled with failed coups d’état and political intrigue.

Honing in on this previo
Kindle Edition, 520 pages
Published May 13th 2014 by Basic Books (first published March 7th 2014)
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4.19  · 
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 ·  518 ratings  ·  56 reviews

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Patrick Blackburn
Jun 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Patrick by:
Simply put, this is a stunning book. It's not every day an author is able to rewrite history, and do so credibly. When I read, on the inside cover, the following sentence: "...the collapse of the Soviet Union was anything but the handiwork of the United States," I feared that it was going to attempt to diminish the role the U.S. played. On the contrary. I have read about 20 books on the subject and this is one of the best accounts of US-Russia relations from 1980-present (Hoffman's "The Dead Han ...more
Oct 22, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: russia, ukraine

“It wasn’t quite the fourth of July.”- John Stepanchuk, acting US consul in Kiev.

Plokhy’s stated goal here is to dispute the narrative, which according to him is generally accepted in the west, that the United States ‘won’ the Cold War, arguing that the primary causes were internal to the Soviet Union- the crumbling economy, Gorbachev’s democratic reforms, the hatred that existed between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, etc. Whether or not the ‘triumphal’ narrative is particularly strong, or particularly
Mar 05, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A clear, well-researched, and well-written history of the fall of the Soviet Union. While the idea that the US caused the Soviet Union’s collapse has been discredited, this myth has suited both the Americans (who have used it for political gain) and the Russians (who have used it to dodge blame and accusations of incompetence) Despite these, Plokhy stresses the role played by pure chance.

In a lively, readable narrative Plokhy covers all of the private negotiations within the Soviet government an
Nov 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: serious history buffs; those who want more info on Putin's antics
Recommended to Richard by: TLS or LRB
This details the undoing of the Soviet Union, basically between July and December, 1991, in very clear and readable prose. I came to this book because, despite its being one of the great historic moments of the twentieth century (at least), I knew next to nothing about it or its major players.

Gorbachev who had ended the Cold War in 1989 had unloosed the democratic demon, leading to elected parliaments in the republics that formed the Soviet Union. While he tried to maintain the central role of t
Jan 21, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Сергей Плохий, вовлекая в научный оборот рассекреченные архивы президента США Джорджа Буша-старшего, дает ответ на вопрос, кто погубил Советский Союз. Детальная реконструкция событий июля-декабря 1991 года показывает, что это не Ельцин, надеявшийся при возможности получить союзную корону, не Буш, положивший почти все яйца в корзину поддержки Горбачева и сохранения его во главе Союза, а растущее национальное движение, олицетворением которого можно считать Кравчука.

Книга хороша не только общей кар
Jul 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The Last Empire, by Serhii Plokhy, is a comprehensive and detailed account of the last few months of the Soviet Union. It starts with the August Coup and ends with Gorbachev's resignation in December. The book focuses on the Bush, Kravchuk, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin perspectives.

This is a must read for those studying Soviet/Russian history and is an excellent start to studying both the fall of the USSR and Gorbachev's reign.
Dec 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union answered a lot of my questions about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Especially the role of the Bush Presidencies involvement in the future of Russia and the other countries of the Soviet Union.
Julian Douglass
Oct 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This is a good book and an unique perspective on the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, I think Mr. Plokhy's thesis is at best circumstantial. His claim is that the Soviet Union was falling not because of the financial difficulties and the archaic government system, but because of the independence movements in the nations that comprised of the Union, including Ukraine and Russia. But the way that he presents the evidence makes it seem as the the nations declared their independence form the U ...more
Oct 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
In short: this is an excellent book. Plokhy provides a masterful account of the Soviet Union's final days through regular first person accounts of the main players.

Readers new to the subject and intimidated by its apparent complexity may rest easy as the "who, what, when, where, and why " questions are not answered merely once and then dropped, but are referenced constantly when considering each stage of events.

The text takes the reader through the August Coup to Gorbachev's resignation speech
Aug 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
Plokhy writes a very worth successor to his Yalta book, which I've also read.

With a bit more time separation, unlike Gorbachev and other "principals" who have already written away, and academic detachment, but with the connection of Ukranian heritage and being born in the USSR, Plokhy is well-positioned for a book like this.

And he doesn't disappoint.

Much of his focus is on neither Gorbachev but Boris Yeltsin, but on Ukraine's Leonid Kravchuk, as he pivots from being a Ukrainian Communist apparat
Michael Samerdyke
Jun 04, 2014 rated it it was amazing
An interesting, if sometimes frustrating, book.

Plokhy looks at the last six months of the USSR to see why this superpower fell apart. He makes the point (often overlooked) that the USA didn't exactly want the USSR to break up for fear of what would happen to its nuclear weapons. Fears of a "Yugoslav Civil War with nukes" were pretty strong at that time.

Plokhy emphasizes the desire of Ukraine for independence as a key factor in breaking up the USSR. Indeed, it is fascinating reading his account o
Aug 03, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Plokhy's thesis is that the Soviet Union dissolved *despite* the US' attempt to keep it together in 1991, fearing the spread of nuclear weapons. The real forces breaking it apart were the Republics themselves, especially Yeltsin's Russia and Kravchuk's Ukraine. Without these two vital republics' willingness to keep the Soviet Union going, Plokhy makes a reasonable case that there was no possibility of that happening.

While readable and not difficult to follow, Plokhy's style is not the same as o
Jan 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
This book helped answer a question I had long held: What events led up to the Soviet Union dissolving? In this book the author gives an acount that at times feels like you are retreading the same material as you peel back the layers of what was going on in the different republics. Additionally the book helps paint a picture of the history shaping the major actors involved in the process that led to the USSR leaving the international scene. Although the novel is highly informative the author does ...more
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is an incredibly passionate, thorough description of the final months of the USSR. Its greatest triumph lies in the way Plokhy shows us two great historic and, in their own way, tragic figures: a Gorbachev who struggles to hold together an enormous, decaying machine which can no longer resist entropy, and a rising, relentless Yeltsin whose power hunger allows him to take advantage of a tremendous moment of transition.
Anyone who ever wondered what happened behind the scenes as the death of
Apr 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Read this for a grad class.

This book is just incredible. I can't wait for a second edition so that Plokhy can write an afterward or something to comment on the recent/current Ukrainian crisis. Just fascinating. Plokhy gives a blow by blow of the last four months of the Soviet Union, with a focus on Gorby, Yeltsin, Bush 1, and the maybe less obvious but massively important Kravchuk. My only issue was that I had to keep writing the date at the top of the page haha.
Will absolutely keep this on my
Jan 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Excellent in-depth explanation of the events leading to the quick and remarkably peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union. Much attention is given to the perspective of the Soviet and some (albeit influential) U.S. leaders which held that the Soviet Union should be "propped up" and either preserved or broken apart very slowly in order to promote stability, in light of fears that a quick breakup would lead to regional conflict. This work allowed me to fill in many gaps in my knowledge about the s ...more
Aug 30, 2015 rated it really liked it
A lucid, well-written, and fascinating account of the fall of the Soviet Union, Plokhy digs into the years of existing historical information on the topic, as well as newly discovered information, to illustrate the fall of the so-called "last empire". Plokhy finds a new angle on the story, attributing the dissolution of the Union not only to the U.S. and to the rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, but to the influence of independence-seeking republics like Ukraine, which the Union was desperat ...more
Jul 31, 2014 rated it really liked it
Well written and well researched account of the end of the Soviet Union. Focuses mainly on the last six months of 1991 with special emphasis on four main personalities: Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and George HW Bush of the USA. Interesting not only for the historical account but also for the insight it gives into many of the conflicts occurring in those areas today, particularly the current dispute between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea. I recommend it highly.
Jennifer Martin
Amazing account of the political circumstances and maneuvering leading to the collapse of the USSR.

Interesting to see an account focusing on the Russian, Ukrainian and Soviet actors instead of American ones.

Writing makes the events, whose outcomes we already know, completely gripping and suspenseful.

A little bit of repetition in sections, almost as if the author had two versions of the same point and forgot to cut one out in the editing process.

Still, very worthwhile read.
Aug 02, 2015 rated it really liked it
A very thorough description of how the Soviet Union 'allegedly' came to an end. In the light of the Ukrainian crisis when he wrote it, I believe that he gave too much importance to the Ukraine to the point that he attributed the collapse to the 'junior' republic of the USSR. Whilst impressive accounts of the Baltics and several Central Asian states were recalled, an overall image of the Caucasus was missing as well as some distant republics such as Turkmenistan or Tajikistan.
Jim Blessing
Sep 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This was an outstanding book on the last few months of the USSR. The book was very well written and explained all the factors leading to the end of the Union. It also discussed the concerns that Yeltsin had with the Ukraine controlling Crimea and eastern areas of Ukraine due to the significant and majority Russian population that lived there. That issue is obviously in the news today. Great read!
Bill Murray
Sep 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
More recent but same as the book Down with Big Brother: The Fall of the Soviet Empire: Straight up history. Not perhaps a beach read but my kind of book. The author adds material from the memoirs of the various players written in Russian that aren't readily available to the western reader. Rich.
Bill Murray
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Blow-by-blow, behind the scenes. Useful for those of us who followed events at the time but don't speak or read Russian because Plokhy has done the reading of officials' memoirs for us. I expect you have to have an active interest in the subject but I do, and I enjoyed remembering things that had grown a little hazy over time.
Andrew James
Jan 28, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A excellent book, well written and gives a clear insight into the last few months of the USSR and the key players involved. Would highly recommend as the style of writing makes it easy to digest the interplay between the different parties
Timothy W Cox
Aug 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Factual and Interesting

I was a young father and serving in the military when these events took place. I was surprised at how little I know of the events surrounding the end of the USSR, this book is well written and well researched, very enlightening.
Dec 27, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A very thorough work covering the last few months of the USSR.

Recommend for anyone who's interested in late-20th century history and/or has been following Russia's actions towards its smaller and weaker neighbours over past few years
Butch Byers
May 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: russia
an interesting look at the last year or two of former Soviet Union. Good insights as to Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the American politicians. Nazarbayev shows up prominently in a chapter or two.
Kevin Brantley
Nov 10, 2014 rated it really liked it
Great foundation to understand the current Russian incursions into Crimea and Ukraine.
Mikhail Fedorov
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Frank Kelly
Mar 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
The existential crisis of endemic corruption and a fading population destroying Russia today is certainly not what Gorbachev and other reformers envisioned when they launched Perestroika in the late 80's. Plokhy give us a brilliant and incredibly insightful view into that time of change and hope. If we are to understand what has gone so incredibly wrong in Russia today, it is imperative to understand the history that inadvertently created modern Russia. An excellent read.
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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 ye ...more