Tags: Plokhy | Russia | Soviet Union | Cold War

Harvard Prof Talks About the End of the Soviet Empire

By    |   Monday, 07 Jul 2014 07:36 AM

Americans who lived through the Cold War to see the demise of the Soviet Union recognize this as one of the crucial events of their lives, but probably few realize that this event had its roots in the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine that is so much in the news today.

Most probably had high hopes for the world that would follow the end of the Cold War, which Francis Fukuyama once called "the end of history," but after a brief interlude when America stood alone as the world's superpower, China and Iran have emerged as threats to establish themselves, ironically with help from Russia, as aggressively expansionist world powers as American power wanes.

Whereas President George W. Bush once thought he could see into the soul of Russian emperor Vladimir Putin, the latter has taken every opportunity to express his disdain and contempt for Western values and for what he perceives as feckless leadership.

Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, explained the significance of the inability of Russia and Ukraine to agree on the format for a unified state in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author of Yalta: The Price of Peace spoke at the Carnegie Council in New York City to present his latest work, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.

He was introduced by Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs for the Council, who reminded the audience that Putin has referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Plokhy homed in immediately on the announcement by Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan that they are entering into a union. He stressed that this is the first time since 1991 that the word "union" has been used, as opposed to "commonwealth," and that this contemplates a much more comprehensive relationship than the one that ensued after the Soviet Union. His thesis is that there has been too much emphasis on the dynamic between Russia and the United States and very little mention of the republics, a shortcoming he believed could only be corrected by writing the book.

To get to his thesis, Plokhy needed to debunk an array of existing theories: 1) a CIA plot, whereas in fact the Bush-41 administration was doing its best to keep Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, in place and the Soviet Union intact; 2) that it represented the American victory in the Cold War, despite the fact that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was never an American goal, and the end of Cold War had been declared more than a year and a half before the Soviet Union fell; and 3) that it was a result of the personal rift between Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, and Gorbachev.

Plokhy acknowledged that his favorite part of the book and of his research was proving that other historians were wrong. However, in order to sell the book, he had to come up with a narrative of his own. Ultimately, he explains the decline and fall of the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War and the economic consequences of a decline in the price of oil, which made it very difficult for Gorbachev to enact his reform agenda.

According to Plokhy, the most important force leading to the fall of the Soviet Union was the trend of the fall of empires generally, such as the Ottoman, the Hapsburg, the British, the French and most recently the Portuguese empires, all over the issue of the citizenship of the people in the provinces and colonies. Thus, once the decision is reached to include those people under the welfare state, the metropolitan power finds that it's too expensive, so that the empire ends up draining resources from the host, and Russia is no different from these others.

This analysis begs the question of how the professor would apply these principles to the United States, China and the re-emergence of the Persian Empire under an authoritarian Islamic regime.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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Robert-Feinberg
Americans who lived through the Cold War to see the demise of the Soviet Union recognize this as one of the crucial events of their lives, but probably few realize that this event had its roots in the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine that is so much in the news today.
Plokhy, Russia, Soviet Union, Cold War
685
2014-36-07
Monday, 07 Jul 2014 07:36 AM
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