Interview with Serhii Plokhy, winner of the 2015 Pushkin House Book Prize for 'The Last Empire'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What is your background?

My parents are from Ukraine, and my father got a job in Russia so I was born in Nizhny Novgorod. Then the family came back so I grew up in Ukraine. I earned degrees in Russia and Ukraine. In 1991, I got an invitation from the University of Alberta to teach for one semester. At that time, all international flights left from Moscow so I went there to get the plane. I remember as we were entering the city by train, an announcement came about the state of emergency and Gorbachev being ill. People didn’t dare say what they thought. They did not support the coup but they were afraid to say that it was terrible. There had only been three or four years of liberalisation by then, and the memories of the Soviet Union were there. We really didn’t know what would happen. The plotters represented this big state, this big machine which had a history of repression. Once I travelled to America, I stayed, moving to Harvard in 2007.

What was your academic specialism?

I started as a historian of the early modern era. I researched religion. My doctoral dissertation was on the papacy and eastern Europe. I wrote on the history of the Cossacks. I come from southern Ukraine where they were a major factor in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Cossacks in Ukraine were really a phenomenon of the past. One of the reasons for picking the subject was in Soviet times, when I started my career, the deeper in the past you went, the more freedom you had to do research. But I always had an interest in twentieth century history. Once I got tenure, I decided I could do whatever I wanted. At Harvard I started to do research on the period. My first book for a broad audience was Yalta conference. Then came The Last Empire.

Why did you write the book?

I left Moscow on the second day of the coup and taught in Canada for one term. Most of what is described in the book happened on my sabbatical there. I was always very interested in how it happened. The major puzzle is that you had a major superpower – the last empire – and it disintegrates without major bloodshed, except Chechnya, which is an exception that confirms the rule. I honestly believed that page was turned. Now with these events of the last one and a half year, I look at them as a continuation of the same saga of disintegration. Something we believed was mostly bloodless now it looks like it followed the pattern of other empires where there were major conflicts.

Why was the collapse of the USSR relatively peaceful?

When the UK and France lost their colonies, they also lost easy access to resources. But Russia was left with most of the resources, of oil and gas. To survive, it didn’t have to fight a war. At the time of the Russian Revolution, resources were crucial: Lenin said revolution was done for if it didn’t have access to Donetsk coal. But in 1991 there was Siberian oil and gas. Disintegration also happened relatively late compared with other empires. The liberal advisers around Yeltsin had learnt their lessons. But oil and gas allowed Russia to rebuild its economic and military potential without really transforming itself. Once the high oil price allowed the military to be rebuilt military, you had war not only in Chechnya but across the border in Georgia. A lot of people got in trouble comparing Putin with Hitler. But it is very helpful to compare Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union with Germany in the 1920s and 1930s: a country was weakened, lost territory, was humiliated. There was a lot of resentment, and very little incentive to transform itself. 

What are the key messages of the book?

The revisionist part highlights the striking difference between the very humble way in which pronouncements in the US were made when the USSR was still around and then after the collapse. The Bush White House repeated over and over again that had they very little influence. But once Gorbachev stepped down, within hours there was a reversal and it claimed his stepping down as end of Cold War, a symbol of American victory, inthe middle of US presidential elections when Bush not doing well. This myth engulfed most of American society. Now when I talk to students, this comes as a complete surprise. It became the dominant narrative. The other element is the role of Ukraine in the collapse. At the time, everyone knew how important that was. The December 1 referendum spelled the end of the Soviet Union. Ukrainians decided for themselves and for everyone else. Why did it depend so much on the Ukrainians? Yeltsin’s idea was that Russia was not prepared to bear the cost of the empire without sharing it with the second largest republic. He said more than once to Bush that if Ukraine did not sign, Russia would not sign.

What surprised you during your research?

It was uncovering why Ukraine was so important for Russia and for the future of the union. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin agreed. The seeds for the current crisis were already there in Yeltsin’s circle. The first claims on Donbass and Crimea were made by Yeltsin in late 1991 after the coup. After the counter-coup, Russia tried to take over the centre but it didn’t work out because of the republics’ resistance and Ukraine declared independence. The vision was that Russia had no resources to keep up its empire and had to focus on rebuilding itself, and the republics would come back in 20 years. I’m reluctant to draw a direct line and say there was a master plan right from the very beginning. The idea was that Russia would save resources and take care of itself first, but would keep mastery of the post Soviet space.

I came across one American report on Bush’s meeting with Yeltsin, and a transcript of a phone conversation between them. The surprise was that the argument sounded already like the post 9/11 era. I expected Yeltsin to think in class terms, of capitalism and liberalism. I didn’t expect him again and again to talk about Muslim republics. His concern was that Russia would otherwise be outvoted by Muslim republics. That was unexpected answer. The American position was to welcome a commonwealth in central Asia. Afghanistan was seen as a western victory. It looked like the major threat then to the US was not the Islamic threat. 

What was the Russian reaction to your book?

Corpus, the Russian publisher, has bought the rights so hopefully it will be in Russian in November. I have received an invitation from the Gaidar Foundation to give lectures. There is interest from the liberal side of the political and intellectual spectrum. The American reaction was also very positive. I undermined the triumphalist mythology but that was accepted very well. There is no hostile reaction. I know people around Baker and Bush were pleased with it.

So what does the future hold for Russia?

Boria Nemtsov wrote that whatever Putin tried to achieve in taking over Crimea and starting war in Ukraine made things worse for himself. He wanted Ukraine to be part of the Eurasian union. But now Kazakhstan and Belarus really very worried about integration. Relations with Europe have been destroyed. NATO has received a new license for life. Economically, keeping Crimea and Donbass going will be troublesome. Whichever way you look, he lost. It looks like he will continue to push forward with this intervention. The policies are clearly against the interests of Russia but they serve the interest of Putin and his entourage. At the end, the sanctions may work. My only hope is that at the end, a decision will be made that this adventure is too costly.