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  • David Savill

Research: Yeltsin's House of Cards

Sehii Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevskyi professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. It is no surprise then, that his account of the final days of the Soviet Union, puts Ukraine at the heart of events.

But this is an explicit aim. Plohky's compelling narrative history has been written as a corrective to public perceptions that, as George Bush claimed while on the '92 election trail, America had "won the cold war", (something Bush himself didn't really appear to believe), or, more arguably, the secession of the Baltic states from the Union, were the beginning of the end.

Plohky argues that even after the Baltic states gained independence, Gorbachev might have saved the Union, were it not for the decisiveness of Ukraine's referendum to leave, and the shrewd leader Russia found in Boris Yeltsin.

Plokhy's focus on the personal trajectories of the power-brokers makes for a terrific read. Gorbachev's international image as a saintly martyr is betrayed by interviews with opponents and allies alike. We see him in these pages more as the Russians do—as a brilliant but flawed man, obstinate, manipulative when needed, and fatally stubborn. His main tactic for handling dissent, appears to have been to walk out of meetings and sulk, paralysing decision making until he returned. It was habit for which his fellow Communist Party members, and the country, came to hate him.

Bush senior, who appears to us now, as a slightly doddering conservative, old in office and weak in the speeches he has left to history, was a far more impressive man on the phone. And the phone was important in those final days. A career diplomat and a veteran who had seen a very dramatic war, Plokhy's Bush senior is the right man for the right moment - a calm head on shoulders used to carrying heavy burdens.

Yeltsin's western image as a drunken buffoon is also smashed. While emotionally weak, the Russian President is courageous under siege, ruthless in his politicking, far-sighted in his perception of the Union's fall, and wise in initiating the Commonwealth of Independent States. The legendary stories of drinking are here, but Yeltsin is, for these brief days, the man the future needs.

It is Plokhy's very focus on those brief days only - 408 pages covering just four weeks - which marks out his account. Moving in peregrinating circles, the narrative slows down events that seemed to happen so quickly in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and Washington. This dramatic unity energises the narrative, making it possible to see the political drama as dramatic plot. It also draws in the clannish history of Russian and Soviet elites, illuminating the regional power politics behind many of the events in the current decade.

Given the unfolding war in Ukraine, Plokhy's attention to the record of diplomacy and negotiation feel particularly valuable in criticising the mandate given to Putin by a misguided public.

Many in Russia have come to believe Putin's narrative that America inflicted a great damage to the Soviet Union. In Putin's world, the CIA manipulated Ukraine and the Baltics into leaving the Union and isolating Russia. While the CIA are not within the remit of this narrative, it is clear any such efforts would have directly contravened policy. What emerges from the conversations of Bush and Gorbachev, as well as the records of Bush's foreign secretary James Baker, is America's need to see the Soviet Union stay together.

While under great electoral pressure from Baltic and Ukrainian groups in the US, the White House feared above all, that the breakup of the Soviet Union, and a weak Russia, would lead to the prospect of nuclear arms in all the wrong hands. Only when Ukraine voted so decisively for independence, convincing the Asiatic states the Union was over, did the US drop Gorbachev's Union cause, and turn their attention to providing Russia with the aid needed to keep its population fed. Before Bush made his famous, election stump speech about victory in the cold war, he phoned his old friend Gorbachev, to tell him he was going to have to say some things which weren't strictly true - just politics.

Today, such co-operation between America, Europe and Russia seems unthinkable, and it is part of the tragedy to read how James Baker felt, landing in the Glasnost Russia of 1991, to see the hoardings of new, opposition political parties, right on the steps of the Kremlin, not far from where opposition leader Boris Nemstov was killed earlier this year.

In Plokhy's account, the great irony is this: Yeltsin's Russia broke from its own satellites in order to implement radical market reforms. Encouraged by the effects of democracy and capitalism, Russia believed these satellites - Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the most economically valuable asset, Ukraine, would return with its Russian and russified populations, once Russia had proven its strength. But they didn't. And now it seems Putin wants them back.

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