Excavating “The Last Empire”: Discussing Soviet History and Global History with Serhii Plokhii

Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

Since the USSR formally ceased to exist on December 26, scores of books have been written on the Soviet dissolution, an event that resulted in the creation of fifteen new states across Eurasia and that current Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. In his new book, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, Harvard professor Serhii Plokhii offers a definitive account of the end of the Soviet state.

Serhii Plokhii's latest book, "The Last Empire"

Serhii Plokhii’s latest book, “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”

Based on research in archives in Russia, Ukraine, and the United States interviews with high-level officials, The Last Empire explores the decisions taken in Moscow, Washington, and various Soviet republics between 1989 and 1992 that led to the dissolution of the Soviet experiment. Standing at the center of his story are tensions between Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachëv and élites in the Ukrainian SSR. Already weakened by pressure from Russian President Boris Yeltsin and an abortive coup, Gorbachëv and his visions for a revitalized Soviet confederation were doomed by the decisive results of a December 1991 Ukrainian referendum in favor of independence.

The account of The Last Empire, published by Basic Books this May, might surprise to American readers, many of whom are led to believe that it was decisive action by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his successor, George H.W. Bush, that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But as Plokhii shows through exhaustive research–and interviews with important figures like Brent Scowcroft–the Soviet collapse arose far more due to internal Union dynamics than American foreign policy.

Global History Forum: Discussing “Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956” with Steven Serels

For most audiences today, the word “Sudan” evokes images at once terrorizing and timeless. Older readers may recall the images of emaciated bodies that television crews relayed from western and eastern Sudan during the great famines of the mid-1980s. Anyone reading today, however, will remember the outrage – but also lack of meaningful reaction – that the Sudanese government’s terror in the western region of Darfur evoked during the early 2000s. (Those wars, which then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called genocide, still continue.) According to these images, Sudan remains at once black, Arab, Muslim, poor, hungry; but also – crucially – in the present. Appalled by the horrors of famine and genocide, it is easy to forget to probe the past – a colonial past – to inquire after the structural roots of hunger and famine not as an accident but as an accomplishment of modern state-making. Moral outrage and a human rights-inflected imagination may be important, but it’s solid empirical history that furnishes an understanding of the roots of crises like those that plague – or define – Sudanese stateness.

That’s why the Global History Forum was delighted to sit down recently with Steven Serels, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Weatherhead Initiative on Global History. Steven, whose first book, Starvation and the State: Famine, Slavery, and Power in Sudan, 1883-1956, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan in December 2013, graciously met with GHF to discuss his work, his future agenda, and – at the center of it all – Sudan and the broader region and even world order that the country fits into.