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.

By the late 1980s, as Russian–as opposed to “All-Union” Soviet institutions–were granted more power and authority, provincial upstarts like Boris Yeltsin and the Russian reformers around him were able to challenge Gorbachëv and the Communist Party apparatus from the very center of the Soviet Union itself–from Moscow, and from Russia. Faced with challenges not just from Yeltsin but nationalist movements, in particular in the Baltics and the Caucasus, Gorbachëv responded by trying to re-invent the Soviet Union as a “Union of Sovereign States.”

But these plans, like alternative plans to dissolve and reincorporate the empire as a “Slavic Union,” always hinged on the inclusion of Ukraine, the second-most populous and second-most important Republic within the Soviet system. Once the botched coup of August 1991 destroyed what was remaining of Gorbachëv’s political authority–and that of the hardliners who sought to replace him and save the Soviet system–the overwhelming December 1 turnout in favor of total Ukrainian independence nixed all hopes for both a revived Soviet Union as well a Slavic Union. A week later, the leaders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine–sidelining Gorbachëv–met at a hunting estate in western Belarus to dissolve the Soviet system, leaving only a vague “Commonwealth of Independent States” in its wake.

The parallels with today are all too eerie. Following the choice of Ukrainians to cast their lot with a European Union Association Agreement–and not Moscow’s project of a “Eurasian Union” already including Belarus and Kazakhstan–2014 seems to mark the completion of a Ukrainian turn away from empire that began in 1991. The irony of Plokhii’s story, however, is that even as the Ukrainian bid for independence permanently derailed hopes for Soviet reform, it was Russian nationalists like Yeltsin who stood in a position to reap the political capital from the Ukrainian referendum. Today, as Ukraine seeks to turn toward Europe–but faces incredible challenges from a Russia that has both annexed the Crimea and supports rebel movements in Ukrainian territory–understanding the long path taken to 2014 matters more than ever.

"The Last Empire" author Serhii Plokhii, professor of History at Harvard University and Director of Harvard's Ukrainian Research Institute
“The Last Empire” author Serhii Plokhii, professor of History at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute

Plokhii’s personal and scholarly background made him the optimal person to write this book. Born in the Soviet Union and raised in what was then the Ukrainian SSR, Plokhii trained as a specialist in Ukrainian history in one of the Soviet Union’s leading centers for historical scholarship at Dnipropetrovsk University. While originally trained as a specialist in early modern Ukrainian history, over the course of a career spent in Ukraine and Canada before becoming the Mykhailo Hrushevsky Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University in 2007, Plokhii has established himself as a scholar whose range spreads across centuries of Ukrainian history. His works prior to The Last Empire include books on the Cossacks, Ukrainian and Russian historiography, the Yalta Conference.

No mere specialist on national history, however, Plokhii remains attuned to issues familiar to scholars of global history. Understanding why the Soviet Union–“the last empire,” as Plokhii aptly puts it–lasted so long, whereas European colonial empires collapsed decades earlier demands putting the Soviet experience in a broader global context, as well as questioning categories that may not apply to that Soviet imperial experience. Likewise, the nature of the Soviet collapse, hingeing as it did on questions of federation and sovereignty, forces us to probe the conceptual history of those categories. And as elements of the Russian far right and, indeed, Mr. Putin himself, proclaim that Ukraine is not a “real country,” or that some of Russia’s other neighbors never existed as a state, exploring the Soviet experience through these broader lenses is more urgent than ever.

In this installment of Global History Forum, Toynbee Prize Foundation Executive Director Timothy Nunan sat down with Professor Plokhii at his office at Harvard to discuss his road to history, The Last Empire, and Soviet history as global history.

GHF: Professor Plokhii, although you were born in Nizhnĭ Novgorod, you actually spent most of your childhood in Zaporizhia. What influence would you say your parents had on your historical interests? Were there any kinds of discussions around the dinner table? Even just the spatial, lived experience of growing up in Zaporizhia in the late 1960s and early 1970s?

SP: Well, I’ll start with the family, and I’ll start with my father, who was a vivid reader of memoirs. Memoirs about the Second World War–of course, it was known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War–and then I was surprised to discover that I’m not unique in my generation to have a father who loved that kind of stuff. In Canada, in Europe, maybe less so in Europe, but certainly north America. Unfortunately, he passed away in 2009, but he was a person who not just read, but at the table, there would be breakfast, or dinner, or something like that–he would talk about it. So he shared what he read then, and the interest in history was there from the very beginning.

And I would say that there was some aspect of international history along with that, in the sense that he spent part of the war in occupied Ukraine, in the parts occupied by Germans, by Nazis. And then, in 1944, they moved back to Kamchatka, so that’s where the family was before the war, and then they came to visit grandparents and were caught up in what was going on there. He toward the end of the war, he learned about it while working in Kamchatka as a radio operator and basically that was the effort known as Lend-Lease. Some of his relatives who would serve on the ships that were delivering Lend-Lease from the United States, so there was this understanding and this idea that the Second World War was not just Ukraine, was not just German occupation, but that there were Allies, there was the United States, Canada figured into this somehow. So those were conversations.

Another type of discussions about history were grandparents, who remembered the days and again my family, they fled from the famine, they fled to the Far East. That’s how my father was growing up there. I remember that I found out the discussions so non-interesting, because I was going to school already, I was learning the official narrative–Bolsheviks, Lenin–and none of them were members of the Party, none of saw Lenin.

GHF: This was an obscure family history, in other words, in your eyes.

SP: Right. So they were repeating stories again and again. I now wish that I had stayed and listened–that was the real history. But in my eyes, this was irrelevant. What father was bringing was memories of [Soviet General Georgiĭ] Zhukov, and none of my grandparents were Marshals or anything. So that was in terms of family background. Further, in the 1970s, in Zaporizhia there was the return in some form of the cult of the Cossacks, since this was the homeland of the Cossacks.

So there was that interest in history. And history of all different kinds. A rejection of one kind of history–people’s history, history coming from below that was not worth attention. Then there was the history associated with memoirs about the Second World War and would be only generals and Marshals who would get the right to write memoirs. And then this element of late 1960s and 1970s formal Ukrainian revival and Cossacks. So there was twentieth century history, there was the history of early modern Ukraine. So all of these things–I never thought about it before, but all of these things in some way got reflected in what I wrote, in my life.

GHF: Moving on to undergraduate at Dnipropetrovsk, there you studied in the kafedra (faculty, department) under the historian Mikola Kovalskiĭ. What would you say was the significance of Kovalskiĭ. for higher education then? How did your eyes open as an undergraduate?

SP: I came to the university with this idea that I would study very old-fashioned diplomatic history. So that’s what I was interested in, and the first paper that I was writing was on the British policy in Yugoslavia on the eve of World War II. And I got disappointed in the topic very soon. So, interest in diplomatic history was informed by the fact of the Cold War. There was Brezhnev, there was Nixon, and so on. But when you started reading diplomatic history the way it was presented, how it was published in the Soviet Union, it was so boring. My first encounter with it in this paper, the limited number of sources used … you’re in the provinces, not in Moscow, with no access, and in any case they wouldn’t let students work with the materials of the Soviet Foreign Ministry at that time. So it was a disappointment.

So I looked around myself and I saw that there was a group of people who were working on things related to sixteenth and seventeenth century, to local and regional history. Some of them were doing work on the Cossacks, others were working on the sixteenth and seventeenth century. There were languages, the Polish language, and they were using microfilm. There was a group there, a professor–you wanted to be a part of that. That’s how I joined that group. The group was interesting in terms of its founder, who was, his name was Mikola Kovalskii. He himself came from Western Ukraine, for Volhynia. He grew up as a child in inter-war Poland. Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, all of these languages being around. He got his education in L’viv, Lvov, Lviu, Lemberg, and worked on sixteenth and seventeenth century history in particular, in a particular trend that became known as source studies. Source studies was a particular phenomenon. They were very popular in Europe and the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. It was positivism par excellence.

Then, in the late 1950s and 1960s, after the 20th Party Congress [where Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchëv denounced Stalin’s cult of personality], it was revived. People like [Soviet historian Mikhail] Tikhomirov in Moscow. Historians who were trained in the old imperial tradition, and that was a niche where you could also work on themes that would be not directly affected by the Party line and changes in the Party Line. The deeper you go in the past, the more freedom you would get. And also within the parameters of Source studies, the critique of the sources and things like that, you can insulate yourself to the degree possible from the political and the ideological influences of the time. And that was also a person who was first and foremost a teacher. Someone who was interested in students, and students were interested in him. I was already a second-generation in his cohort of people, so I was really more attracted to his younger, to his former students who were wearing jeans at that time as a statement. Interested in rock, in western music.

At the same time, he was interested in Ukrainian history and in particular early modern Ukrainian history. What happened between the time I was growing up in Zaporizhia, where there was this cult of the Cossacks, and I entered the university, was 1972, which was a turning year in Ukrainian history. The chief of the Party [Petro Shelest’] was removed on the charges of supporting nationalism, so something that was celebrated in 1971 became basically reactionary in 1972, and I entered university in 1975. So, in a sense, just after I thought I was moving away from political and ideological issues in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, I found myself in the very middle of these disputes again. This interest in the Polish period in Ukrainian history was something that was basically maybe tolerated, but not not welcome. So we had some degree of freedom, but we were also looked at with suspicion.

What helped a lot was the fact that the University of Dnipropetrovsk had this extra-territorial status. It wasn’t under the Ukrainian Ministry of Higher Education, where the idea of fighting this ideological deviations, these national deviations, was at the top of the agenda. It was under the All-Union Ministry of Higher Education. They looked at us and said, “OK, those guys were interested in sixteenth and seventeenth century history, it’s OK, who cares.”

Hence, in the 1970s, Dnipropetrovsk University, which had had no archives, very limited scholars, very limited access to literature–the libraries which were there were destroyed during the Second World War–emerged as a center of Ukrainian Studies, of early modern Ukrainian studies, because it was this kind of extra-territorial center: within Ukraine, but outside of Kiev’s control.

So that’s in terms of background of the person of that professor and the group that was formed around him. Broadly, on the way, basically, how in the academic world, the power of personality matters and that schools and that interest in the work, in history can be done in the most unexpected places because it happened that, I don’t know, if the circumstances are right, resources are available, or that no one tries to crush what is going on there.

GHF: Let’s bracket off your career in Moscow and Canada, then, and transition to The Last Empire. As I read it, on the one level, there’s the argument that Bush or Reagan–the Presidential Administrations–didn’t win the Cold War, that it’s about internal dynamics. But this argument about the tension between All-Union institutions and a Ukrainian elite is an incredibly important thread in this book. And I think that for a lot of readers, the surprising thing will be the nature of power-sharing between Dnipropetrovsk elites and Russian élites in Moscow.

My question is, would it be accurate to describe the Soviet Union of the late 1970s as a condominium between Eastern Ukrainian elites and Moscow-based Russians? What are the problems in using that term as opposed to empire?

SP: Well, I would certainly be prepared to compare the situation in the 1970s in the Soviet Union in terms of the importance of regional elites, in this case Dnipropetrovsk, with the Russian Empire of, let’s say, the last decades of the eighteenth century, where elites from the Hetmanate–people like Alexander Bezborodko were really very influential. So the late Catherine period, Paul’s rule, and Alexander’s rule, where one regional élite–in that particular period, Ukraine–became very important in what was then Petersburg. You see other periods where there would be Baltic Germans who would become very important. Certainly, Russians coming from certain specific groups. From that point of view, the Soviet Union was not different, in a sense, and today’s Russia and Ukraine are not different in that you see very much the periods where one élite that would be formed on the terms of personal loyalty, personal clan or a regional clan would acquire not full control, but informal influence, certainly.

And that is the story for the Dnipropetrovsk clan and Brezhnev, for Brezhnev’s era. When I started listing people at the top of the power élite who came from the very same city where I went to university, and where I started to teach, I was surprised myself. So again, Brezhnev himself, the Minister of the Interior [Nikolaĭ Shchelokov], the Deputy Head of the KGB [Georgiĭ Tsinëv], then the head of the KGB, Mr. [Viktor] Chebrikov, all come from Dnipropetrovsk. The former Secretary of the City Party Committee. Ministers and Prime Ministers, [Nikolaĭ] Tikhonov. All of these people came from this pyramid. Now you can look at Gorbachëv’s reforms, and he’s replaced by the Sverdlovsk mafia and Yeltsin. Today, of course, Russia is run by the piterskiy (people from St. Petersburg). Again, there are major differences, but there is the possibility for making parallels for how the Russian Empire was run.

And returning to my personal story and the fact that is that Dnipropetrovsk University, because it was an All-Union jurisdiction and certain things that were done that couldn’t be done in other places, the fact that people from Dnipropetrovsk were in Moscow, were in power, certainly helped to open resources. Those resources were, again, the university was getting them directly from the Union Ministry–positions for the scholarships abroad. These were just one of many resources: financial resources, opportunities for traveling abroad, despite the fact that Dnipropetrovsk was a closed city. I’m not sure if you’ve had the chance to see Sergeĭ Zhuk’s book, Rock and Roll in the Rocket City, for example–that’s the story about the closed city, but also open on a certain level.

GHF: Now, to come back to The Last Empire, we could run through the events of 1991, but to abstract the narrative, there are almost three themes or tendencies that collide with one another. The first one, which we’ve already discussed, is the Ukrainian Party élite and its relationship with the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] in Moscow. Second, which we’ll discuss in a moment, is Russian nationalism and perceived options by a Russian élite for how to modernize either the Soviet Union or a Russian state. The third, which I find a lot towards the end of The Last Empire, has to do with how the Soviet Union begins to think of itself as a confederation of states. That is to say, a shift from a utopian project where the state is supposed to go away, and there’s the Turkmen SSR, the Tajik SSR, but certainly they’ve not at the same level of development as the Russian state or the Ukrainian state. And besides, states are going to disappear, anyway.

But it seems interesting that by the late 1960s or 1970s, and certainly when there’s discussions about a “Slavic Union”, or a the idea of a confederative Union with five Central Asian states–states, not SSRs– in effect, there seems to be a shift where SSRs are “state-ified” or are viewed as states in their own right. At what point do you seeing this shift becoming hardened? Is this a shift of autonomy to Brezhnev-era élites? Namely, the idea that non-Slavic Union Republics could have anything less than full sovereignty in the Union.

SP: Well, when does this trend start? It’s difficult–it’s an excellent question, but difficult to answer. What we see happening, really, in 1989, in the First All-Union Parliament and the semi-free elections, is the Parliament starts to matter. The way how people vote starts to matter. And what you see in the All-Union Parliament is a battle between these pro-reform forces, where there would be inter-regional groups, mostly from Russia but not only from Russia, also the Baltics. And against them would go traditional Party élites and the votes that they controlled.

And this is the first time where you see that on this All-Union Level, Central Asian Republics, they look at them as more than just a place where corruption is coming from. It’s not just the place where the Khlopkovoe Delo [“Cotton Affair,” a corruption scandal involving Uzbekistan] originates. That’s the vote that you can use in these wars and these battles. That’s when they start to pay attention to this. Gorbachëv is using those votes agains the pro-reform groups.

Now, I don’t know whether people around Boris Yeltsin and [Yeltsin aide Gennadiĭ] Burbulis and others, whether they start to look at these republics as sates. But they, for the first time, seem to start to think of Russia as a state, trying to basically find a vessel to implement those reforms and realizing that they have to do something with Central Asian Republics and they can’t do anything. The rise in importance of Central Asian deputies–the deputies, not the states–and the Central Asian Party machines controlled by the center force the Russians to start thinking of themselves as a state and trying to achieve their objectives. Realizing that they can’t achieve this through the vessel of the All-Union State. And if Ukrainians are thinking about this traditionally since the 1920s–OK, there were ups and downs–then for Russians, 1989 is the discovery of this potential of a Russian Federation as a state for achieving certain goals that they can’t achieve in the center, at the center.

GHF: And I suppose that the dynamic is until August 1991, but also until the Ukrainian referendum, the assumption is that Belarus and Ukraine will be confederated or attached in some way to a Russian state. The fact that you have five Central Asian Party machines rigged to the Russian state doesn’t really matter. But once the political ambition shrinks to just a confederation of Belarus plus Russia, then it starts to weigh on the conservatives that they could potentially be outnumbered by the “Muslim Republics.” A certain idea of statehood for non-Slavs becomes important then, don’t you think?

SP: One more thing about the state. In the fall of 1991, this becomes a really important term and concept in the discussions between Gorbachëv and the people around him, and Gorbachëv and Yeltsin. The importance of that concept is possible only to understand in connection with another concept, namely with confederation. There are debates going on over whether this is a state, or whether this is a Union of states. Gorbachëv, to the very end, thinks that this is a state. You can have a sharing of power, but this is one state. And of course the push that is coming from Yeltsin, and from [Leonid] Kravchuk and Ukrainians, is that a confederation is a confederation of states. And that is very clear where the republic as a state is a key concept for anyone except for Gorbachëv. But for Gorbachëv it’s important not to think of them as states. You can call them sovereign, you can call them independent, but their statehood, in his mind, is not recognized, because there is only one state, namely the Soviet Union, even if it appears under a different name.

GHF: And if I can recall the name of the reform project, Soyuz Suverennykh Gosudarstv [Union of Sovereign States], correctly, then it gets to another conceptual distinction that you play with in the book. There might not be a direct answer here, but in 1990-1991, for Yeltsin, Gorbachëv, Kravchuk, is there any coherent distinction between “independent” and “sovereign”?

SP: Again, I may have created a distinction between these terms for myself that works well in trying to figure out what they’re saying and what they mean. Sovereignty meant really the primacy of the republican laws over Union laws. Independence would mean complete independence. Independence was a scary word for them, for all elites to use it. It wasn’t a scary word for the “national democrats” in Western Ukraine or for their friends in the Baltic States. Then, of course, for Gorbachëv, he’s trying to mix all of that together. Everyone, he says is sovereign, everyone is independent, but this doesn’t destroy the Union.

GHF: Not very coherent message, in other words.

SP: Right, so the terms are open for all sorts of interpretation, since sovereign means something else in the Soviet concept. Then you introduce the term “independence,” and the word takes on its own meaning, too. It’s almost like Lenin’s term for right of self-determination, which means that it’s a right, but–

GHF: You can’t actively secede. It’s like Stalin’s definition of an internationalist as “someone who is ready to defend the USSR without reservation”. But to return to sovereignty and independence …

SP: Right. So they negotiate in 1989, 1990, 1991, they negotiate the meaning of these terms. Because it is–you can take the politician or the political party and there would be a different take on it, depending on who you asked.

GHF: Back to Ukraine for 1990, 1991. I was listening to a lecture that [ historian of Eastern Europe] Timothy Snyder was giving in Sofia recently. As I was reading The Last Empire, I think I saw a point of connection between the two. I thought of Poland, and what comes to mind are the Polish Revolution, 1982, and the politics of Polish and Ukrainian irredentism. The question is, do you think it would have made a difference if Poland had not had its revolution in 1989, or if the Polish government had not already recognized the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian SSR? In other words, would a politics of Ukrainian sovereignty or self-determination been directed against Poland [and not Moscow] during 1990-1991? Would that have changed events? It seems like one of the salient facts of the Ukrainian 1991 is anti-colonialism that can be directed exclusively towards Moscow, rather than having multiple enemies.

SP: Well, first of all a general statement that Poland and developments in Poland are extremely important. When we talk about the fall of the Soviet Union and the most problematic republic of the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991, we generally talk about the Baltic. The term “Baltics” itself is of very recent creation. The republic that is in the forefront is not just any Batic Republic, but Lithuania, which happened to exist earlier in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. And then the republic that really makes the continuing existence of the Soviet Union impossible is Ukraine. And present at the moment when they decide to dissolve the Soviet Union is Belarus.

Now, what area does this map onto? All of this maps out the old outline of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Thinking about the fall of the Soviet Union not using twentieth century terms, but thinking in terms of the Commonwealth map and keeping it in front of you, raises questions that you may not be prepared to answer or even think about.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth superimposed onto present-day political boundaries
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth superimposed onto present-day political boundaries

It is clear, however, that the position that was taken by Poland after 1989-1990 made this Ukrainian bid for independence very safe, when it comes to the western border. There were claims on Ukrainian territory from Romania, from the west, but there was very little from Poland. And of course, there was a lot of support not just for Lithuania but also for western Ukraine. Poland was the first country that recognized Ukraine within its present borders.

So it’s an important factor, but its importance is somewhat obscured by the fact that those things were obvious or taken for granted at the time, so there wasn’t much discussion. The question was kind of closed beforehand. And that’s why the situation of last year came as such a surprise, when you saw Russia and Putin’s Russia united together with very important groups in Poland on the issue of Ukrainian history and Ukrainian nationalism during World War II. The reaction in the Ukrainian liberal camp towards the Poles was basically a reaction of betrayal–not the nationalist groups and the nationalist underground, but in this political game, I mean.

GHF: That there must be a political cordon sanitaire against the Russian right.

SP: Right, that’s the first time since independence that we came close to this nightmarish scenario of having two enemies, that happened in 2013. And it was a relatively short-lived phenomenon and resolved by the acts of President [Viktor] Yushchenko, who gave the title of “Hero of Ukraine” to Stepan Bandera in 2010. This was disgraceful–Bandera was someone who spread flames of hatred.

GHF: Finally, what to make of the role of Belarus in this Eastern European and Soviet story? One thing running through my head was the role that Belarus does end up taking on vis-à-vis Moscow, as part of a Soyuznoe gosudarstvo [“Union State”] with Russia. Are there, or were there, any lessons that Ukraine took from Belarus or from this political configuration between the two states?

SP: For much of the 1990s, Belarus represented the path not taken to some Ukrainians. If Ukraine represented the dark side of independence, namely bandit capitalism and oligarchy, then it was easy to project onto Belarus from a distance certain ideas of what the Soviet welfare state had been.

GHF: And perhaps we’re seeing darker visions still of what some kind of Russian-led political project would look like today, in Luhansk and Donetsk. Professor Plokhii, one final question before we wrap up: if you had to recommend one book to readers of the Global History Forum as an example of the kind of scholarship you would value, what would it be?

SP: As someone who teaches a course on Yalta, and wrote on the topic, I always find myself impressed when I come back to David ReynoldsSix Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century.

GHF: The Last Empire begins with a summit between Bush and Gorbachëv, so I think we’ve come full circle, then. Professor Plokhii, thank you for participating in this installment of the Global History Forum.

While a book with the ambition of The Last Empire demands a correspondingly ambitious travel schedule–the next event takes place October 3 at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.–Plokhii remains attentive to his duties at Harvard and his coming scholarly projects. This semester’s load includes a Ukrainian history course sure to attract more students than usual, as well as a more advanced seminar on Ukrainian history–that, plus a busy schedule of guests and visiting fellows at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, of which Plokhii is the director.

But more than wrapping up events associated with the book (an October 3rd event in Washington is the next date), Plokhii thinks about his future projects. Next up, he says, is a history of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. He remains conscious of the need to integrate Soviet and Ukrainian history into a broader international discussion.

“Methodologically,” he explains, “I didn’t see a problem with integrating Soviet history with Cold War history when I wrote The Last Empire,” he says. The more he looked at the records of the Bush administration, the clearer the need to escape a “great man” approach became. The Bush Administration, he explains, faced real pressure from Ukrainian- and Armenian-American diaspora groups to deal with “their” respective Soviet republics as international actors, a factor that Plokhii successfully covers in The Last Empire.

The wreckage of the Chernobyl Atomic Station, site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history after a catastrophic explosion in April 1986

But dealing with the history of a massive ecological crisis, then, is likely to pull Plokhii in even more international directions. The crisis of Chernobyl, he explains, was not only an indictment of the Soviet system, but also raised more global questions about the future of nuclear energy and the inter-connectedness of humanity across the boundaries of the Iron Curtain. The disaster might be traced to specifically Soviet misgovernance, but the radioactive particles released by the explosion of the reactor threatened to cover all of Europe. The connections between then and now run deep and across Europe. Today, it is primarily Western European firms that construct and manage the new “sarcophagus” that is designed to cover the reactor ruins for the next century. Today, too, members of European Green Parties who then rallied around the Chernobyl disaster to demand an end to atomic energy, like Rebecca Harms, are among the most active in protesting the illegal imprisonment of Ukrainians by the Russian government.

We look forward to that book, another example of how Plokhii manages to work in a national field while incorporating a global perspective–perhaps the feature of another Global History Forum in the future–but for now we are happy to content ourselves with The Last Empire. We’re pleased to feature its author, Serhii Plokhii, as the latest guest to the Forum.

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