In This Review

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union
The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union
By Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 2014, 520 pp

Books on the end of the Cold War tend to skim over the four months between the failed August 1991 attempt to oust Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev and the final curtain that fell on the Soviet Union in December of that year. Plokhy claims that period is a critical and misunderstood antecedent to the entire historical era that followed. Using recently released documents, he traces in fascinating detail the complex events that led to the Soviet Union’s implosion and profiles the principal actors -- Gorbachev, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, and U.S. President George H. W. Bush -- revealing that their roles were far more complicated than is generally assumed. In particular, the Bush administration, far from seeing those months as the best moment to secure a final victory in the Cold War, was more concerned with ensuring that the Soviet Union remain intact -- its nuclear weapons under central control and its arms control arrangements with the United States secured.