Review: The Last Empire – The Final Days of the Soviet Union – by Serhii Plokhy

the last empire

When the Soviet Union ended and thus the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991, it was probably one of the biggest political events of my lifetime. This well-researched, detailed book, by Ukrainian author Serhii Plokhy, details the last 18 months of the Soviet Union’s existence. After USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced throughout the Soviet Empire, the changing landscape of the union meant many things. Communism was in its death throes and there was a rise of democracy and nationalism and independence movements amongst the various states and peoples that populated the USSR. American influence became more important and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to populist democracies and ceased to be part of the wider Soviet Empire, American pressure continues on the remaining state as the Baltics sought to continue the domino effect. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were supported in their independence by US president, George H.W. Bush and this undermined the Soviet Union as a whole. Rising stars such as Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and other stars of independence in the EuroAsian nations of the Soviet Bloc, all were coming to the forefront. After a critical putsch, a military / KGB coup in August 1991 that sealed Gorbachev in his Crimea Dacha, these rising stars clubbed together to put down the Conservative hardliners who threatened the President, the Union itself and the status quo of the democratic freedoms they were enjoying. The Coup failed by Gorbachev was left irreparably weak and afterwards, especially the opportunist Yeltsin, capitalised on the successes of their newfound power and ultimately broke apart into a series of independent nations and states, finally managing to seal the death of the Party Centre and Union Centre itself with their creation of the CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, that would inherit the remnants of the Soviet Union’s power system. The high point of this most excellent detailed political history of the Fall of the Soviet Union, was the detail of the August coup against Gorbachev. This Machiavellian power struggle was an amazing opening of doors and it is a surprise that the whole dismantling of the Empire didn’t erupt into a ‘Yugoslavia with Nukes’ scenario that many were fearing. The book focuses very much on the role of President Bush and his interactions with Gorbachev and later the founding fathers of the newly independent ex-Soviet nation states. It is an essential part of modern history to understand what happened to the Soviet Union and by studying this issue we can open the doors to understanding the present day troubles in the region, in particular Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the war with Ukraine. Definitely a book worth reading for an avid political historian.

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Cyberwar: The Next Threat to National Security & What to Do About It by Richard A. Clarke

The author has had a political career which has reached the highest levels of the Pentagon. He is obviously a very driven and intelligent man and his analysis of the new phenomenon that is Cyber War is second to none. The globality of the threat is given a context that is very revealing of the geopolitics which drive the internet. How do nation states handle the use of cyberspace within their own borders and indeed outside their territories? As countries become more and more dependent upon computer technology, the risks faced by cyber attacks become exponentially more severe and critical to the economy and security of a nation. America is perhaps the nation that is most vulnerable, most dependent and most at risk, and Clarke’s high position within the US government system means that he has been placed in the very real environment of deciding upon global cyber was strategy. Some of the facts and figures revealed by the book are truly revelationary. Clarke rates North Korea  as being the nation with the most capacity for cyberwar as it focuses on attack strategies and its near negligibilty of dependance at home on computer networks makes it absolutely resistant to any cyber warfare attacks it may experience itself. I was surprised at the levels of internet usage in countries like Estonia and also South Korea, and the stories of actual cyber attacks that were known to have happened and documented made fascinating reading. I didn’t think that the author ever really stretched the technicalities of what is indeed a very technical subject. He kept most of the book within the grasp of any tech novice reader, with a clear focus throughout on geopolitics.  It’s a good book and I feel will be interesting to look back upon in 10 or 20 years time, to see if any of his prophecies have proved correct and also to gauge how different future cyberspace is. I’d recommend this book to any end user of the internet as your own reliance and dependance on the worldwide web is at risk from the cyber war phenomenon that is discussed..