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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Review: The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book gives a unique perspective on North Korea as it is written by a man who held a senior position in the White House as an advisor to the President on East Asian affairs. Victor Cha’s experience extended to a an official visit to Pyongyang but perhaps the best insights can be gained from his direct meetings with DPRK officials to discuss the various international concerns on the Korean Peninsula. Obviously, one has to take account that there is a potential bias as it is written ‘by the enemy’ of North Korea. It seems clear to me, however, that the author has a deep concern for the Korean people and I think that his judgements and analyses are fair and educated based on what I have already learnt about the global anomaly that exists in this far east region. Nuclear provocations are covered in detail and I found the insights into the human rights situation in the DPRK to be invaluable. It was quite surprising to hear about George W Bush’s genuine concern for the victims of the human rights abuses in this isolated state. I found that the author has some very interesting ideas on how to resolve the whole situation. He stated some of the problems that reunification faces but his views were in general quite positive. I think he sees a transition to peaceful unification as being a possibility and the regime seems quite likely to be undermined by the gradual dispersal of information about the world to the North Korean people. I’d recommend the book as essential to all those who share an interest in developments in North Korea.

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Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill

Following on from his book on the mercenary force Blackwater, Jeremy Scahill delves into the Dirty Wars of the Bush and Obama era in the War on Terror. The main theatres covered include Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Scahill writes about the excesses of the Bush administration, in particular the detainee programs and he deals with how Obama has ratcheted up the campaign against terrorists with the heavy use of drones and targetted killings. There is a focus on American citizen Anwar Awlaki and his rise within the terrorist ranks and how his targetting by the US raised all kinds of legal dilemmas in terms of assassination by his own government. The Osama Bin Laden death is covered in detail, and perhaps extremely relevant, in light of the Kenya bombings this week, the book analyses the rise of Al Shebab in Somalia and also Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen. The book is very well researched, although I feel that the author is somewhat sympathetic towards the Jihadists and critical of the US government measures to contain them. Obviously, the killing of civilians is wrong from whatever side, and some of the US actions can be compared with those of the terrorists. It is frightening to witness how clandestine operations are from the White House down and the way in which the JSOC has been totally unleashed over the years to a status where it has virtually no oversight, is a scary fact. Since September 11th 2001, the War On Terror has been a real issue to most citizens of the world. Dirty Wars is a book which details this struggle in a very readable, interesting and enlightening manner. I highly recommend this book and believe it is a step up from the Blackwater predecessor. I look forward to future work from the author.