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: We – by Yevgeny Zamyatin

we

This science-fiction classic was written in 1920s Russia and was cited by George Orwell as a key inspiration for his seminal 1984. We are in the 26th century and following victory in a 200 year war, society has reached its apogee in a walled off universal nation called OneState. All submit to the will of the Benefactor and individuality has essentially been erased. The people have no names and are instead assigned numbers. They live in transparent apartment blocks and have a rigorous timetable for every daily activity, including sex. We see the novel through the eyes of D-503, the number in charge of the building of the INTEGRAL, a spaceship that will advance this technology-rich society even further. O-90 is a female who regularly produces pink tickets for intimate sessions with our protagonist D-503 and all is sailing smoothly until the entrance of I-330, a new woman who begins to spread an ‘illness’ to D-503 as her ancient ideas cause an awakening of his soul. Ever evading the careful monitoring of the guardians, D-503 and I-330 embark on a romantic adventure of nostalgia, setting up discreet meetings in the Ancient House where eventually I-330 reveals her liaisons with survivors beyond the wall who live in nature. They want to hijack the INTEGRAL and eventually lead OneState into a revolution, just as the masses are being exposed to the latest innovation from the Benefactor, X-Ray brains surgery to annihilate the population’s imagination and to create perfect happiness. Zamyatin writes fluently and I found myself rapidly burning through the pages of a story that bears signs of 1984 and Brave New World yet on the whole I feel, is a slightly more romantic tale, less political and the beauty of the writing is that the imagery and ideas are florid in the reader’s imagination. It is a journey, a battle of logic and a futuristic adventure where the dystopia resembles much of our 21st century life almost a hundred years after the author first penned the words. A great, unmissable book, five stars.

Review: The Edge – Is the Military Dominance of the West Coming to an End – by Mark Urban

the edge

Only a short volume, this well-written work documents the weakening of the West in the geopolitical arena. The book first focuses on the reductions in military power of Western nations, both in terms of their military budgets and also their matériel. Despite modern weapons being produced, the volume of forces and the amount of weapons mean that many Western nations and indeed when they are combined in the NATO alliance would struggle to fight in a real nation to nation conflict, in particular with a major power. The author identifies that with the rise of ISIS and Russian annexation of Crimea, the old world order of international relations has been broken down. In the new world order we see rising nationalism, an end to American unipolarity as a superpower and the rise of spheres of influence among growing world powers such as Russia, China, India or Saudi Arabia. A lot of key military figures are consulted for their opinions and most express their frustration with politicians freezing budgets and express their growing concern of standing by to idly spectate international events. There is certainly an unwillingness of Western nations to engage militarily, an identified weakness. The new world may see a decline in liberal democratic values and from reading this book it is clear to identify that the future is most uncertain.

Review: Winter Is Coming – Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped – by Garry Kasparov

winter is coming

Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion, is clearly an intelligent man. Having retired from the game he has entered the world of politics and is a key human rights activist. The book explores his frustrations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It is a study of Putin and the way in which he has eroded the democratic institutions bought about by Perestroika and the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. Kasparov tried to align a coalition of democratic oppositionists within Russia yet the force of the state and its poor human rights record left Kasparov no alternative but to fight as an exile from New York City. It is clear from the book that his chess success has made him different to the average Russian. His priveleged life as a global Soviet citizen has perhaps led him further to embrace Yeltsin’s opening up of Russia. I think he hearkens for a Western style democracy within Russia but perhaps Russia itself is not suited to such political freedoms and requires a degree of autocracy for it to effectively function on the international stage. Although I can identify many of the problems posed by Putin, I feel that he has successfully restored a great deal of lost power to Russia and will perhaps be remembered in posterity as a key figure in Russian history. Although he may be a dictator, he is no Stalin and his absolute rule has still brought about many benefits to the Russian State. Can the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine be equated to Hitler’s pre WW2 actions in Czechoslovakia and Poland? Kasparov sets out a case of why the appeasing Western democratic leaders have failed the Russian people in standing up to Putin and he spells out the dangers of the régime, crying out for help. I enjoyed the tactical surprises and clear prose of hearing one of the world’s great mind’s thinking process at work as I traversed the book although I feel that perhaps it is a little unfair on its target and fails to recognise some of the intricacies of superpower politics. It will be interesting to see where Kasparov takes his future life as indeed will it be interesting to see where exactly Putin steers Russia.

Review: The Art Of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service – by Gordon Corera

art of betrayal

They say that truth is often stranger than fiction and this book that I have given a 5 star rating reads very fluently and tells the real story of British secret service agents as they engage in the art of espionage across the globe. True heroes and heroines emerge as you quickly flutter through the pages. From SIS’s early war history through to the heavy espionage focus against the Soviets during the Cold War through to the closer to present military escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq, spies are always at the centre of international events, the front line defences of any country and they are especially important to Britain with the remnants of its empire. The shocks of betrayal are often harsh and blunders in espionage can prove very costly. Although the reality is often different to the popular perception of James Bond, some of the adventures and intrigue of the real espionage world are profound tales that push the human spirit to its limits. I think that the most fascinating tale of the book, one which has haunted the halls of Whitehall and Washington to this day, is that of the Soviet super-spy Kim Philby, of the Cambridge Five. Philby rose to the highest echelons of the secret service on both sides of the Atlantic at the height of the Cold War, all the time working discreetly for the Soviet Union, attracted ideologically by Communism. His deceit actively cost the lives of many and severely disrupted many critical operations. The book details not just Philby but also the defectors coming in the other direction and there are some great depictions of the tasks performed by MI6 and MI5 operatives who had to handle these defectors and also run foreign agents behind the lines. The book leaves a hunger for further research and I shall be looking carefully at the fictitious works of Graham Greene and John Le Carré, both of whose real lives feature in this book as they were both at one time secret agents. The book to me tailed off a bit after the excitement of the Cold War and the last chapter on the political blunderings of the failed Iraq War intelligence was a trifle mundane yet overall the book lived up to all expectations and was laid out very well with a very flowing narrative.

Review: 2017 War With Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command – by General Sir Richard Shirreff

2017 war with russia

When I first purchased this book I thought it would be a work of non-fiction, but instead I discovered it was actually fiction. The author, a former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, was, in his employment, well-used to war-gaming scenarios with, in particular, Russia. This book, aimed at the general public, introduces many real aspects of NATO and is about a potential imminent future conflict with Russia. The thrills of the well-built characters as they journey through a potential MAD (Mutually-Assured destruction) Nuclear scenario, set in the Baltics, makes the novel a real fast page-turner. I was surprised by the often negative light the author holds NATO in, with its often complicated command structure and this book must have been written with real-life experience. It makes me wonder about shedding defence force budgets and what problems we actually would face were a potential conflict with Russia in Europe actually break out (which of course if you include Ukraine it actually has). In light of the potential Brexit vote in the UK, I think that this book shows the potential value of unity and the necessity of an international alliance in defeating dangerous foes. An excellent read.

Review: The New Cold War – by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War
The New Cold War by Edward Lucas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a study of Russia in the post-communist era. It documents the rise of Vladimir Putin and identifies the ‘new cold war’ that envelopes Russia’s relations with the outside world. I found the book to be detailed with information and I was surprised by many of the features of the new Russia. I hadn’t realised that under Putin the Russian economy had been growing really well nor had I an appreciation of his soaring approval rating with his people. The Russian dominance of the energy market, in particular, gas, is quite daunting. I really enjoyed the chapter that focussed on the actual way this energy market is structured. The new Cold War won’t necessarily be fought in terms of military might and arms races. The Russian military strength is very dilapidated and they spend 25 times less on their military budget than the US. The new war will be fought in the markets with hard-hitting Kremlin-supported oligarch cash and the high profits from the energy market. I was surprised at the overall effect how that, since 1989, Russia has reverted back to its old Iron Curtain Soviet ways, despite me imagining that it was all freedom and capitalism there now. ‘Sovereign Democracy’ has quite different values to the political system we understand. The author has done his best in this book to explain what makes Russia tick and how we can possibly overcome a dark new era of global hostilities.

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