The Ghosts of ’91

Tension between the U.S. and Russia is rising. A new history of the end of the Cold War helps to correct the record.

Illustration by Liana Finck.

Illustration by Liana Finck

On Aug. 1, 1991, as Air Force One made its way to Kiev, where President George H.W. Bush would make one of the more pivotal foreign policy speeches of his presidency, his advisers were locked in heated debate over the word the.

“Make sure the president leaves out the article. He should just say ‘Ukraine,’ ” urged Jack Matlock, then ambassador to the Soviet Union. “Ukrainian-Americans think the article makes it sounds like a geographic area rather than a country.”

“But we say ‘the United States,’ don’t we?” protested one of the president’s speechwriters.

“If the president says ‘the Ukraine,’ the White House will be getting thousands of letters and telegrams in protest next week,” Matlock countered. Matlock won out, and copies of the speech in Bush’s presidential archive today show the articles penciled out, a distinction that would be entirely lost on those who read translations of the speech in Russian or Ukrainian. (Those languages don’t have definite articles.)

The anecdote, related in Serhii Plokhy’s extraordinarily well-timed new book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, underscores the degree of cognitive difficulty U.S. policymakers were having in the fateful year of 1991 in beginning to think of a vast empire that had dominated global politics for seven decades as 15 different countries. Relying on declassified U.S. and Russian archives, Plokhy makes a convincing case that contrary to the triumphalist American narrative of Cold War victory, or the more recent paranoid Russian narrative of Cold War defeat, the U.S. never anticipated the breakup of the Soviet Union—in fact, the U.S. tried to use what little influence it had over the situation to prevent it.

As it turned out, the definite articles were the least of the problems the administration faced in Bush’s speech. With Ukrainian nationalism on the rise and dismemberment of the Soviet Union being openly discussed, Bush sounded a cautious note at the urging of aides like his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, and the young Russia expert Condoleezza Rice. “Freedom is not the same as independence,” he warned. “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” The speech angered Ukrainian nationalists and American hawks, and was dubbed the “Chicken Kiev” speech by New York Times columnist William Safire—a nickname that stuck.

The Bush administration attempted to split the difference on the fall of the Soviet Union, favoring a transition toward democracy and free-market capitalism, and the independence of the Baltic countries—whose annexation by the Soviets during World War II had only been grumblingly accepted by the United States—but not a full dissolution of the Union. Secretary of State James Baker, in particular, worried that the disintegration of the Soviet Union could entail the “prospect of violence and bloodshed as well as the possibility of nuclear proliferation.” A “Yugoslavia with nukes” seemed like a very real potential outcome.

The Bush administration also valued what it saw as a friendly and productive relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev, as opposed to the unknown quantity that was the hard-charging and hard-partying president of the Russian Republic , Boris Yeltsin. The two governments had worked together through perestroika and glasnost, negotiated a nuclear disarmament treaty, and co-sponsored new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Gorbachev and Bush were personally close, as were their families. “Baker and his State Department advisers did not want to let Gorbachev down after what he had done to improve Soviet-American relations,” Plokhy writes. It’s surprising to the modern-day reader that Bush wrote to his Russian counterpart on Jan. 24, 1991, to assure him that “No one wishes to see the disintegration of the Soviet Union.” It’s more surprising that all indications suggest he meant it.

You can hardly blame the White House for not anticipating the breakup of the Soviet Union, given that many of the participants on the Soviet side didn’t seem to anticipate it either. As late as the Belavezha Accords, the Dec.  meeting of the three largest Slavic Soviet republics—Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine—which effectively dissolved the Soviet Union into the loosely confederated Commonwealth of Independent States, Yeltsin was presenting the case for maintaining a strong union of some sort. But just days after Ukrainian voters had overwhelmingly chosen independence, the newborn country’s de facto head of state, Leonid Kravchuk, was unyielding, according to Plokhy: “The Soviet Union no longer existed, and parliament would not allow him to create new unions of any kind. And Ukraine needed no such unions: the Ukrainians did not want to exchange one yoke for another.”

Without Ukraine, there was no Soviet Union. As Plokhy writes, “Back in 1922 the USSR was created with an eye to accommodating Ukraine. The Union emerged as a state with a powerful center whose goal in the first decade of its history was to keep the Ukrainians in and the Russians, the formerly dominant ethnic group, down.” As we’ve learned in the last three months, a large portion of the current Russian leadership never fully adjusted to the idea of Ukraine being a foreign country.

Even after the summit, the U.S. would not recognize Ukraine’s independence until Dec. 25, the day Gorbachev formally resigned, making the end of the Soviet Union an incontrovertible reality. The administration had held out for months despite the urging of Ukrainian-American groups and hawks in Congress. As the former head of the influential Ukrainian Congress Committee of America put it: “This simultaneous recognition of the U.S.S.R.’s demise and Ukraine’s existence was classic Realpolitik. Simply put, reality had a new player. The United States simply acquiesced.” Of course, President Bush phrased things a bit differently in a speech that night, praising “the historic and revolutionary transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its peoples” as “a victory for the moral force of our values.” A new narrative was born: The breakup of the Soviet Union itself, rather than simply the defeat of its political system, had been the end goal of U.S. policy all along.

The trademark of Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard, is using both American and newly declassified Russian archives to explore the gulf of understanding between Washington and Moscow. His last book, Yalta: The Price of Peace, made the case that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill badly underestimated their Soviet counterpart, Joseph Stalin, at the fateful 1945 conference. This time around, The Last Empire has a broader scope in terms of both chronology and the number of characters and, hence, isn’t as tight a narrative, but the book certainly succeeds at conveying the overwhelming rush of events that key participants in both capitals faced over the course of 1991. Plokhy’s recounting of the August coup, and the tense atmosphere inside Gorbachev’s Crimean dacha—where the Soviet leader had good reason to believe he could follow some of his predecessors by dying in office under suspicious circumstances—is a particular highlight.

Obviously, the events for the past few months color a reader’s reaction. When you read the fears for the future Gorbachev expressed shortly before being made redundant—“Seventy-five million people live outside the bounds of their ‘small fatherlands’… What, then, are they all second-class citizens?”—it’s hard not to think of the justification of protecting ethnic Russians that Vladimir Putin has used for his forays into Ukraine. Following the annexation of Crimea, Putin himself reflected on the events of 1991, saying in a televised speech to the Russian parliament, “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and woke up in a foreign country—part became ethnic minorities in former Soviet republics. One of the most divided people on Earth.” According to one recent poll, at least six in 10 Russians agree with the notion that there are parts of neighboring countries that ought rightly to be part of Russia. The idea that borders were arbitrarily drawn through the greater Russian nation is a powerful one.

Author Serhii Plokhy
Author Serhii Plokhy.

Photo courtesy Susan Wilson

The history of 1991 is also worth revisiting now that Ukraine has reignited an old debate in U.S. foreign policy: whether America’s first priority should be to support the right of national minorities to govern themselves, or whether to support the sovereignty of nations within existing borders. While the U.S. has talked a big game about the first ideal dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson, the second has more often than not tended to win out in the name of global security. As Bush’s Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Popadiuk puts it in the book, it’s not so easy “for one superpower to support the dismantlement of another.”

As Plokhy notes, those within the White House who felt the U.S. should take a more active role in recognizing the independence of the new states and actively pushing for the dismantlement of the Soviet Union—figures like Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz—would later go on to take U.S. foreign policy in a surprising new direction. Plokhy makes a convincing case that the misplaced triumphalism of the senior Bush’s administration led to the disastrous hubris of his son’s. After all, surely if an aggressive U.S. foreign policy could lead to the collapse of one of history’s most powerful empires, it could remake a second-rate dictatorship in the Middle East.

In the end, the initial fears in the administration about the consequences of a Soviet collapse weren’t entirely misplaced. The breakup of the last empire was often a bloody affair, with thousands killed and displaced in conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and—to this day—in the North Caucasus. But it wasn’t the massive conflagration that many in Washington feared.

In Russia, of course, 1991 is remembered quite differently; Putin calls the USSR’s breakup the “major geopolitical disaster of the century.” To many Russians, recent developments in Ukraine represent an effort to redress those wrongs.

The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union by Serhii Plokhy. Basic Books.

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