Ukraine, Russia, and the Final Days of the Soviet Union

Monday, June 02, 2014

Men hold Russian (R) and Soviet Union flags in Simferopol's Lenin Square on March 16, 2014. Polls opened yesterday for a referendum on the peninsula of Crimea. (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty)

The narrative that the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War was linked to the triumph of democratic values over communism has persisted in American public discourse for decades, but prize-winning historian Serhii Plokhy shows that the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t have much to do with the United States. In The Last Empire, Plokhy draws on recently declassified documents and interviews with key participants to present an account of the Soviet Union’s final months and argues that the key to the Soviet collapse was the inability of the two largest Soviet republics, Russia and Ukraine, to agree on the continuing existence of a unified state. He talks about the parallels between the countries then, and today.


Serhii Plokhy

Comments [17]

Donald J. Sepanek from Bayonne, NJ

There's no end to people trying to take credit for the fall of the Soviet Union. Yes, in America, we like to believe that Ronald Reagan defeated the Soviet Union. In the Vatican, they say the Pope defeated the Soviet Union. In Poland, they say that Lech Walesa defeated the Soviet Union. In Afghanistan, they claim that it was Osama Bin Laden who toppled the reds. The fact is, communism, being the unworkable system that it was, was the cause of its own demise and needed no help from anyone.

Jun. 02 2014 04:20 PM


It is called salesmanship - selling books, selling expertise, selling radiostation, etc.

I have heard numerous times Lopate going out of his way to appear knowledgeable about a subject, but in reality he is rather shallow - sort of jack of all trades and master of none.

Plokhish is definetly not stupid. He seems to have connection to Ukrainian government and is just pushing their line. And selling his book...

Jun. 02 2014 02:32 PM
Valerie B. from New Jersey

I was born and raised in a Russian-speaking family in Kyiv, Ukraine. My native language is Russian, but I was surrounded by both, Ukrainian and Russian speakers. My husband, all my relatives, and the majority of my friends had been raised in the same environment, and we all can tell you, first hand, that there was never a doubt in our minds that Russian and Ukrainian languages are two different languages. Eventhough we understood about 80% of Ukrainian, we could not talk in it, we couldn't write in it because IT IS A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE from Russian. When your guest said that he thought that Russian and Ukrainian are the same language, until he was 6, I was shocked. I couldn't decide whether Mr. Plokhy was just plainly stupid, or a liar! Having respect for you, Mr. Lopate, and knowing that you wouldn't invite a stupid man to your show, I'm settling with the former: Mr. Plokhy is a liar and is bias against Ukrainian language and our national-identity, and he had fooled you and, what's worst, he fooled your million-people audience with your help, Mr. Lopate!
It was an insult to all Russian-speaking Ukrainians to hear that one can simply mix up both languages in a sentence to speak Ukrainian, because it diminishes the extensive Ukrainian language learning process that most Kievans had to undergo, in order to be able to speak/read/and write in the language of our nation that was oppressed by Russian Empire/Soviet leaders for few centuries! I think that your question, Mr. Lopate, considering it was asked on air, and was addressed to a person who is not a specialist on the topic, was unethical and unprofessional. Any person can make a mistake, so you did too. I just hope that this was a honest mistake and you would acknowledge it and would get enough wisdom not to insult any other nation on air by ignorant questions like that, knowing that millions listeners have their minds shaped by the questions you ask in your interviews.

Jun. 02 2014 02:10 PM
Valerie B. from New Jersey

Sorry, Mr. Lopate, but your question about "How different the Ukrainian language from Russian" is provocative and dumb. There's a thing called Internet, which can be used to find the videos in both languages and compare the two, to listen with your own ears how different the languages are, if you REALLY want to know the answer to your question. Asking your bias guest that question ( to which he gave an absolutely BS answer that is only true from the Russian Imperialistic point of view) just pours more oil into the flames of struggle for Independence, Liberty and National Identity that Ukrainians. unfortunately, have to have, even 23 years after our country and nation had OFFICIALLY became independent and recognized by the whole world. Shame on you, Mr. Lopate! I'm sure that you'd never ask an Irish leader about how different their language is from English, eh? You wouldn't ask a Chinese analyst about how different Tibetan language is from Mandarin, right? You would simply LOOK UP for the answers to these questions ONLINE or elsewhere BEFORE the interview, like a good journalist would do. I still respect you as a host of your program, but I'm also asking you to think twice before you decide to question one nation's self-identity ON AIR in the days when that nation is under attack by the other nation, for the very reason of IGNORING our national identity, history, language and cultural differences, and Ukraine's very existence.
Why, oh why, had you ask a person who is NOT A SPECIALIST ON LANGUAGES about the differences between Ukrainian and Russian, instead of just reading a WIKI article ( for starts, or simply LISTENING to the sound of both languages spoken or sung by the native speakers?! Russian and Ukrainian are two separate languages that branched from their ancestor language approximately at the same time (so, they are equal in age) around ХІІ century, and went their own developmental paths from then on, but these differences are obvious if anyone would just listen to the sound of these languages!

Jun. 02 2014 02:09 PM
Matt Helme . Kiev is the heart of Russian civilization and several sources point to this not just Russian.

Jun. 02 2014 01:07 PM


Don't know about agriculture, but Ukrainian prostitutes are very highly rated.

Jun. 02 2014 12:45 PM

The USSR collapsed because it lost economic competition with the West and because its people learned about it.

The second reason was as important as the first.

Jun. 02 2014 12:40 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Also see the movie 'Nine days in June', George Weigel about John Paul's trip to Poland in 1981.

Jun. 02 2014 12:38 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

Ukraine was once the breadbasket of Europe, as the midwest became for the United States for a long time. How is Ukrainian agriculture doing today?

Jun. 02 2014 12:38 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

In most cases, empires historically have fallen apart because of (1) economic hard times, and (2) because all those minorities become restive and seek to breakaway from the empire, especially when economically things get bad. The Roman Empire was a perfect case. An empire that was so solid for centuries finally came apart and western Europe broke up into many tiny fiefdoms and tribes fighting each other for turf.

Jun. 02 2014 12:34 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Mary told the children at Fatima in 1917:

'The current war will end [WWI], but if men don't stop offending God there will be a worse war [WWII] ... Russia will spread her errors ... the Holy Father will have much to suffer ... but in the end the Holy Father will consecrate Russia to my Immaculate Heart and Russia will be converted ... and there will be a period of peace granted to mankind.'

This has all taken place, the period of peace probably started in 1989 (no world war), but it's been 25 years, a period of time, so it might be at an end.

Jun. 02 2014 12:31 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The reason why Russia is not a highly successful state like the US, Germany or Japan, is because people in Russia are okay with "It's good enough." If whatever it is they manufacture is "good enough" then why strive to make something nicer or better? If you have a car that runs, why switch to another one every few years? You don't, or didn't, have this ingrained consumerism where the people are constantly being urged to get "the latest and greatest" as often as possible, and get rid of the old. The latest car model. The latest IPhone. The latest computer or video game console. And so on. Russia always had plenty of natural resources but there wasn't this strong capitalist competition that is so important in countries like the US or Japan, and to a lesser extent in Western Europe.

Jun. 02 2014 12:23 PM



…Ronald Raygun DIDN'T kill the commies?!?!!?

Jun. 02 2014 12:20 PM
tom from astoria

ON the 25th anniversary of Tiananman Square, June Fourth Incident (六四事件), I can't help think that significant incidents that are suppressed by authoritarian governments today AS IN UKRAINE, will someday be remember in those future free countries like our Boston Massacre. I've been visiting Chinese businesses and wishing them a "Happy Tinanman Square Day!" It occurred to me that someday it will be national holiday in China.

Jun. 02 2014 12:20 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

When I went to live in Israel back in 1982 and met with some high level Jewish immigrants who were journalists who had been close to members of the Politburo, I was told that if the Soviet Union were ever to fall apart it would be due to the minorities problem. When the USSR did finally come apart all those minority republics became independent but there are still many minorities in Russia itself.

Jun. 02 2014 12:15 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

When I went to live in Israel back in 1982 and met with some high level Jewish immigrants who were journalists who had been close to members of the Politburo, I was told that if the Soviet Union were ever to fall apart it would be due to the minorities problem. When the USSR did finally come apart all those minority republics became independent but there are still many minorities in Russia itself.

Jun. 02 2014 12:13 PM

"Plokhy" means "bad" in Ukrainian. Accordingly, a statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the United States is a pretty "plokhy" argument.

The fact that top Communist leaders - Eltsyn and Kravchuk - decided to break the country apart only confirms the deep divisions that existed in the country on all levels.

Finally, I would like to point to some Ukrainians on these forums, that Plokhy argument shows that Ukrainians played prominent roles in the USSR, and were not a neglected minority.

Jun. 02 2014 12:11 PM

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