Speaker: Serhii Plokhy, Harvard University

What was my alternative vision and view?

I certainly put the end of the Soviet Union into the context of the Cold War. It is there. I certainly put the fall of the Soviet Union into the context of the economic decline and oil prices and all these other things that certainly made Gorbachev's attempts at reforms really very difficult.

But the main context there is what I consider to be the most important process of the 20th century, and this is the process of the disintegration of empires and the creation of national states on their ruins. I put the history of the fall of the Soviet Union into the context of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, of the Habsburg Empire, of the British Empire, French Empire, most recently, Portuguese Empire.

They fall more or less, especially in the second half of the 20th century, on one major issue; on the citizenship of the people in the colonies and people in the provinces. Once the empire decides, the people at the top, that they have to actually bear costs and have to pay benefits and treat those people as citizens and extend to them what sometimes is called the "welfare state," and once the math is done, the conclusion to which all and every metropolitan power comes to is that it is too expensive. It is too expensive in the 20th century. Empire doesn't bring benefits, economic and otherwise. It actually drains on your resources.

Russia is not different. They did the same math. They had to do it faster. In Britain they had debate about that that was going for decades. In Russia it was all actually done within a very short period of time—1990 and 1991.

I have this very interesting scene in my book, when President Yeltsin of Russia is sitting on the bench on the Sochi beach on the shore of the Black Sea, with his closest advisor at that time, Gennady Burbulis. Burbulis explains to him and says that, "We don't have resources to keep republics along with us. If we don't do something drastic in terms of economic reform, your ranking and your popularity will be actually below the one that Gorbachev's is today. Something has to be done really fast, and we don't have resources to do it."

They tried also to sell this idea to Gorbachev, and the explanation was, "We'll let the republics go for now. We don't have resources to keep them, but once Russia is strong, 20 years from now"—we are almost 20 years from now—"the republics will come back." The vision of Russia and special Russian role in the region, and the future of republics coming back in one way or another—not in the way how it was arranged during the Soviet times—was there, and it was already quite prominent in the fall of 1991.

Russia left the Soviet Union, and Russia's benefit from leaving the Soviet Union, was much more significant than the benefit of any other metropolitan power before that.

Look at Britain. Colonies are gone. That means that the access to resources is now much, much more difficult. Look at Russia. Russia leaves the Soviet Union with oil and gas, so it takes the resources. They are part of the Russian Federation. This leaving other republics behind immediately makes whatever reform Yeltsin was considering at that time, and planning, makes them much easier.

Transcript of entire lecture

Lecture based on a discussion of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union