Chronicling the Last Empire

Dr. Serhii Plokhii is the Mykhailo Hrushevksy Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University and Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. He is one of the foremost historians of Ukraine. In a two-part interview with Vostok Cable, he talks with Kimberly St. Julian about his career, current work, and the strained relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of Dr Plokhii

Photo courtesy of Dr Plokhii

Dr. Plokhii, why did you become a historian?

I liked history and I was getting good grades in history but I really didn’t think that I would ever become a historian. I was really interested in journalism. In the Soviet Union the competition to get into the history department was really very high, but (the competition in) journalism was actually sky high. And my parents were a little bit afraid that I wouldn’t get into university and probably they were trying to convince me to set for something actually more obtainable.

My father suggested to me that journalism wasn’t a real profession anyway, so it’s better to have a profession and then you can go into journalism and write if you have the talent. But if you don’t have the talent what’s the point to get a journalist’s education? So that’s how I decided, okay I like history, why not make history my profession? And then after that I can go and write.

It was planned as something that would be temporary and now it has lasted for nearly 40 years. So that’s a warning to everyone who thinks of their careers and think that it will be a temporary and short detour. This detour can become your life and career. That’s what happened to me. I don’t regret that.

Why did you become a historian of early religious and national history of the Rus’ and Ukraine rather than Soviet history?

I’m a child of the Cold War, you grew up with the events of political history, diplomatic history, international history being there in the news all the time. And the history of Soviet-American relations, that was what I was really interested in. Then I got to a local university in Southern Ukraine, in Dnepropetrovsk, and I started to work on my first paper. It had elements of international history and was focused on the British policy in Yugoslavia before 1939. Then I hit the wall, I realised that in a Soviet provincial city there is no literature really, no sources, so I ended up with a couple of books that I was trying to use to retell the story narrated by someone else. It became very clear that I could not do what I wanted to do.

At the same time, I saw that people around me were really excited about something that was related to the history of the region, where there was rich literature, where there were sources, That was the history of Ukraine and the history of the Cossacks. The area from which I come is, of course, Cossackland par excellence (Zaporizhia), so eventually I was drawn into that circle of people.

And the professor with whom I started to work was really a specialist on early modern Ukrainian history. When I told him that I wanted to do the 20th century international diplomatic history he told me that he could supervise that, but it was under his direction that I realised that that was a dead end. That’s how I started to research early modern Ukrainian history, the field in which I wrote my first thesis and second thesis as well.

The most important thing in my opinion is not the topic, or the theme that you are working on, but the professor, the person whom you trust, who can be your mentor, who is really very generous with his or her ideas and time. This is the most important thing. And also, for historians the availability of sources and literature and then the atmosphere in general. If you become part of a group that is interested in researching and discussing certain themes, you are not alone. If you go and find something, you have someone go bring it back to, to discuss and to get other people excited. These are things that I found are the most important for the formation of a historian, for getting into the profession and staying there.

 You have written 8 works since 2002, and they span centuries from The Origins of the Slavic Nations (2006) which explores pre-modern identities in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, to your most current works, Yalta: The Price of Peace (2010) and The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2014). Not many historians work on such diverse time periods, how do you manage to work across centuries and why do you do so?

Why? Well my first article appeared when I was still an undergrad, it was in 1978. It dealt with early modern history and in that time in the Soviet Union, the deeper back you went in history the more freedom you would get in terms of exploring things and explaining their meaning and importance. Certainly the 20th century in the 1970s and 1980s was not a great topic to be in in the Soviet Union unless you were prepared to repeat the party dogmas that were there. But certainly the interest in the 20th century and the themes of international history with which I started my journey into historical profession was still there.

So at some point in my career I thought, okay why not go back to my original interests and look at the themes and topics that I could not, write about, nor explore and interpret in the 70s and 80s. Let me try to do that now. So the interest, the roots of that interest are very deep.

The big question was of course, after spending a good part of my career on early modern history, whether or not that would be possible. And it was really a very risky undertaking with the Yalta book, I wasn’t sure how well it would be received. And it was received surprisingly well and that emboldened me. And now there is the Last Empire that followed in its footsteps, but of course there was a detour back to early modern and 19th century history with The Cossack Myth.

And the jury is still out there, we’ll see how the book is received. If it is received well maybe I will continue working in the same direction. If not, I’ll retreat back into my 17th century cave.

Your latest work, The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union, takes on the mainstream Western narrative that the West/America won the Cold War and also addresses the importance of the relationship between the Russian and Ukrainian Socialist Republics in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  • Why focus on these two issues specifically?
  • How did you decide on this topic?

This book is in, a certain way, in a very strange way, autobiographical. In the sense that I’m not writing about events that I was a part of, but rather, I am writing about events that I would have liked to be a part of but never was, in the sense that the book is focused on the last half of the year 1991 that was a time I was outside of the country. I had accepted an invitation as a visiting professor at the University of Alberta in Canada. I left Moscow on the second day of the coup and came back to Moscow on the 21st of December.

That was exactly the day when the leaders of the republics met in Almaty and made the decisions regarding the creation of the Commonwealth final and the disintegration of the USSR now was fait accompli. So I missed an important part of world history, the history of the Soviet Union, the history of Ukraine, my homeland, that was turning itself from a Socialist Republic into an independent state. And I was always interested in what happened during my Canadian sabbatical, how it happened and what were the causes, at least short term causes, of the events. I wasn’t really satisfied with most of the explanations that were given to the fall of the USSR. Take the Cold War explanation: the Cold War was certainly a factor in the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but the dissolution of the USSR was never a goal of any of the US administrations. And of course I knew, even from following the newspapers, that the administration of President Bush was very supportive of Gorbachev, not trying to undermine him, not trying to create troubles for him and destroy the Soviet Union. It was the opposite.

The question is why? What went into that? There were a number of other interpretations that I thought were not very helpful. All of them, they presented one part of the story, but I wanted the complete story to the degree that I could get it. And that is the origin of the book. And then I got really lucky with the fact that by now we have most of the active participants in the events have written their memoirs. Fantastic stuff became available in the past five years through the Bush Presidential Library, including the transcripts of President Bush’s telephone conversations, memos of his meetings with world leaders and members of U.S. administration.

I can’t imagine that I would be able to write the book that I have written even five years ago. So the availability of new sources is what made the research very interesting and I hope that my hypotheses that I put forward are more solid and grounded than they could have been five or even three or four years ago.

The second part of this interview will be posted on Thursday. Dr. Plokhii’s book, The Last Empire, is out now.

One thought on “Chronicling the Last Empire

  1. Pingback: A turbulent time | Vostok Cable

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