Decentralizing the Cold War: an interview

One of the interesting points that you make is how we in the West think of Solzhenitsyn in terms of his The Gulag Archipelago published in 1973. We think of Solzhenitsyn as a human rights actor. But that’s not the role that he plays where Ukraine is concerned. Your argument is that Solzhenitsyn is, as it were, sitting behind Putin’s thinking today. How do you see the continuing influence of Solzhenitsyn?

Serhii Plokhy; Katherine Younger

When Boris Yeltsin told George Bush in 1991 that the USSR couldn’t exist without Ukraine, he wasn’t referring to the economy: culturally, Russia would have been isolated. Today, the same thesis about Slavic identity is being debated with rockets. Serhii Plokhy on Ukraine’s special role in Soviet and post-Soviet history.

Katherine Younger: Would you agree that the West’s failure to understand what the Cold War was really about – and how the Cold War indeed ended – has contributed to Ukraine’s present turmoil? In your lecture at the IWM in March, you drew an important distinction between what we understand by the ‘end of history’ and the end of the Cold War. Could you elaborate?

Serhii Plokhy: The precise chronology of the Cold War is difficult to pinpoint. It doesn’t have a clearly defined beginning, though it is generally understood to be in the late 1940s. There is also disagreement about when exactly the Cold War ended. Generally, it’s thought to have ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But then someone like James Baker, the US Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, would point to the Soviet decision not to oppose the American invasion of Iraq in 1990. Then there was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There is, in fact, no single agreement on when exactly the Cold War ended. It ended in different places at different times. And in the post-Soviet space, I would argue that it never actually came to an end.

The two Cold War superpowers agreed on a number of issues at that time. One of these was that, as far as nuclear weapons were concerned, the world should remain bipolar, even though the Cold War had, strictly speaking, come to an end. So this aspect of the Cold War was preserved by the two superpowers, and it is still with us today. The repercussions of this decision can be seen in events in Ukraine. As a result of this agreement, other post-Soviet countries that inherited nuclear arms had to be denuclearized…