Serhii Plokhy graduated as historian from the University of Dnipropetrovsk in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1980, the same year that Nikita Khrushchev once predicted that Christ would return to Earth in communist form. “That’s a mistake cults often make,” he says. “When doomsday doesn’t happen, people begin to question you.”
Plokhy witnessed the slow collapse of the USSR and, in 1991, the emergence of an independent Ukraine. He moved to Canada in 1994 and is now professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. He has written 13 books, including Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, which won last year’s Baillie Gifford prize for his haunting account of the nuclear disaster. His latest book, Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front, tells the little-known story of Operation Frantic, the only joint US-Soviet operation of the second world war, which saw more than 100 American bombers flying missions from three airbases in Ukraine.
What inspired you to tell the story of Operation Frantic now?
I grew up behind the iron curtain. The “great patriotic war”, as it is known in Russian, played a huge role in the collective memory and Soviet propaganda. But there was little space allocated to other allies. When I realised there were Americans at airbases in my backyard it was a “wow” moment.
Once I heard that there were all these volumes of KGB and Smersh [the Red Army’s counter-intelligence agencies] surveillance, I thought: “I’d better take a look!” On the one hand, you look at these documents and are disgusted so much spying was going on. On the other hand, as a historian, you’re delighted that someone was writing those reports.
How did the airbases come about?
There was military logic – but it was more about expectations. The Americans expected a long fight against the Japanese, so they wanted to show Stalin they were “good allies” to convince him to let them establish airbases in the far east. The Soviets didn’t see much advantage in the airbases militarily, but finally accepted the idea, wanting to charm the British and Americans into opening a second front against the Germans. Once the Americans and British had landed in Normandy, Stalin lost interest. And there was a devastating bombing raid on the bases. Also the eastern front moved fast, so they didn’t have the strategic impact they might have had. But symbolically, they were important – especially in signalling to the Germans that the allies were united.
How did the sides view each other?
The Americans arrived with a great admiration for the Soviet war effort, especially after Stalingrad. This was also a generation shaped by the great depression who knew something was wrong with capitalism; a lot had leftist leanings.
When the alliance started to come apart, it wasn’t because of ideology. The clash was really about the principles of freedom and tyranny. The Americans didn’t object to socialism, they objected to Stalinism: the surveillance, the secrecy, the lack of ability to say what you wanted to say, and the lies that come along with that. This was a surprise to me. I had expected cultural misunderstandings to be a problem, but they weren’t really.
One later wrote: “What we witnessed in the Ukraine was the start of the cold war.” And I think he was right. The US Ambassador to Moscow, W Averell Harriman, and the commander of the airbases, Maj Gen Robert L Walsh, became the first and most dedicated “cold warriors” because of what they had seen inside the USSR.
How did the collapse of the USSR change your perspective?
The collapse of the Soviet Union followed a decade of profound crisis. There was an economic crisis, but there was also an ideological crisis. There were no true believers left. So when that system fell, there was a sense of relief, initially. But we had no rules; no one watching what we were reading. There was also economic chaos – salaries weren’t being paid. But even among historians, we felt we might have turned a page. Russia can go democratic; Ukraine can go democratic. It’s the “end of history” with the victory of liberalism! But, as things progressed, it became clear history matters in all the ways you want it not to matter. It’s impossible to turn the page and forget.
In many ways Russia’s recent past foreshadows what is happening in the west: industrial collapse, inequality, disinformation, authoritarianism. Are there lessons we could learn?
We are seeing a trend for democratic regimes to become less democratic. Putin was there before Trump, of course, but we also see it in Hungary, Poland – all over the world. Russia went through a huge crisis: loss of identity, loss of territory, loss of its status as a great power. It found itself in that place sooner than other countries. But there is a lot in Russian history that helped Putin and those around him to make the choices they did. We are all going through the same moment in history, but I don’t think the political DNA in Britain and the US will allow that moment to become more than just a moment. It goes too much against the grain of tradition in those countries. In Russia, it’s really a continuation of how it has usually been.
What are you reading at the moment?
Most of what I read relates to my next project. After my book on Chernobyl, I’m interested in all things nuclear, and the climate too. Right now, it’s The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene by Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis.
What did you read growing up?
Like many of my generation, I looked to the west, but we could only read books the authorities allowed to be translated. These were books that pointed out problems with western society, so your “angry young men” really did fit the bill. The Day of the Sardine by Sid Chaplin, about a teenager growing up in northern Britain, and Room at the Top by John Braine made a big impact on me. They were published in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but they only came to the Soviet Union 15 or 20 years later.
What Ukrainian writers would you recommend?
Anything by Andrey Kurkov, especially Death and the Penguin. I always found Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba interesting because I am from the same part of Ukraine. And the Ukrainian poet Lena Kostenko made a tremendous impact. She wrote about pre-Russian empire history. If you don’t like what you see around you, you look to other times and places – and if you go back to a time before there was a proletariat then you can see the world in different terms. I found her poems a way to stay sane.
• Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front by Serhii Plokhy is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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