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Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse Hardcover – November 1, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"Eight Pieces of Empire is a unique, readable, and bracing work of eyewitness history by a brave foreign correspondent who risked his safety and more to document it."
-- The New Republic online

“Lawrence Sheets is a foreign correspondent whose bravery exceeds one’s comprehension....he has produced some of the most gripping war correspondence I have ever read”
The Washington Times

“[U]nforgettable memoir and travelogue of a period and a place most of us would prefer to forget.... give[s] meaning, and perspective, to the rocky transition of the past two decades, and infuses it with drama and despair.... vital and vivid”
The Boston Globe

“His book is an invaluable eyewitness account of the traumas of the Soviet collapse told through the lives of those who were caught up in it and often buried under it. The book is written with a disarming honesty, sympathy and humility.”
--The Economist

“Lawrence Scott Sheets' "8 Pieces of Empire" is a vivid, largely anecdotal account of the chaos and confusion that has followed in the two decades since the fall of the massive communist entity that once obsessed America. It leaves the reader hungry for more.”
—Associated Press

“Sheets’ suite of incidents bespeaks his Russian-fluent immersion among people unmoored by the Soviet collapse, a quality watchers of the Russian scene will appreciate.”

"In an era when the media establishment supports foreign reporting less and less, Lawrence Sheets has lived a life of utter seriousness as a foreign correspondent: concentrating on one broad area--the former Soviet Union--in order to develop subject expertise, and then dedicating himself to indefatigable ground-level coverage of that area. Forget the pundits and the scandalmongers, this is a real journalist."
--Robert D. Kaplan, author of Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power

"Few Westerners understand the post-Soviet soul like Lawrence Sheets. Whether it is his hair-raising stories of the region’s myriad armed conflicts or the black humor with which he captures the moral and physical impoverishment of a collapsing empire, Sheets brilliantly condenses twenty tumultuous years into an eminently readable tale."
--Matthew Brzezinski, author of Red Moon Rising

"To capture the human cost of fallen empire with all its horror and absurdity, Sheets offers the right combination: the political insight of a top reporter and the power of a novelist."
--Martin Cruz Smith, author of Gorky Park and other books

"With Eight Pieces of Empire, Lawrence Scott Sheets brings a journalist’s watchful eye, an essayist’s sense of humor, and a scholar’s mind to the legacy of Soviet empire in all its color and complexity. This book is a great read, and its images linger in the mind long after the cover is closed."
--Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

"This may read like a mad journey through some of the most dangerous places on earth, but it is much more than that as well. Sheets witnessed most of the wars, disasters, and revolutions that followed the end of communism, and his accounts of them--from Chechnya to Chernobyl, and from Abkhazia to Afghanistan--serve as a passionate but considered obituary for the vanished Soviet empire."
--Oliver Bullough, author of Let Our Fame Be Great

"War reporter Lawrence Sheets’s edgy memoir evokes exactly the fatalism, confusion, and centrifugal forces that suddenly broke up the Soviet Union two decades ago. Refreshingly free of faraway theorizing, this book focuses on what people actually saw and experienced in those years."
--Hugh Pope, author of Dining with al-Qaeda

"Dean of the Moscow press corps Lawrence Scott Sheets has been everywhere and seen it all. Funny, engaged, and humane, he is a matchless guide to the tattered remnants of the Soviet empire."
--Anna Reid, author of Borderland and The Shaman’s Coat
"A smoothly written and sensitively drawn personal portrait of the people and places Lawrence Sheets meets during the roiling collapse of the Soviet Union, and the furtive, now two-decade-long struggle of the resulting fifteen states to construct something new. I have the feeling that people will be reading his account for a long time to come."
--Steve LeVine, contributing editor at Foreign Policy and adjunct professor, Security Studies Program, Georgetown University
"Beautifully wrought and executed with admirable clarity, Lawrence Sheets’s gripping, intelligent, and compassionate account of the years following the Soviet empire’s end is a must-read for anyone interested in the human cost of change."
--Vanora Bennett, journalist and author of Portrait of an Unknown Woman and The Taste of Dreams
"During his almost two decades living and reporting in several countries that are former Soviet republics, Lawrence Sheets had a front-row seat to the human casualties and political fallout of the collapse of the Soviet empire. Eight Pieces of Empire vividly captures the lived experiences of people caught on the sweeping waves of politics and history with intimacy and insight."
--Robin Hessman, director/producer of My Perestroika

“Gripping, entertaining and informative. . . .For anyone who wants to know what it was like and in many ways still is like in the former Soviet Union, Sheets’ book provides a crystal clear lens into a dark and unfamiliar world. . . .his narrative is both a personal journal and an essay of humanistic understanding.”
Ambassador Robert Finn

“[Eight Pieces of Empire] combine[s] a thoroughly interesting and moving personal story with an invaluable insight into the situation on the ground during a number of key moments” –taklama.com

About the Author

LAWRENCE SCOTT SHEETS reported for National Public Radio for seven years and was NPR’s Moscow bureau chief from 2001-2005, covering the entire former USSR. He was Caucasus region bureau chief for Reuters from 1992-2000 and a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University from 2000-2001. He also worked for NBC News in Moscow during 1992 and his work has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, and heard on the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and other news outlets. Sheets is currently South Caucasus Project Director of the International Crisis Group, focusing on Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (November 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307395820
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307395825
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #729,594 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Paul E. Richardson VINE VOICE on November 16, 2011
Format: Hardcover
There is a reluctance to pick up yet another book about the end of the USSR, about the consequent civil wars and economic hardships. Why relive those times again so soon? The events hardly seem to have fallen off the edge of the present and into the past. Certainly we don't need another retrospective historical survey.

Yet 8 Pieces is not that sort of book. Sheets offers a far more personal, intimate account. It is also not a rehashing of stories he did as a Reuters or NPR reporter. Instead, it is a journey behind the façade of his work output, to meet the people and places where he lived and traveled for a decade and a half, gathering the stories of imperial fallout.

Sheets' sympathetic and often tragic account begins with some fun, self-deprecating episodes as a young student of Russian coping in a Petersburg kommunalka, but soon we are witnessing the USSR's swift and nearly silent end, like steam whooshing out an opened door. And then we accompany Sheets to cover the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, the ethnic strife in Central Asia, in which he provides a profoundly revealing picture of what it takes - in blood and sweat - to deliver those 90 second bits of reportage we hear on the evening news.

Sheets takes readers on a journey filled with colorful characters, from budding young criminals to fearless photographers, with stories that range from vivid, nerve-wracking stories of war reporting, to more sedate, cerebral stories on things like the Romanov bones and the Ulta people on Sakhalin. The ride is not always pleasant, and the stories are often not those you would want to read before bedtime, but on the whole this is a profoundly important memoir and one that needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand what the end of the USSR really meant for those living there.

As reviewed in Russian Life magazine.
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Format: Hardcover
When I declared my undergraduate major, one of the required courses I would have to take senior year was "Soviet Foreign Policy." However, by the time senior year rolled around, there was no more Soviet Union, and the course had been haphazardly reconstructed as a seminar given by two visiting professors from Moscow on the Commonwealth of Independent States. In this book, a journalist who covered Russia and the former Soviet republics in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR provides a fragmentary glimpse into the collapse of the old and the birthing pains of the new. I say fragmentary because Sheets only writes about places and events he personally covered, and thankfully avoids attempting to patch together any master thesis out of his experience. Instead, what he provides are brief glimpses into corners of the fragmented remains of an empire and some of the many fragmented lives that resulted from that collapse.

His stories unfold chronologically, starting in Part 1 with his time as a language student in the late '80s (his fluent Russian is what led to his success as a journalist in the region), and the most vivid episode from this time is his friendship with one of the mafiya types that were just starting to bloom. From there, he moves on to discuss the calamitous war in Georgia and Abkhazia, then to the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, then Chechnya. These three parts on the Caucuses are a depressing litany of lost causes and warlords, chaos and civilian casualties. All of which have been covered in much greater detail in many other books, but Sheets' anecdotes and interludes provide a true "you are there" sense of the futility of it all, as well as a sense of the actual people on the ground.
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The book begins with the story of Georgia, which is why I was drawn to it, but takes the reader through each step and stage of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The writer relays his personal experiences as a war correspondent and by allowing us to get to know personally the people he attempts to report on, we vicariously bond with them as well. This book turned out to be much more than I thought it would be, and I have a much deeper respect and awareness of the place I am currently living in, Tbilisi.
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Format: Paperback
Lawrence writes of his first visit to the Soviet Union where he was learning the Russian language. This developed into a longer period of time where he reported for Reuters and NPR. He visits many of the countries of the former Soviet Union. Most people think that the Soviet Union died a peaceful death with minimal casualties, but actually the death and destruction caused by the end of empire resulted in many conflicts such as the Georgian civil wars, and the breakaway provinces of Abkaza and Ossetia. These conflicts resulted in death and destruction, and this is what is detailed in the book.

As Russia and the other former nations of the USSR settle down and develop their own countries, there will be continued conflict. Empires die hard deaths, and an Empire based on ideology will have a more difficult death.
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Format: Paperback
We heard about the USSR every scary day of my young life and then, suddenly, it was gone. Out of the news. Poof. Threat vanished and nobody in America is interested any more in that part of the world.

Or so the Powers That Be seemed to think. Not Lawrence Scott Sheets. He was out there, dodging bullets in the local wars that flared up all over the former USSR after its demise, and visiting with the locals, and just looking around at the new world that was emerging out of the chaos.

This book is a fabulous look at that new world. One more case of I Wouldn't Want to Go There Myself, so thank you, Mr. Sheets, for sharing all these stories.
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