Alexander Golts: The Military's Role in Defeating the Coup

Roundup: Talking About History

Alexander Golts is deputy editor of the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal.

There is an old saying about the Soviet army: After every victory, the slackers are rewarded and the heroes are punished. This expression came to mind in connection with the 20th anniversary of the 1991 coup attempt. Analysts on television and the radio talk about the standard heroes: the Muscovites who set up blockades and threw themselves at the tanks and Boris Yeltsin, then-president of the Soviet Russian Republic, who led the movement against the coup plotters. For hard-line Communists, even the conspirators are heroes to this day because they selflessly tried to save the Soviet empire from collapse, we are told.

But there has been little praise for the Soviet officers who defied the coup plotters’ orders to shoot into crowds of civilians. Of course, their refusal was not necessarily based on moral principles. After all, there are plenty of instances when Soviet officers compliantly fulfilled their superiors’ orders to fire on civilians. Take, for example, the shooting of peaceful demonstrators in Novocherkassk in 1962, or when the Kremlin used the army to suppress nationalist movements in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Baltic states from 1988 to 1990.

But the killing of civilians in the Caucasus and the Baltic states in the final years of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the relationship between the armed forces and the Communist leadership. For the first time, the Communist Party general secretary and the defense minister were afraid to admit that the army was acting on their orders. What’s more, the Communist leadership lost its most important ally when it tried to shift the blame for the civilian deaths onto the military.

The violence in Tbilisi in 1989 is a case in point…

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