Twenty-Five Years After the Failed Soviet Coup

Roundup
tags: Russia, Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin



Masha Lipman is editor-in-chief of Counterpoint, a Moscow-based journal published by George Washington University.

In August, 1991, a small group of hard-liners in the Soviet government staged a coup aimed at halting the popular anti-Communist, pro-freedom tide stirred by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. On their orders, tanks surrounded the “White House,” the seat of the government of Russia (then a constituent part of the Soviet Union), which was led by Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected President. Tens of thousands of Muscovites rushed to the White House, to rally around Yeltsin and defend Russian freedom against the Communist putsch. Three days later, the putschists suffered a spectacular defeat.

It was a unique moment in Russian history, when people, on their own initiative, organized to take political action, guided by a strong conviction of what was right for their country. Andrey Desnitsky, a Russian scholar and columnist who was in his early twenties at the time, remembered those events in a piece published this week on the news Web site Gazeta.ru:

At night we heard faraway shooting, and we thought, here it is—they are beginning to storm. The square in front of the White House was packed with people. It was clear that if tanks and submachine gunners advanced, there’d be no place to hide or run away. I was scared, shaking, but . . . I think for the first time in my life I felt to be free and a citizen of my country making its history together with other citizens. And no price seemed too high to pay for this feeling.


The space in front of the White House where Desnitsky and others stood was promptly named the Square of Free Russia. The “defenders of the White House” and their sympathizers joyfully celebrated their victory, but their euphoric mood, along with the sense of moral clarity and righteousness, proved to be short-lived. Just a few years after the failed coup, less than ten per cent of Russians chose to see those events as a democratic revolution that put an end to Communist Party rule. That perception has not changed. According to a Levada Center poll, taken in August of this year, only eight per cent share this view. Thirty-five per cent say that it was just another episode in the struggle for power among the top leadership, while thirty per cent think that it was a tragedy that had deleterious effects on the state and the people. Today almost half of Russians say that they don’t know or don’t remember what happened in August of 1991. The Square of Free Russia is now a square only in name: the public is barred from the space around the White House, now the seat of the Russian Cabinet, by a tall iron fence.

The failed coup accelerated the secessionist movements in other constituent republics, first and foremost in the Baltics, but also in Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova. In a referendum in December, 1991, the people of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Under the leadership of Yeltsin, who had just smashed the seventy-year-old Communist regime, the new Russia faced the task of building a democratic system, a market economy, and a Russian statehood to replace the Soviet one. The collapse of the Soviet Union may not have been regarded as a tragic event at the time, but, for Russians, seeing the country’s territory shrink and its might diminish was hardly a reason for rejoicing. The fact that the U.S.S.R. fell apart was unexpected and confusing. Those who rose to defend freedom in August, 1991, wanted to get rid of the Communist regime, not to destroy the Soviet Union. To people in Eastern European countries and many in the Baltic states, the Soviet Union may have been a foreign occupier and its collapse a liberation, but to Russians it was still their country, and the sense of liberation was missing. “Free from whom?” was a question that had no answer. ...




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