If we can accept the results from a recent survey on what contemporary Russians know about the Putsch of August 1991, there are good reasons to be depressed. Moscow News reports that 8 percent of those surveyed did not know anything about the coup, 27 percent said that they had heard something, while 64 percent remember and know something about these events. For 11 percent in the survey it was described as a “seizure of power,” 10 percent said it was “the collapse of the Soviet Union,” and 5 percent called it a “re-division of power” (Moskovskiy Novosti, August 8). Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared in April 2005, when he was President of Russia, that the events of the summer and fall of 1991 leading to the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” (Associated Press, April 25, 2005).
Recently Gavril Popov, the first Mayor of Moscow and a leading democratic reformer, addressed the meaning of the failed Communist Putsch and declared that the August coup was “one of the greatest events of the end of the twentieth century.” In terms of consequences that statement is surely correct for the failure of the putsch marked the de facto end of the Soviet Union which followed at the end of the year. Popov went on to question the commonly accepted narrative of the putsch as a response to the threat of a new union treaty as a unifying myth that conceals a more complex political process: “The country was pregnant with crises” (Moskovskiy Komsomolets, 12 August 2011).
The complexity of this situation had emerged over the course of two years and was connected with President Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempt via perestroika and glasnost to reform the Soviet system from its authoritarian mobilization regime into some version of socialism with a human face. The crisis did not begin in the Soviet Union but in Eastern Europe, where the international and domestic ramifications of the Velvet Revolutions transformed the continent. Gorbachev had gambled on using the party to reform the Soviet system because the two other major levers, the KGB and the military had too much to lose from reform. Instead, he had fractured the party, removed its political monopoly, and set off a struggle for power that brought national self-determination into politics, as Boris Yeltsin, a communist insider, transformed himself into the spokesman for a democratic, nationalist Russia, which was willing to accept self-determination among the other Union Republics.
By December 1990 it was very clear that perestroika was in trouble politically and economically. Eduard Shevardnadze, who had pushed Gorbachev for more liberal reforms in the face of rising pressure from hardliners, resigned as Foreign Minister, but took the opportunity to warn the Supreme Soviet of a wave of reaction: “Reformers have gone and hidden in the bushes. Dictatorship is coming.” On December 11, the Chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kriuchkov made a “call for order” on Soviet television. Stalin’s heirs had been fearful of the power of the secret police and had created the KGB as an agency penetrated by and under the control of the Communist Party. But by late 1990 the party itself was in disarray, and Kriuchkov could begin to plan for the restoration of order by co-opting Gorbachev or overseeing his removal. The military and the KGB attempted to “restore order” in Vilnius and Riga in January 1991, but Gorbachev refused to sanction extreme measures, and Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia’s Supreme Soviet, openly embraced peaceful self-determination. The demands for self-determination among and within other republics had already mounted. There were ethnic tensions across the Trans-Caucasus with riots and pogroms in Azerbaijan and Armenia and nationalist demonstrations in Tbilisi, where national minorities saw opportunities to present their claims for independence against each other and the Soviet Union. By the summer the situation was coming to a head.
The election of Boris Yeltsin as President of the Russian Federation by popular vote on June 12, 1991 with 57 percent of the vote gave him a democratic mandate to join intense political maneuvering over the reform of the Union Treaty, which was supposed to radically reshape the Soviet Union and create some mechanism for union republics to redefine their membership or opt to leave, which clearly seemed to be the intent of the Baltic Republics. Mikhail Gorbachev, the appointed President of the Soviet Union, was under extreme pressure from conservative forces in the Party, the state, the KGB, and the military to leave office. His candidate for the Presidency of Russia, Nikolai Ryzhkov, running on the CPSU ticket had lost badly to Yeltsin. On June 17, 1991, Vladimir Kriuchkov, the head of the KGB, spoke to a secret session of the Supreme Soviet laying out the case for Gorbachev’s removal. He demanded extraordinary measures to meet, what he described as a deepening crisis. But the conspirator’s attempt failed (Novaya Gazeta, August 12, 2011).
Popov’s interpretation of the events leading up to the August Putsch and its failure brought to my mind the views expressed by Colonel-General Dmitry Volkogonov in late June 1991 in Binge, Belgium, during the first visit of a Russian delegation to NATO. I had arrived in Belgium following a conference on the fiftieth anniversary of the Great Patriotic War held at Lake Como, Italy. I was there at the invitation of Christopher Donnelly, Special Assistant to the Secretary-General of NATO, to take part in the NATO-Russian discussions. I had met General Volkogonov in Helsinki in 1988 when he was head of the Institute of Military History and he was about to publish his Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy. Thereafter, we met several times and discussed both Russian history and the contemporary situation in the USSR. By June 1991, Volkogonov had been removed from the Institute of Military History by Marshal Dmitry Yazov because of the anti-Stalinist content of the proposed History of the War of the Soviet People. Volkogonov was now an ally of Boris Yeltsin and had traveled as a member of the Russian delegation that came to NATO that June. However, he was not in good health and was going to have surgery for cancer later that summer. At the request of Sergei Stepashin, the head of the Russian delegation, I agreed to accompany General Volkogonov and see that he was not over stressed. Over the next several days we had conversations on historical topics, on NATO, and finally on the situation within the Soviet Union. General Volkogonov prided himself on his gift for prognostication, and in past exchanges I had asked him about where he saw events going in the Soviet Union. This time he spoke of the impact of Yeltsin’s recent popular election as President of the Russian Federation and its impact on his political legitimacy; the curious rise of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, who had finished third behind Yeltsin and Ryzhkov; the efforts of hard liners to force Gorbachev’s removal through a no confidence vote in the Union Supreme Soviet failed; and the question of a new Union Treaty, which was due to be resolved in mid-August, would undermine the hard liners’ positions of power in the Union state apparatus. Volkogonov said that the hard liners could not tolerate the rewrite of the Union Treaty to reflect a real decentralization of power. What Gorbachev would do, was still unclear. And therefore there was no possibility of foreseeing the political future beyond mid-August.
Events thereafter played out as Volkogonov had foreseen. The core issue involved the efforts of the hardliners to ensure the survival of the power institutions of the Soviet state. In July the journalistic voice of the hardliners, Den, under the editorship of Aleksandr Prokhanov, published “Slovo k narodu,” which expressed the hard liners’ demands for a restoration of order before the fatherland was destroyed. Using a combination of Soviet clichés and Church Slavonic, the authors, who included artists, writers, soldiers, and political figures, invoked the will of all to resist the collapse and destruction. “The Soviet Union is our home and bulwark, created by the great efforts of all peoples and nations, save us from shame and slavery in the times of dark invasions! Russia is the one and only beloved! It beseeches our help” (Den, July 1991). On July 29, President Gorbachev, President Yeltsin and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan were heard by KGB phone taps discussing the possible removal of hardliners from the power institutions of the Soviet state.
By early August, everyone was feeling boxed in. Facing this risk, the hard liner conspirators who had been organized around the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kriuchkov, decided to act. When Gorbachev left Moscow for the south without resolving the issue of the new Union Treaty, they set out to get his voluntary resignation and to impose their restored order in the name of the State Committee for Emergency Situations (GKChP). The conservative conspirators, counting on controlling the traditional levels of power within the Soviet system, i.e., the Party, the KGB, and the Soviet Army, expected to be able to carry out their putsch without any large-scale use of force. The conspirators included the Chairman of the KGB, Minister of Defense, Minister of Internal Affairs, the Prime Minister, the Vice President, Deputy Chief of the Defense Council, the head of Gorbachev’s secretariat, the Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, and the Deputy Minister of Defense. They struck on August 18, and immediately things began to go wrong. The delegation sent south to convince Gorbachev to resign failed to secure his agreement. In the absence of his public agreement to resign, the hardliner conspirators decided to go ahead with a seizure of power on the claim that Gorbachev was ill and there was disorder in various, unspecified parts of the Soviet Union. Gennady Yanaev signed the decree naming himself as acting USSR president on the pretext of Gorbachev’s inability to perform presidential duties due to “illness.”
To deal with this self-proclaimed crisis the conspirators announced the formation of the GKChP at 7:00 am on August 19. The putschists failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, who made it to his office in the White House by 9:00 am, where his supporters had rallied. Yeltsin and his supporters denounced the coup as a reactionary attempt to seize power and asked the military not to support the putsch. Very quickly the White House was surrounded by a crowd of supporters of Russian democracy. A tank unit deployed at the White House announced its loyalty to Yeltsin and the Russian government and Boris Yeltsin came out to climb upon it.
On August 20, Yanaev ordered the Putschists’ appointed commander of the Moscow garrison to declare a curfew for the city from 11:00 pm to 5:00 am, which was taken as a sign that an assault on the White House would be mounted. Operation “Grom” (thunder) was supposed to storm the White House at 2:00 am using Special Forces from the Alfa Group of the KGB and the Vympel Group from the Internal Forces along with armor and motorized infantry units and airborne forces under the command of Major-General Aleksandr Lebed. The White House defenders led by Army-General Konstantin Kobets set about trying to prepare a defense. Lebed seems to have been following the orders of the Chief of Airborne Force, Lieutenant-General Pavel Grachev, who while involved in the planning of the putsch also kept lines of communication open to Boris Yeltsin. But it was becoming very clear that the troops, which the putschists were now depending upon to impose order were not necessarily going to obey their orders. At 1:00 am there was a confrontation between demonstrators and troops in an underpass near the White House and three protestors were killed. Alpha and Vympel Groups did not attack at 2:00 am, and General Yazov, the Defense Minister ordered the troops to pull out of Moscow, which began at 8:00 am on August 21. A putschist delegation, led by Kriuchkov and Yazov flew to the Crimea to negotiate with Gorbachev, but he refused to meet with them and when his communications with the outside world were restored he declared all the actions of the GKChP to have been illegal.
Yeltsin emerged as the immediate winner because he was on the ground in Moscow when the putsch collapsed. Gorbachev was left as the leader of a state, which was collapsing as its republics declared their independence. The power centers of the Soviet state effectively collapsed because their leaders had been compromised as incompetent adventurists. Yeltsin, when he came to sovereign power in Russia, set out to break up the KGB into parts, distrusted the military and put it in the hands of his “loyal general” Pavel Grachev, who oversaw its decline. The Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs were considered useful to maintain order inside Russia and became favorites of President Yeltsin when they played a positive role in putting down the parliamentary opposition to Yeltsin in November 1993.
Twenty years is not a long time to gain historical perspective on great events. Serious study of the French Revolution did not begin until almost fifty years after the event. And all early historians regardless of their perspectives agreed that the revolution for good or ill defined modern France. The exception was Alexei de Tocqueville, who wrote about the revolution in 1857. Several of his observations about the ancien regime and the French Revolution are relevant to us: “The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.”
I was one caught up in the events of 1991 and they left a deep impression upon me. But as an historian I am also aware of the need to step back from the events and take a longer view. Twenty years on, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which began its fatal spiral after the failure of the coup, invites comparison with the collapse of the Tsarist regime in 1917 and the revolutionary process that brought the Bolsheviks to power. For me as an historian, there is wisdom in the observations of Alexei de Tocqueville about the French Revolution, which began precisely as the ancien regime was in the process of reform and when it was over the republic of liberte, equalite et fraternite gave rise to a powerful centralized state. In Russia, much was also swept away. The Communist Party lost its monopoly on power, Marxism-Leninism as an ideology collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, the Soviet Union itself disappeared, and the planned economy collapsed. Yet, twenty years on, Russia is once again a centralized state under what has been called managed democracy. The KGB was, indeed, broken up, but under leaders from within its ranks there has emerged what Nikolai Patrushev, the former head of the Federal Security Service, calls its officers “a new nobility,” who selflessly serve to protect the state itself. Their precursors, however, are not just the chekisty of Felix Dzerzhinsky but also the sky-blue gendarmes of Count Aleksandr von Benkendorff’s Third Section (Moskovskiy Novosti, September 3, 2004).