As Putin declares no one can create problems which Russia cannot overcome historian Gordon Lucy recalls the fall of the Soviet Union 25 years ago this month:
While Mikhail Gorbachev is feted in the West as a great man who changed the course of history, to a great many Russians he remains the traitor who brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago.
Vladimir Putin described it as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, attributing the loss of Russia’s status as a global superpower to Gorbachev’s ill-judged policies of ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring).
However in the West it is perhaps insufficiently appreciated that to the very end Gorbachev remained a firm believer in the Communist Party and the territorial unity of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev, who became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 1985, was a convinced communist who wanted to humanise and revitalise the Soviet system, not to jettison it. He set out his analysis of the shortcomings of the Soviet system in his book entitled Perestroika (1989).
He believed further expansion of the Soviet Union’s military arsenal would not guarantee greater security.
The technology gap between the Soviet Union and the West was growing ever wider while the CPSU was corrupt and dispirited.
Soviet society was apathetic because young and old alike no longer had any faith in communism.
A political tactician of great skill, Gorbachev was conspicuously more successful in defusing the Cold War than managing internal reform. Although he supplemented the central CPSU organs with a new congress of hand-picked People’s Deputies, he could not bring himself to grant free elections.
He toyed with marketisation but could not bring himself to de-collectivise agriculture, de-subsidise prices or legalise private property.
The Soviet planned economy began to collapse without a market economy to take its place. With respect to Soviet Union’s non-Russian nationalities, he invited them to state their demands but declined to grant them.
While Westerners admired Gorbachev’s half-baked reforms, many of his own people most emphatically did not. To many ordinary Russians reform meant that they were not allowed to drink and the loss of ‘back-of-the-shop’ arrangements whereby, for a few roubles, it was possible to obtain some of life’s little luxuries. Perestroika did not deliver ‘sausage’ and the introduction of glasnost ensured that grievances were widely aired.
Many members of the ‘nomenklatura’ (the political elite and higher officials of the USSR) and the ‘apparatchiki’ (the professional functionaries of the CPSU and state apparatus) believed that Gorbachev did not grasp that dictatorship, coercion and indoctrination were the essential features of the Soviet system which enabled it to function.
By 1991 through lack of progress in reforming the economy, the Soviet Union was in dire economic shape.
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia declared their independence from the USSR in March 1990. Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan soon followed.
To meet the new situation the Kremlin proposed replacing the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with a looser union. On August 20 1991 Gorbachev was scheduled to sign a new treaty.
On August 19 leading members of ‘nomenklatura’, including Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (the Vice-President), Valentin Sergeyevich Pavlov (the Prime Minister), Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov (chairman of the KGB), Dmitry Timofeyevich Yazov (the Minister of Defence), and Boris Karlovich Pugo (the Minister of the Interior), announced the formation of a ‘State of Emergency Committee’.
The conspirators may or may not have intended to remove Gorbachev from power but they certainly intended to prevent him signing the Union Treaty.
These men were not hardliners in any conventional sense. They had been promoted and advanced by Gorbachev and actually believed perestroika after a fashion. They had timed their move to coincide with the final day of Gorbachev’s holiday in the Crimea and some of them may even have imagined that Gorbachev privately shared their views and would not be the focus of opposition.
A delegation from the committee visited Gorbachev at his Crimean dacha and formed him that a state of emergency was necessary to save the country from disaster. They gave him an ultimatum: either sign the state of emergency and stay on as President or hand over his powers to Gennady Yanayev. Gorbachev refused to sign anything.
The State of Emergency Committee deployed tanks and troops on the streets of Moscow to enforce their authority and moved to take over the parliament (Congress of People’s Deputies).
However, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the recently elected President of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, the largest constituent part of the USSR, almost universally regarded today as a drunk and a buffoon but a genuine believer in reform and multi-party democracy, seized the initiative.
Yeltsin strode out of the parliament building which was surrounded by tanks. He clambered on to the nearest one, smiled at and shook hands with the tank’s crew, and in an impromptu speech, delivered from the tank’s gun turret, urged the Russian people to unite against the coup.
Uncharacteristically, the normally passive and fatalistic Russian people responded to Yeltsin’s call in their thousands. Perhaps as many as 50,000 people assembled outside and around the Russian Parliament building. The army declined to attack them and the coup failed.
Most of the members of the emergency committee were rounded up and thrown in jail. Pugo, the Minister of the Interior, shot his wife and then shot himself. Marshal Sergey Fyodorovich Akhromeyev, who had supported the coup but played no part in it, hanged himself in his office.
Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22. He continued to speak about the future of the CPSU and perestroika, not realising that power had drained away from him.
Yeltsin was now in the driving seat, a point dramatically underscored when Yeltsin forced Gorbachev to read out the names of the conspirators, all his protégés, to the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Arguing that the CPSU simply could not be trusted, Yeltsin proscribed the party, declared that henceforth August 22 would become a public holiday and the old Soviet flag with its communist hammer and sickle would be replaced with the white, blue and red horizontal bars of the old Imperial flag.
The Congress of People’s Deputies established a State Council, consisting of Yeltsin, Gorbachev and others, which recognized the independence of the Baltic States and began to dismantle the Soviet Union. On December 21 1991, the USSR was broken up into 12 independent republics, eleven of which agreed to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Gorbachev resigned on December 25 and the Soviet Parliament ceased to exist the following day.
By their coup, the conspirators had precipitated the very outcome they had incompetently sought to avert.