Moscow, August 1991: a world-changing failure

25 years ago, an attempted takeover by communist hardliners led to the Soviet Union's collapse. The reverberations still continue.

Vicken Cheterian
23 August 2016
Moscow, 1991. Flickr/Ron Knight. Some rights reserved.

Moscow, 1991. Flickr/Ron Knight. Some rights reserved.The death of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a reality, despite rumours that it didn't happen at all. But it was a strange death, reflecting the strange life of the beast itself. A state that had survived the onslaught of Nazi armies and avoided overthrow by popular revolution ended as a result of the failure of the “State Committee for the State of Emergency” (GKChP in its Russian acronym), better known as "the failed coup in Moscow in August 1991".  A quarter of a century later, the aftershocks are still being felt, and by all of us. 

It was a pathetic end for the former superpower. The coup was orchestrated by its top officials, the entire cast in power with one exception: the USSR's first (and last) president, Mikhail Gorbachev, who was taking his summer vacation in Crimea. The “gang of eight” included Gennady Yanayev, the Soviet Union's vice-president; Valentin Pavlov, its prime minister; Dmitri Yazov, defence minister; Boris Pugo, interior minister; Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB.

In the early morning of 19 August 1991, as a declaration of the new order was being announced on television – and as Gorbachev was being detained in his southern dacha – tanks and elite paratroopers started rolling into the centre of Moscow. But they were soon blocked by thousands of citizens who had poured onto the streets. The plotters also failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, who put himself at the head of the public resistance to the coup.

Yeltsin had emerged as Gorbachev's main rival and critic of his idea that the Soviet Union could be successfully reformed. Almost as soon as it started, the coup was in trouble. The putschists didn't even have the stomach to order troops to open fire on the civilian protesters, though three of the latter were killed by army vehicles they were trying to block. Almost unbelievably by today's standards – when hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed, without any regime change in Damascus – they were the only victims of the putsch. On 21 August, the plotters gave up. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, only to find that the balance of power had moved decisively against him, and the Soviet Union, and towards Yeltsin. 

The “gang of eight” had aimed to save the Soviet Union from disintegration; they only hastened its fate. It was not nationalist mobilisation at the Soviet periphery – the Caucasus or the Baltics, say – that killed the USSR, but the power-struggle at the top of the Soviet elite, between Gorbachev, by then on the conservative wing of the nomenklatura, and Yeltsin, advocate of a reformism bolder than Gorbachev's top-down perestroika.

Even after 25 years, the collapse of the Soviet state is astonishing. Why didn’t the various armed forces – the Red Army, the OMON troops, the KGB – defend their state? Political science has yet to produce an answer to this conundrum. But there is an even larger enigma. What happened to the working class, the revolutionary proletariat of communist doctrine, that failed to defend 'its' state, or at least the privileges it enjoyed in the self-declared “dictatorship of the proletariat”?

A triple fall

The collapse of the Soviet Union combined three historic events. First, it was the geopolitical collapse of an empire, the retreat of Moscow’s influence from the Warsaw Pact satellite states occupied in 1944-45 (and indeed from regions that had been part of the pre-1917 Tsarist empire). This created a power-vacuum that was filled by various local nationalist actors and by international interventions. Thus if the USSR collapsed, it did so on the heads of many borderland peoples (especially in the Caucasus), leading to a series of violent conflicts which in some cases are still ongoing or at least 'frozen'.

Second, the Soviet model of a 'planned economy' also disintegrated. The result was mass privatisation of Soviet property over a short period, in the name of building a market economy and parliamentary democracy. This led to social polarisation of a kind previously unseen: between a small number of 'oligarchs' able to use their political contacts to take over the economy, and the general population now stripped of their savings, jobs, and social security. It was this mass process under Yeltsin, supported and encouraged by western politicians and consultants, which produced the new social order in Russia, Ukraine and beyond. Post-Soviet 'transition' promised that the new independent states, by becoming capitalist, parliamentary democracies, would join the west. Instead, it's clear today that they have joined the ranks of what was once called the "third world".

Mass privatisation created capitalism and market relations at the cost of killing democracy. Soviet property was sold off for kopeks. My favourite example is the ZIL (Zavod Imini Likhachova) vehicle-making plant that once employed 100,000 workers on large real-estate property in the centre of Moscow, which was sold for a mere $16 million. As factories were being robbed like this workers were laid off – or worse, kept on working without being paid for months and even years. How can democracy be created while those who are supposed to become citizens and be empowered by political rights (to vote and choose political representatives) have their material security and social position destabilised? This contradiction continued in the 1990s until Vladimir Putin's regime brought stability to the new social order by ending this contradiction: capitalism without democracy!

Third, the Soviet Union's fall was an ideological one. Since the nineteenth century the idea of progress through revolutionary change had been the dominant paradigm in Europe. Marxism gave this a class dimension by suggesting that workers represented a coherent social class carrying the potential of revolutionary transformation and the establishment of a new type of society in which social exploitation and class differentiation would disappear – and with it the need of a 'state' as the repressive instrument of class domination.

The leftist paradigm was dominant among western as well as 'third worldist' intelligentsias all through the twentieth century and until 1968. Thus it survived not just the original Leninist promise but the horrific experiences of Stalinism. Instead of leading to a classless society, the forces upholding this ideology took over the state apparatus and reinforced its coercive power against society. The collapse of the Soviet Union was also the fall of this world-vision, which largely went unnoticed among leftist intellectuals. They failed to produce a coherent analysis which read (or reread) twentieth-century history from the perspective of the Soviet collapse. They did not answer the question: why did the Soviet working class, a potentially revolutionary class according to the doctrine, not put up a class defence against its destruction?

This absence conceded the field to neoliberal interpretations of the Soviet collapse and its consequences. It also shaped the new political map in the west itself, as the former left abandoned the idea of revolution and class struggle and instead adopted the defence of the public sector and its social achievements. In other words, the left moved away from revolution and the dismantling of state bureaucracy towards social democracy – and later, in turn, towards positions which were often difficult to distinguish from liberal or conservative ones.

The surrender of the old left did not stop history from continuing its course. Revolutions continued to erupt and to surprise. As Leninism stopped inspiring generations of youth seeking justification for armed struggle, a newcomer known as “salafi-jihadism” replaced it. In the east a new wave of “colour revolutions” rose against the post-Soviet order. This time it was led by neoliberal ideologies, which again promised to dismantle the state and its bureaucracy while capturing and strengthening it.

Then came the Arab spring, with its calls for “hurriya” (freedom), which turned into nightmares in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. The revolutions and counter-revolutions there failed to produce a class analysis as a possible reading of the Syrian or Egyptian events. The anti-war movement in the west did not even feel concerned, largely looking at the Arab Spring from the angle of anti-imperialist struggle. A coherent, humanist and critical, anti-system framework of thought has still to replace the old leftist revolution paradigm. But could that happen without a thorough criticism of the Soviet experience?

The collapse of the Soviet Union did happen, and it bequeathed many orphans.

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