1991 PART I: The Last Days
1991 started with Mikhail Gorbachev in retreat from reformist politics and a clampdown of separatist movements in the Baltic States. It was inevitable that the battle between liberals and conservatives would eventually lead to a head-on collision; indeed it was remarkable that such an all-out confrontation had not happened earlier. Gorbachev zigzagged as usual to retain control but his trademark ability to charm and talk almost anybody into anything just didn’t rub anymore. He had by now lost most of his popular support because he’d changed course so often—to keep the hardliners with him and not against him was how he explained it later. Things spun out of his control. Yeltsin ascended rapidly. The pace of events speeded up like the final moments of Ravel’s Bolero. The culmination was a coup. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. In this issue, we cover events leading up to the attempted coup of August 1991.
At the start of 1991, Soviet President Michael Gorbachev sensed a real threat to his position from within the ranks of the Communist elite. A 600-strong parliamentary group called Soyuz , formed in 1990, had become highly vocal in labelling the break-up of the USSR as treason and called for power to be handed from Gorbachev to the Supreme Soviet. Members of Soyuz harked back to the glory days when the Soviet Union was respected and feared, pointing out the country’s technological achievements as well as its enormous sacrifices in defeating the Nazis. For Gorbachev, the Soyuz movement was the greatest threat to his personal power since the Nina Andreeva letter in 1988. The pressure on Gorbachev was intense. Not only were reactionary forces at work in the Congress of People’s Deputies but the upper hierarchy of the Orthodox Church also let it be known that it favoured the preservation of the territory of the Soviet Union. Alexander Nevzorov, with his ultra-popular "60 srconds" TV news show, had been known as a reformer intil he suddenly endorsed not only repression of separatists but also of most of Souyuz and the August coup were the conservatives` last stand.
On the 13th January 1991, later dubbed "Bloody Sunday", Soviet special forces in Lithuania stormed the Vilnius television tower. Moscow’s aim was to replace lawfully elected parliaments not just in Lithuania but also in Latvia and Estonia with “Committees of National Salvation”. Fourteen people lost their lives. Despite all that had happened during perestroika to liberalise the Soviet media, television, TASS and Pravda all reported that a transfer of power had already taken place. A similar operation took place in Latvia a week later. Yeltsin and other democrats lambasted Gorbachev. Yeltsin and the Baltic leaders understood only too well that their fates were linked.
The international community largely condemned military intervention and Gorbachev was clearly informed that aid programmes and loans from the EU and the US would be put on hold if the crackdowns continued. The Soviet economy was still in free fall. During the first six months of 1991, Soviet GNP fell by 10 per cent, gross industrial output by 6.2 per cent and labour productivity by 11 per cent. Inflation was rising at 2 to 3 per cent a week (John Keep, Last of Empires). Realising that victory in the Baltics implied widespread violence, Gorbachev characteristically changed his mind and stopped the operation. He claimed he hadn’t been told of the decision to use force and shifted the blame to officials at the local level. He later said he had not been told all the details of the killings. The crackdown not only failed to weaken Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis but it consolidated support for the separatist National Salvation Committees in Lithuania and Latvia.
On the 17th of March, Gorbachev organised a referendum and asked the population: “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed Federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of the individual of any nationality will be guaranteed?” Reform-minded Soviet citizens voted yes, as well as those with more conservative views. At least 70% of the population throughout the USSR voted in the affirmative.
In March 200,000 Muscovites took to the streets to support Yeltsin. But in general, things looked pretty bad for the reformists. According to John Keep, Yeltsin owed his political survival to a split in the Russian Communist Party. A pro-Yeltsin reformist faction, known as Communists for Democracy and led by Alexander Rutskoi, broke away from the Russian Communist Party. Another huge pro-Yeltsin demonstration of a quarter of a million people was held in Moscow on March the 28th, after an abortive vote of no-confidence in Yeltsin. Although there seemed to be demonstrations every week, at that time, the reformist movement could have bumped along to an end if the conservatives had kept up their fight. And that was when Mikhail Gorbachev made yet another U-turn and decided he was a reformer after all. Few believed him.
Gorbachev must have realised that he couldn’t maintain a strong Soviet central administration with Yeltsin and other republican leaders hurtling for independence. Without central control, there would be no socialism, not even the social democracy which Gorbachev at that time was advocating. Armed with the results of the referendum, on the 23rd of March he summoned the leaders of nine republics (the Baltics were not interested) to a government dacha in Novo-Ogareva near Moscow and started to negotiate for a new Union. It was to be called the Union of Sovereign States. Substantial economic and political powers were to be granted to the republics but ultimate power was to be retained at the centre. At least that was the idea. There were four versions of the draft treaty, each giving away various amounts of power. The final version was published on the 14th of August and set to be signed on the 20th of the same month. Some kind of Union would have been preserved if this document had been signed. Then there was an attempted coup that changed everything.
During the spring and early summer, Yeltsin travelled around Russia, urging Russian autonomous republics to “take whatever helping of power that you can gobble up and digest” (‘Soyuz mozhno bylo sokhranit’, 1994). On June 12th, he was elected President of the Soviet Republic of Russia (RSFSR) with 71% of the vote and his running-mate, army colonel Alexander Rutskoi, became vice-president. Rutskoi later turned out to be an albatross around Yeltsin’s neck, as his policies were far more statist than Yeltsin’s. Yeltsin lacked Gorbachev’s subtlety in the art of keeping the wettest logs closest to the fire. But at that time Rutskoi served as a bridge between Communist centrists, who wished to preserve the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union, and Yeltsin.
The new President had campaigned successfully for the workers’ vote, the same support that brought the Bolsheviks to power. The circle was almost complete. Those who had ushered in the Bolsheviks now opened the door to a reformist, capitalist President. Planned economics and Gosplan (the vast government central planning organisation) weren’t working. Cars, for example, were being sold at cheap subsidised prices but parts were often missing; missing because they had been ripped off by workers before the vehicles even left the factory. The planned economy had actually failed some time ago. The official world was rife with vzyatki (bribery) and blat i svyazi (connections) and there was little accountability. Not everybody understood the long-term implications of swinging away from Communism, which was, as Marx had it, supposed to have developed as the next stage after Capitalism. But Capitalism in the Western sense had never really taken root in Russia. Later, there would be the violence and corruption of new Russian capitalism without rules and handwringing over personal responsibility, the other side of the coin of freedom. But in 1991, nobody cared about all that philosophical stuff.
Radical politicians such as Gavril Popov and Anatoly Sobchak joined the Yeltsin bandwagon and he was clever enough to reach out to Orthodox believers as well. After all, he wasn’t an atheist like Gorbachev, so the press said. On the 11th of June, the day before the Russian presidential elections, radio listeners had been told of Yeltsin’s meeting with Patriarch Aleksei II, when Yeltsin suddenly promised to return all church property seized by the Bolsheviks.
Yeltsin played the politics of nationbuilding while Gorbachev busied himself with the preservation of empire. The nation to Yeltsin was Russia and her people were one supra-ethnic entity, including Jews who had not always enjoyed respect in the Soviet Union. To Gorbachev, the nation was the Soviet Union and the people were all Soviets. Gorbachev now found himself on the opposite side of the fence to the intellectuals. It was Yeltsin who took over the late Academician Andrei Sakharov’s views of firmly embracing the defence of religious and human rights.
The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, for his part, maintained that the Soviet Union, in any form, could only be held together at the cost of enormous bloodshed. “We have to choose firmly between an empire that first of all destroys us [i.e. ethnic Russians] ourselves, and the spiritual and bodily salvation of our people.” (A. Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, 1990). However, the author of “Cancer Ward,” “The Gulag Archipelago” and “One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” wanted Russia to go further and encompass the territories in surrounding republics where there was a majority Russian population. This made his position dangerously close to that of the centrist Communists but that didn’t matter and not many people knew about his real position anyway. Although he made out that he had returned to the democrats’ camp, turncoat Gorbachev couldn’t compete with Yeltsin for the loyalty of the intellectuals.
There were politicians who played the nationalist card directly. Vladimir Zhirinovsky also campaigned to become Russian president in June 1991, basing his campaign on downtrodden and humiliated Russians in the Baltic republics and elsewhere. However Zhirinovsky and his “Liberal Democratic Party”, which was anything but liberal and democratic, played such an extreme proto-fascist campaign that it served only to drive doubting voters to Yeltsin, who in comparison seemed positively sane. If the KGB had given Zhirinovsky some support, this only served to show that they still underrated the intelligence of Soviet people.
At this stage, Yeltsin appeared to be a Westernizer, not a Slavophile. Gorbachev adopted a position somewhere in the middle. Be this at it may, the West chose not to deal with the big emotional Westernizer, Boris Yeltsin. The Bush administration supported Gorbachev right up to October 1991, although his international standing began to suffer from July, when his request to the “Group of Seven” for a loan big enough to keep the traumatised Soviet economy afloat was rejected. Ever the populist, Yeltsin said Russia should get up off its knees. His position contrasted sharply with that of Gorbachev, who seemed to be going cap-in-hand, begging for money.
The Run-up to the coup
Conservatives, whom Gorbachev had appointed to lead the Soviet Union at the expense of loyal and respected democrats during his “turn to the right”, were nonplussed by Yeltsin’s decision to ban the Russian Communist Party. They were also angry, to say the least, that their leader, Soviet President Gorbachev, was actively going about creating a treaty that would do away with the USSR as they knew it.
Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanaev, who was to become one of the eight coup leaders, talked about the need for “elementary order” in the country. Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov (another coup leader) tried to undermine the Novo-Ogarevo negotiations by saying that the sovereignty demanded by the various Soviet republics could not be unconditional. The writing was on the wall, in flashing neon. Gorbachev had been given many warnings of an imminent coup—by one of the ideologues of perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev, by the former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadaze and others. Even the CIA joined in. In late June 1991, American Secretary of State James Baker sent Gorbachev a message, specifically naming the chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and USSR Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov as possible conspirators (which they were) in a soon-to-be-mounted coup.
At the end of July, there was a final meeting at Novo-Ogarevo between Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the First Secretary of the Kazakhstan Communist Party, Nursultan Nazarbayev, where they thrashed out the final draft of the new union treaty, to be signed on August 20th. During this meeting, Yeltsin and Gorbachev seemed to agree that Nazarbayev would take over as Soviet Prime Minister, that Kryuchkov and Yazov would be replaced and that the vice-presidency of the Soviet Union (Yanaev’s job) would be abolished. Yeltsin suspected that their conversation was being recorded. He was right; it was. And this evidence probably served as the last straw for the hardliners. The coup took place a few days later.