Staunton, August 19 – Twenty-five years ago today, the Soviet coup plotters said they were acting to ensure the territorial integrity of the USSR, something that, when their effort collapsed, happened within four months, leading many in Russia and the West to conclude that the Soviet Union disintegrated because of the coup.
At the same time, those who went to the Russian White House to oppose the plotters said they were acting to ensure that Russia would become a democracy instead of a dictatorship of the nomenklatura, a claim that, after the coup collapsed, both they and many in the West assumed was now ensured with not much additional effort required.
Neither of these interpretations, although they continue to shape opinion about the events of August 1991, is correct. The Soviet Union was on the way to disintegration long before the coup: It might have accelerated things, but it did not cause it. And the success of those who opposed the coup did not represent the defeat of the nomenklatura or the triumph of democracy.
The USSR was on its way to disintegration and would have come apart even if there had been no coup and counter-coup in Moscow. Within hours of the start of the coup, the three occupied Baltic countries were on their way to international recognition of de facto and not just de jure independence.
But they were not alone: Across the Soviet space, sometimes driven by popular movements like Rukh in Ukraine or the Peoples Fronts in Belarus and Azerbaijan and sometimes by the calculations of party leaders that they could get out from under Moscow’s control, the 11 non-Russian republics were already on the march to independence well before August 1991.
Those who orchestrated the coup knew that or they wouldn’t have acted, but they demonstrated that they would have failed to keep the country together even if they had succeeded. After all, a collection of security officers unprepared to kill either Gorbachev or Yeltsin could hardly be expected to maintain power by drowning the country in blood.
Had that happened, the USSR would have dissolved likely along Yugoslavia lines. But it would have dissolved. And when the coup failed, the weakness of Moscow was so obvious that the Russians and all the non-Russians realized they had to take things into their own hands lest someone try that again.
In short, there would have been 12 “newly independent states” or perhaps even more and three Baltic countries which would have recovered their independence in the fall of 1991 or the winter of 1991/1992. The incompetence of the coup plotters ensured that this process was less bloody: it and they did nothing to cause it or stop it.
The same thing is true about the widespread assumption that the defeat of the August 1991 coup was a triumph of democracy over the nomenklatura and security agencies. On the one hand, the number of people who came to the defense of the Russian White House was microscopic, a mere handful in a country of almost 300 million people.
And on the other, while many who did come were animated by democratic ideals, most of their leaders sprang from the CPSU nomenklatura or even the security agencies. Yeltsin himself had resigned from the party but he had grown up as a party man. And in that he was hardly alone.
As a result, when the coup was defeated, what happened all too quickly was that members of the old nomenklatura and the security agencies, often declaring they had changed sides, moved into positions of power and subverted whatever chance Russia might have had to become a real democracy.
If that wasn’t clear in early 1992, it was certainly obvious in 1993 when Yeltsin fired on the parliament and then declared war on Chechnya. And it has become even more obvious since 2000 when Putin blew up the apartment buildings and launched another war on Chechnya, followed by wars against Georgia and Ukraine.
Unfortunately, many in the West were more interested in declaring victory than in helping Russia and the other countries to make a real transition to democracy. And many in Russia accepted the declarations of former communists and former KGB officers as genuine rather than as tactical moves to retain power.
If that wasn’t clear in early 1992, it became obvious by the mid-1990s with the rise of the state-enriched oligarchs and the new old security agencies and especially with the installation of a KGB officer as president who in a rare display of honesty talked about his role and that of its fellows as “a special operation.”
Those who did stand up for democracy at the Russian White House in August 1991 deserve to be remembered with honor, but those who failed to pay attention to what really happened and who continue do assert that the coup caused the demise of the USSR or that it guaranteed democracy certainly do not.