Staunton, August 18 – On the eve of the 26th anniversary of the August 1991 coup attempt that many see as the event that triggered the end of the Soviet Union, Komsomolskaya Pravda organized an interview with Aleksandr Prokhanov, who backed the coup, and Nikolay Svanidze who didn’t (kp.ru/daily/26720.7/3745067/).
Prokhanov, the Russian nationalist editor of Segodnya, reprised his longstanding argument that the coup could have succeeded if the leaders of the force structures had acted decisively and arrested Boris Yeltsin but that it failed because they didn’t and also because they were too linked to Mikhail Gorbachev who in fact promoted the coup to eliminate Yeltsin.
Svanidze, a longtime Moscow commentator, offers a different, more interesting and more persuasive argument in the course of answer the Russian newspaper’s question. He acknowledges that had the coup leaders shown more boldness, they might have succeeded in restoring the Kremlin’s position over Russia but that “the USSR wouldn’t have been preserved.”
“These are different things,” he reminds his readers. The coup leaders might have been able to hold on for a time “at the price of blood,” but “the Soviet Union was condemned economically and politically. Many republics had run from it, and those who remained couldn’t be held for long.”
The center no longer had any carrots and its sticks were too short, Svanidze continues, and “cruelty is a poor substitute for power.” The only chance the Soviet system had and it was a long one was the conclusion of a new Union Treaty among the republics. But the coup delayed its signing and ultimately made its conclusion impossible.
Svanidze also points to some important distinctions between how many view the country beyond Moscow’s ring road. “In Russian history,” he says, “all fateful events occur in the capitals. The people in our colossal land waits until something happens whether in Petrograd in 1917 or Moscow in 1991.”
But the fact that they waited “does not mean that they were sympathetic to the coup plotters. They already hated the communists” who had lost all authority because they had led the country into ruin. “The shelves in stores were empty. There was bread for only a few more days … Hunger threatened us. The people felt it.”
And for that reason, “the putsch was condemned in principle,” even if the plotters acted decisively. “They understood that their situation was hopeless. Some were ready to be cruel, and some were not.” They could not be certain of the military or the KGB, and they were afraid of what would happen to them if they acted decisively.
The plotters understood as well, Svanidze says, “that if they shed blood today, tomorrow their blood would be shed. And they weren’t ready to risk that. “To save the country was possible only by involving other economic mechanisms. But the coup plotters were not ready to do that. They were prepared only for conservative decisions.”
Those as events would have shown had they acted decisively in those August days, the Moscow commentator says, were not enough.
And thus, “Yeltsin’s victory in August 1991 was objectively decided in advance. And in fact, this was a positive variant for the development of events. Without large-scale bloodshed, and with a soft variant of the disintegration of the Union. We escaped from under the rubble of the USSR without a catastrophe and we live in a new country.”