Staunton, February 26 – For nearly a quarter of a century, Russians have asked a question preferred by the current Kremlin leadership: “who is to blame for the disintegration of the Soviet Union?” a question the answers to which allow for the demonization of particular leaders and countries rather than a considered discussion of what happened.
But now Aleksandr Rusin asks a far more significant question: “Why did no one lift a finger in 1991 to the USSR?” In fact, of course, those who led the August coup attempt thought that was what they were doing; but in fact, their incompetent actions only hastened the end of a system that was teetering on disaster (publizist.ru/blogs/110401/23558/-).
The reason why Rusin’s question is far more important and why the Kremlin would much prefer that it not be posed in this way is that it touches on the highly fraught relationship between the people and the authorities in Russia not just in 1991 but in the century before and in the years since.
When things are proceeding more or less normally, the Russian population has deferred and continues to defer to those in power. But when things are not going well and the authorities appear to have lost their grip, those who have supported it in the past are quite prepared to desert it and certainly will not come to its defense.
At the end of 1991, the USSR was “liquidated simply and overnight: the president of the USSR was driven out of the Kremlin, the flags were lowered, the coat of arms taken off, a multi-million party was dissolved, a piece of paper was signed somewhere in the Beloveshchaya wilds about liquidation … And that was it!”
“No one even tried to undertake something for the preservation of the Union – not the five-million strong Soviet army, not the communist party, in which there were about 20 million members, and not the powerful state security service which only a little earlier the entire world feared.”
“Among the 250 million population was not to be found a single significant group or organization which tried to stop the process of the liquidation of the USSR,” the Moscow commentator say. There was of course the August putsch but that turned out to be “so weak” that no one supported it either when it was in office or when its members were arrested.
“Why did this happen?” Rusin asks. People say that no one understood what was happening and that everyone was “deceived by the leadership.” But, he argues, “in fact, all of that is simply a justification.” In many other countries and in Russia itself on other occasions, people acted to save the situation; but not this time.
Some say it was the absence of foreign enemies, but that won’t wash: Moscow still was confronted by NATO and other challenged. Some say it was because people didn’t understand, but the USSR was one of the most educated countries in the world. And some say that Yeltsin and his entourage tricked everyone. But that too is foolishness.
The residents of the USSR knew very well where all this was heading as did the military, the members of the CPSU, “and especially among the officers of the KGB and the General Staff.” And they knew how easy it would have been to stop it, in August or in December, if anyone had been prepared to be serious. But no one moved.
And at the end of December 1991, “not one oblast and not one republic refused to lower Soviet flags and declare that it didn’t accept the liquidation of the USSR. All accepted it.” They weren’t prepared to take risks or make sacrifices for that which they had only days before sworn loyalty to.
In 1991, he continues, “democratic and openly anti-Soviet attitudes dominated.” People with those views were “not simply the majority but the overwhelming majority and not only among ordinary people but also among CPSU members, military personnel, political officers, and KGB staff.”
Vladimir Putin is “a clear example – a KGB officer who during [the August coup] ran to serve the anti-Soviet democrat Sobchak. He wasn’t an exception: he was one of many. And one mustn’t think that only those at the top we re like that: all society in 1991 was, the commentator says.
As things stood in 1991, “a large part of the population wanted neither Soviet power and the Union but sausages and democracy, a Western style of life and a market economy. Many thought that all they had to do was to move in that direction and life as in Germany, France and the US would appear.” Many still think that, but “in 1991, the absolute majority did.”
“Therefore,” Rusin says, “no one saved the Soviet Union” simply because “the people were deceived because they were ready to be deceived.” Despite what some say, “Yeltsin was not the cause but the effect, the product of attitudes which dominated society in 1991.” Saying anything else only continues the self-deception, the commentator concludes.