Sunday, August 19, 2018

Hopes When August 1991 Coup Failed were All Too Soon Dashed, Shekhtman Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 19 – When the August 1991 coup collapsed, Pavel Shekhtman says, most people in Moscow at first were certain that then the “new heroes of democracy – Yeltsin, Rutskoy, Khasbulatov and their intrepid comrades in harms would somehow transform a liberated Russia into a flourishing European state.”

            But even before the dust settled, the activist says, that possibility receded. Communists and KGB officers changed sides and began to play key roles in the new Russia, and together they talked the people in the street out of storming the Lubyanka, leaving them to settle for the toppling of Dzerzhinsky’s statue (

            The young economists were coming up with plans for “market reform” that had the effect of impoverishing the man and “concentrating property in the hands of the few.” People soon stopped talking about lustration because the media warned them not to launch “witch hunts.” And the intelligentsia remained true to its fears of what the masses might do on their own. 

            A few months later, Shekhtman says, the witches were doing the hunting; and those who had caused the defeat of the coup by their actions in the streets of Moscow found themselves in the position of beggars on the same streets.

            “Given the complete absence in the Russia of that time of even hints of civil society,” the activist says, what happened was the only thing that could happen,” with market reforms hurting the people and enriching the elites. Indeed, one can say, this was the most unheard of case of mass social suicide of an entire class.”

            In 1992, the Brezhnev middle class died out; and in 1993, the anarchic and ineffective but quite lively democratic forces did the same in the localities. “By the mid-1990s, the true beneficiaries of the August revolution under cover of noisy ‘democratic’ and anti-communist rhetoric firmly arranged the new system, oligarchic and for a time softly authoritarian.”

            “The throne on which Putin would come to sit was in essence prepared,” Shekhtman says.

            The coup failed for the “banal” reason that its authors were not politicians but bureaucrats who thought that when they gave orders they would be obeyed. When they weren’t, they didn’t know what to do.  Moreover, the putschists “tried as much as possible to remain within the framework of formal legality” in order to appear legitimate.

            “Evidently, they hoped to reach agreements with the republic elites ‘from a position of strength. But “Yeltsin’s decisive behavior put them in a box. The forcible dispersal of the legitimate power of the RSFSR would have been dangerous for them since it would raise questions about their legitimacy and threaten unpredictable consequences.”

            With each passing hour, those nominally subordinate to the putschists began to suspect that “besides responsibility for non-fulfillment of the [group’s] orders, they could face responsibility for carrying them out. As a result, the subordinates began to sabotage the orders so that neither side could accuse them of anything.”

            As a result, Shekhtman recalls, the remnants of power rapidly slipped away, and “by the morning of August 21, ‘the Union Center’ had disappeared.  Even the most well-intentioned republic elites suddenly discovered an emptiness above their heads and recognized that now they were their own Moscows.”

“’I have returned to another country,’ Gorbachev said on his flight from Foros. And this country already wasn’t the USSR…” Unfortunately, the remnants of that defunct country were rapidly reassembling in Russia and elsewhere as well, albeit under other names and titles but with many of the same habits of mind.    

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