Staunton, August 16 – As the 30th anniversary of the August 1991 failed coup approaches, many people are weighing in about who was responsible for the coup and what the consequences of their action and its failure had. Some want to simplify matters and blame the coup for the end of the Soviet Union and its system, but the reality is much more complicated.
Not only was the USSR falling apart well before the coup – six of the 15 republics weren’t willing to sign Gorbachev’s “new union treaty” – but many functions and functionaries of the Soviet system transferred from the USSR to the Russian Federation rather than giving way to democracy as many had hoped.
That latter development almost certainly played a key role in the fact that the disintegration of the USSR was as relatively non-violent as it was, but that benefit came at the cost of a Russian government that has been Soviet in both staffing and aspirations, as has become ever more obvious with the passing of time.
But after a generation, it is time to be clear about what the August 1991 coup did and what it didn’t both because it took place and because it failed at least in its stated goals. Among the most obvious of this combination of achievements and failures, the following five are particularly important:
First, the coup was not the revolution many believe to this day but a putsch whose failure helped those who backed its ideas to shift from the USSR’s institutions to those of the Russian Federation and thus ensure that the latter would remain more like the former than would have been true had the former never been challenged and the latter emerged some other way.
Second, the coup and its failure did change the attitudes of many in the West, convincing them that Boris Yeltsin for all his shortcomings was a better bet than Mikhail Gorbachev with all his strengths and that Russia, especially if it could retain some control over the former Soviet periphery was a better bet as a partner than a hobbled USSR.
But that change simultaneously had the effect of making the Western powers more tolerant of Moscow’s continuing interference in the non-Russian countries, interference of a kind that most Western countries would not have tolerated by other former imperial centers, and an attitude that has contributed to Moscow’s continuing actions in this regard.
Third, the coup did lead immediately to the recovery of de facto independence by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but it didn’t do the same for the rest of the country, either the non-Russian union republics or the non-Russian autonomies within the RSFSR. The former acquired de jure independence only four months later, and the latter have not yet.
Fourth, the coup and even more its failure and subsequent evaluation highlighted something many narratives about the August 1991 events fail to recognize: Russian society was deeply divided about the direction the country should have gone, and those who wanted a modern nation state were in fact and remain a distinct minority.
And fifth, the coup and its failure did not usher in democracy and free markets, however much many have wanted to believe that. The continuity of Soviet leaders in Russia and many of the other union republics meant that their systems are plebiscite-based dictatorships politically and economies based on private ownership but without a free market defended by law.