When the empire crumbled: 20 years after the Soviet coup

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When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, Mary Dejevsky was struck by the bravery and optimism she saw on the streets of Moscow. Now she asks, why has Russia failed to live up to the West's expectations?

Like many who were there, I fancy I can pinpoint the day, even the hour, when Soviet Communism really fell. It was shortly before midnight on the dank evening of 19 August, 1991. Several hundred people, many sheltering under umbrellas, had gathered outside the back entrance to the White House, the Russian Parliament, in Moscow. Periodic rumours swept the crowd that the building was about to be stormed. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first elected president, and many of his staff, were inside. Rather than disperse, the crowd only grew.

The defiance shown by Muscovites that night was defiance of a different quality from that of the pro-democracy demonstrators who had regularly massed in central Moscow on Saturdays through the previous year. Now, in place of mostly passive riot police, serious military hardware threatened. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers had encircled the city; they now surrounded the White House in what could quickly become battle formation. A curfew had been declared. The mostly silent crowd were risking their lives. But they stayed. In that single act, in that single evening, they shattered the power of the Communist Party and the KGB that did its dirty work. The spell of repression was broken.

Walking back to our flat, I recalled what had been said – prematurely, as it turned out, during the Tiananmen Square protests in China only two years before: the Chinese people have stood up. That night, the Russian people had stood up. The next day, the downcast eyes and neutered expressions so characteristic of people who live in fear had gone; just like that. And, contrary to the alarms that have been sounded so often since, in 20 years, that all-pervasive fear has never returned.

For Russians, it had been a long day; one of the longest perhaps in the history of the Soviet Union. It had been long for me, too. I had been woken by a call from an Australian radio station before dawn, asking for verification of a wire-service report that the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, had resigned for health reasons and transferred power to a self-styled Emergency Committee. Heading the list of names was that of Gennadi Yanayev, the vice-president Gorbachev had been pressed by his hardline opponents to appoint.

All state television and radio stations were broadcasting Swan Lake, regularly interrupted by the new committee's official declaration of emergency. At 9am I had watched from our windows as the late rush-hour traffic dodged an interminable column of tanks and armoured personnel carriers (APCs), rumbling into the centre of town. An hour later, I had set off with my loyal driver, Kolya, to try to find out how effectively the state of emergency was being enforced. He was as curious as I was: the answer – at that stage – was: not very.

We drew up in front of the Russian Parliament in time to see more tanks and APCs manoeuvring into position. Eventually, the burly figure of Boris Yeltsin emerged from the building and strode slowly down the long stone staircase, to mixed murmurings of warning and encouragement from the motley crowd that had gathered below.

Yeltsin had levered his great frame up on to the tank – producing the pictures that sped around the world (but not Russia) – and delivered the forthright statement that established his place in history. Categorically rejecting the coup, he warned: "The clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country. They must not be allowed to bring eternal night."

Late afternoon had produced the infamous press conference by members of the emergency committee, noted at the time for Yanayev's trembling hands, but also for the challenge from a young Russian reporter. Tatyana Malkina, who had just started working for one of the new, glasnost-era newspapers, challenged the right of the committee to take power. "Could you please say," she asked, "whether or not you understand that last night you carried out a coup d'état?" It was a courageous question, that drew gasps from those present; in other circumstances it could have cost her her life.

Each of these actions by itself – Yeltsin's public defiance; the tank command's refusal to intervene; the young journalist's fearlessness – was decisive in its own individual way. But what turned the tide of history was the resistance of those ordinary Muscovites who trudged to the White House in the rain after work, in the perhaps naïve faith that they could fend off the tanks and protect "their" president.

As it happened, they were right. The fate of the Soviet Union and of Russia hung in the balance that night. The tussle for power was to continue listlessly, and mostly behind closed doors, for another two days. Veterans of the Afghan war built barricades, in an attempt to thwart the tanks. But after that first night, Yeltsin had the upper hand. On the Wednesday, the plotters grudgingly bowed to the inevitable and a plane was dispatched to the Crimea – where the Gorbachev family had been held incommunicado at the presidential villa – to bring the Soviet leader back to Moscow.

As was also understood at the time, however, Gorbachev returned to another country. Yeltsin, for two years his rival for power, was in the ascendant. In a particularly spiteful piece of theatre, he forced the Soviet leader to sign the all-powerful Soviet Communist Party out of existence. In truth, though, the form in which it had held sway for more than 70 years, had dissolved itself. And the Soviet Union was already breaking apart. Gorbachev's ambition to rejuvenate it as a genuinely federated country – a treaty to that effect was due to be signed within days – was no longer feasible. Time had passed it by.

Through that autumn, the institutions of state passed one by one from central Soviet to Russian control, from the fading Gorbachev to an ebullient Yeltsin, leaving the Soviet Union a rattling and dysfunctional shell. On 8 December, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – the original signatories – renounced the treaty that had brought the Soviet Union into being. By a quirk of fate, this was one day before European leaders concluded the Maastricht Treaty. As Europe moved together, the Soviet empire span apart. Gorbachev could only rail in pained impotence from the sidelines.

On the Western calendar's Christmas Day, he announced his resignation in a televised broadcast to the nation and accepted the dissolution of the world's second superpower. He presented his closest staff with commemorative pens and, reluctantly, he bequeathed Russia to the man who had saved him from the forces of dictatorship four months before. They were leaders, and characters, of a very different stamp.

With hindsight it is even clearer than it was at the time that the perfunctory, and ill-managed, coup accelerated, even if it did not actually trigger, the demise of the Soviet Union. The forces of progress and reaction faced off in the streets of Moscow, and reaction blinked. Soviet communism was conclusively exposed not just as the repressive force it was, but as discredited and unequal to the aspirations of Russians. Thus ended, mostly peacefully, a system that had been born in chaos and blood 74 years before. And the worst fears – of famine, civil war, a million refugees – went mercifully unrealised. The undoing of the Bolshevik revolution was accomplished more benignly than many had feared.

So why, 20 years later, is it disappointment, even despair, that haunts so many of those outside Russia who rejoiced at the death of Soviet communism? And why is there so much disillusionment and cynicism in Russia today? Where did the spirit go that saw off the coup plotters? Why, a generation on, has a largely quiescent Russia failed to live up to its own expectations?

One reason, the most obvious, is that those expectations – both inside and outside Russia – were too high. The belief that Russia was just a bigger version of Poland or Hungary and would become something like Finland almost overnight was always a misguided one.

Russia was profoundly different from its newly free and independent neighbours, not just in size, but also in history, experience and character. Its people had not only spent far longer bound by communism, but could be said to have brought it upon themselves. Successive emigrations, of the aristocracy and the business elite, then the educated and professional classes, had left Russia uniquely impoverished.

Also, many of the comparisons were, and in many respects remain, quite wrong. Compared with the former Soviet republics, such as Belarus and Ukraine, not to speak of those in the Caucasus and Central Asia, vast, sprawling, hard-to-govern Russia has not done too badly.

Some of Russia's difficulties are also our fault. In the years immediately after 1991, there was a failure in the West, at the highest levels, to accept that Russia, while legally and constitutionally the successor state, was not the Soviet Union. Too often, Cold War stereotypes were simply reprinted on Russia. Nor did Russia benefit from the nurturing that was lavished on the old Soviet-bloc countries wanting to enter the European Union. For them, much was forgiven and forgotten in pursuit of a new Europe "whole and free", but not for Russia. We offered Russia instead an ill-suited crash course in extreme free-market economics accompanied by extravagant tut-tutting over its failure to meet Western democratic and judicial standards, and we failed to understand that the exigencies caused by the first may well have delayed the second. Not only that, but when democracy began to work, we did not like the results and helped skew the election of 1996 in Yeltsin's favour.

While all this may have contributed to the disappointments of the past two decades, however – the corruption, the selective intolerance of opposition, the deaths in jail – the chief reason why Russia seems to have lagged behind may be different. Perhaps it is that, through no fault of its own, it got stuck half-way through its own revolution. While the Balts and the East and Central Europeans, most brutally Romania, overthrew the old system and started afresh, Russia had to do several things at once.

The discrediting of the communist creed may have contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the overthrow of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were two rather different things. What happened between 1990 and 1991 was as much a duel between Russia and the Soviet Union, personified by the power struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, as it was an argument about ideology.

And where most of the former Soviet-bloc countries in Europe were able to start afresh, with new institutions and new people, Russia's was less a revolution than a restoration of lost sovereignty. The past 20 years have largely been about Russia rediscovering its history, its borders and its statehood, trying to identify its place in the new neighbourhood.

With many institutions, only the name plate changed at the end of 1991. This was as true of the Foreign Ministry as of the KGB, redesignated the Federal Security Service. Soviet habits and thought processes lived on; in places they clawed back some power.

Yet those who see only lost opportunities and the retrenchment of Soviet-era repression are wrong. The relics of the Soviet past become more ragged with every year that passes and every new cohort that enters the school system. For all his limitations, Vladimir Putin has nothing of either Stalin or Brezhnev. But he is a transitional figure; someone who spans the late years of Soviet conformism, the great economic and ideological unravelling between 1989 and 1992, and the go-getting chaos of the mid-1990s. In presiding, first as president, then as prime minister, over 10 years that might be described as the great settling-down, he has given Russians the breathing space that an exhausted nation needed.

Twenty years is traditionally regarded as a generation. After three score and ten years of communism in various guises, and the traumas of the Second World War and the prison camps, it should astonish no one that Russia has taken that long to start feeling comfortable in its new skin. It was Gorbachev, a student during the Khrushchev Thaw of the 1960s, who 20 years later banished the fear and in so doing precipitated the end of Soviet communism. It will be the children and grandchildren of those who defied the tanks on 19 August, 1991, who will enable Russia to take its rightful place as a law-governed democracy in the modern world.

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