Did the Soviet Union Really End?
Aug. 22 is a holiday in Russia: It’s Flag Day. But it ranks low in the hierarchy of holidays. There will be no parade, like there is on Victory Day. Russians will not get a day off, like they do on May Day, Russia Day, International Women’s Day, Defenders of the Fatherland Day and a half-dozen other holidays. A visitor to the country would be unlikely to notice that this month Russia is marking the 25th anniversary of a historical milestone.
What happened a quarter-century ago? On Aug. 18, 1991, four top Soviet officials flew to Crimea, where President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union was on vacation, and placed him under house arrest. The following day Soviet citizens awakened to the news that a committee of K.G.B., military and Soviet Communist Party leaders had declared a state of emergency. Then, over the course of three days, the coup crumbled.
On Aug. 21, its failure became evident, and Moscow authorities soon removed a giant statue of the founder of the secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, from its pedestal in the center of the city. A Russian flag — white, blue and red stripes – went up over the building of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the nominal legislative body, in Moscow. Only three people died in Moscow streets before the attempted coup was over.
Two years earlier, a series of popular protests led by young pro-democracy activists had brought down the Communist governments of several Eastern European countries. These became known as the Revolutions of 1989. Most had been peaceful; the Czechs called theirs “velvet.” The ruling parties had simply capitulated. In many books published in the West, and in the minds of some Russian intellectuals, the three days of August 1991 were the Russian version of a velvet revolution, and they have been memorialized as the end of the Soviet Union.
But they were neither the end of the Soviet Union nor a velvet revolution. Twenty-five years later, this is perhaps clearer than ever.
By the summer of 1991, the Soviet empire had been in agony for a couple of years. Each of its 15 constituent republics, including Russia, had popular pro-independence movements. Ethnic conflicts and border disputes were flaring up all over; blood had been shed. Mr. Gorbachev was zigzagging between military and peaceful solutions to the mounting crises. The Soviet state had used force in Azerbaijan, Georgia and Lithuania, killing scores of people and bitterly disappointing all who wanted change. Yet the hard-liners, who made up the majority of the Soviet leadership, saw Mr. Gorbachev as too soft. Like any leader who tries to appease everyone, Mr. Gorbachev was hated by many and disliked by most. But his fiercest struggle was with Boris Yeltsin, a former party boss who in June 1991 became the popularly elected leader of the Russian republic within the U.S.S.R.
The failure of the hard-liners’ coup created an opening for Mr. Yeltsin. While Mr. Gorbachev was a hostage in Crimea, Mr. Yeltsin was in Moscow. He spoke to the anti-coup protesters in the city – from atop a tank, no less. After the coup was over, he was widely seen as the leader of a victorious resistance. He was now in a position to tell Mr. Gorbachev what to do.
Through the fall of 1991, constituent republics declared their independence from the U.S.S.R., one after another, while Mr. Gorbachev, who was still the Soviet president, scrambled to keep the union together. In December, Mr. Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine met and agreed on the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Mr. Gorbachev was not invited. He was not even the first to know: He was informed by the Belarusian leader after Mr. Yeltsin had called President George H. W. Bush with the news. In the end, Mr. Gorbachev had to resign as president because his country was no more. Most of its institutions, along with its memberships in international organizations, passed to a new country called the Russian Federation.
Mr. Yeltsin and his aides believed that what happened in Russia was better than any revolution, even a velvet one. They were convinced that by taking over existing institutions they would bring democracy to Russia faster, and less painfully, than they would by destroying them. They gave little thought to the fact that these were the institutions of a long-running totalitarian regime: They did not doubt that they had the will and strength necessary to transform them.
But these institutions have turned out to be stronger than the men who had set out to reform them. They resisted change for nearly a decade, and once Vladimir V. Putin became president, they fell into place, easing Russia’s regression. Today, life in Russia – where everything is political, where the population is mobilized around leader and nation, where censorship and one-party rule have effectively been restored – is more similar to life in the Soviet Union than at any point in the last 25 years.
The monument to the three men who died during the failed coup of August 1991 – a plaque that few people know exists – is in disrepair, and discussions about erecting a proper, visible monument in its place died down years ago. But the Dzerzhinsky statue, which is displayed in a park not far from the Kremlin, was lovingly restored this summer, for at least the fourth time in the last few years. There is also talk of putting it back in its old place.