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The August Revolution


The new Russian Revolution of August 1991 has now won out over the heritage of the first Russian Revolution of October 1917. Begun in 1989 with the emergence of a democratic opposition to communism led by Andrei Sakharov and launched into the broad light of day with Boris Yeltsin’s election as Russian president last June, this revolution reached a climax in the popular explosion ignited by the failed August coup. The Leninist regime born of the successful October coup seventy-four years earlier collapsed within three days. To paraphrase Marx on the coup of Louis Napoleon, the “Soviet experiment,” begun in tragedy, thus ended in farce: with Yanayev substituting for Lenin, Yazov for Trotsky—and Gorbachev for Kerensky. But the present drama also produced a tough new hero, Yeltsin, who together with his colleagues might, this time, bring about a happier ending.*

The ambiguous words “reform” and “perestroika” should now be retired from our vocabulary. For the reform communism of the past six years was only a preliminary to what was needed to make it possible for Russia to “return to Europe” and to become again a “normal” society—an unambiguous and revolutionary break with communism. This is as true now for Russia as it was for Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989. (It is precisely because Communist power has survived under the label “social democracy” in Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia that the political situation is still so unpromising in all these countries.) Thus, the former Soviet Union this summer has at last, made the exit from communism that most of Eastern Europe accomplished in the autumn of 1989.

But release from the Marxist burden in Russia is of much greater moment than its earlier end in Eastern Europe. Russia, after all, is the homeland of Lenin and the archetype of Communist regimes throughout the world. Its demise in Moscow means its eventual demise everywhere: it requires no great powers of prophecy to predict that the remaining Leninist lands, from the China Seas to the Caribbean, will follow suit before very long.

The liberation of Russia from communism is momentous in still another sense. For the former Soviet Union was not just another “authoritarianism” or military despotism. It was in its time the world’s principal source of Orwellian totalitarianism, a regime that, as Václav Havel has said, “justifiably gave the world nightmares.” Its once ruling party is now characterized openly by the Russian Parliament as a “criminal enterprise.”

Thus the revolution of August 1991 is not just another twentieth-century revolution; it is, in Hegelian terms, “world-historical”: the greatest international turning point since 1945, and, even, in a sense, since 1917. For the world war that began in 1914 marked the start of what turned out to be a seventy-five years of global turbulence and troubles, characterized by a pattern in which the violence of war has shaded into the violence of revolution. The October Revolution was the first fruit of the disaster of 1914. Fascism and Nazism were the second. And World War II was the culmination of the century’s tragedy. The cold war, finally, together with the Communist revolutions in the third world, was the long, lugubrious aftermath of the second global conflict. The anti-Communist revolutions between 1989 and 1991 have brought our violent century to a close, neither with a whimper nor with the long-feared bang.

Although this outcome clearly calls for sober analysis of the staggering problems and the certain dangers ahead, there have been too few moments of hope in Russia’s tragic history to pass this one carelessly by. The present moment calls for celebration along with the Russians, just as we celebrated with the East Europeans after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The peoples of the former Soviet Union are expecting an expression of democratic solidarity deriving from the Western humanistic principles that many of them greatly admire. It is such shared principles that led Sergei Stankevich, the deputy mayor of Moscow, to warn against “witch hunts” of deposed Communists and Yeltsin to call on the population to refrain from converting “euphoria” into “vindictiveness.”

A Western sense of solidarity is the more justified because the capacity for democratic participation is far from being a prominent feature of Russian history. Indeed, the land of the knout, the pogrom, and the autocracy of Ivan the Terrible has long been held to be incapable of civilized self-government; and the Lenin-Stalin regime has accordingly often been viewed as Russia’s destiny. But, of course, this view is a stereotype; the predominance of despotism in Russian history has in fact been alleviated for extended periods. From the Great Reforms of Aleksandr II in the 1860s to the constitutional experiment with the Duma between 1905 and 1914, Russia had a growing European-style liberal movement, alongside the eventually victorious revolutionary one. Indeed, in the October general strike of 1905—which called for a constitution, not socialism—the Russian people demonstrated a remarkable capacity for mass democratic action, though this capacity was later perverted by the Bolsheviks amid the chaos of 1917. Yet the Russian case of aborted democracy is hardly unique: other, more mature, major nations of Europe were also hijacked by ideological adventurers in the turmoil that followed the Great War.

The leaders of the Russian democratic movement are quite aware of both the negative and positive aspects of the national heritage; and it is the latter that emerged triumphant in the unprecedented elections of last June and the new Russian Revolution that followed. If the negative aspects eventually recur, as they may, it is to be hoped that Russian democratic forces will know how to deal with them. The problem of the moment, however, is the urgent and staggering one of liquidating once and for all the disastrous heritage of October 1917.

In the hindsight of late August, it is clear that the coup was a blessing in disguise. Indeed, it was the ideal catalyst for rapidly bringing about a collapse of the Soviet Union’s old regime. That it was attempted at all discredited both the people and the political forces that were behind it. And that it failed galvanized the left and accelerated the anti-Communist revolution enormously. It also occurred in the nick of time: for the economic situation is now so disastrous that any more weeks wasted before the winter on the continuing deadlock over reforms might well have proved catastrophic.

Without the coup, the democratic forces who were led by Yeltsin, Gavriil Popov, the mayor of Moscow, and Anatoli Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad, all elected last June, would have had to chip away for months at the Party’s resistance to genuine economic change. This was the lot of the Poles in the months after their electoral break-through of June 1989. Indeed, the Poles to this day are burdened with a Sejm whose members are two thirds Communist or from Communist puppet parties because this was the agreement signed at the Round Table of February 1989, when Solidarity still had to share power with the Party.

Thus, there are times when a sharp revolutionary break can be preferable to evolutionary progress. The Moscow August was one of them. It cleared the air of indecision and dissipated the ambiguities hovering over Russia since 1989.

Though there is still much that remains murky about the botched coup, certain facts are clear. Its origins go back to the fall of 1990, when Gorbachev reneged on his August agreement with Yeltsin and rejected the 500-Day Plan worked out by Stanislav Shatalin and Grigori Yavlinsky. He then veered to the right—and toward the very officials, and the forces behind them, that made up the future junta.

Gorbachev rejected the 500-Day Plan when he belatedly realized that introducing a market system and privatizing state enterprises would inevitably destroy the Party’s monopoly of power. True, he had abandoned the constitutionally defined “leading role of the Party” in March 1990. He apparently did so, however, because after the collapse of Eastern Europe he could no longer formally insist on the Party having this role in Russia; nevertheless, his actions reveal that he intended to preserve the Party’s primacy in practice, because, as he has often said, this was his genuine Leninist conviction. At the same time it became clear to him that the 500-Day Plan’s provisions for devolution of economic power to the republics would mean the de facto dissolution of the Union. And the “indestructible Union,” as the first two words of the Soviet anthem put it, was also a matter of deep principle for Gorbachev, as his behavior has demonstrated.

But Gorbachev was not alone in being alarmed by the Plan’s consequences for the integrity of the Union and by the demands for sovereignty being made in nearly all the republics. He was joined in his fears by most of the Soviet establishment, from the Party apparat, to the upper echelons of the army and the KGB, to the military-industrial complex, which controlled nearly half the country’s economy and probably employed one third of its work force. And representatives of these interests had always made up the majority of Gorbachev’s entourage. Eduard Shevardnadze and Aleksandr Yakovlev, though highly visible internationally, had always been the two lone liberals in the Soviet high command. Moreover, the other liberals who until 1989 had followed the General Secretary were now in the democratic opposition and gravitating toward Yeltsin, Popov, and Sobchak, all of whom had quit the Party during the summer of 1990.

The first signs of hard-line pressure on Gorbachev came in September 1990 when mysterious army maneuvers around Moscow were widely interpreted as a warning to him to change direction. In October, after stormy meetings with leaders of the military-industrial complex, Gorbachev in effect backed out of the 500- Day Plan by proclaiming that he would leave the matter to the Soviet Parliament. In November, after meeting with a group of about one thousand army officers, he replaced his liberal interior minister, Vadim Bakatin, with the former KGB general Boris Pugo; in December, he replaced the tepid Nikolai Ryzhkov as prime minister with Valentin Pavlov, a “command-administrative” economist deeply hostile to radical reforms. It is this accumulation of events, as well as signs of impending crackdown in the Baltic republics, that produced Shevardnadze’s dramatic, and at the time enigmatic, resignation at the end of the year.

Gorbachev’s motives in making his autumn move to the right are not far to seek. It is a commonplace of political commentary in such Soviet liberal publications as Moscow News and Commercant that Gorbachev is a brilliant tactician who lacks a strategy. Or, more precisely, once his original strategy of reform communism had led to a dead end in 1989, he fell back on empty tactical maneuvering. Tacking now to the left, now to the right, and forever playing one side against the other, he sought to remain indispensable to each yet beholden to neither. He seems to have clung to a Micawberish hope that something would turn up, most likely in the form of foreign aid. It is yet another commonplace of Soviet commentary that by the Twenty-Eighth Party Congress in the summer of 1990, Gorbachev had undermined any possibility of forming a cohesive coalition of the forces of the center. This came about because his indecision estranged his Politburo allies, Shevardnadze and Yakovlev, who stood for the center in the country at large. Since perestroika had previously alienated the conservatives led by Yegor Ligachev, he was thus estranged from both his flanks, and so wound up suspended in midair over an abyss.

  1. *

    See my earlier article, “A New Russian Revolution?” in The New York Review, July 18, 1991.

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