The collapse of the Soviet Union has been hailed by much of the Western press as prefiguring a new and hopeful era in contemporary history. True, there have been occasional pleas for caution and some grim prognostications. Secretary of State Baker has said we must wait to see what will happen, while Robert Gates, the new head of the CIA, warned a House subcommittee of the chaos and mayhem that would result from dismantling the (once evil) empire.
Mostly, however, optimism prevailed. Typical of this view is a recent column in The Wall Street Journal. There is no sign, says the author, of widespread disorder in either Russia or the other republics, as some have warned; the threat of hunger is imaginary; unemployment is a serious matter, “but is it better to have full employment with half the people doing unproductive or counter-productive things…or to turn them loose to scrounge for a living providing real goods and services?”
The climate was rather different in Moscow and other cities that I visited last November. The politicians of the new regime were appropriately triumphant. Many people, however, talked of another Putsch, perhaps mounted by disgruntled generals. The satisfaction with the imminent fall of “the center” was attenuated by the daily economic grind, the hours (three, four, even seven) spent in queues for a loaf of bread or a sack of potatoes, the harrowing absence of basic medications and articles of clothing. “Don’t talk to me about politics,” said one Moscow intelligent, who in the past wanted to speak of nothing but. “All I can think of these days is whether there’s going to be food on my plate in the evening.”
The pervasive mood—in the long lines waiting to get into stores or at metro stations—was one of weariness, cynicism, and anger, directed at all politicians, from Yeltsin down. Contemptuous of the old (and still powerful) nomenklatura, people as readily dismissed “the so called democrats,” who after being elected to office proved more adept at feathering their nests than attending to the grievances of their constituents. “They are all the same, these robbers,” was a view I heard constantly expressed.
Who is right, the “optimists” or the “pessimists”? To answer this question, a brief glance at the events of the past three months is in order, and, in particular, at the failed coup of August 18–22. And not only at what happened but also, in the words of Hugh Trevor-Roper, at what “might have” happened. For here, I believe, lies the key to understanding the emergence of the new Commonwealth of Independent States and to the problems it will face in the months and years ahead …