Za Gorizontom (Beyond the Horizon)
Veru v Rossiyu (I Believe in Russia)
Rossiya i Sovremenii Mir (Russia and the Modern World)
The imagery of triumph and even comedy that attended the events of August 1991 in Russia comforted, and ultimately deceived, the world. The men of the Communist Party, the Army, and the KGB who had tried to seize power in the name of Leninist principles and imperial preservation betrayed their weakness before the cameras: their hands trembled, they drank themselves senseless, they could not bear to pull the trigger (except in the case of one conspirator, Interior Affairs minister Boris Pugo, who, when all was lost, shot his wife, then himself).
The images of Soviet collapse were as vivid as any imagined in Eisenstein’s October. On the night the coup failed, the statue of the founder of the secret police, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, dangled from a crane, as if from a noose, outside the offices of the KGB. Aides loyal to Boris Yeltsin roamed the halls of the Central Committee, giddy and wild, searching for files and cash, the detritus of the old regime.
After Mikhail Gorbachev returned to Moscow from his house arrest in the Crimea, he tried, if only for a day, to speak up for the Party, but after one of his closest aides, Aleksandr Yakovlev, made it clear to him that trying to rescue the Party was tantamount to “serving tea to a corpse,” Gorbachev resigned as general secretary, dissolved the Central Committee, and, it seemed, put an end to the claque of Bolshevism once and for all. “The Party Is Over” was the headline dreamed up on a hundred different copy desks around the world.
The imagery of historical closure and beginning was everywhere and irresistible. Four months after the August melodrama, on the night of Christ’s birth, Gorbachev resigned, handing over his nuclear baggage to the leader of a new state with a new flag and new symbols. The red banner of the Bolsheviks was lowered from the Kremlin staffs for the last time. The red, white, and blue tricolor from the Kerensky years flew in its place. Lenin’s face disappeared from the ruble (though it did show up on T-shirts advertising the latest McDonald’s). For weeks CNN, the photographers—all of us in the press—had a field day.
The truly sly men of the Communist Party did not wait around for the cataclysm. They had long since transformed themselves into biznesmeni or konsultanti; they used their web of connections to cash in, to position themselves for what would obviously be the biggest privatization and land grab program in history. There were many ways to get rich; nearly all of them depended on some kind of connection to state power.
Men like Boris Gidaspov, a Leningrad Party chief who had made his name in the late 1980s with an ardent defense of orthodox principles in the face of Gorbachev’s heresies, seemed to disappear for a while and then reemerged in a thousand-dollar suit. By 1995, I had not heard of or seen Gidaspov for years. One afternoon at Pulkovo …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.