The August Revolution

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin; drawing by David Levine


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…

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