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 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.

But sheer opportunism and a drive for personal survival cannot account for Gorbachev’s policies. Genuine principle was involved—that is, the preservation of Party unity, socialist “property,” and the Union. It was indeed to save all this, though in a modernized and more open form, that he had embarked on the gamble of perestroika and limited democratization in the first place.

During the winter of 1991 the “creeping coup d’état” launched during the previous autumn gathered momentum with the violent attacks against the Baltic States during January, and then with the brief assignment of soldiers to patrol the Moscow streets in February. (For people with long memories, this succession of measures recalled General Jaruzelski’s step-by-step autumn buildup to his coup of December 13, 1981.)

But other developments that seemed simply bizarre at the time now make sense. Prime Minister Pavlov claimed before Parliament in January that Western aid to the Soviet Union was designed to destabilize and destroy Soviet socialism. And shortly after this speech, the government confiscated all bills larger than fifty rubles, ostensibly to reduce the monetary excess, but perhaps in fact as a preparation for “command-administrative” shock therapy to remedy the country’s now desperate economic crisis. In another speech in parliament at about the same time, the KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, accused the CIA of using promarket propaganda to destroy Soviet socialism. In retrospect, it seems that a program of rigid state controls was being devised to accompany and justify the military and police actions that had already begun.

At the end of this winter of gathering gloom Yeltsin demanded Gorbachev’s resignation, indeed even calling for a “declaration of war” against the President, statements that at the time seemed comparable in their wildness to those of Pavlov and Kryuchkov. Once again in retrospect, however, it is clear that Yeltsin anticipated that both he and Russia’s precarious new sovereignty would be the next victims of the advancing crackdown. He understood from long experience that such was the mode of operation of the Communist Party-state which, in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s phrase, was a “conspiracy in power.”

For the coup that eventually took place, for all its ineffectual planning, was not a mere “right-wing” plot of isolated conspirators. Its leaders came from Gorbachev’s own cabinet, and had all been appointed by him. Moreover, it had behind it the central institutions of the Soviet system: the Party, the planning bureaus, the police, and the army command, together with their respective nomenklaturas.

In March, these forces moved toward what they apparently thought would be the culmination of their winter campaign. Their strategy was expressed in the Party’s efforts to impeach Yeltsin, their most lucid and powerful opponent, by using a Communist plurality in the Russian Parliament to unseat him as its chairman. This very public move was thwarted by Yeltsin’s mobilization on March 28 of several hundred thousand Muscovites in the streets in direct defiance of Gorbachev’s ban against demonstrations, a ban reinforced with 50,000 troops. Yeltsin’s bold counterthrust was accompanied by strikes, from the Siberian coal mines to the Byelorussian factories, which, among other things, called for Gorbachev’s resignation.

But what went almost unnoticed at the time was that, on March 7, Gorbachev had appointed a National Security Council composed of, among others, Vice-President Gennadi Yanayev, Prime Minister Pavlov, Foreign Minister Aleksandr Besmertniykh, and Valeri Boldin, the chief of staff of Gorbachev’s personal cabinet. None of these officials opposed the August coup, and most of them turned up on its general staff. And before the attempt to impeach Yeltsin failed, they no doubt expected to complete their creeping winter coup in late March or April. But the term “coup,” whether for this period or for August, is not really the right word; for the members of this group in fact came from the Soviet establishment, and therefore they could always declare a “legal” state of emergency.

They were foiled, however, not only because Yeltsin and his followers beat them back, but also because, in response to this development, Gorbachev once again changed sides and started acting like a democrat himself. He did so, no doubt, because the embrace of the right was becoming uncomfortably tight. He may also have feared that once he had signed a declaration of emergency he might no longer be needed by his own government. But he must also have seen that Yeltsin and the liberals were now the stronger party, and it was they therefore that had to be appeased. The result was what amounted to Gorbachev’s capitulation to the left in the “Nine Plus One” Agreement of April 23, in which he abandoned his previous unshakable commitment to preserving the Union and accepted the idea of real autonomy for the republics.

This flip-flop could only have infuriated the “right,” that is, Gorbachev’s own government. And we know, in fact, that at the Central Committee meeting that took place immediately after the “Nine Plus One” accord there was a move to unseat Gorbachev, with the intention of replacing him with Anatoli Lukyanov, Gorbachev’s old Moscow University classmate, longtime right-hand man, chairman of the Supreme Soviet, and thus second in line to the succession after Vice-President Yanayev. But Gorbachev beat back this attempt, partly by arguing that the “Nine Plus One” accord was his new instrument for saving the Union, but even more by daring the Party to accept his resignation in the knowledge that they would not defy the principle of Party unity in the face of an external threat. Gorbachev survived, but this was his last successful tack, his final, and quite Pyrrhic, victory. For after this, who could trust him, right or left? He was like Aleksandr Kerensky before the October 1917 coup, who had first alienated the left by putting down the Bolshevik July days and then the right by arresting General Kornilov for allegedly preparing an August Putsch. Gorbachev was seen as a traitor both to his fellow Communists and to his more recent democratic allies: suspended in midair, he was without a base or a constituency.

From this point on the denouement of perestroika would be swift. In the June elections, the victory of Yeltsin and the liberals clearly showed that the Communists had the support only of a minority in Russia. The hitherto latent situation of dual power in the country was now clear-cut, and just as clearly weighted to the left.

Confronted with this development, the leaders of the Soviet establishment panicked; and their panic explains another bizarre incident that was inadequately appreciated at the time. In late June Pavlov went before the Supreme Soviet and demanded that decree powers normally held by the president be transferred to himself. At the same time Yazov, Kryuchkov, and Pugo told a closed session of the legislature that the country was faced with imminent disaster; they clearly implied that Gorbachev was personally responsible for failing to deal with it, indeed guilty of having provoked it. By way of response, Gorbachev went before parliament and harangued the delegates into refusing to accept Pavlov’s demands that he be stripped of his powers.

The weakness of this response is astounding. Any head of state with real power would simply have fired Pavlov and his allies for insubordination verging on sedition. That he did not do so shows that Gorbachev was no longer in control, indeed that the Soviet Union did not in fact have a coherent government, and that this situation probably went back to December and to the warning issued by Shevardnadze. Again, a parallel can be drawn with the impotent government of Kerensky during the last months before the October Revolution. Indeed, one is even reminded of the last months of Nicholas II, when he was unable to react either to the assassination of his protégé Rasputin or respond when the Duma accused the Empress and his ministers of treason.

But Gorbachev, no more than his predecessors did, seemed not to have understood the situation, and so went through the motions of government as if he were still in charge. Under continuing pressure from Yeltsin, he pursued his leftward tack by agreeing in late July to yet another draft of the Union treaty, a version that came near to dissolving the Union by giving very strong powers to the republics, conceding to them even the powers to collect taxes and to turn over only a share to the central government. At the same time, he returned home from the meeting with Bush and the other Western leaders in London with no “grand bargain,” not even a petty one. Then, in a final bravura performance before another meeting of the Central Committee, he produced a new Party platform, which jettisoned Marxism-Leninism in favor of a vague “humane and democratic socialism,” as if this deathbed conversion of the Party by verbal formula would make a difference to the country. Finally, he got the Central Committee to vote to hold a Party Congress in December, in order to buy a few more months before the issue of deposing him could be “constitutionally” raised. From subsequent events we can easily imagine the rage and desperation of the right-wing forces he himself had appointed. At this juncture, in early August, Gorbachev went to the Crimea on vacation.


In his absence, the already existing general staff of the coup moved to act. The full details will not be known until after the coming trials of the surviving guilty parties and the investigations that have already started. But in the immediate wake of August, enough became known, especially through the none-too-veiled accusations of Shevardnadze and Yakovlev, for us to surmise plausibly what happened. Lukyanov is generally thought to have been the “ideologue” of the plot, because he believed that only a state of emergency could stave off the collapse of the Party, the economy, and the Union. In his eyes Gorbachev had repeatedly proved himself incapable of any such resolute action. But Lukyanov did not actually join the future junta, and the task of organization fell to Oleg Baklanov, first deputy chairman of the Defense Council, i.e., of the military-industrial complex and therefore the senior Communist official in charge of the arms industry. In so doing, the plotters, according to reports in the Soviet press, were encouraged by the belief that Gorbachev, after Yeltsin had refused by phone to attend a meeting of the Federation Council, might now wish to back out of the new Union treaty, then scheduled for signing on Tuesday, August 20.

With such grounds for hope of a new flip-flop, Lukyanov, Baklanov, Kruychkov, and Yazov, on August 18, pressed Gorbachev to take action. Baklanov and Valentin Varennikov, the commander of the Soviet army’s land forces, and Valeri Boldin of Gorbachev’s personal cabinet, visited him in the Crimea after his phones had been cut off. They put to him an ultimatum—either sign their declaration of a state of emergency or give way to Vice-President Yanayev. Gorbachev apparently replied, in what he later called his counter-ultimatum, that he would agree to a state of emergency if it were first approved “constitutionally” by the Supreme Soviet. Since such a course would reveal the plans for declaring an emergency, this was in fact saying no, but in typically Gorbachev fashion, without doing so directly. So the top members of the government, pressed by the pending Tuesday deadline for the Union treaty’s signing, and with their preparations for a coup already underway, dispensed with the direct “constitutional” path. They fell back instead on a more oblique one. They declared the president to be incapacitated, thus putting Yanayev as vice-president in charge and so able to establish “legally” a State Committee of Emergency.

But why did the plot fizzle so farcically? We know that the resistance of Yeltsin in rallying the Moscow democrats was the main cause of the defeat. But for this to work so effectively, the Soviet establishment—the cabinet, the Party leadership, the three high officers of the KGB, and the Army—had to be capable of ineptitude and miscalculation on a Homeric scale. As Yeltsin revealed on August 25, the members of a special KGB unit that the plotters relied on to arrest him and other leaders, and to take over the Russian Parliament building, refused to follow orders. Their loyalties had not been ascertained in advance.

In part such misjudgments may be explained by haste and improvisation; but even more they showed how out of touch with Soviet reality were the leaders of a system now parasitic on the population and irrelevant to the country’s real needs. With their own careers at stake, all that these people were fighting for was the preservation of the Party, state “property,” and the Union—which Gorbachev himself had been trying to preserve in his more sophisticated manner. Unable to grasp the popularity of Yeltsin and the democratic movement, believing them to be powerless because they had no armed forces officially at their disposal, the members of the Soviet establishment thought it would be enough to secure Moscow militarily and then send out orders to the rest of the country through the state and Party apparats. In other words, their models were the intra-government coups that had deposed Khrushchev in 1964, and Beria in 1953.

The plotters thus took no military measures outside Moscow, Leningrad, and the Baltic States, and for the rest of the country they relied on the regular officer corps to obey them. But the armed forces, a majority of whom had voted for Yeltsin, were divided, and after the refusal of the special KGB units to attack, they refused to move, and the plan to secure Moscow failed. The plotters also neglected to call on the independent right-wing group, Soyuz, led by Colonel Viktor Alksnis. They even botched the mobilization of the Party out of a desire to exclude the deputy general secretary, Vladimir Ivachko, who was thought unreliable. This meant that the Central Committee Secretariat did not immediately support the coup after the Emergency Committee’s televised press conference.

These delays on Monday the 19th made it possible for Yeltsin to mobilize the Moscow public by the 20th, and so bring about the collapse of the coup on the 21st. Thus what had begun as a coup within the Party was transformed under the new democratic conditions created by a revived Russian civil society into a genuine and world-historical revolution.

But the decisive element in this outcome was that the system was too far gone in corruption and decay to be able to defend itself under any circumstances. To measure this decay two historical comparisons are apposite. The first is with General Jaruzelski’s almost flawlessly executed imposition of martial law of December 1981, at a time when both the Moscow and Warsaw regimes still had sinew and nerve. The second is with the Russian Imperial government, which by 1914 was hardly in flourishing health, but which still had to undergo three years of a bloody and futile war before it fell apart in February 1917. That an ostensibly advanced industrial nation and major international power should collapse without any shock of large-scale military defeat, after forty-five years of peace, and essentially from internal causes, is unheard of in modern history.

One of the advantages of Yeltsin and his supporters was that, unlike the Soviet establishment, they knew that the system was already only a husk. Moreover, since their brush with near doom during the winter, they were ready to act on this knowledge, and abolish the system, if ever the occasion presented itself. And many Russians, awakened and educated by the six years of perestroika, and exasperated both by the deepening crisis and by the clear ineptitude of the regime, were at last prepared to support vigorous action by the democratic leadership.

So the long-suffering population in the capital rallied to Yeltsin on the second day of the coup. By the end of the week the border republics, and even the Russian provincial heartland, hitherto the bastion of the right, began to dismantle the Party network. And they did so in large part spontaneously, without direction from the new leadership. The Dzerzhinsky monument was toppled, the red flag was replaced by the tricolor of the Provisional Government of 1917, the Lenin statues came down, and Yeltsin’s “White House,” so called because of its actual color and because of admiration for the American political system, displaced the crenellated Kremlin both as the symbol and the real power center of the emerging new order.


Russia thus had carried out a revolution similar to that of February 1917, except in one crucial respect: this time there was a coherent and popular provisional government prepared to take over. If there was any “coup” in Moscow this August, it is that of the skillful organization with which Yeltsin and the anti-Communists picked up the pieces both from the junta and from Gorbachev.

The decisiveness and the intelligence with which they moved throughout the week suggested that they had thought matters through beforehand, and even had a program and a group of qualified people ready to fill the anticipated void.

First they had prepared a political position. On Monday, August 19, when the Soviet cabinet with only one dissenting voice endorsed the coup, and while the Central Committee Secretariat simply remained silent, Yeltsin, together with Popov, Stankevich, and Sobchak publicly called for resistance. Yet they did not move to take power themselves; they called instead for the restoration of Gorbachev as the “legitimate” president, both to ensure continuity of state power and to give constitutional legitimacy to their own de facto exercise of that power. Admittedly, Soviet “constitutionality” is not worth a great deal because it derives from the Party, not the people. Still, this fig leaf of legitimacy was useful, both domestically and internationally, in the heat of the crisis. At the same time, Yeltsin dispatched the Russian foreign minister, Andrei Kosyrev, to Paris with authority to establish a provisional government in exile if things went badly.

When it turned out that the coup had failed, and Gorbachev had returned to Moscow, his restored legitimacy was liberally used by Yeltsin and his new majority in the Russian Parliament (the compromised right wing had simply decamped) to validate on national television a series of decrees that Yeltsin had issued during the interregnum, including one suspending the Communist party throughout the Russian Republic. This display of revolutionary authority has disturbed a number of people in the West. But would it have been prudent and responsible for the still unarmed democratic forces to have left such dangerous adversaries unchallenged and unaccused, with the high command of the KGB and the Army intact? The same goes for the suspension of Pravda, which is not simply a newspaper but is essentially an instrument of the Party, conforming to Lenin’s dictum that “a newspaper is a collective agitator and a collective organizer.” Many on Pravda’s staff are indeed genuine journalists; but Pravda as an institution predictably used its enormous resources to publish the plotters’ program for suppressing the democratically elected Russian leadership. Taking account of this, the Moscow liberals applauded Yeltsin’s decree to suspend its publication. Pravda’s reporters, however, may soon reorganize the paper on their own, as the journalists of Izvestia have now done.

But more important than these dramatic signals that times had changed were the two main policies of the new provisional government. The first was to destroy the institutional power of the Party in every aspect of Soviet life: the state apparatus and local government, all the economic enterprises, the Army, the KGB—everywhere. For the Party was not a party at all; it was the hidden but real force behind the formal power in every Soviet institution. It exercised this power through a nationwide network of Party cells connected to the central national authority and, until glasnost, its policies were coordinated by a ubiquitous agitprop.

This omnipresent organization, moreover, commanded everything yet produced nothing, and so lived like a parasite on the body of the nation. This is why it has long been called by many citizens a “criminal organization” and a “mafia,” and why, since perestroika, the groups that make up Russian civil society have taken up the discarded Western term “totalitarianism” to describe it. This is also why Yeltsin and his democratic allies took as their most important task the dismantling of their tentacular enemy. And this is why, finally, they moved so swiftly against it, in the heat of the crisis, without much attention to due process for an organization whose “dictatorship” had always been based on the denial of all law and on the use of terror. For they wished to leave the Party apparatus no time to recoup and hang on, as happened, for example, in Romania after the revolutionary crisis had passed.

Once again, to judge from the rapid cascade of anti-Party decrees, this program most probably had been thought through in advance. No doubt there is something residually Leninist in this process, as well as in the liberals’ willingness to ride the wave of temporary near-anarchy to produce a new order. The Party education of most of the democratic leaders no doubt taught them something about the radical manipulation of power. But again, there is a crucial difference from 1917: whereas the Bolsheviks sought to stimulate and deepen the anarchy as the “creative” expression of class struggle, the new Russian revolutionaries are now seeking to contain and calm it, so as to give their fragile democracy a chance. And insofar as the present leadership made use of the popular explosion, it was because the monolithic nature of their adversary left them no choice but to dissolve all its structures whenever the opportunity arose to do so. In such a situation, the fiction of Soviet “legitimacy” made possible by Gorbachev’s acceptance of Yeltsin’s decrees was obviously a cover; yet it provided a useful facade of continuity. The question now facing Yeltsin and his colleagues is how long they can go on using Gorbachev, who is in effect their hostage, to give legitimacy to the interim government, while preparing for new elections and negotiating new arrangements with the increasingly independent republics.

The second main goal of the new government’s policy was the systematic replacement of the old nomenklatura by young, liberal, and Westernizing professionals, who would take charge of all main sectors of the national life. Often organized in teams that were first formed as part of Yeltsin’s entourage last summer, they almost immediately started to put the Moscow “White House’s” program of radically transforming the economy into action.

The most urgent problem facing them is a completely unprecedented economic disaster whose full dimensions are still not adequately appreciated in the West: the USSR had a negative growth rate of 6 percent in 1990; and a negative growth rate of 17 percent for 1991 is estimated by the PlanEcon organization in Washington. In the worst year of the American Great Depression, 1929-1930, the drop in economic growth was 9 percent. Moreover, Soviet transport, communications, and other infrastructure are collapsing, and most Soviet capital stock is obsolete and will have to be replaced if the country is to be integrated into the competitive world market.

To attack this problem, Yeltsin told Gorbachev to appoint a special committee under Ivan Silayev, the Russian prime minister, and composed, among others, of Grigori Yavlinsky, one of the designers of the 500-Day Plan, and Arkadi Volsky, head of a major association of private and state-owned enterprises. Their mission is to put an end to the previous regime’s equivocations about moving toward a market system and privatizing the economy, and to plunge ahead, while the new government has the country’s confidence, with “shock therapy” on the Polish model, which is in fact their inspiration.

But to make the ruined Soviet economy more businesslike, this team will have to purge large numbers of the country’s managers who are too incompetent, too compromised, and too politically minded to adapt themselves to an entrepreneurial system. The aim of the planned firings, as Yeltsin and his associates have clearly said, is not a witch hunt, though part of the population, feeling swindled by seventy years of Communist fraud, would want Nuremberg-style justice. The basic approach of the economic reforms, as Yavlinsky and his group conceive them, will be to set nonpolitical, professional standards for running all economic institutions and to put the process of de-Communizing the economy on a functional basis, in which people would be judged by technical ability, not their political past. Two overriding practical considerations account for this policy, in addition to ethical ones: many of the country’s highly trained and competent personnel were in the Party, which only a few years ago had nineteen million members; and it would be folly to create legions of enemies who felt they had no choice but to organize a resistance.

The same policy of functional de-Communization and professionalization is to be applied in virtually all the other spheres of Russia’s once wholly politicized life. The two other most important spheres are the Army and the KGB. Gorbachev, on his return from the Crimea, in one of the many signs that he badly misunderstood the new situation, appointed Marshal Mikhail Moiseyev to replace Yazov, and a faceless KGB bureaucrat to replace Kryuchkov—that is, two near duplicates of their predecessors. Yeltsin immediately made him annul these actions and appoint, instead, Yevgeni Shaposhnikov, aged forty-nine, as Minister of Defense, and Vadim Bakatin, Pugo’s liberal-minded predecessor at the Interior, as head of the KGB. Between them, the Defense Ministry and the KGB have control over still another great potential danger in the current semi-chaotic situation, the huge Soviet stock of nuclear weapons dispersed over several republics. The keys and codes to this arsenal are now in the hands of Yeltsin’s men, though Gorbachev is nominally in charge along with them. The mission of Shaposhnikov and Bakatin is to carry out an extensive purge of their respective institutions, to permanently reduce the size of both, to dissolve the existing Party cells, and to put their departments under the control of a soon-to-be-elected new state authority.

The same goes for the Party itself, but in this case, since the Party’s central function was to assert political authority over the rest of society in the sacred name of “building socialism,” depoliticizing the Party will mean dissolving it, so far as public sponsorship of it is concerned. Again, Gorbachev was called upon as general secretary to announce the plans for dissolution, by which the Party’s extensive holdings, its presses and newspapers, its dachas and private hospitals, were transferred by decree to the state. All this does not mean that the Party has been banned. If convinced Marxist-Leninists want to get together to form a political association—that is, a normal party—they are free to do so under existing Soviet and Russian law.

By the end of August, President Gorbachev was also being called upon to preside over the liquidation of the pseudo-Union, together with the constitution he had granted in 1989, both of which also had been emanations of, in fact spurious democratic fronts for, the Party. For the Soviet Federation has in fact always been a unitary state, held together by force that was papered over with the lie that the purely formal self-government allowed to the republics was in some sense real. It is partly in reaction to this lie that the nationalities problem has assumed such virulence since the conflict between Armenians and Azerbaijanis at Nagorny-Karabakh erupted in 1988. For the same reason, beginning with Lithuania’s declaration of independence in March 1990, a number of the republics have taken the lead in breaking up the Soviet Union itself.

The republics have been crucial in breaking up the Soviet political system as well, for several of them, first of all Lithuania, introduced elections by universal suffrage, both for Parliament and for president. They had done so in response to what they felt to be the fraudulent “democratization” of the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies which Gorbachev convened in 1989 with a rigged suffrage. That body had been created by the Politburo so as to produce a “legislature” of reform Communists and their allies outside the Party who were to act as Gorbachev’s counterweight to the recalcitrant main-line Party. Approximately a third of the seats were reserved for the Party itself, others for various “social organizations,” and only a third for delegates to be elected by general suffrage. The Lithuanians walked out on this charade at the first gathering of the Congress in 1989 and went home to introduce universal suffrage. Lithuania’s declaration of independence then set in motion the Russian sovereignty movement, and Yeltsin imitated Vytautis Landsbergis’s strategy by using a direct presidential election to gain a legitimacy in Russia that Gorbachev did not have.

To be sure, national independence and universal suffrage are not automatically guarantees of democracy, of respect for minority rights, and of the humane toleration of difference. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the recently elected but highly authoritarian president of now independent Georgia, is an alarming example, for he has attacked ethnic minorities in Georgia and arrested political opponents. Who knows what other republics may have in store for their own minorities, including their resident Russian populations.

A prominent case in point is the eleven million Russians in the eastern Ukraine, whom Yeltsin feels obligated to protect, and whose territory the Ukrainians could not accept abandoning. On August 29 leaders of the two republics seemed sufficiently aware of the potential danger of such conflicts to have signed, in Kiev, a provisional economic and military alliance. This agreement might eventually become the basis of a new, loose post-Soviet confederation, and of a common post-Soviet economic sphere, which some of the smaller and more peripheral republics could then join.

Nevertheless, in the modern world there is only one basis for democratic legitimacy: “universal, equal, secret and direct suffrage,” in the formula of the Russian Kadets, or Constitutional Democrats, in 1905. It was for this, not for revolutionary socialism, that the workers made the October general strike. It is to this formula that the present interim government, which is also the de facto government of whatever remains of the “Union,” has made clear its intention to return, at every level from the top down. And early in September a last Congress of Peoples’ Deputies is likely to finish the task of liquidating the old Soviet order by dissolving that final vestige of perestroika and by providing for prompt and genuinely democratic elections.

For the starkest fact of the Russian Revolution of 1991 is that virtually nothing remained of the old Leninist system. No basic Communist institutions have proved salvageable for a “normal” society. In the August Revolution much of the population, as if by a sudden joint decision, refused “to live according to the lie,” in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous summons, and the entire once-intimidating structure dissolved in days. So out of a total system came total collapse.

The great question now is how one sixth of the world’s land surface, with its three hundred million inhabitants, will re-emerge, as Solzhenitsyn put it, “from under the rubble.” The rest of the planet, almost as much as Russia itself, has a world-historical stake in the outcome.

August 29, 1991

This Issue

September 26, 1991