The Roots of Dissolution

The coup of August 19, 1991, and the recent formation of a commonwealth have dramatized the extent to which basic political assumptions have been transformed in what we used to call the Soviet Union. As recently as August, in the two hectic days when the Emergency Committee ruled, most Western observers reacted as if they were unaware of this change. They immediately assumed that the coup would be successful, and started writing obituaries of the Gorbachev era. In London, the usually reliable Independent devoted its weekend color supplement to a post-mortem—which by that weekend had already been brusquely upstaged by the revival of the corpse. Decades of living with totalitarian communism had accustomed us all to the grim moment of truth, when the bright hopes raised by this or that reformer are summarily crushed by tanks.

This time, however, the tanks moved in such a half-hearted manner that a barricade of trolleybuses and a handful of gasoline bombs were sufficient to restrain them. Why were the plotters so cautious? Martin Malia offered an explanation in these pages1 “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.” Peter Reddaway, on the other hand, questioned whether a civil society had yet taken shape, and warned us: “The current political order is highly confused: it is not pregnant with a new order.”2

One can agree with both of them. Civil society—in the sense of political and social movements independent of the state—has become a real factor in Soviet politics, but it has done so in conditions that must make us cautious about prospects for establishing a stable and peaceful order. It is not very surprising that, in a huge multinational state which is coming apart, the early stages of civil society should prove turbulent. If one examines the reasons for the coup’s failure, then the crowds that gathered around the White House in Moscow are only a part of the explanation. They could have been dispersed, or massacred, by a determined leadership with the army on its side, as happened on Tiananmen Square two years earlier. But that is precisely the point: the usurpers were irresolute because, at the decisive moment, they found the army and KGB were not a hundred percent behind them.

In that respect the White House of the Russian Parliament was more important as a symbol than the crowds around it. When it came to the decisive moment, a good many army and KGB officers declined to respond to the traditional call to protect the Union, or to the familiar slogans of the Communist Party, for this time there was a rival source of authority, and one with a more cogent claim to their allegiance. Only a few weeks before, many of them had voted for Boris Yeltsin as the first popularly elected president of Russia. When he clambered on top of a tank, exposed the…

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