WHEN the Red Army finally left Afghanistan in February 1989, crossing the Friendship Bridge to Uzbekistan with a little more dignity than during this year’s American exodus, the last in line was the Commander occupation forces, Boris Gromov.
A little over two years later, he was on the periphery of the attempted coup attempt to preserve the former Soviet Union. Gromov was deputy interior minister in 1991, and his boss, Boris Pugo, was a key conspirator. Gromov and his colleague General Pavel Grachev had made plans to storm the Russian parliament based in what was known as the Moscow White House.
However, the two generals changed their minds in the aftermath of the coup, winning the gratitude of Boris Yeltsin. The plot was orchestrated by KGB leader Vladimir Kryuchkov, and the general idea was either to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, or, preferably, to force him to capitulate, and roll back most of the reforms instituted since 1985.
At this point, the USSR was in deep trouble. Gorbachev’s reforms had unleashed unforeseen forces. The glasnost had been a huge success – and that meant that anyone who criticized the government leadership saw no reason to hold back. However, perestroika had floundered.
A coup attempt sounded the death knell for the USSR 30 years ago.
As Gorbachev laments in his various memoirs, the local branches of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) have decided that they are no longer bound to religiously respect the Moscow diktat. So where it interfered with their vested interests, they were simply flouting the party line, knowing that the repercussions would not be drastic.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, according to his son, called Gorbachev an “idiot” for going down this road. In Deng’s view, any meaningful economic reform was doomed to failure without the coercive influence of the Communist Party; political reform could wait.
We have seen, however, how this has worked in the context of China, where state-sanctioned capitalism has flourished as political deviations from the decreed party line result in various forms of punishment. Given his reformist predilections, this is not the kind of arrangement Gorbachev could have lived with.
Looking ahead to 1991, he struggled to maintain a kind of balance between the forces that urged him to speed up his reforms and the voices advising restraint, embodied in the Soviet parliament by Yeltsin on the reformist side and Yegor Ligachev on the opposition side. .
Gorbachev valiantly fought for a compromise, but he was out of his depth in 1990, sometimes veering to the right, sometimes dragging to the left, vastly overwhelmed by the forces he had unleashed. When asked at the end of 1990 which way he was leaning, he replied that he was going in circles.
His sense of humor escaped him when he was effectively imprisoned at his vacation home in Crimea in late August 1991, absorbing the betrayal of a wide range of his appointees, from his chief of staff to the vice president. Gennady Yanayev – whose drunken face and trembling hands betrayed the nervousness of the coup plotters as they announced their takeover.
It was all over three days later, after Muscovites invaded the streets of the capital and crucial elements of the armed forces refused to shoot their fellow citizens. In his heyday, Yeltsin climbed to the top of a tank outside the White House to express his resistance to the coup. His deputy Alexander Rutskoy was among those sent to Crimea to rescue Gorbachev, who returned to Moscow in the early hours of August 22.
The blow was over. Pugo and his wife committed suicide, but the rest of the main plotters were jailed, to be granted amnesties less than three years later. Meanwhile, Russia’s post-Soviet regime went where the conspirators had hesitated to go by bombing the White House in 1993 to thwart an attempt to impeach Yeltsin.
It is difficult to say what the fate of the Soviet Union would have been without the abortive coup. Its disintegration had already been triggered by the Baltic states – occupied in the aftermath of World War II – and could have happened anyway, albeit at a slower pace. Gorbachev had a union treaty, incorporating far greater autonomy than that previously allowed by the Soviet Union, up his sleeve in 1991. It was to be signed by the remaining constituent republics, including Russia under Yeltsin, on August 20. .
This was repelled by the coup and prevented in early December by an agreement between the Slavic components of the USSR – Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – to effectively dissolve the Soviet Union. The CPSU was dissolved in August and Gorbachev, the head of a state that no longer existed, resigned on Christmas Day.
The geopolitical repercussions continue to resonate 30 years later. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has sought to resurrect some of the less desirable aspects of the Soviet entity, but most of its saving characteristics have been irretrievably lost.
Posted in Dawn, August 25, 2021