Coup de Grace: The End of the Soviet Union

Michael Mandelbaum. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 1. 1992.

On August 24, 1991, three days after the collapse of an attempted coup by a group of high Soviet officials in Moscow, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev killed himself in his Kremlin office. Mikhail Gorbachev’s special adviser on military affairs left a suicide note: “Everything I have worked for is being destroyed.”

Akhromeyev had devoted his life to three institutions: the Soviet army, in whose service he had been wounded at Leningrad in 1941 and through whose ranks he had risen to the position of chief of the General Staff (1984-88); the Communist Party, which he had joined at 20 and on whose Central Committee he had served since 1983; and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself, officially founded a year before his birth in 1923. In the wake of the failed coup all three were disintegrating.

The armed forces were divided and disgraced. Entire units had refused to cake part in the coup. A number of the troops sent to besiege the Russian parliament building—where a crowd that ultimately numbered 100,000 had gathered to defend the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and his government—defected to Yeltsin’s side. After the coup had failed Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov and his deputy, Valentin Varennikov, were arrested. Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the newly appointed minister, announced that 80 percent of the army’s officers would be replaced because they were politically suspect.

The Communist Party was shattered. As jubilant crowds cheered, statues of communist heroes were pulled down all over Moscow. Gorbachev, shortly after his return from his ordeal in the Crimea, resigned as leader of the party, dissolved the Central Committee, ordered an end to party activity in the military, the security apparatus and the government, and told local party organizations that they would have to fend for themselves.

The union of 15 republics was itself dissolving. In Moscow people began to wave the blue, white and red flag of prerevolutionary Russia. The republics scrambled to declare their independence, the Ukrainian parliament voting for full independence by 321 to 1. For 75 years the vast stretch of Eurasia that was the Soviet Union had been tightly, often brutally controlled from Moscow, which had come to be known as “the center.” The president of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrossian, declared that “the center has committed suicide.”


The coup might have been expected to succeed. The ranks of the eight-man junta that on August 19 announced it was assuming power, proclaiming a state of emergency, banning demonstrations, closing newspapers and outlawing political parties, included the leaders of the most powerful institutions of the Soviet Union: the government, the security apparatus and the military-industrial complex. Yet they failed completely. Two minor episodes during the three dramatic days of August 19-21 exemplify the reasons for their failure.

On August 20 Yeltsin dispatched his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, to Paris to prepare a government-in-exile should that become necessary. The junta learned of the trip and sent word to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport to detain Kozyrev. He succeeded in leaving, however, because the order to stop him went to the airport’s VIP lounge while Kozyrev simply stood in the departure lines with ordinary passengers. It apparently did not occur to the plotters that a high official would fail to take advantage of the privileges available to him.

In short, the men who launched the coup were incompetent. They did not send troops and tanks in to the streets of Moscow until a full six hours after declaring the state of emergency. They neglected to seize Yeltsin immediately, thus making it possible for him to become the focal point of resistance. They failed to cut the Russian parliament’s communications with the rest of the world.

It was, to use a phrase familiar under the old regime, “no accident” that the coup-plotters bungled so badly. The people at the top of the communist system were not the best and the brightest of the society they governed. That system did not encourage or reward initiative, imagination or decisiveness. It valued, instead, dull conformity and slavish obedience to authority. Several members of the junta were later reported to have spent most of the 72 hours of the coup drunk.

The other exemplary episode took place on Monday afternoon, August 19, the first day of the coup. The junta called a press conference. Gennadi Yanaev, the vice president who had assumed Gorbachev’s duties because, he said, the president was “ill,” made a statement and fielded questions. One journalist asked whether he had sought “any suggestion or any advice through General Pinochet.” The question evoked laughter. It was meant to be sarcastic and belittling by associating the coup-plotters with the conservative Chilean dictator who had overthrown Marxist President Salvador Allende in 1974 and had thus been routinely reviled by Soviet propaganda.

The event, the question and the response were all telling. When Lenin seized power in Petrograd in November 1917 he did not feel it necessary to call a press conference to explain and justify what he had done. Nor were his successors in the habit of entertaining questions from the press. And when they did offer their thoughts in public, no one had ever dared to mock them. In Stalin’s day failing to applaud the leader vigorously enough was cause for being sent to prison—or worse.

Since Stalin’s day, however, things had changed. The Soviet Union in which Yanaev was attempting to seize power was a very different country from the one that Lenin and Stalin, indeed that Khrushchev and even Brezhnev had ruled. So different was it, in fact, that each of the three great institutions to which Marshal Akhromeyev had devoted his life was already in an advanced state of decay by August 19.

Well before it balked at the junta’s orders the army had been severely battered. In 1988 it had withdrawn from Afghanistan after nine years and 15,000 deaths without having pacified the country. The next year the revolutions in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia ended the Cold War, depriving the Soviet armed forces of what had been, for four decades, their central mission. Troops stationed in those countries had to leave; many had no homes to which to return.

Draft evasion became rampant, especially outside Russia. The army was divided politically by rank, age, region and ethnic group. Junior officers began criticizing their superiors; several were elected to all-union and republican parliaments, where they expressed dissenting views on military questions. The political leadership committed itself to substantial reductions in military spending, and proposals were floated to abolish conscription and rely instead on volunteers to fill the army’s ranks.

In all, the military suffered from a severe loss of status. In the Brezhnev era, in particular, official propaganda had glorified the mighty Soviet army as the stalwart defender of socialism. By 1991 it was despised outside Russia as an agent of imperial oppression and had come to be seen in the Russian heartland as a self-serving bureaucracy whose endless appetite for resources was bankrupting the country.

The Communist Party was similarly reeling from blows to its privileged standing before Gorbachev effectively closed it down. It was subject for the first time in six decades to open criticism, which turned into an avalanche of denunciation. Far from being the champion of the toiling masses and the vanguard of the just society, as it had always portrayed itself, the party came to be seen as a criminal conspiracy dedicated to preserving its own position. The elections of 1989 and 1990 to the national and republican supreme soviets humiliated the party, as people voted in droves against communist officeholders even when there was no opposing candidate.

Members deserted the party in enormous numbers. By one estimate four million people, fully 20 percent of the membership, had quit the party in the year immediately preceding the coup. In some places the local party apparatus simply disintegrated. Gorbachev renounced the long-standing and fundamental communist claim to a monopoly of power, and the month before the coup he pushed through a party charter that virtually abandoned the formerly sacred precepts of Marxism-Leninism. After his election as Russian president, Yeltsin ordered party cells in workplaces throughout Russia dissolved, challenging the basis of the communist grip on the everyday lives of the people of the Soviet Union.

As for the union itself, it was well on the way to becoming a hollow shell even before the republics began to declare independence in the coup’s wake. The republican elections had brought to power governments determined not simply to take orders from Moscow, as had been the rule in Soviet politics for decades. Each of the 15 republics had proclaimed itself “sovereign,” meaning that its own laws took precedence over those of the center. Ukraine, the second most important of them after Russia, was moving to recruit its own armed forces and issue its own currency.

On the eve of the coup nine republics were preparing to sign a new union treaty, which would have deprived Moscow of virtually all economic power and left the republics with the right both to challenge any powers the center retained and to secede if they were dissatisfied with the new arrangements. The prospect of this new union treaty probably triggered the coup attempt, for it would have eliminated most of the functions of precisely those organizations that the plotters headed. The coup was a last-ditch attempt to preserve their own power. But that power had already been severely eroded. As the political scientist William Taubman put it at the time: “The coup occurred because of all the changes that have taken place, and it failed because of all the changes that have taken place.” The coup-plotters struck to restore the old order; the result of their failure was to put it out of its misery. What began as a coup d’etat to preserve it turned out to be the coup de grace for the Soviet Union.


How did all this come about? How did it happen that a mighty imperial state, troubled but stable only a few years before, had come to the brink of collapse in 1991? Who and what were responsible?

The chief architect of the Soviet collapse was Mikhail Gorbachev himself. During the coup, as a prisoner of the junta in his Crimean villa, he was the object of a struggle between the partisans of the old order and the champions of liberal values. But it was Gorbachev who had, in the period between his coming to power in 1985 and the fateful days of August 1991, created the conditions that had touched off this struggle.

The Soviet leader had created them unintentionally. His aim had been to strengthen the political and economic systems that he inherited, to strip away their Stalinist accretions and make the Soviet Union a modern dynamic state. Instead he had fatally weakened it. Intending to reform Soviet communism he had, rather, destroyed it. The three major policies that he had launched to fashion a more efficient and humane form of socialism—glasnost, democratization and perestroika—had in the end subverted, discredited and all but done away with the network of political and economic institutions that his Communist Party had constructed in Russia and surrounding countries since 1917.

The policy of glasnost relaxed bureaucratic controls on information, broadened the parameters of permitted discussion and thereby enabled the people of the Soviet Union to say more, hear more and learn more about their past and present. Gorbachev’s purpose had been to enlist the intelligentsia in his campaign to revitalize the country and to generate popular pressure on the party apparatus, which had resisted the changes he was trying to make. He plainly wanted to encourage criticism of his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, and to resume the campaign against Stalin that Khrushchev had launched but that Brezhnev had ended.

Glasnost, however, did not stop there. The sainted Lenin, and even Gorbachev himself, came in for critical attention. Gorbachev wanted to foster a reassessment of some selected features of Soviet life. Instead glasnost called all of it into question, including, ultimately, the role of the general secretary of the Communist Party.

More broadly, the people of the Soviet Union were able for the first time to speak the truth about their history and their lives. That meant that they could learn the truth and could acknowledge it to one another. The effect was cathartic, and the catharsis had a profound, indeed a revolutionary, impact on Soviet politics. It began to undo the enduring effects of the terror that the Communist Party had routinely practiced during its first three decades in power. Of the first wave of that terror, imposed not by Stalin in the 1930s but by Lenin during the civil war, the historian Richard Pipes has written:

The Red Terror gave the population to understand that under a regime that felt no hesitation in executing innocents, innocence was no guarantee of survival. The best hope of surviving lay in making oneself as inconspicuous as possible, which meant abandoning any thought of independent public activity, indeed any concern with public affairs, and withdrawing into one’s private world. Once society disintegrated into an agglomeration of human atoms, each fearful of being noticed and concerned exclusively with physical survival, then it ceased to matter what society thought, for the government had he entire sphere of public activity to itself.

Glasnost enabled the people of the Soviet Union to lay claim to the public sphere after seven decades of exile from it. Through democratization they had the opportunity, for the first time, to act collectively in that sphere. Gorbachev’s purpose in permitting elections, again, was to generate popular support for his program. Democratization was to be a political weapon in his battle against the Communist Party apparatus. That apparatus was deeply entrenched, wholly mistrustful of what he was trying to do and generally adept at frustrating his plans. The experiment in democracy that he launched did not demonstrate, as Gorbachev had hoped, that he enjoyed popular support. Rather it showed that two widely held beliefs about the political inclinations of the people of the Soviet Union were wrong.

Elections discredited the official dictum that the Communist Party had earned public gratitude and support for the “noble, far-sighted” leadership it had provided since 1917. They discredited, as well, the view held by many Western students of the Soviet Union that the party did have a measure of legitimacy in the eyes of the population. Its achievements in defeating fascism between 1941 and 1945 and providing a modestly rising living standard thereafter were thought to have earned it a measure of respect, which was reinforced by the political passivity, the resignation to things as they are, that was presumed to be the dominant Russian approach to public life. The elections of 1989 and 1990 showed the people of the Soviet Union to be neither respectful of nor resigned to communist rule.

Democratization also created the opportunity for the beginnings of an alternative to the communist political elite to emerge. In Russia its main orientation was anticommunism, and Boris Yeltsin became its leading figure. Outside Russia the opportunity for political participation revealed that popular political allegiance was not to socialism, or the Soviet Union, or to Mikhail Gorbachev, but rather to nationalism, which was deeply anti-Soviet in character.


Glasnost and democratization were, for Gorbachev, means to an end. That end was the improvement of Soviet economic performance. Economic reform was the central feature of his program. When he came to power in 1985 the Soviet elite believed that the regime’s principal task was to lift the country out of the economic stagnation into which it had lapsed at the end of the Brezhnev era. Without revived economic growth, they feared, the Soviet Union would fall ever further behind the West in economic and perhaps in military terms. Ultimately it risked being overtaken by China, where Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms were producing a surge of growth.

Stagnation posed dangers at home as well. Without economic growth the regime would be unable to fulfill its part of the unofficial “social contract,” under whose terms the public renounced any say over public affairs in return for a slowly rising standard of living. The revolt of the Polish workers in 1980-81 under the banner of Solidarity served as a cautionary example for the men in the Kremlin.

At first Gorbachev continued the approach that Yuri Andropov had begun in 1982: he tried to impose greater discipline on the work force. The centerpiece of his initial set of economic measures was a highly publicized and intrusive public campaign against the consumption of alcohol. It earned Gorbachev the title of “Mineral Water General Secretary,” but did not noticeably reduce Russian drinking. Instead, by forcing people to make their own liquor rather than buying it from the state, the campaign caused shortages of sugar and deprived the government of a large chunk of its income.

This, in turn, contributed to Gorbachev’s most enduring and destructive economic legacy: a severe fiscal imbalance. The center’s obligations expanded as it poured more and more money into investment and tried to buy public support with generous wage increases. At the same time its income plummeted, as republican governments and enterprises, having gained more power, refused to send revenues to Moscow. In the months before the coup the republics were engaged in what was, in effect, one of the largest tax strikes in history. The fiscal policy of the Brezhnev regime had been relatively strict; Gorbachev’s was extremely lax. To cover the widening gap between obligations and income the central government printed rubles at an accelerating pace. By August 1991 the economy was reeling.

In the great historical drama that is the collapse of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev was neither a villain nor a fool—although in retrospect some of the things he did came to seem foolish. He was not a Western-style democrat, but it is scarcely conceivable that someone committed to Western political principles could have risen to the top of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His view of socialism, however muddled and contradictory, was plainly more humane than the reality of the system for which he inherited responsibility. For most of his time in power, moreover, he had to fight against the conservatism of that system, which expressed itself mainly in inertia but occasionally in active opposition to his designs. If he came increasingly to seem a political maneuver, it was because he had to maneuver—or believed that he had to maneuver—to survive in power and to protect the liberal measures already taken.

Finally, and most important, Mikhail Gorbachev’s character, however flawed, was marked by a basic decency missing in every previous leader of the Soviet Union and indeed in every ruler of imperial Russia before that. He abjured one of the principal methods by which his predecessors had governed. He refused to shoot. He refused—with the exception of several episodes in the Baltics and the Caucasus in which civilians were killed—to countenance the use of violence against the citizens of his country and of eastern Europe, even when what they did dismayed, angered or appalled him. For this alone he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he received in the fall of 1990 and deserves as well the place of honor he will occupy in the history of the twentieth century.

But after August 21 Gorbachev belonged to history, not to the ongoing political life of what had been the Soviet Union. Although he was rescued from enemies who had only recently been colleagues, the act of rescue swept away the institutional platform on which he had stood. He had made his career as a reformer of communism. In the aftermath of the coup there was nothing left to reform.

After the coup failed Russia’s second city reverted to the name it had borne before the revolution. Leningrad once again became St. Petersburg. The change symbolized a larger development: everything communism had built since 1917 was now either repudiated or destroyed. It was as if all of the twentieth century had been suddenly repealed. The economic and political systems that had bound together the three hundred million people of what had once been the Soviet Union lay in ruins, leaving uncoordinated fragments. For these people 1991 was what the historian John Lukacs called 1945 for Europeans: Year Zero.

After several months of drift the two most important pieces of the former Union, Russia and Ukraine, undertook to build a new political structure in its place. On December 1 the people of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence and at the same time elected Leonid Kravchuk, former leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party, as their president. Armed with this mandate, Kravchuk met Yeltsin and Byelorussian President Stanislav Shushkevich at the Byelorussian town of Brest and on December 8 formed the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The signatories were at pains to distinguish their new creation from the old Soviet Union. It was not, they emphasized, a state but rather a grouping of sovereign states, like the British Commonwealth or the European Community. Its headquarters were to be located not in Moscow but in the Byelorussian capital, Minsk. The non-Slavic republics of the old union were not included in the Commonwealth’s founding meeting, and Mikhail Gorbachev learned of it only after it had taken place.

Other republics protested, and two weeks later, on December 22, in the Kazakh capital, Alma-Ata, the Commonwealth was “refounded,” this time including 11 of the former Soviet republics. Gorbachev also objected to the new association. Since August he had tried to assemble a new, looser union. Yeltsin had been content to let him try. In the wake of the Ukrainian referendum, however, it became clear that Ukrainian authorities would not join any entity headed by Gorbachev. Yeltsin therefore abandoned him. After December 8 Gorbachev launched a last flurry of meetings in an attempt to salvage a position for himself, issued apocalyptic warnings about the fate of the Commonwealth, then gave up. On Christmas Day, 1991, he resigned as president of a country that no longer existed.

The Commonwealth was important not for the details of its founding agreement, which were vague, incomplete and immediately subject to differing interpretations. It was significant, rather, as a compromise as a recognition of the need to compromise—between two powerful forces in the former Soviet Union: the impulse for independence from the all-powerful central authority of the Soviet era, which was vividly apparent in the Ukrainian referendum; and the need to cooperate so as to manage the series of issues with which none of the former republics could successfully cope on its own.

So numerous and powerful were the connections among the former republics that, having achieved independence, they were like men roped together on a ship and then thrown overboard. To keep from drowning they would have to work together; but they did not necessarily wish to be tied to one another forever.

Among the critical questions they had to settle, which were of particular concern to the West, was who would control the huge Soviet military establishment and, in particular, its nuclear weapons. The Commonwealth agreement suggested the maintenance of a unified command structure for the armed forces. But several of the former republics announced that they would field their own armies. Ukrainian estimates of the size of its future force varied from 100,000 to 400,000. Authorities in Kiev also laid claim to the Black Sea fleet of the Soviet navy, a claim Russian leaders disputed.

On the sensitive subject of nuclear armaments Yeltsin announced that the 12,000 long-range “strategic” weapons—those capable of reaching North America—would come under Russian control. However, he added, the presidents of the three other republics where they were deployed—Ukraine, Byelorussia (renamed Belarus) and Kazakhstan—would each have a veto over launching until these weapons could be removed from their territories. As for the 15,000 shorter-range “tactical” nuclear weapons scattered throughout the former Soviet Union, several former republics, notably including Ukraine, announced that they would rid themselves of these as well. The government of Kazakhstan, however, said that it would keep some nuclear weapons as long as Russia had them.

Both positions were reversible; unlike Kazakhstan, Ukraine is big enough and rich enough to acquire its own independent nuclear arsenal should it choose to do so. The nuclear policies of the successor states of the Soviet Union will ultimately depend on relations among them, and especially the relations of the others with Russia, which will remain a large nuclear power. Of all these relationships the one between Russia and Ukraine is by far the most important.

Twelve million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine, most of them concentrated in its eastern region. The Crimean peninsula was historically part of Russia—Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine only in 1954—and voted by only 56 percent for independence in the December 1 Ukrainian referendum that produced 90 percent majorities elsewhere. The city of Odessa, now also part of Ukraine, has historically served as Russia’s main port on the Black Sea. As one republic after another declared independence in the wake of the coup, a statement issued in President Yeltsin’s name warned that Russia would reserve the right to review its borders with any neighboring republic that seceded. Yeltsin subsequently pledged that Russia would respect existing borders. But it is not difficult to imagine circumstances—friction between Crimean Russians and the Ukrainian government in Kiev, for example—that would generate public pressure in Russia for him to revoke that pledge or bring to power another leader who would renounce it.

At the formation of the Commonwealth all the new states echoed Yeltsin’s promise not to dispute the borders between and among them. However, these borders were drawn by Lenin and Stalin, often with an eye to dividing and thus weakening ethnic and national groups, and thus some are likely to be challenged. Ukraine alone, for example, has potential border disputes not only with Russia but with Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Moldova (formerly the Soviet republic, Moldavia) as well.

However the borders are drawn or redrawn, millions of people will be left in states dominated by members of other ethnic and national groups. A dispute over the rights of Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in the republic of Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, has led to bloodshed that has claimed thousands of lives and made refugees of hundreds of thousands of people from both communities. There are dozens of potentially similar situations: Poles in Lithuania, Tatars in Russia, Tadjiks in Uzbekistan and Russians virtually everywhere outside Russia.

Even if the borders among them are settled, this will not resolve the fundamental political question that the successor states confront: How are they to be governed? The character of their governments is bound to vary. On the whole the chances for stable democracy are probably greater the farther west the new state is located. Ukraine and Russia both have governments committed to democracy, but both face obstacles in trying to establish firmly grounded democratic political systems. Neither has ever had the opportunity to develop the institutions on which democracy depends: political parties, legislatures, independent courts. Neither has been fertile soil for the cultivation of the attitudes and values that are the oxygen of democracy: tolerance, the willingness to compromise, respect for differing opinions.

Historically, moreover, democracy is difficult to establish and sustain in pluralistic societies that include several large ethnic or national groups, and none of the successor states will be homogeneous. Democracy is also difficult to establish and sustain in conditions of economic collapse, and those were, unhappily, the conditions that prevailed in the former Soviet Union at the end of 1991.


Inflation was rampant. Gorbachev’s government had flooded the country with rubles. Because prices in the old Soviet Union were set by administrative fiat rather than by the market, they did not immediately soar. Instead a large “monetary overhang” of rubles was created, money held unwillingly by individuals because there was nothing on which to spend it.

One consequence familiar from inflationary episodes at other times in other places was apparent: a flight from the official currency. Channels of distribution that relied on the ruble—including government food stores in the large cities—dried up. Transactions were increasingly made for hard currency or through barter. This caused industrial output to drop, agricultural producers to withhold their crops and hoarding to increase everywhere.

There is general agreement in the West about what is needed to rescue the people of the former Soviet Union from their economic catastrophe: sweeping, simultaneous programs of stabilization and liberalization. Governments must stop printing money and reduce their subsidies to enterprises and individuals while freeing prices so that they can be set by supply and demand rather than by planners’ decisions. At the same time governments must act to promote competition by breaking up the concentrations that characterized virtually every industry in the Soviet period. They must also begin to divest themselves of their societies’ economic assets and put them in private hands. They must create real markets for capital and labor. They must begin the process of integrating their countries into the world economy, an important part of which is to make their currencies freely convertible.

None of these steps is simple. Privatization, for example, requires enacting laws that guarantee private ownership; assigning values to thousands of enterprises; setting procedures for selling those enterprises that may include distributing vouchers equal to a certain number of shares to every citizen, as the government of Poland is doing; recruiting and training managers to operate the enterprises under competitive conditions—and then actually transferring all this property to private hands.

Together the major elements of a program of stabilization and liberalization make for an agenda of staggering proportions, one without any close historical parallel. They involve a top-to-bottom revolution of the economic life of what was once the Soviet Union. While he had power Gorbachev could not bring himself to attempt the task. Yeltsin committed himself to doing so. By his order official prices on all but a handful of goods rose sharply on January 2, 1992, and Yeltsin pledged to undertake the rapid privatization of shops, farms and factories.

Yeltsin’s government, however, may lack the administrative capacity to carry out the transition from a centrally controlled to a market economy. Just how far beyond Moscow into the Russian heartland his writ actually runs was far from clear as 1992 began. Ironically, after suffering for centuries from governments that were excessively, suffocatingly powerful, Russia’s efforts to reproduce the institutions that have brought freedom and prosperity to the West may be fatally handicapped by the present weakness of its governmental structures.

Even if it can enact the necessary measures, moreover, the Russian government will face yet another test: enduring the political unpopularity that they are bound to produce. In the short term they will make people poorer as prices rise and subsidies dwindle. Food, clothing and shelter will become more expensive in a country where already many are barely getting by. Hundreds of factories will be unable to survive under competitive conditions, throwing millions of people out of work.

Ultimately these measures will produce a market system that will harness initiative and ingenuity and allocate resources rationally. But this will require time, time for new institutions to take root and time for people to learn new skills such as banking, accounting and marketing. Between the initial shock of measures for stabilization and liberalization and the ultimate benefits of a market economy lies a long and difficult passage. Along the way the temptation will be considerable to stop, to retreat, to adopt populist remedies for economic hardship, and above all to cast aside governments responsible for the hardship.

It will be especially tempting for Russians to reject a draconian program of economic transition because some of the normal features of life in a market economy—sharp inequalities of income, unemployment, the failure of efforts to launch and sustain business are unfamiliar to them and indeed were anathematized in the Soviet Union for 75 years. Socialism may be dead in Russia, but socialist values live on.

It is thus difficult to contemplate the months ahead with optimism. Ugly precedents for the Russian future from the history of the twentieth century come all too readily to mind. The last time an imperial government collapsed in Russia, in 1917, there followed four chaotic and bloody years of civil war. The last time a deep economic depression struck major European countries, it brought to power a murderous government in Germany that began the costliest war in human history. The last time a great multinational empire broke apart separating two large communities after centuries of being ruled together, millions of people fled their homes on each side of the new border between India and Pakistan and hundreds of thousands died.

None of these grim outcomes is impossible in the former Soviet Union. Nor can a repetition of the events of August, this time with a less happy conclusion, be ruled out. The junta advertised its effort to seize power as a way of restoring order. The appeal evoked no response. As conditions worsen, however, it will become increasingly attractive. Where the coup-plotters of August failed, a more determined and brutal group, in circumstances of growing privation and mounting chaos, might succeed.

And yet, as they enter the postcommunist era, the successor states of the Soviet Union, and Russia in particular, carry with them three assets that give grounds for hope that the worst can be avoided.


Tradition has it that in 1789 King Louis XVI of France referred to the storming of the Bastille and the events that followed as a riot, only to be corrected by the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, who said, “No, sire, it is a revolution.” If the word “reform” is substituted for “riot” the exchange applies to what was once the Soviet Union. What Gorbachev wrought began as a reform but ended as a revolution. The social, political and economic processes that culminated in the failed coup were comparable in scope and importance to the two great transforming upheavals of the modern era, the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917.

What has happened in the Soviet Union is revolutionary in the sense that, as in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, the top layer of the old order has been removed. Communist officials remain in place all over Russia, still able to block changes, but the communist system is headless and so cannot operate in the old way.

The ruling ideology, the justification and glue of the old regime, is thoroughly discredited. Marxism-Leninism’s claim to scientific status has been exposed as a fraud, the party’s claim to heroic leadership as a lie. A dwindling band of believers no doubt remains, but it lacks the numbers or the depth of conviction necessary to rally broad popular support. In its public messages the junta did not even bother to refer to ideology. There was no mention in any of its statements of the October revolution, the class struggle or the leading role of the party. The coup-plotters told the world they were seizing power to restore order, not communism.

The communist economic model has also lost all credibility. No one now believes, as Soviet leaders insisted for decades, that a planned, centrally controlled system is the most rational and efficient form of economic organization, one that will deliver, sooner or later, a higher standard of living than the market economies of the West.

A revolution, in short, has overthrown communism. This is the first great asset the peoples of the former Soviet Union possess. For communism imposed upon them the most repressive set of political structures devised in the twentieth century. It brought poverty and oppression to millions for decades. Russia and its neighbors are well rid of it. In its ruins they at least have the chance to build something better.

So thoroughly has the old order been destroyed and discredited that there is no sign of a counterrevolutionary movement, of the kind that arose to oppose the other two great modern revolutions. There is unlikely to be a post-Soviet version of the uprising in the Vendee in France in 1793 or of the White armies that fought the Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1921.

The broad and passionate internal opposition to the French and Russian revolutions contributed to their bloody, repressive character, in particular to the terror that was visited upon France in the eighteenth century and, on a much larger scale, on Russia in the twentieth. There is reason to hope that the peoples of what was once the Soviet Union can escape these horrors. In any event, while they may once again be subject to repressive governance, it will not take the form of communist rule. The fragile democratic structures in Russia and the other successor states to the Soviet Union are certainly threatened, but more by chaos and misery than by fanatical ideologies. Russia today has a second asset, which also distinguishes it from revolutionary France after 1789 and revolutionary Russia after 1917: its relations with the rest of the world. The previous revolutions were deeply at odds with other sovereign states. The revolutionaries saw the conquest of power in their own countries as merely the first step in a campaign to overturn the reactionary, obsolete regimes outside their borders. The French and Russian revolutionaries conceived of themselves as the bearers of a set of principles that were both radical and universal. Each revolution led to a great European and, in the second case, global conflict. The wars of the French Revolution continued, in one form or another, for more than two decades. The Bolsheviks were at odds with the West for almost the entire time that they held power; the period known as the Cold War lasted 45 years.

The revolution of 1991, by contrast, was made in the name of the political and economic principles that predominate outside the Soviet Union. The revolutionaries do not aim to create a new and heretofore unseen kind of society. They wish simply to emulate the societies they see on the other side of what was once the Iron Curtain. They want to join, not overturn, the West. Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s vice president, expressed their outlook: “Either we shall live like the rest of the world, or we shall continue to call ourselves the ‘Socialist Choice’ and ‘the Communist Prospect’ and live like pigs.”

The rest of the world, in turn, is well disposed to this revolution. The question that confronts the West is not how to contain the new Russian regime and the other successor states but how to help them. Just what help will be provided will be debated and decided over the months ahead. But the West will surely make certain that the condition most dangerous to the fledgling democracies, one that proved fatal to the French and Russian monarchies in 1789 and 1917, is avoided: critical food shortages in the major cities. Of the uprising of 1789 the historian Simon Schama has written: “It was the connection of anger with hunger that made the Revolution possible.” The West can do little to remove the multiple sources of anger that afflict the peoples of the former Soviet Union; but it can keep them from hunger.

The people of Russia face life without communism with a third asset: the coup itself, and the way it was defeated. The euphoria that its defeat produced throughout Russia quickly dissipated. Only a tiny fraction of the population of Moscow, it was noted—about one percent-actively resisted the coup. The crowd that surrounded the Russian parliament building was made up mainly of students and intellectuals; it was hardly a cross-section of Russian society. On Monday Yeltsin called for a nationwide general strike, but on that day and the two that followed most people throughout the country, including Moscow, went to work as usual.

Still the basic facts remain. A handful of brave Russians stood up for freedom. They risked their lives to prevent a return to the kind of oppressive rule their country had known for 75 years under communism and for centuries before that under the tsars.

The defeat of the coup is a potent symbol, and symbols are important in political life. Every political culture—the collection of habits, beliefs and assumptions that underlie public life—needs them. Every society needs founders, heroes and stories that embody its values and can be ritually retold and celebrated. The defeat of the coup provides all of these for something that has never before existed: Russian democracy.

Even stripped of exaggeration and myth it is a story both heroic and exemplary, and one from which succeeding generations can learn the lessons of democratic governance: the danger of tyranny; the need for individual initiative, responsibility and sometimes bravery; the power of people united in common cause. Under the eyes of eternity August 1991 may become for the people of Russia what 1688 is for the British, 1776 for Americans and 1789 for the French: the moment when they broke with the old habits of obedience, passivity and resignation and asserted their rights—and assumed their responsibilities—as citizens.