The Death of Soviet Communism

Seweryn Bialer. Foreign Affairs. Volume 70, Issue 5. Winter 1991/1992.

In the dark winter of 1999-91 many asked how the Soviet Union, trying to save itself, would end. With a bang or a whimper? King Solomon would have liked the answer that came after three historic days in August 1991: it ended with both. Those fateful days were obviously a potentially deadly putsch, but also a failure of such enormous proportions that they cannot even be considered a full-fledged coup d’etat. While the putschists arrested Mikhail Gorbachev, their real targets escaped: Boris Yeltsin, Democratic Russia and the separatist republics. That failure has not only contributed to the myth surrounding the emergence of a new Russian state, but it also pushed the Soviet Union well beyond any parameters envisioned by the very process of reform the putschists were attempting to stem.

Gorbachev emerged in March 1985 from the struggle among his Politburo colleagues to become general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and the effective leader of the Soviet state. At that time the Soviet Union seemed a very weary yet immensely powerful country. It was decaying economically, but politically it still appeared to be stable. The crisis in the Soviet regime was over its domestic and international effectiveness; its survival was not in doubt. Even before they took power, however, Gorbachev and his closest associates realized their country was stagnating, but they termed it a “pre-crisis situation.” So although they perceived some crisis of effectiveness in the regime, they did not yet comprehend its depth. They thought the regime only needed reform.

Six and a half years later the Soviet Union and Soviet communism were dead. What happened in those years that finally led to disintegration rather than salvation through grand reform? What happened to Mikhail Gorbachev? He once seemed an immensely energetic and attractive leader, speaking about national renewal by a new generation of leaders in words almost reminiscent of John F. Kennedy. Yet today one cannot forget the image of that worn man as he descended the ramp from the aircraft that brought him back to Moscow from his Crimean captivity.

To answer these questions one must first examine the various economic, social and political trends in place even before the Gorbachev leadership attempted its reforms. Only then can the response by Soviet leaders and institutions be assessed, and the summer’s dramatic outcome be properly understood.


After Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, two extraordinary successions within a period of three years served to demonstrate the severity of the Soviet crisis that had been accelerating since the mid-1970s. Yuri Andropov, who immediately succeeded Brezhnev and who is considered Gorbachev’s “founder,” understood the need for change. During his short term he took both ideological and political steps to try to prepare the Soviet Union’s ruling elites for a more efficient, disciplined and realistic communist regime. Under his tenure the brooding dissatisfaction of the regime’s intelligentsia became more vocal and daring. This was the crucial gestation period for Gorbachev’s views. Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, once pointed out to a visiting American first lady the picture of Andropov in her residence, saying, “This is the man to whom we owe everything.” She was right.

But in some ways, and for very different reasons, the brief reign of Konstantin Chernenko provided the real catalyst for change. Chernenko’s absolute grayness and incompetence engendered in the communist intelligentsia, parts of the elite and, of course, the Soviet people themselves a particular feeling of not only hopelessness but also deep embarrassment and shame. Hopes for a dynamic new leader who would make some change were completely buried.

The Soviet economic crisis was clearly visible in declining growth rates, increasing scarcity of exploitable resources and, most important, the worsening imbalance between military production and that for the general economy, especially consumer goods. The Soviet economy and society seemed mobilized for war, much more than even Nazi Germany at the height of World War II. In the consumer sector a very large portion of the capital stock was not only underproductive but was also simply at the limit of its physical capacity. Yet it was not being replenished. In the 10 years before perestroika began, according to Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, only 15 percent of investment in the Russian republic went to consumer industries. Military industries, on the other hand, were continuously supplied with new technologies. Certain farsighted generals, especially those in technical services, tried to break the hold of traditional strategy that emphasized numerical superiority, only to be thwarted by high command.

The enormous Soviet bureaucracies, including the party apparatus, shifted from the limited autonomy of the Stalinist era toward a more corporatist system. They increasingly neglected their goal of service to the state and society in favor of self-aggrandizement. Political and economic corruption, which has existed throughout Soviet history—tempered somewhat by fear—increased systematically in the years before Gorbachev came to power. The size of the “second” or illegal “shadow” economy eventually accounted for 25 to 30 percent of the market and became essential to the functioning of the economy as a whole. Moreover corruption was less and less camouflaged, and by the end of the Brezhnev era many in the bureaucracy were almost openly accepting sizable bribes. It is likely that the party apparatus had previously been less involved in illegal enrichment than the administrative bureaucracy. But it, too, was becoming as bad as other bureaucracies, especially at its lower levels. In the mid-1980s a private Soviet “businessman” even commented, “You know, I would have never thought that there would come a time when I would walk into a Raikom a regional Communist Party Committee! and talk serious business.”

The corruption of the bureaucracies only separated them further from the people they were supposedly in place to serve. The actual depoliticization of the people themselves, in the world’s most ceremonially political regime, went so far that cynicism, hopelessness and passivity developed as a shield against the authorities. It thus became increasingly difficult to mobilize the population in almost any sphere of life.

The quality of the Soviet leadership was deteriorating as well, especially at the top, but also in the middle. This was true not only in terms of intelligence and organizational talent, let alone commitment, but also in a physical sense. Members of the Politburo and Central Committee of the Communist Party were aged, dogmatic and lacked spark. The respect and fear they once generated were rapidly declining in an increasingly young and educated country. Yet the party elites loved Brezhnev. Nikita Khrushchev may have given them security from threats to their lives, but Brezhnev gave them security in office, the good life, the blessing of domestic tranquility and tolerance—unless, of course, they crossed him personally. There were nevertheless many younger provincial party secretaries as well as officials of the central apparatus who were growing impatient waiting for promotion.

The weakness of political dissent within the Soviet Union was also important to the crisis. Under Khrushchev and in the early Brezhnev years political dissent grew rapidly and had great importance beyond its actual influence inside the Soviet Union. It planted seeds of antitotalitarianism and anticommunism in the native soil, especially among the young intelligentsia, and showed the West that the spirit of freedom was not dead in Russia. But by the late 1 970s and early 1 980s the most important dissenters were either silenced or abroad. Sympathy for their ideas was growing, but the political potential for active dissent inside the Soviet Union seemed to have sunk to a low. Dissent could have become immensely important to a process of renewal, if only internal conditions for its development would have changed.

Finally the nationalities question in the Soviet Union—relations between non-Russian nations and ethnic groups and the Russian center—was also important. It was potentially the most lethal yet insoluble crisis in the system, because both modernization and backwardness worked against Moscow. To the extent that non-Russian ethnic regions maintained underdeveloped, peasant cultures, the depth of their attachment to traditional national culture and its religious context remained extraordinarily strong. These regions therefore were able to resist with surprising force subordination to Russian culture or submersion in the supranational conception of the Soviet state. Alternately, to the extent that non-Russian regions were swept up by the tide of modernization, they developed an intensely urban-centered orientation. The newly educated classes and the creative and managerial intelligentsia became the main carriers of this new kind of ethnic identity. Thus lack of development led to cultivation of old ethnic identities, while the process of modernization only created new strains.

Even by the time perestroika began, communism had not been able to create a Soviet “nation.” Soviet federalism contained a potentially dangerous dualism. It denied all but the slimmest margin of autonomy to federated nationalities. At the same time, its symbolic institutions and administrative framework provided the base from which the struggle for national autonomy could be waged. There were communist elites and part of the intelligentsia who had diverse ethnic origins. But even here tension between Russian and non-Russian segments was quite pronounced. An overwhelming majority of non-Russian communist elites worked exclusively in their own native republics. Their careers stopped at their republics’ borders, and their promotion to the center in Moscow was very limited. With their vertical mobility thus constrained, they pressed hard to extend control within their own republics, at the cost of the center.

During the late Brezhnev period a process described as “feudalization” became highly pronounced in the non-Russian republics, particularly in Central Asia and Transcaucasia. These republics became truly the fiefdoms of long-entrenched native communist leaderships and elites. These elites paid lip service to Moscow and enormous bribes to central inspectors; they amassed fortunes and engaged in an intricate network of private “business” contacts. (My favorite example is from Usbekistan, where a harvest of one million tons of cotton was hidden from Moscow and sold for private profit.) These centrifugal tendencies of the native communist elites, combined with growing nationalism among the intelligentsia and broader population alike, became a major worry for the Russian center.

Even though the Soviet Union had lost its internal vitality, the powers of the regime were still immense. Decay was probably unavoidable, but disintegration did not at all seem to be an immediate prospect. Yet the crisis of effectiveness—absent major countervailing actions—did have the potential for becoming a crisis of survival. The irony is that the countervailing actions themselves—the deep changes initiated by perestroika—almost certainly accelerated the demise of communism and the disintegration of the empire. It was as Tocqueville had warned: “The most perilous moment for a bad government is when it seeks to mend its ways.”


Gorbachev started on a journey into the unknown. Yet even before he took power, there was a long period in which his basic idea began to take shape: to make communism more effective and more decent. The image of Gorbachev as an improviser rather than a planner is, in reality, erroneous. He was both. He had a vision and kept to that vision to the end. He had a strategy, and he kept to that strategy to the end as well. He improvised within his strategic plan as the situation changed and he faced resistance. But he failed not because he lacked a goal or strategy, but because he stuck too closely to them. His immutable goal and rigid political plan became increasingly unrealistic and dangerous to his own power.

The crisis of the Soviet system was certainly “objective” in nature. But even an objective crisis can be perceived differently, depending on the interests of the leader and, perhaps more important, on his perceptual apparatus. Gorbachev did not fit the stereotype of the party apparatchik. He was bright and quick, personally adaptable, dynamic and courageous. Indeed it is difficult to comprehend how this man could have been shaped in the ranks of the Communist Party. It is easy to forget that he had the same one-sided educational and cultural background as the majority of Soviet leaders, including many of today’s “democrats.” This does not make Soviet leaders less wise or less intelligent than their Western counterparts. Gorbachev probably read more about America than President Bush about Russia, and Gorbachev was also thoroughly briefed. Yet he still may not truly understand democracy or capitalism. What is essential here is that the problems of perception and understanding apply not just to other countries, but to one’s own, particularly in times of rapid change.

Gorbachev’s perception of the Soviet crisis did change as he became conscious of its much greater depth. Yet in essence his perception was not much different than that of Khrushchev, who characterized Stalinism as “the boil on the healthy body of Soviet socialism.” Gorbachev and his associates did increasingly comprehend, of course, that the infection was bigger and the “body” less healthy than Khrushchev ever imagined. But still they believed that the organism could be cured, the bad cells cut out, and a renewed and healthy Soviet Union could again demonstrate socialism’s true potential.

Gorbachev was even confident and optimistic that the task could be accomplished quickly. He expected, for example, that by 1990 the Soviet machine-building industry—a quarter of all Soviet industrial output—would have 90 percent of its product up to the standards of the advanced capitalist societies. By the mid-1990s Gorbachev expected personal computer use to be as widespread in Russia as it was in western Europe. Even Gorbachev’s chief economic adviser, Abel Aganbegyan, who was the first to convince the new leader of the severity of the crisis, expected Soviet national income to approach that of the United States by the year 2000.

It is interesting now to reread views of perestroika given only two years ago, or more recently, by those most committed to the process. I will not quote Gorbachev, because he is often suspected of tactical subterfuge. But even as most of Gorbachev’s closest associates and supporters criticized his timidity and the limitations of his vision, they still considered purified Leninist ideology to be the compass the country should follow. Perestroika was perceived as a struggle to eradicate the vestiges of Stalinism and to restore the “purity, morality and tolerance” of the period when Lenin was alive, particularly of the New Economic Policy of the 1 920s. Some saw the one-party system as necessary and good; others simply could not envisage a multiparty system. All basically subscribed to the defining characteristic of the Communist Party—”democratic centralism”—although they stressed its tempering “democratic” dimensions. The idea of a “bourgeois democracy,” however, was positively rejected. They were staunch supporters of “market socialism,” again with different weights being attached to “market” or “socialism.” But they were in effect promoting the use of market instruments only within a modified command economy. Private property played at best a tertiary role.

The most glaring example of the regime’s limited perception concerned relations among the Soviet Union’s different nationalities. The republics strongly opposed Russian chauvinism and supported human rights of minorities in Russia and other republics. But in the best Marxist tradition, the Gorbachev leadership did not perceive the true dimensions of the problem. To a large extent it thought the issue would fade once the excesses of Stalin’s nationality policy were rectified and a new policy of tolerance introduced. The leadership” focus was on excesses” and “extremes.” Included among those extremes, of course, were republican desires for real sovereignty and independence. But the question was primarily approached as an emotional reaction to past oppression, which would eventually be overtaken by rationality and self-interest.

In this respect the Gorbachev leadership was within the mainstream that even included a large part of the Western intelligentsia. For their own reasons of security and stability the governments of the West supported policies that would preserve the Soviet Union as a union. While recognizing the principle of self-determination of nations, Western governments were in effect urging these suppressed nations not to assert that right. They were also urging Moscow to try to contain national drives toward true sovereignty without, of course, using force or violating human rights.

Early on Gorbachev identified his program as a revolution. But his was truly a reformist goal that, while almost continuously radicalized, was never intended to cross the threshold of transforming the system. His basic strategy was reformation, not transformation. That goal, as defined by Gorbachev and accepted by his compatriots, was an honorable choice. It was indeed the only possible road, even if it also increasingly seemed the most effective means for Gorbachev to preserve his own power. It is inaccurate, however, to characterize Gorbachev as a Moses who did not enter the “promised land.” The main characteristics of today’s Soviet reality were not in fact his chosen destination. Yet despite Gorbachev’s intentions, perestroika was a historic accomplishment and its consequences clearly went far beyond the limits of mere reform.

Even by 1987 Gorbachev’s strategy and goal for perestroika still had not changed. His strategy was one of resolute and determined “centrism”; his aim was to accomplish grand reform. He was initially able to create a coalition for reform by skillfully offering something to almost every group: modernization to the military, workers’ discipline to industrial management, glasnost to the intelligentsia. His energy, style, successes and stature abroad and his “iron teeth” produced not only an aura of awe, fear and respect but also a heterogeneous base of support. But it was a strategy that would become increasingly precarious to balance.

Even as the political center of gravity he sought to control became more and more radical, Gorbachev refused to yield his plan. He remained the determined centrist. Gorbachev’s political strategy eventually ran up against a wall of rising expectations, a wall he himself had built. When the Soviet leader finally was no longer able to fulfill each sector’s political wish-list, his “positive support” among party and bureaucratic elites eroded, his popularity with the Soviet people fell off sharply, and public distrust of his “real” goals rose dramatically. Soon both left and right, whose positions Gorbachev himself had helped fortify, began to see him only as a harbinger of their worst fears and increasingly used the gifts Gorbachev had given them—their power resources—against him.

The sociopolitical environment surrounding perestroika changed significantly from 1988, and the changes accelerated after March 1990. It became increasingly apparent that the Soviet Union itself was disintegrating. The various horizontal and vertical ties that bound the Soviet Union as an economic entity were themselves unraveling; production was collapsing and hyperinflation was threatening. As desperation grew in major population centers, industrial workers and other employees wanted order in their lives and improvement in their living standards. Yet Gorbachev could no longer mobilize them or respond credibly to their demands. The Soviet population thus became increasingly responsive to anticommunist radicals and, to some extent, even reactionaries.

The radical aspirations of ethnic nationalism intensified beyond Gorbachev’s and the other centrists’ worst expectations. The quest for sovereignty was no longer confined only to nationalist forces. It was also embraced by centrist and even conservative leaderships that were dominant in many republics and the largest forces in the Ukraine and Byelorussia. The reasons for this varied. The most decisive was probably political and pragmatic: in an atmosphere of growing nationalistic fervor, opposing greater sovereignty meant losing influence all the more rapidly. Ironically the most important declaration of sovereignty took place not on the periphery, but in Russia itself, the very heart of the Soviet Union. The Russian parliament’s declaration of sovereignty was a revolutionary watershed. It destroyed the Soviet Union.


Russia was the Soviet Union. The Russian republic was first among the fifteen; Russian authority and Soviet power were synonymous. Russians ruled the Soviet Union, even as local non-Russian communist elites ran the day-to-day affairs of their own regions. Every other republic had its own Communist Party, but the Russians did not need a separate party because the entire Communist Party of the Soviet Union was theirs.

Now there were two Moscows: Moscow of the Kremlin, the capital of the Soviet Union, where foreign dignitaries paid their respects to Gorbachev; and the Moscow that was capital of the Russian Republic, its leaders housed in a white building a mile from the Kremlin’s red walls. The Kremlin represented the historical past, but its contact with the people had been terminated, or at least suspended. As a capital, Moscow now represented the Russian people and no one else. The Kremlin still had all the accoutrements and instruments of power, and it was still feared. But when it lost the Russian homeland, it lost its only base of legitimacy and support.

The collapse of messianic Bolshevik ideology, the demise of Russia as a superpower, the overwhelming sense of spiritual, cultural, economic and political catastrophe, and the exhaustion of the Russian nation itself—all prompted Russia, for the first time in many centuries, to turn away from its imperium. Whether this disposition will last is impossible to say, but its consequences are already historic.

Meanwhile Gorbachev’s turn toward the old guard from December 1990 through the spring of 1991 showed that the movement toward real sovereignty or even independence could only be suppressed in certain republics by Russian occupation and massive force. But the fundamental problem was still that of Russia itself, as well as the Ukraine. There the use of force, even if at all possible, would risk civil war.

By 1991 and even before, the time had arrived when cooperation with the most important republics in fact meant agreeing to far-reaching separation. Gorbachev is often blamed for being too late in offering the republics concessions. It is said, for example, that the autonomy he offered in 1990 would have been gratefully accepted in 1989, when his power and status were still high. Such measures might have succeeded in calming the republics, but they might also simply have encouraged them to increase their demands, eventually leading to the same situation.

In any case, by the spring of 1991 it was no longer a question of Gorbachev granting concessions to the most important republics, but rather the reverse: whether they would make concessions to him to preserve some diluted central institutions. By April, when agreement was reached on the idea of a union treaty, legitimate power flowed not from Gorbachev to the republics, but from the republics to the center, and they were delegating only limited authority.

The central Communist Party still controlled its own organizational apparatus, many public buildings and national transportation and communication links, but the nature of its power was decisively changed. It was now using its power to sabotage reforms, but it could not present an alternative program of any real attraction. The legitimacy of its ideology had disintegrated—to such an extent that those who would lead the August putsch would not even mention Marxism-Leninism or the party in their statement declaring martial law.

The most dramatic change, however, was the emergence of legitimate anticommunist forces in the Russian republic with a freely elected leader who had his own structural base of support. These radical counterweights—Boris Yeltsin, Democratic Russia, the separatist movements—all made Gorbachev’s centrist strategy more and more untenable. While anticommunist radicalism may have served as a foil to the reactionaries, it nonetheless increased the polarization between the two sides that Gorbachev sought to balance. Reactionaries on the right increasingly despaired; radicals on the left grew bolder and more impatient.

Thus perestroika’s endgame now forced Gorbachev, in his balancing act, to swing to further extremes—far to the right in the winter of 1990-91, then back to the left by April, when he helped shape the new union treaty. This oscillation undermined what little remained of Gorbachev’s credibility on either side. Even as Gorbachev treated them like pawns that had no alternative but to follow, each wing had by now learned his game. They knew that his any step could be followed by another in the opposite direction. Gorbachev’s room for maneuver had become far narrower and his position more dangerous. His centrist strategy was at last failing him as his ability to manipulate either side diminished. A revolutionary process was setting in.


The international aspects of perestroika were also yielding fewer dividends. The greatest achievements of Gorbachev’s strategy had been the radical changes he instituted in Soviet foreign policy. But in real terms these achievements were nothing less than progressive capitulation to the West. This is not to suggest that all his foreign policy was deliberate. Rather it was developed in the very process of retreat. Moreover his policy in eastern Europe was forced by a virtual lack of alternatives—intervention would have destroyed perestroika. Yet capitulation it was.

These policies had tremendous impact on perceptions of Gorbachev both at home and abroad. Most important, they affected the Soviet people’s own view of his domestic goals and policies. Gorbachev had accommodated the West far beyond expectations. He became not only credible to his Western adversaries but almost loved by those leaders to whom he conceded.

Gorbachev was convinced he could not pursue grand reform at home without freeing his hands abroad, and without gaining Western support for his domestic policies. But while his popularity among Soviet reformers and the democratic intelligentsia increased, he sowed seeds of hostility among the traditional establishment, which still controlled the military, security forces, party apparatus and major economic bureaucracies. Gorbachev’s investments in the West eventually yielded both tangible and intangible dividends that were crucial to him after mid-1990. But his financial rewards were incommensurately small.

The superpower status of the Soviet Union was nevertheless destroyed. Gorbachev had less and less to offer the West, partly because of his declining authority at home. At his July 1991 meeting with the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in London, it finally became clear that the doors to substantial Western aid and investment were closed, unless Gorbachev crossed the Rubicon at home. Gorbachev’s domestic credibility consequently declined even further. He was no longer able to use in domestic politics the once powerful resource of “delivering” the West. His monopoly on speaking for the Soviet Union, and particularly for Russia, was crumbling. Then came the putsch.


Most of the putschists were obviously second rate, but the danger of their actions was nonetheless real. The “criticism” of the putschists for their ineptitude and failure obscures some important elements that constrained their freedom of action. First, the putsch was primarily political, not military. Second, the group was forced by circumstances to try to usurp power in an ostensibly legitimate, constitutional manner. Third, a major part of their plan was the belief that they would be able to reach a compromise with Gorbachev once they confronted him with a fait accompli.

However unrealistic the putschists were in their expectations, they were realistic enough to know that a coup against democratic and separatist forces might provoke civil war, and this they wanted desperately to avoid. A civil war would split the army and completely devastate the union they sought to preserve, and the odds against a clean victory were probably, even in their own minds, prohibitive. The immense accomplishments of Gorbachev’s perestroika and the anticommunist forces, which had acquired legitimacy through popular support, created a situation in which the army—even some of its elite units—would not shoot at Russians or their Slavic brothers. The coup’s leaders thus had to be confined to a group drawn from the old establishment, and the forces at their disposal to those that might be reliable only on a “surgical” scale.

The coup leaders underestimated the unwillingness—because of conditions created by perestroika—of local military and security command even to feign a show of force, let alone shoot. This was especially the case around key urban centers like Leningrad and Kiev. One may legitimately ask how the putschists could be so unrealistic. The obvious answer is that they were desperate. They needed to preempt the planned signing of the Union Treaty on August 20. In part this is true. One may say again that they were second rate or drunkards, and this is again partly true. But the smaller group that was the brain of the putsch, men like Baklanov, Pugo, Kryuchkov and Lukyanov (if he took part) were different from most of the others who participated. Their failure can be explained by their strong belief that Gorbachev would ultimately “recognize reality” and, to prevent a civil war, agree to compromise.

Gorbachev’s selection of these men was part of a deliberate policy on his behalf, a move to balance the old guard. In selecting them genuine loyalty, talent or vigor, let alone commitment to perestroika, were not Gorbachev’s criteria. Rather, the dangerous and ironic criteria used were the extent of the threat they posed to him and to his centrist policy, and the extent to which each would be able to mobilize his own apparatus against Gorbachev himself.

The minister of defense, Dmitri Yazov, was a symbol of the old guard within the military, but he was confused and indecisive about the grand picture evolving from perestroika. He was not a leader of younger generals as much as the chief of the air force, Yevgeny Shaposhnikov or, probably the most dangerous of the military commanders, General Boris Gromov, who was liked and admired in the army as commander in chief of Soviet forces in the last phase of the Afghan war.

Marshal Sergei Akhromeev, who committed suicide after the coup, would have been a tremendous threat to Gorbachev as minister of defense. He was too honest. As a first-rate professional he had deep communist convictions and enormous authority in the armed forces. He was a decisive and outspoken man who, when he disagreed with Gorbachev, would say so outright. Instead Gorbachev took him in as chief military adviser, to keep him close at hand, neutralize him, and use his mantle of authority to bolster his own military and foreign policy.

Vladimir Kryuchkov, chairman of the KGB, was a good candidate for the post from Gorbachev’s point of view. After the coup Gorbachev explained Kryuchkov’s appointment by saying he was a specialist in foreign intelligence; the domestic side of the KGB’s activities was marginal to his experience. But Gorbachev in fact picked him because he seemed no match for his own intelligence and cunning; Gorbachev thought he was a man who could never successfully mobilize the KGB against him.

Valentin Pavlov, the prime minister, was an immensely limited man, disliked by the state administration, the army command and the KGB. He was mocked as “fininspektor” which in literal translation means bank auditor, but in the Russian language implies ridicule and the lowest possible status. This was a man who could make noises when people pushed him, but he himself could mobilize no one.

Even Boris Pugo, who was probably a major figure in the putsch’s inner circle, partly fit this bill. He was an intelligent man of deep Bolshevik convictions; he had been chairman of the KGB in his native Latvia for four years, and was then selected as chairman of the party’s Control Commission, which imposed party discipline with abusive power. But he had a reputation for personal incorruptibility that made him feared and isolated within the apparatus.

Oleg Baklanov, the first deputy chairman of the U.S.S.R. Defense Council (Gorbachev was the chairman), was a smart man as well, with real authority in the military-industrial complex. But Gorbachev also promoted his rival, Arkady Volsky, a pragmatic, talented man who gained more authority after the putsch. His League of Scientific and Industrial Associations of the U.S.S.R. provided major industrial managers with an alternative to Baklanov’s reactionary position.

The role of Anatoly Lukyanov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet and Gorbachev’s friend of 40 years, is most murky. Some democrats are convinced he was the brain behind the putsch. He had written an article prior to the putsch, published on its first day, violently attacking the union treaty and warning that it meant the end of the Soviet Union. Despite such speculation, it seems more likely that his role was similar to that of Soviet Foreign Minister Shepilov among the 1960 “anti-party group” that tried to wrest power from Nikita Khrushchev. In the aftermath of that defeated attempt Shepilov was always listed as the man who “joined them.”

After the putsch many asked how Gorbachev could have surrounded himself with such a crew. Almost all of those in his high circle were either part of the coup, embraced it enthusiastically or easily capitulated to it. When Gorbachev returned from his Crimean captivity he explained that he was deeply shocked by the betrayal of these men, whom he had trusted. From what we know about Gorbachev, how he selected his associates and the game he was playing, it is mind boggling to think he trusted them at all. What Gorbachev could not say publicly was that he did not think these men had it in them to be decisive enough or smart enough to put together a putsch against him. After the putsch Gorbachev had only two alternatives to explain his embarrassed position: either he was so skillful a politician that he outsmarted himself, or he was so naive a politician that he was outsmarted by crooks. For a number of reasons, the second alternative was better for his continued political survival.

Gorbachev’s commitment to his own power, evolutionary reform and the preservation of some form of a union cannot exclude the possibility that even on the eve of the coup he wanted to improve his own position—to create pressures from the old guard in order to use them to moderate the demands of democrats and separatists in any further negotiations over the union treaty. Such pressures would have demonstrated to the radicals that he was still indispensable to their welfare. But Gorbachev underestimated the leadership of the old guard by not believing they could undertake a dangerous initiative on their own. It is possible that Gorbachev was attempting to continue his dangerous oscillation, playing off right against left, up to the very end.

After the coup Gorbachev’s former associate, Aleksandr Yakovlev, commented, “He still doesn’t understand the situation into which the country has moved.” The implication, of course, was that Gorbachev had not understood it before the coup either. Yet it was precisely how far the country had moved along the road of Gorbachev’s own plan for reform that saved the Soviet leader. Perestroika created the conditions that made it impossible for the coup to succeed. Those who acted against Gorbachev believed that intimidation would still be decisive, as it had been for decades. The hoary clique could not see that much of the Soviet population had finally overcome its fear. Tanks on the streets were no longer enough.