Russia's reckoning: The failed Gorbachev coup 20 years on

Twenty years ago, senior Soviet leaders tried and failed to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup, which led to the end of the Soviet Union. We discuss the legacy of those events with two experts.

Q&A with Russia specialist Metta Spencer and journalist Alexandra Sviridova

Twenty years ago senior Soviet leaders tried and failed to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup. On Aug. 19, 1991 the coup plotters ordered that tanks take position on Red Square outside the Kremlin in Moscow. (Michael Samojedan/Reuters)

Twenty years ago, during the laziest days of summer when many Russians were at their country dachas, a group of eight, geriatric  Soviet leaders staged a clumsy but belligerent political coup in Moscow that stunned the world.

On Aug. 19, 1991 they detained the Soviet Union’s president, Mikhail Gorbachev, at his holiday retreat in Foros, Crimea, putting him under house arrest and declaring themselves in charge of the country.

It was a last-ditch effort to put the brakes on Gorbachev’s reform process.

But the coup attempt collapsed after three days, after a passionate crowd of protesters gathered outside the Russian parliament under the charismatic leadership of Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected president of the Russian federation.

It was those images that were broadcast around the world.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin led the opposition to the coup against Gorbachev. Yeltsin addresses protesters while standing on a tank outside the former Council of Ministers building in Moscow, Aug. 19, 1991. (Reuters)

But what really sealed the fate of the coup organizers was the Soviet military’s refusal to side with them against the protesters.

The rest is history. The Soviet Union dissolved. The Communist Party crumbled. Yeltsin became leader of the country.

Since then, the road to democratic reform has been bumpy and, under the leadership of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, many say it has been a case of two steps forward, one step back.

'Secret' documents emerge

This 20th anniversary of the coup comes amidst a certain nostalgia in Russia for its Soviet past and just months before presidential elections in the spring, which could see the re-emergence of Vladimir Putin as president once again.

An aging Gorbachev has been speaking out publicly about these elections and is keen to protect his reputation as "the man who changed the world."

Recently, though, the German magazine Der Spiegel  published a series of articles featuring what it said were never-before seen documents from Gorbachev’s own archive in Moscow, collected by Pavel Stroilov, a Russian journalist living in London.

Protesters hold a placard reading, 'Down with the junta,' during a rally in support of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and against the State Committee on the State of Emergency in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Aug 20, 1991. (Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters )
The documents, published in excerpts and including Gorbachev's own notes from the time, cloud his reputation as a strong leader, Der Spiegel says.  

Among other things, they reveal that Gorbachev was fearful for himself and his wife after his August detainment and, when released,  would not appear before the crowds that had gathered outside the Russian parliament to support him, but instead hunkered down in his suburban dacha, burning private letters and papers.

CBC producer Jennifer Clibbon wondered whether these documents really reveal anything significantly new about Gorbachev and if they do, in fact, taint his reputation as a democratic reformer and as one of the few moral leaders of the late Soviet period.

To explore this, she interviewed two long-time Russia watchers.

Metta Spencer is a Canadian peace activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Toronto. She started travelling to the Soviet Union in the early 1980s to interview peace activists, dissidents and leaders of civil society there, which she drew on for her recent book, The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy.

Alexandra Sviridova is a Russian journalist based in New York. She was in Moscow during the coup and was in the crowd at the Russian parliament in August 1991. At the time she was executive producer of an investigative program called Top Secret broadcast on Russian TV.

CBC News: Do these documents reveal anything dramatically new to professional historians about this period in Soviet history?

Metta Spencer: I don’t think so. In fact, I don’t think even an average citizen in Russia would be surprised by any of these "revelations," whether or not they are accurate.

Sociologist Metta Spencer views former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a 'democratic politician.' (Courtesy Metta Spencer)

When Gorbachev came to power he knew that reforms would be polarizing and might even lead to a civil war. He wanted to hold the Soviet Union together, even though he was willing to let other East European countries assert their independence. His strategy was a centrist one: move forward cautiously, placating both radical democrats and the hard-line Communists whenever necessary to retain their consent.

Yes, Gorbachev sometimes acquiesced to the demands of hard-liners. But from the beginning, he kept continuously preparing a new, more democratic constitution, and he always reassured his old allies that his apparent "turn to the right" was only a tactical maneuver.

Nevertheless, many of them (plus almost all the Soviet intelligentsia) were so indignant that they abandoned him and joined Yeltsin’s side.

They, and Pavel Stroilov himself, should recognize that democratic politicians cannot do everything they want. They all have to pay attention to the political forces in play in society. And Gorbachev really was a democratic politician.

Alexandra Sviridova: There are very few professional historians who are able to write authoritatively about what was happening behind closed doors during the period of the coup. The ultimate authority on this period was Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s ally in the Kremlin, and he described these years in his book Twilight [1993].

Do the excerpted documents published by Der Spiegel and elsewhere shift your own understanding of Gorbachev during the last days of the Soviet Union, and specifically in the days following the coup?

Spencer: Not at all. I do agree that it would have been a good idea for him to go greet the crowd who had been defending him. Gorbachev was never a populist kind of guy, though, and one can understand his desire simply to go home and recuperate before making public statements. I also believe it would have been better for him to quit the party well before the coup—and nowadays he admits that it was a mistake not to do so.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, right, speaks with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during Gorbachev's address to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation in Moscow, Aug. 23, 1991, a day after the end of the attempted coup. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)
Otherwise, however, it seems to me that most criticism of him is unfair. He was trying desperately to hold the country together and to devise a new economic system in the midst of a crisis. He probably did allow the hard-liners to use a limited amount of force against separatist protesters, in the hope of preventing a wider conflagration. However, I remember seeing photos of him wading into street crowds in the Baltics, trying to persuade the separatist protesters, instead of using violence against them.

There are times when no good options exist for pacifists. If you don’t use force, you may create situations where even more lives are lost. You can't always be sure what is better.

Today, Gorbachev is accused in Russia of letting the USSR break up, though of course it was Yeltsin who caused that. And while some people blame him for allowing the use of state violence to quell resistance, others have blamed him for failing to use sufficient violence. You can’t have it both ways.

Sviridova: There are no secret documents that could change my basic viewpoint about Gorbachev. For many years, I researched in top secret archives and I know that the documents there were gathered by the KGB and protected by this same organization. For every document I found in the archives, I would try to doublecheck it.

Russian journalist Alexandra Sviridova was in the crowd in front of the Russian parliament during the attempted coup of August 1991. (Yuriy Romanov)

Gorbachev for me shouldn’t be measured by some of the foolish or weak things he often said, but by the reforms he did or didn’t achieve.

The role of Gorbachev in the August putsch will always be murky, as long as he allows it to be murky. And no documents in any secret archive will ever cast definitive light on what really happened to him in Foros, Crimea, when he was detained and stripped of his power. We are lucky he wasn’t murdered.

He is for me a person who has achieved a long list of accomplishments. He ended the war in Afghanistan. He brought dissident Andrei Sakharov back from exile. He opened the borders of his country and allowed people to emigrate. He started a dialogue with U.S. president Ronald Reagan. He withdrew the Soviet Army from East Germany and allowed for the unification of that country.

He was the first general secretary of the Communist Party who, of his own accord, stepped away from power when it was time. But most importantly, he didn’t use his power to kill and imprison people.

Looking at today's political scene under Putin and Medvedev, could one say that the August coup, in some ways, actually did succeed after all because Russian citizens never persevered and fought for real democratic reform?

Spencer: That’s an amusing question. Of course, it was Yeltsin whose coup succeeded. He dissolved his own country just to defeat Gorbachev. And then he destroyed the Russian remnant by creating chaos, not having ever had a real political plan. Then he gave the country away to the oligarchs and to Putin, who reverted to authoritarian governance — but not to communism.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signs his resignation on Dec. 25, 1991, the Soviet Union's last day. (Gannady Galparin/Reuters )
Putin’s team are not like Gorbachev’s old hard-line opponents but instead are mainly crooked capitalists — though they are admittedly as thuggish as the CPSU old guard. Since Russian citizens lack any better notion of how to run the country today, they seem fairly satisfied with Putin. Poor them.

Sviridova: The coup plotters didn’t win. But the KGB won, and specifically the head of the KGB, Kryuchkov, who planned the coup in the first place. What’s happening in Russia today is sad for me personally. For many years I made films about Soviet labour camps and prisons.

To see how Russians welcomed to power the organization that created those prisons and camps makes me sick. But the victory of the KGB is also due partly to the fact that Western countries supported Putin and helped give him legitimacy.

Gorbachev has been using this anniversary to sound the alarm about the Putin-Medvedev regime in advance of the spring elections. Do you think Gorbachev's warnings have any resonance? And does he face any personal risk being so denunciatory?

Spencer: I think every Russian knows that the Putin-Medvedev regime is undemocratic. (Probably Medvedev is more democratic than Putin, but, if so, he hasn’t been able to prove it by making real reforms.) But people have passively accepted authoritarianism for, I think, two reasons:

They believed that Yeltsin’s government was democratic, but it was so bad that they wanted no more of that. So democracy itself has a tainted value.

And real freedom is hard, especially for people who were brought up having all their decisions made by the state. Getting out of prison is disorienting. It will take Russians a generation or so to acquire the competence to organize their own affairs.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, now 80, tells a news conference in Moscow Aug. 17, that it is time for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to go and criticizes his authoritarianism. (Grigory Dukor/Reuters)
I think Putin created a certain orderliness for which the public was temporarily grateful. Also, the high price of oil helped make him popular. But eventually they will want democracy, and maybe that time is coming.

Finally, whether Gorbachev has any influence or not, he needs to speak up. Not everyone in Russia can afford to do so, but he still can.

Sviridova: Nobody in Russia listens to Gorbachev. He faces no personal risk. He is so well known in the West and this protects him. No one would dare touch him.

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