Witness To The End Of Soviet Power: Twenty-Five Years Ago
Twenty-five years ago, on August 22, 1991, I stood amid a vast cheering crowd of tens of thousands of people outside the Russian parliament building in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. They were celebrating the failure by diehard Soviet leaders to undertake a political and military coup d’état meant to maintain dictatorial communist rule in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Some were simply shot; others were tortured to death or sent to die as slave labor in the concentration and labor camps.The Soviet regime had ruled Russia and the other 14 component republics of the U.S.S.R. for nearly 75 years, since the Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 led by Vladimir Lenin and his communist cadre of Marxist followers. During that almost three-quarters of a century, first under Lenin and especially Josef Stalin and then their successors, historians have estimated that upwards of 64 million people – innocent, unarmed men, women and children – died at the hands of the Soviet regime in the name of building the “bright, beautiful future” of socialism.
The forced collectivization of the land under Stalin in the early 1930s, alone, is calculated to have cost the lives of nine to twelve million Russian and Ukrainian peasants and their families who resisted the loss of their private farms and being forced into state collective farms that replaced them.
Some were simply shot; others were tortured to death or sent to die as slave labor in the concentration and labor camps in Siberia or Soviet Central Asia known as the GULAG. Millions were slowly starved to death by a government-created famine designed to force submission to the central planning dictates of Stalin and his henchmen.
Millions of others were rounded up and sent off to those prison and labor camps as part of the central plan for forced industrial and mineral mining development of the far reaches of the Soviet Union. In the 1930s and 1940s, Stalin’s central plans would include quotas for how many of the “enemies of the people” were to be arrested and executed in every city, town and district in the Soviet Union. In addition, there were quotas for how many were to be rounded up as replacements for those who had already died in the GULAG working in the vast wastelands of Siberia, northern European Russia and Central Asia.
By the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s the Soviet system had become increasingly corrupt, stagnant, and decrepit under a succession of aging Communist Party leaders whose only purpose was to hold on to power and their special privileges. In 1986 a much younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, who had worked his way up in the Party hierarchy was appointed to the leading position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.
Gorbachev’s Attempt to Save Socialism
Gorbachev had introduced to two reform agendas.Gorbachev believed that the Soviet Union had taken several serious wrong turns in the past. But he was not an opponent of socialism or its Marxist-Leninist foundations. He wanted a new “socialism-with-a-human-face.” His goal was a “kinder and gentler” communist ideology, so to speak. He truly believed that the Soviet Union could be saved, and with it a more humane collectivist alternative to Western capitalism.
To achieve this end, Gorbachev had introduced to two reform agendas: First, perestroika, a series of economic changes meant to admit the mistakes of heavy-handed central planning. State enterprise managers were to be more accountable, small private businesses would be permitted and fostered, and Soviet companies would be allowed to form joint ventures with selected Western corporations. Flexibility and adaptability would create a new and better socialist economy.
Second, glasnost, political “openness,” under which the political follies of the past would be admitted and the formerly “blank pages” of Soviet history – especially about the “crimes of Stalin” – would be filled in. Greater historical and political honesty, it was said, would revive the moribund Soviet ideology and renew the Soviet people’s enthusiastic support for the reformed and redesigned bright socialist future.
However, over time the more hardline and “conservative” members of the Soviet leadership considered all such reforms as opening a Pandora’s Box of uncontrollable forces that would undermine the Soviet system. They had already seen this happen in the outer ring of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe.
The Beginning of the End in Eastern Europe
In 1989 Gorbachev had stood by as the Berlin Wall, the symbol of Soviet imperial power in the heart of Europe, had come tumbling down, and the Soviet “captive nations” of Eastern Europe – East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria – that Stalin had claimed as conquered booty at the end of the Second World War, began to free themselves from communist control and Soviet domination. (See my article, “The Berlin Wall and the Spirit of Freedom.”)
The Soviet hardliners were now convinced that a new political treaty that Gorbachev was planning to sign with Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Federation Republic and Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, would mean the end of the Soviet Union, itself.
Already, the small Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were reasserting the national independence they had lost in 1939-1940, as a result of Stalin and Hitler’s division of Eastern Europe. Violent, and murderous Soviet military crackdowns in Lithuania and in Latvia in January 1991 had failed to crush the budding democratic movements in those countries. Military methods had also been employed, to no avail, to keep in line the Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. (See my article, “How Lithuania Helped Take Down the Soviet Union.”)
Communist Conspirators for Soviet Power
People all around the world saw Yeltsin stand atop an army tank outside the parliament building asking Muscovites to resist this attempt to return to the dark days of communist rule. On August 18, 1991, the hardline conspirators tried to persuade Gorbachev to reverse his planned political arrangements with the Russian Federation and Soviet Kazakhstan. When he refused he was held by force in a summer home he was vacationing at in the Crimea on the Black Sea.
Early on the morning of August 19, the conspirators issued a declaration announcing their takeover of the Soviet government. A plan to capture and possibly kill Boris Yeltsin failed. Yeltsin eluded the kidnappers and made his way to the Russian parliament building from his home outside Moscow. Military units loyal to the conspirators ringed the city with tanks on every bridge leading into the city and along every main thoroughfare in the center of Moscow. Tank units had surrounded the Russian parliament, as well.
But Yeltsin soon was rallying the people of Moscow and the Russian population in general to defend Russia’s own emerging democracy. People all around the world saw Yeltsin stand atop an army tank outside the parliament building asking Muscovites to resist this attempt to return to the dark days of communist rule.
The Western media made much at the time of the apparent poor planning during the seventy-two hour coup attempt during August 19 to the 21. The world press focused on and mocked the