The Jewish Humanist, September_October 1991, Vol. XXVIII, Number 2
The Communist Party hardliners in the Soviet Union are a pathetic lot. They cannot even do what they used to do best. They cannot even conduct a successful coup.
For three days freedom lovers in Russian (sic) and throughout the world were scared. The sudden overthrow of Gorbachev-although predicted by some-shattered hope and expectations of a peaceful world. The image of ruthless Communism re-emerged and was reinforced by memories of past repressions.
But it was all over so quickly. The Gang of Three-KGB leader Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Yazov and Interior Minister Pugo-proved to be nothing more than paper tigers. For diehard Communists who remembered Stalin, it was embarrassing.
Who were the coup leaders?
There were all Gorbachev appointees whom he had chosen to appease the right wing of the Party and to provide balance to the “extremists” on the left he wanted to resist. They were the remnants of the old establishment that had governed Russia for 70 years and were fearful of losing their power. They struck one day before the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have decentralized Soviet government and deprived their jobs of any real significance.
Why did they fail?
They were sloppy. The coup did not have the usual Communist efficiency and brutality. They failed to seize all strategic buildings immediately. They failed to arrest potential resistance leaders, including Yeltsin. They failed to create an environment of military intimidation throughout the country. Their coup had elements of comic opera, which future historians will exploit to their amusement. They were an amazingly non-charismatic collection of leaders. They all looked like faceless Communist bureaucrats from the Brezhnev era-black-suited, unsmiling, dour and filled with outdated cliches. They were not the stuff out of which successful tyrannies are made. Not one of the eight members of the State Emergency Committee could transcend the image of a Party apparachk (sic).
They had not fully secured the loyalty of the commanders of the army. Many junior officers were alienated from the archaic manner of the general staff. Many soldiers had been converted to the ideals of democratic reform. Many of them were reluctant to shoot their own people. Only terror would have mobilized them. And that terror did not exist.
They were rejected by the outside world. Bush and other Wetern leaders quite appropriately refused to recognize the legitimacy of the junta. The external rejection gave heart to the internal resistance.
They underestimated the extent of the democratic and liberal sentiment in the Soviet Union, both in the countryside and the major urban centers. After four years of liberty, most of the Russian people were no longer prepared to return to the old obedience. Gorbachev had wrought a revolution that could not be reversed. What had once appeared to the masses as credible and frightening now seemed ludicrous and disgusting. The coup occurred too late. Three years earlier it would have been successful.
They underestimated the courage of the masses and the boldness of Yeltsin. They expected the old apathy, or at least ambivalence. But they found mobs in the street willing to defend their new found freedom. And the people of Russia had a defiant, charismatic leader who became the focal point of popular resistance.
The coup leaders were not without some support. Widespread anger over shortages, rising prices, speculation, increasing crime and ethnic conflict was a fertile ground for exploitation. But, in the end, popular hostility was directed to them and to communism as the causes of the natural disaster.
So what does the failure of the coup mean?
It means the death of communism in the Soviet Union. The coup was the last stand of the Party against the loss of power. So discredited is Marxism that even the coup leaders were reluctant to use communist slogans to mobilize the masses. They rather appealed to law and order. The hardliners are in disgrace and so is their cause. The attempt to overthrow Gorbachev was a kind of collective suicide.
It means the embarrassment of Gorbachev. Despite the fact that he was a victim of the coup and bravely resisted their demands for his cooperation, the reality is that the leaders of the junta were his appointees. He had trusted them with power. He had trusted them with power. He had insisted on Yaneyev, the chairman of the junta, as his vice president, despite the protests of his own supporters. He was undone by his own assistants, not a very pretty tribute to his sagacity or to his commitment to democracy. Gorbachev may be bypassed by the rapid movement of events. The revolution that he created may now need less compromised leadership.
It means a victory for Boris Yeltsin. His courageous leadership during the coup attempt has made him a national hero. Part buffoon and part genius, he is now the most popular man in the Soiet Union and a very eligible candidate to lead the Russians-and whoever joins them-to a market economy.
It means victory for the nationalities of the Soviet Union who want more autonomy and even independence. Already Estonia has joined Latvia and Lithuania in declarings its complete separation from the Russian Empire. Whether the Soviet Union will hold together or disintegrate into its constituent republics is now an open question. It means increasing power for America and the political agenda of Bush and Baker. With the removal of the hardliners and the increasing dependence of the Russians on the help of the West, Soviet cooperation with the United States will be much easier. That cooperation will enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations and increase pressure on Israel to make peace with the Arabs.
The Gang of Three has unwittingly performed a wonderful service for the free world. They have arranged to disappear. A new world order may owe their stupidity a debt of thanks.