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Saviours or Traitors? The Russian Debate 30 years after the August Coup Attempt

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The GKChP in 1991

On the 19th of August 1991, Moscow was shaken by the loud squeaking tanks making their way towards the Russian White House. They were met by makeshift barricades erected by citizens in Moscow that had gathered around the governmental building. A state of emergency was subsequently declared at 16:00 by Gennady Yanayev, followed by a press conference led by the visibly shaking newly declared leader of the USSR. He was joined by members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (Государственный комитeт по чрезвычaйному положeнию – GKChP) in announcing that president Gorbachev was unfit to continue his duties and was at the time resting, as he got “tired over the years” and that the Committee would carry on with leading the country on the “democratic transformations path begun in 1985”. When young journalist, Tatyana Malkina, openly asked “Tell me, please, do you understand that you carried out a coup d’état tonight?”, Yanayev’s answer was dismissive, hinting at the actions being consistent with the provisions of the Constitution. The trembling and erratic movements of Yanayev, together with unexpectedly allowing spontaneous questions coming from journalists, including international ones, led to doubt and defiance coming from the public present in the conference room; this extended to the Soviet citizens that were already on the streets.

The premises of these events had been laid out months before. Gorbachev’s reform program, the breaking down of the Communist Block in Eastern Europe, and fears of an imminent dismantling of the USSR led to the formation of the GKChP – the “Gang of Eight”, as trivially known – a group of hard-line Communists within the USSR. The eight members were: Vice – President of the USRR, Gennady Yanayev , Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister and Marshal of the Soviet Union Dmitry Yazov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, Chairman of the KGB Vladimir Kruchkov, First Deputy Chairman of the Defense Council of the USSR Oleg Baklanov, Chairman of the Peasants’ Union of the USSR Vasily Starodubtsev, President of the Association of State Enterprises Aleksandr Tizyakov. The imminence of the new Union Treaty, bound to be signed on the 20th of August, scared the members of the GKChP into putting president Mikhail Gorbachev on house arrest at his dacha in Foros, Crimeea (where he was vacationing) on the 18th of August and passing decrees that declared Gorbachev unfit for his position due to illness and transferred the presidential power to vice-president Yanayev. The disorganized actions of the group, dubbed by clear resistance coming from the Soviet citizens, and especially from other leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin, led to the failure of the coup and to the return of Gorbachev in Moscow in the morning of the 22nd of August. Within 48 hours, all members of the GKChP were arrested (with the exception of Pugo, who committed suicide). After trial, but before a sentence could be pronounced, amnesty was granted to all members of the group in 1994.

Boris Yeltsin in 1991

Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian SFSR, was to be arrested by order of the KGB upon his arrival from a visit to Kazakhstan, but, for debated reasons, he was allowed to go to his dacha near Moscow. Subsequently, he started communicating to prominent figures of the Russian and Soviet political and social spheres and planned to travel to the White House in the morning of the 19th of August.

At 09:00, joined by Ivan Silayev (RSFSR Prime Minister) and Ruslan Khasbulatov (RSFSR Supreme Soviet Chairman), Boris Yeltsin climbed one of the tanks stationed in front of the governmental building and delivered a declaration to the citizens of Russia, offering arguably one of the most iconic moments of his carrier. The text displays clear contrasts between legality and illegality, between loyalty and betrayal, between good and wrong, which contour a clear dichotomy between “us” and “them”, a technique Yeltsin mastered throughout his career in his public messages.

On the one hand, Yeltsin highlighted how the “peoples of Russia are becoming masters of their destiny” and supported the reforms proposed by the “leadership of Russia” to fix the problems and lead the country on the right path, on a “normal constitutional development”. On the other hand, “the legally elected president of the country” was removed from power through a “rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup”, organized by “angry reactionary forces” that used “methods of force”. In this situation, it was the duty of the rightful, according to Yeltsin, to “proclaim all decisions and instructions of this committee to be unlawful”. It is interesting to notice how, throughout the entire declaration, the politician did not mention any of the names of the conspirators, nor the name of the group they formed. He only addressed them through a generic “they”, or harsh accusing words, or, only once at the end of his declaration, “putschists”. He did mention specifically by name Gorbachev and all the institution that were considered lawful and constitutional.

Further, the President expressed confidence that “our countrymen will not allow the sanctioning of the tyranny and lawlessness of the putschists, who have lost all shame and conscience”, appealed to the military “to manifest lofty civic duty” and not participating in the coup, and invited to a “universal unlimited strike” until the demands were met. Unmistakably, Yeltsin did not miss the chance to refer to “our prestige in the world community”, a fundamental need of Russian identity, which had been undermined by the latest actions, action written off as absolutely “unacceptable”.

Following an interaction with the journalists present in front of the White House, the declaration was distributed throughout Moscow and nationwide in the form of flyers and through newspapers. For example, Rossisskaia Gazeta published on the 21st of August the declaration on its front page. The following days brought Yeltsin growing popularity domestically and internationally. Letters of support started to come from different Russian regions, while Yeltsin asked and received the support of the orthodox patriarch, Aleksey II.  Further on, the following months led to the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent prevalence of the Russian Federation as the de jure heir to the USSR, with Boris Yeltsin fulfilling the role of president until December 1999.

30 years later

The attempted coup of August 1991 and the ulterior events are, arguably, some of the most impactful in the history of the Russian state. Historically speaking, they led to massive changes which ultimately climaxed in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Despite this, the attention granted in the Russian mainstream media on the anniversary of 30 years is indirectly proportional with the historical significance. Granted, all main news channels and publications have allocated some space for the events, some focusing on presenting a timeline or a photo gallery, but they did not make the headlines. For example, the main evening news slot on Rossiya 1 presented only a short reportage on the topic and only towards the end of the programme. This limited consideration bears, in itself, a crucial connotation of the current state of affairs, transmission of information, and perceptions in the Russian arena.

This is even more important as it seems that the main part of the Russian population (47%) receives its information on these events mainly from television and social media, as a poll by the Levada Centre shows. Recently labelled as “foreign agent” by the Russian Ministry of Justice, Levada Centre published on the 17th of August a poll that showed how 43% of the respondents regarded the August attempted coup as a “tragic event that had disastrous consequences for the country and the people”, 40% believed this was just “an episode of the struggle for power in the top leadership of the country”, while only 10% of the adult population believed that it was a “victory of the democratic revolution that ended the rule of the CPSU”. This adds to another relevant point highlighted by the findings of the poll that showed a shift from an initial higher support for Yeltsin and his actions (presently 10% of the respondents siding with the former president), to the current position that neither side of the confrontation was right (with 66% sharing this view, while 13% siding with the GKChP).

The origins of such perceptions and attitudes of the Russian public are clearly reflective of and reflected in the way the events have been presented in the recent days in the Russian media. Overall, the attempted coup has been mainly characterized as a failure, with different nuances on the nature of the error and the responsibility of its originators.

Good intentions, bad outcome

One of the nuances of the “failure” label which was attached to the actions led by the GKChP is that, while righteously motivated, the attempted coup turned out to be a mistake, which ended badly mainly due to lack of organization. Russia Today published on the morning of the 19th of August a relevant article, titled: “’An attempt to take power with trembling hands’: Russian politicians – on the actions of the Emergency Committee in August 1991”. The idea that the GKChP actions were of a just nature is shared by multiple politicians consulted by RT. Unsurprisingly, one of the most vehement voices was that of Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, who insisted that the Committee’s actions were consistent with the wishes of the Soviet citizens in pursuing the preservation of the Soviet Union (citing the March referendum, where close to 80% of those who voted expressed their support for the USSR; what Zyuganov did not mention was how many of the Republics boycotted the referendum and also that the question addressed specified the preservation of the Union as a “renewed federation of equal sovereign republics”). However, the Communist leader added, the members of the GKChP showed “destructive indecision”, which dubbed by accusations launched towards Gorbachev and Yeltsin led to the failure of the Committee in taking over the power.

Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, shared the perspective that the Committee declared the state of emergency “in accordance with the law” and that their programme “was great: stop crime, distribute land, provide food, no national separatism”. He credited Kryuchkov with the leadership of the Committee and implicitly with the total blame for the failure, as he “was afraid of something”, also mentioning the “cowardly, weak-willed” nature of the leadership of the CPSU. Characteristically, Zhirinovsky delivered strong-worded statements, insisting on the clarification of the nature of the events of August 1991, debunking that they constituted a “putsch”, since “a putsch is an attempt to overthrow the state supreme power by using armed forces. There must be casualties and troops must be brought it. […] All who call the August events a coup are illiterate people. These people follow the lead of Western propaganda”. The politician strengthen these same ideas in the reportage on Rossiya 1, stating how those days in August 1991 presented a unique opportunity to “save the country”, but the chance was missed. Viktor Alksnis’ perspective, former People’s Deputy of the USSR, added to this decisive note, confessing that he supported the creation of the Committee as “it is illegal and criminal to destroy the USSR”, but expressing his regret that the members “could not do anything because they were afraid to take decisive measures to restore order”. He did offer, however, an example of a success registered by the GKChP: in Latvia, with “only 200 people of the Riga OMON”, OMON commander Mlynnik took control of the republic. He ended his lines wishing for Moscow to have had “its own Major Mlynnik”.

Ruslan Khasbulatov, who joined Yeltsin on the tank in front of the White House in 1991, shared in the same RT article his present view that the GKChP, “outraged” by the imminent new Union Treaty, set “perfectly reasonable goals”, hinting to a legitimate nature of the Committee’s intentions and even acknowledging a coordination of his own goals with those of the GKChP. However, he criticized the methods as “conspiratorial” and concluded that the “the putsch played a bad role; it broke the foundation of the USSR”. Moscow Times, in an article interestingly titled “’It was all for nothing’: Russia marks August coup with regret, indifference”, presented a similar perspective of another leader that stood by Yeltsin’s side: Alexander Rutskoy. The former vice-president of Russia conveyed how the GKChP were motivated by “one righteous desire – to save the Soviet Union at any cost” and that he currently “regrets the failure of the 1991 putsch and the collapse of the USSR”, in spite of his actions during the events of August 1991 and of the role he played in all those that followed.

The same perspective was carried by another RT article that exposed an interview with Leonid Proshkin, investigator for USSR’s General Prosecutor’s Office, responsible with investigating the activities of the KGB during the August events. The RT reporter, Anna Kruglova, unequivocally asked the prosecutor why the people behind the events, “who took this step to save the USSR from collapse” were placed under investigation, setting the clear tone of the interview. Proshkin, in his answer, credited the failure on the lack of organisation and of a leader, adding: “If the leader was Baklanov himself, who was serious, everything could be different”.

TASS, in an article presenting the course of the August attempted coup, attributed a similar significance to events: they were born out of a legitimate fear of the USSR losing “control not only of the economy and finance, but also of the power bloc”. Further on, the author underlined how “the putschists” were decisive in their actions only at the beginning, failing afterwards to carry on with presenting “any clear economic program […] promising only to establish an ephemeral ‘order’”. The article went further in connecting the events of August 1991 with those of October 1993, concluding that the later represented the “final victory of Yeltsin over the guards of the Soviet System and the beginning of a new chapter in modern Russian history”. The news agency published another piece in the morning of August 19th 2021 titled “Putin, the KGB, the Emergency Committee: how the ‘August putsch’ affected the fate of the future president”. Intended to present the whereabouts and position of Vladimir Putin during the August events, the article conveyed also his views on the matter at hand, highlighting how the president saw what was happening as “the tragedy of the collapse of our state” and how the ones behind the events “although they considered their task a noble one, they were destroying the country by their actions”. The article ended with hinting at the source of legitimacy of the Committee’s actions: patriotism. The author concluded that “After all, it is patriotism that Putin has repeatedly called the core of society and the basis of the national idea. There are no communists or democrats in love for the Fatherland. In 1991, there were patriots on both sides.”

Bad intentions, bad outcome

There is another nuance of the “failure” dimension attributed to the attempted coup and its designers that could be noticed in the past days in the Russian media. There are those who found the actions and the very creation of the Emergency Committee as unrighteous and who criticized their malign effect on the country. Sergei Stepashin, former member of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, in the RT article mentioned above, indicated how the intentions of at least some of the members of the Committee were rather self-centred, as they were more preoccupied with keeping their jobs and how Yanayev, the face of the GKChP, was “a weak and indecisive person”. Furthermore, Stepashin stated how what the Committee was offering to the country was “unclear” and concluded with saying that the group “played the most negative role”. He insisted that the Soviet Union would have been saved if the new Union Treaty was allowed to be signed, with “a single bank, a single currency, a single economic space and a single army”. The politician acknowledged how the country would have changed, but “at least it would be within the borders of the USSR, and almost 30 million Russians would not find themselves abroad, deprived of their rights”.

Sergey Mitrokhin, formerly a deputy of the State Duma from the Yabloko Party added to this perspective. He expressed the idea that the creation of the Emergency Committee and the events that were unfold were the result of reactionary conservative leaders that stood against “the democratic community” and to the changes that the USSR was going through. The politician also hinted at the lack of organisation of the GKChP and the lack of content in their promises: “they could not offer anything intelligible”. The conclusion he reached was similar to the one above: if the Committee had not existed and had not started the coup, “the USSR could have been preserved in some updated version”. It is worth to mention how, despite a difference in the tone towards the GKChP, all the views presented in this RT article expressed in some form regret in the dissolution of the USSR that happened later on in 1991.

Grigory Yavlinsky, former economic advisor to the Soviet government, and former presidential candidate for Yabloko, joined tangentially this perspective. Moscow Times included in its article Yavlinsky’s description of the coup as being “an idiotic affair, completely absurd”, mentioning how he participated to the rallies in Moscow against the “putschists”, but expressing his regret how the reforms that followed did not have the desired impact and “we ended up giving away our victory”.

This perspective of the aforementioned politicians was shared by historian Nikita Petrov, in a conversation with the Noyava Gazeta editor, Kirill Martynov. While the core of the discussion revolves around the role the KGB played in the events (under the clear conviction that Kryuchkov was the “engine” of the actions), the historian highlighted how the aim of the Committee was to keep the empire and its role on the international arena. Moreover, he hinted to how the members of the GKChP were state employees afraid of losing their jobs, without a clear vision or plan on how the country should be ruled, naming the broadcasting of the “Swan Lake” on state television on the 19th of August as an “archaic” method that showed clearly how the Committee was unable to offer a positive future to the country. Plus, he stated that a potential victory for the GKChP would have been a “catastrophe”.

Yeltsin – saviour or traitor?

Unsurprisingly, President Yeltsin’s role and actions have enjoyed significant attention in the pieces referring to August events. The dichotomy is evident in this case as well as above. On the one hand, the then president of the Russian SFSR was exposed as a motivated democratic leader, defender of the reforms, central in defeating the “putschists”; on the other hand, he was accused of being an opportunist that betrayed the interest of the country and led to its destruction.

Following the first stance, Deutsche Welle, in its Russian version, published an article signed by the independent journalist Konstantin Eggert named “Putin’s Russia – the country that the 1991 putschists dreamed of”. The tone and focus were set from the beginning, in the title, but when it comes to Yeltsin and those that fought against the GKChP, the author presented them as being defenders of freedom and democracy, and their actions in August 1991 were raised to the level of “revolution” surrounded by “an amazing atmosphere of idealism and aspiration for the future”. Kommersant granted an even more detailed focus on Yeltsin and his significance in the August events by publishing a piece centred on how the unfolding had been perceived in 1991 in Sverdlovsk, the oblast the politician had ruled for almost a decade as First Secretary. The article, extract from the book Sverdlovsk-Yekaterinburg and containing memoirs of some locals, stated how, unsurprisingly, most of the inhabitants of Sverdlovsk sided with Yeltsin and took on the streets chanting “Boris Nikolayevich, we are with you!”. The overall perception was that Yeltsin was going to defeat “the criminals” and how “The Communist Party itself pronounced its own verdict!” (from the diary of Galina Pavlova, an accountant at the Institute of Mining). Meduza adopted a similar style in exposing the events of August 1991 and the exuberance of those that participated in the rallies against the GKChP and for democracy. The publication, also labelled recently as a foreign agent by the Russian Ministry of Justice, published a recollection of its editor, Valery Igumenov, of how the attempted coup was perceived by the inhabitants of Moscow, how they “perceived that something very serious and very important was happening”, how the barricades were build and how the rallies were organized, but also how they received thank you fliers from Boris Yeltsin.

One very clearly Yeltsin-centred article that was published on the occasion of 30 years since the August attempted coup was the one signed by Alexey Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s former son-in-law, and posted by Echo Moskvy. Dyachenko built a parallel between October 1917 and august 1991, calling these “the times of two great revolutions in Russia”. At their core: Lenin and Yeltsin. Surely, different in nature as the author stated, but both “brought great happiness and at the same time great misfortunes”. The October events marked the beginning of “communist totalitarianism”, while the August 1991 brought “the final line under communist rule”. Dyachenko highlighted throughout the short piece how Yeltsin played a central role in bringing freedom to the country and how he fought against challenging odds to “gain power almost bloodlessly”.

On the other hand, there are those that have dismissed Boris Yeltsin, pointing out to the negative effects of his actions. These voices belong almost exclusively to those presented above that have defended the intentions and actions of the GKChP. For example, Gennady Zyuganov in the aforementioned RT article attacked Yeltsin’s “ultraliberal team” for aiming at “dismantling a single state and complete submission to Western political and economic dictates”, while others pointed out similarly to how the actions of the president of the Russian SFSR led to the dismantling of the USSR. TASS followed a comparable path in highlighting how Yeltsin “believed that the future of the USSR lay with independent Russia” and, ultimately, how after the events of October 1993, the president met a “final victory” over the Soviet system. All these add to the current perception of the Russian public exposed by Levada Centre, with only 10% considering Boris Yeltsin to have been right in his actions in August 1991.

30 years after the attempted coup of August 1991, once can notice the both limited attention granted to the events in the media and public space in general on the anniversary, but also the dichotomy that characterises perspectives exposed. After perusing the ideas launched in on the topic in the past days it could be concluded that the data put forward by the Levada poll on the Russian perception of the events seems to be accurately represented in the public space. On the other hand, since the majority of the population receives its information from the media and social networks, then it could be pertinently asked and research who creates and influences the discourse on the August attempted coup. That constitutes another a matter for reflection.

Suggested reading:

ASLUND, Anders „Russia’s Road from Commuism”, Daedalus,  vol. 121, no. 2, spring 1992.

BRESLAUER, George W.  Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders, ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.

GAIDAR, Egor, Gibel’ imperii. Uroki dlja sovremennoi Rosii, Corpus, 2020.

GORBACHEV, Mikhail, Memoirs, Doubleday, 1996.

LOZO, Ilnats, Avgustovsckii putch. Kak eto bylo, ROSSPEN, Moskva, 2014.

PAXTON, John, Leaders of Russia and the Soviet Union. From the Romanov Dynasty to Vladimir Putin, Routledge, New York, 2004, p. 139.

PLOXII, Sergey Nikolaevich, Padeniya Imperiya. Padenie Sovetskogo Soyuza, Corpus, 2015.

REMNICK, David, Lenin’s Tomb: the Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Vintage Books Random House, New York, 1994.

TUCKER, Robert Political Culture and Leadership in Soviet Russia, W. W. Norton, New York, 1987.

YELTSIN, Boris, Zapiski Prezidenta, ROSSPEN, Moskva, 2008.

Photo source: https://yeltsin.ru/archive/photo/54811/

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