Popular Resistance in August 1991

Next week will mark 15 years since the August Putsch. On August 19, 1991 a group of Soviet politicians calling themselves the State Executive Committee (Gosudarstvennyi Komitet po Chezvychainomu polozheniiu, GKChP) attempted top seize power in Moscow. The “putsch” took a very Soviet form. The Committee announced that Gorbachev was ill and was relieved of his position while he was on vacation in Sochi. Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanayev was named in his place. The precedent for removing GenSeks while on vacation was set with Khrushchev’s sacking in 1964. The real reason for the move was that Gorbachev and his counterparts in the Soviet Republics were to sign a new Union treaty the next day, thereby dissolving the Soviet Union. The Committee’s membership consisted of KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov.

The putsch was quickly met with resistance. Crowds of protesters gathered in Moscow. Then Russian RSFR President Boris Yeltsin denounced the coup and his subsequent speech on the top of a tank in front of the Russian Parliament became a defining symbol for the Soviet Union’s implosion and the end of the Cold War.

Now fifteen years later, how do we characterize the resistance to the August 1991 coup that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union? Was Yeltsin’s resistance merely composed of pro-democracy elites or did it have a popular base? Such are the questions Harley Balzer addresses in his article “Ordinary Russians: Rethinking August 1991” published in the Spring 2005 issue of Demokratizatsiya. Balzer argues that assumptions about Russians as political lemmings ready to accept any strong leader have led to a misunderstanding of August 1991 and the role ordinary Russians played in the Soviet Union’s collapse. Contrary to prevailing wisdom, Balzer provides evidence that there was popular resistance to the attempt by the State Emergency Committee to unseat Gorbachev and roll back perestroika.

The argument is quite timely. Non-violent democratic revolutions against authoritarian systems are few and far between. The Revolutions of 1989 stand as a most often cited template. Mass demonstrations revealed the inherent weakness in the Communist system. Once the citizenry turned its back it seemed as if the system simply withered away. The recent “colored revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan are placed in that same pantheon. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2005, historian Timothy Garton Ash placed the “Orange Revolution” in the Ukraine as within that lineage.

However, many Russia experts and Russian liberal intellectuals have met the prospects of the same occurring in present day Russia with both skepticism and pessimism. As Yuri Afanasev stated in disappointment about the prospects of democratic resistance in Russia, “Many of our people seem reduced to a condition resembling that of cattle and, what is more frightening, they do not ask to live any other way” (194).

Balzer shows that the events surrounding August 1991 prove otherwise. Such “revisionism” offers the prospect for not only placing 1991 in a comparative perspective, it also allows for remembering that Russians did stand up to authoritarianism. This is shown by the fact that resistance and subversion to the coup was not simply regulated to Moscow and St. Petersburg, though like in 1917 the twin capitals were the most important centers of political activity. Popular resistance was spread all over the Union as citizens held protests, strikes, and in some cases acquired arms:

One personal story undoubtedly has colored my own perception of this period. My driver met me at Sheremetevo in September 1991, a few weeks after the coup, and on the ride into town he recounted how on August 19 he had taken the store of hard currency he had been saving to open his own business and bought a Kalashnikov automatic rifle for $1,500. He claimed that had the coup lasted longer, he would have used the weapon to defend his right to private economic activity. At the end of August he sold the gun for 25,000 rubles (about the same value as the purchase price, but not in hard currency).

In fact, Russians’ close attention did not begin with opposing the coup. The first session of the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies in May-June 1989 was met with so much interest, factory production declined 20 percent because workers chose to follow the session’s debates and discussions rather than work. Live coverage of the event was eventually suspended because of the disruptions it caused (195).

As Balzer argues, this politization among ordinary Russians has been written out of the narrative because of how the memories August 1991 “have become increasingly selective and political” (195). The memory of popular resistance has been overshadowed by the belief that Yeltsin’s opposition was mostly composed of a “small number of property-grabbing Yeltsin cronies” (198). The uncertainty, violence, corruption, collapse of the economy and standard of living of the 1990s has colored many Russians’ personal memories and has increased their sense that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a mistake.

This “impaired memory,” however, has an additional source. Since Putin’s rise to power, the winds have changed. No longer is the Soviet period viewed as a pariah nor is the quest to fill the “blank spots” of Soviet history part of the agenda. Historical reconciliation, a move best symbolized by Putin’s own ambivalence on the Soviet period, has clouded fact that the population induced and supported the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In addition to all this, one cannot diminish the reality that Putin’s rule has been more in line with the putsch organizers than with Gorbachev’s or Yeltsin’s reforms. As Balzer writes,

A decade and a half after the attempted coup, Russia in many respects looks as if the coup plotters has succeeded. Many of their aims have been achieved and most of the plotters have had successful careers. Their primary objective, preservation of the union, was not achieved, but this was not a realistic goal short of war. Much of the rest of the agenda outlined in the GKChP’s “Appeal to the Soviet People” sounds remarkably similar to Putin’s policies (210).

This fact engenders an important question in regard to popular resistance in 1991. If there was so much resistance to GKChP, how did they essentially win in the end? Why didn’t the protests transform into more permanent organizations that could make up Russia’s civil society? One could easily point to the instability of 1990s for an answer as one could also point to the ideological discrediting “democracy” underwent in those years. While democracy and freedom were aspirations in 1991, they were quickly attached to Western control and plunder by the middle of the decade. Still, when evaluating the type of resistance that ordinary Russian practiced in 1991, we must also ponder what it was all worth when it came to building a society from the rubble of the Soviet project. I think that this kind of questioning will not only prevent collapsing democracy and mass protest and resistance, it will also remind us that the latter means little if the former doesn’t follow in real concrete institutions and structures.