Staunton, August 22 – As Russians reflect upon the August 1991 coup, many of them are asking themselves “Why didn’t the democratic reforms become irreversible?” and “Will the present-day Russian Federation share the fate of the USSR?” Oleg Pshenichny of Grani interviews three of the most thoughtful.
The conclusions of each of them – former Soviet dissident Sergey Kovalyev, former KGB officer Vladimir Mironenko, and former democratic politician Aleksandr Osovtsov – are bracing, bitter about what went wrong in 1991 and pessimistic, each in his own way, about the future (grani.ru/Society/History/m.243716.html).
Kovalev, who in 1990 was head of the Commission on Human Rights in the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, says that in 1991, “many of us, and I distinctly remember the reaction of the late Larisa Iosifovna Bogoroz said “well that’s all, there will be no return to the past.” That, he says, was “a collective mistake.”
As we see now, he continues, “a return to the past is possible and it is taking place before our eyes.” The reasons for that, Kovalyev argues, are not hard to find: They reside in the unwillingness of the population to keep up the pressure on elites, and the failure of the country to conduct lustration so that those with the values and styles of the Soviet regime would not return.
In January 1991, nearly half a million Russians went into the streets in Moscow to protest the Kremlin’s actions in Lithuania; and that “response of the Muscovites was a decisive factor in the liberation of the Baltic countries.” But a few years later, far fewer were ready to go into the streets to protest Yeltsin’s criminal war against Chechnya.
And “what do we see now?” Kovalyev asks. There were protests at the end of 2011 and in May 2012, but the numbers were much smaller, a maximum of 100,000; and those who took part were immediately “written down as a fifth column.” And there have been far fewer brave enough to protest what Moscow is doing in Ukraine.
The reasons for that will have to await “a serious historical and political science discussion.” That is “something for the future,” he suggests. But at the same time he offers “a certain hypothesis.”
The first reason is “the biologival nature of man,” Kovalyev argues. “Our animal ancestors would not have survived if they hadn’t learned to divide the world into their own and that of others.” That explains patriotism and “people support it” because “not each of us can overcome this call of the ancestors and live in a world where there is a place for justice.”
The second reason, he suggests, is the work of the government-controlled media. Russia today is the realization of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels claim that “’if given the means of mass information, [he] would transform any nation into a herd of swine.’” What Putin has done is to conduct a mass experiment which confirms that possibility.
“As a result,” Kovalyev says, “we have turned back not to 25 years ago but to a much earlier period,” one in which as he knows from his own experience in the GULAG, the inmates are told by the jailors: “’The constitution was written not for you but for American Negros so that they will now how happily Soviet citizens live.’”
After the August putsch, he continues, “a certain number of the more observant deputies of the Supreme Sviet attempted to convince Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin that it was necessary to push for decisive political reforms” while there was still mass support. But Yeltsin said there was no need to hurry and that time was working on the side of reform.
But it didn’t take long for it to become clear that “this was not so: Time began to work energentically against us,” although few thought it could go as far as it has, an especially bitter refletion because this “could easily have been foreseen and attempts made to prevent it.” That didn’t happen.
A real turning point came when Yeltsin named Putin his successor, “a horrific violation of all the principles of democratic and parliamentarianism,” made even worse by the fact that Putin came out of the KGB. But instead of opposing this, Kovalyev says, most “democrats” thought they could work with him.
They did not ask themselves the most obvious question: could they imagine a post-war Germany in which a Gestapo officer could become chancellor? But because they did not resist this in Russia’s case, “the KGB (now the FSB) was preserved, not reformed, and has taken its revenge.”
Kovalyev says that he does not exclude the possibility that the Russian Federation will suffer the same fate as the USSR, adding that he “has hope and at the same time fear that the current situation cannot extend for a long time.” It is clearly the case that the current regime must be replaced, but it is “another question as to who can be its replacement.”
Those who say that Putin should not be pushed into a corner because he will then behave like a cornered rat are wrong, Kovalyev says. “They forget that [such a rat cornered or not] is a powerful bearer of plague. And one must choose, either to struggle with the bearer of plague, or as in Pushkin’s play, hold a celebration in the time of plague.”
In his opinion, Kovalyev concludes, the first of these is the wiser course.
Mironenko, a retired KGB lieutenant colonel who now is at the Institute of Europe at the Academy of Sciences, offers a somewhat different take both on the past and the future. He says that the reforms of 1991 ended because the old nomenklatura was able to run circles around the inexperienced democratic forces.
Not only were the democratic and reformist leaders anything but competent, but the population was tired of “unending revolutions, wars, hunger, poverty, disappointments and so on.” Consequently, those taking a tough line as Putin has who promised an end to all that won out.
Yeltsin’s regime which came in after the August coup had “nothing in common with the goals of the modernization of the country,” and consequently, the Russian nomenklatura exploited the situation to take real power in its hands. As a result, Mironenko says, “we have the result which we have.”
Mironenko professes to have a certain optimism about the future on the basis of his visits to Siberia and Ukraine. “Ukrainian society is recovering,” despite Moscow’s actions, he says; and “sooner or later Russia will go along this path because in the contemporary world there is no other.”
He suggests that the gloom now reflects the old adage that “the night is darkest just before the dawn.” And he calls on people to work for a better future, recognizing that achieving it will be “incomparably more difficult” than it would have been had they done so in the years after 1991. “This is a long path, but it will begin with a single step.”
And finally, Osovtsov, who was a deputy in the Moscow Soviet and the first Russian Duma, suggests that the break with the past in 1991 was far less than many thought at the time. He recalls feeling that those who were shouting “Yeltsin! Yeltsin!” were engaged in the same “idolatry” that those who had shouted for Stalin, Lenin or Nicholas II had done.
“Yeltsin was a paradoxical and in fact ridiculous choice,” Osovtsov says, an attempt to make “a fallen angel from the Politburo” into a standard bearer for democracy. “But [Russians] supported Yeltsin” on the principle “’who if not Yeltsin?’” an approach that continues to resonate in Russia today.
The problem wasn’t even that Yeltsin had been a communist for a long time, Osovtsov says, although that too mattered. Rather, it was that he was an authoritarian figure “without firm convictions,” a man whose “main quality in politics was a colossal will to power and not ideas about values.”
Such an individual and the system he created thus opened the way as it has to “repressions and aggressive wars.” There was no effort to subject to “real analysis let alone real condemnation” of the imperial and authoritarian principles of the past, he says, because everyone was saying “’don’t start a witch hunt.’”
That is fine as far as it goes, Osovtsov says, if one is talking about burning completely normal women. “But is it when there really are witches all around?” And in part because of that, Russia has returned to the imperial model or as some now say “Horde model of the historical existence of the Russian state,” a definite failure of the latest attempt at modernization.”
Moreover, he continues, there are “very few chances” that this turn to the past will not last for a long time. “The Soviet Union lasted 70 years and ceased to exist only because one leader began a qualitatively different policy. Reforms were from the top down, although a part of the population supported them.” But far more simply went along with what the authorities said.
One should not forget that “these were the same people who in 1983 were convinced that it was correct for us to shoot down the South Korean airliner but how in 1988 considered that such actions were absolutely impermissible. In 1979, they were convinced that it was correct to send forces into Afghanistan, and then in1989 that it was necessary to pull them out as fast as possible.”
That is “because [in each case] that is what they were told,” Osovtsov says.
Thus, he continues, he “does not see any basis for predicting that the system will fall apart.” The only “chances” would come from a radical change in course that destroyed the system from within or a war which could bring “the end of the regime. But don’t forget that it could occur together with the end of civilization.”
People say, he notes, that in the 1980s, “oil prices fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, and now oil is falling again and that the Russian Federation will collapse.” But “this is primitive.” When things happened in 1991, freedom was on the rise because “the lord emperor had given it. But now the trends from above and below are in absolutely the opposite direction.”
Much has changed since 1991, but much hasn’t, Osovtsov says. Many explain the collapse of the USSR by its failed war in Afghanistan and the deaths of Soviet soldiers there. But “now everyone knows that Russian soldiers are dying in Ukraine, and do all of them consider this terrible?”
Not at all. Instead, they view it as “normal and correct” that we are “fighting with America. Our heroes are dying for Great Russia.” Twenty-five years ago people said “let Afghanistan live as it wants.’ But now?” No one is saying that Ukraine should be allowed to do the same.