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  • After the Moscow Coup
  • Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. (bio)

In the wake of this past August's failed coup, the issues in Soviet politics have become clearer. The confusions sown by Gorbachev's maneuvers and compromises have lost their power to obscure what is truly at stake. The vestiges of the old communist order tried to arrest the country's drift into catastrophe by closing off the democratic opening. The partisans of democracy rose up to stop them while the rest of Soviet society passively looked on.

The coup was the old communist elites' last-ditch bid to reverse their loss of power at "the center." But they did not rise in the name of communism or the Communist Party (CPSU); the documents they issued during their 70 hours of power make no references to communism, socialism, Marxism-Leninism, the masses, or most of the other familiar terms. None of the coup leaders was a member of the CPSU's Politburo or Secretariat, and neither the all-Union nor the Russian Party issued an official statement during the coup. While several Party structures were obviously involved in the putsch, the Party could no longer lead it. Gorbachev had forced the Party to give up its title to rule and its mechanisms of rule in February-July 1990.1

The elites that attempted the coup had long been restive, but by mid-1991 they had lost hope that Gorbachev would ask them to step in and take over, and their loyalty to him was gone. The betrayal of Gorbachev is indeed astonishing in extent. On Sunday, August 18, Gorbachev was general secretary of the CPSU, president of the USSR, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and chairman of the Defense Council. Under the Leninist doctrine of democratic centralism, every one of the Party's 100,000 paid employees owed him obedience. In all of the Russian [End Page 3] Republic, not one of these officials is known to have come forward to defend him. As president, Gorbachev legally commanded millions of state officials, yet he was betrayed not only by his hand-picked defense minister, KGB chief, and prime minister, but by his own chief of staff, Valery Boldin, who had for years controlled both the information that reached Gorbachev and the documents that went from him to lower officials; by his vice-president, Gennady Yanayev, personally elevated by Gorbachev over the wishes of an unwilling Supreme Soviet; and by Anatoly Lukyanov, the leader of the Supreme Soviet, his protegé and college roommate. When the 21 members of the Cabinet of Ministers (outside the national security area), created less than a year ago by Gorbachev in the latest of his constitutional schemes, met to discuss the coup, only 2 opposed it, while 14 approved it unambiguously.

Of the governments of the republics, apparently so rebellious, only Russia, the three Baltic states, and Moldavia clearly resisted the first attempt to put the military behind the revival of the center. The Ukrainian and Byelorussian leaders initially expressed approval, while the leaders of the other republics (including the noncommunist presidents of Armenia, Georgia, and Kirghizia) equivocated until it became clear who would win. Some Russian local and provincial governments opposed the coup, and so did some of the coal miners and the people in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad. The opposition rallied behind Yeltsin, not Gorbachev. The first armed challenge left Gorbachev virtually alone.

Thus the coup made clear that the outwardly imposing political structure being renovated by Gorbachev was already rotting away beneath the surface. To tumble it down required only a puff of wind.

This fact is important in a way that goes far beyond the coup and its immediate effects. Modern states rest less on palpable things, like buildings and tanks, than on habits of obedience and accountability that link higher and lower officials in a governmental machine organized by laws and rules, and on the political culture that supports these laws and rules. During the coup, the ties that linked the parts of the government failed on a massive scale, just as they crumbled during the collapse of the Czarist regime and then the Provisional Government in 1917...


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