The Sunday Telegraph
The collapse of the USSR 30 years ago was a victory for nationhood over tyranny
Thirty years ago, Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday in the Crimea, taking a break before the proposed signing of a new constitutional treaty that was meant to create a looser USSR. On August 18, a delegation of senior Soviet officials arrived at his dacha. They feared that their country was about to break apart, and told him to proclaim a state of emergency or else to stand aside for someone who would. The president tried to call for assistance, but found that the phone lines had been cut.
To the surprise of the elderly putschists, Gorbachev flatly refused to co-operate, telling one of them, “Don’t you dare lecture me about the situation in this country, you p---k!”
The plotters seem not to have considered the possibility that the head of government would hold his ground. They were not prepared to shoot Gorbachev in cold blood. Nor did they succeed in detaining Boris Yeltsin who, as the leader of Russia, by far the largest of the 15 Soviet republics, was the rising power in the land.
The next day, August 19 1991, tanks appeared in Moscow’s streets. All newspapers except those under the plotters’ control were closed and 250,000 handcuffs were sent to the capital in preparation for mass arrests. The KGB issued a list of wanted delinquents, with Yeltsin’s name on it. But the president of the Russian Federation slipped through their net and reached Russia’s parliament building. Crowds rallied to their bibulous new champion, throwing up barricades in the surrounding streets. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the soldiers hung back. Yeltsin clambered unsteadily onto a tank, his wavy white hair shaking, and denounced the conspirators as traitors and criminals.
Not until later did it emerge that Yeltsin was drunk for much of the day. So, it seems, were the plotters. At 5pm, their chief spokesman, Soviet vice president Gennady Yanayev, appeared on television with quivering hands, and made a rambling statement to the effect that Gorbachev had decided to take a rest. Russians, hearing the tremor in his voice, drew their own conclusions. The coup attempt – tawdry, half-arsed and crapulous, but a coup attempt nonetheless – fizzled out.
It is apt that the USSR should have ended in a drunken stumble, for that is more or less how it began. Here is a first-hand account of the storming in 1917 of the Winter Palace, where the last remnants of Kerensky’s provisional government had been holed up:
“The Palace was pillaged from top to bottom by the Bolshevik armed mob, as though by a horde of barbarians. All State papers were destroyed. Priceless pictures were ripped from their frames by bayonets. Several hundred carefully packed boxes of rare plate and china, which Kerensky had exerted himself to preserve, were broken open and the contents smashed or carried off. Desks, pictures, ornaments – everything was destroyed. I will refrain from describing the hideous scenes which took place in the wine cellars.”
The looting went on for the next seven decades: seizures, conquests, expropriations. So did the bloodshed, in oceanic quantities. The sanguinary seas were fed by torrents of vodka. By the 1970s, alcoholism was killing Russians at a younger and younger age. A combination of falling life expectancy, low birth rates and emigration created a demographic crisis in the former Soviet lands whose impact has not yet been fully felt.
The surprising thing is not that the racket lasted as long as it did. A determined dictatorship can usually sustain itself, provided it neutralises potential troublemakers and keeps paying the army. Nor is it that, even now, a few moral imbeciles regret its fall. Communism is a dogma – a belief system impervious to realworld failures.
No, the surprising thing is that, in the end, the entity that brought about the dissolution of the USSR was Russia. When Yeltsin assumed control of the security forces on the territory of the Russian Federation, he effectively let the other 14 republics go their own way. Russia, in a sense, seceded from its own empire, removing itself from territories it had held since the 18th century or earlier. Small wonder that some Russians still feel the phantom pain of the amputation.
As had happened in the occupied nations of Eastern Europe eight months earlier, patriots overcame despots. Far from being destructive, nationalism proved the surest opposition to tyranny.
Watching those earlier revolutions at first hand as an 18-year-old, I innocently assumed that the world would in consequence turn away from socialism and towards national self-determination. But the opposite happened. The years that followed the break-up of the USSR saw international elites scrambling to repress the national principle. The dissolution of the Soviet bloc was interpreted as a sign that nationalism was explosive. Take away supranational authority, we were told, and ancient ethnic hatreds would revive.
European leaders responded to the liberation of the Soviet republics by accelerating their own plans for federal unification: the Maastricht Treaty was signed in early 1992. Where I had seen flag-waving demonstrators singing old songs, and had concluded that nationalism liberated half of Europe from oppression, the EU’s leaders saw only danger and division.
The break-up of the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its satellites, was the happiest geopolitical event of my lifetime. True, not every successor nation is a liberal democracy. The Baltic states are richer, happier and freer, but most of the Central Asian republics are stuck under dictators. There have been wars in Ukraine and Georgia, as well as between Armenia and Azerbaijan (though this last began while the USSR was still in existence).
Still, most of the new republics have prospered. Indeed, the worst that can be said of those that have remained mean and oppressive – Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Belarus – is that they have kept a quasi-Soviet system. The end of that system elsewhere represented a gargantuan advance in net human contentment. How odd that that should need saying.
It is apt that the USSR should have ended in a drunken stumble, for that is more or less how it began