This week-end marks the 20th anniversary of the attempted military coup in the Soviet Union. It took place at a time of economic, social and political turmoil within, and outside the USSR. Aimed at preventing the break-up of the Soviet Union, its failure actually led to a dramatic speeding up of that very process. This attempted political counter-revolution by old-time Stalinists led on directly to the victory of the capitalist counter-revolution, the disintegration of the USSR and the rapid rise of a new class of super-rich capitalist oligarchs.
Clare Doyle looks at the dramatic events of 19 to 21 August 1991 and what followed.
Barricades next to the "Supreme Soviet" during the coup
In the early hours of 19 August, 1991, tanks and armoured cars began to move from the outskirts of Moscow towards the Kremlin. An announcement was made by the news agency TASS that Michail Gorbachev, secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and president of the state, was no longer able to carry out his duties "for health reasons". He had been replaced by his deputy, Gennady Yanayev, a representative of the ’Old Guard’ within the ruling ’communist’ party.
A statement was broadcast that banned all gatherings of three or more people as well as all social and sporting events. A ’State Committee for an Emergency Situation’ (GKChP) was supposedly in charge with a general, a police chief and a minister of defence amongst them. Their stated aim was to "save the Soviet Union from fratricide and civil war".
All normal radio and TV programmes were suspended. No news was given. The only thing shown on television, repeated throughout the day, was the ballet, Swan Lake – a familiar tactic of the Stalin era for blotting out awkward news.
At five o’clock, the coup ’leaders’ held a press conference with Yanayev in the centre repeating rehearsed phrases and with hands shaking! Already the putschists were aware of the mounting opposition to their plans. The control over the army and special forces that they thought they could rely on was not guaranteed.
Far from cowering in their homes, however, hundreds, then thousands of people made their way to the buildings that housed the elected authorities - in Moscow the White House, home of the Russian Federation’s parliament, and in Leningrad, the Marinsky Palace where the local council was based. Barricades were erected from whatever was available - overturned buses in Moscow, cement-mixers from building sites in Leningrad. Weapons were stock-piled inside the buildings in case armed confrontation was necessary. The people who turned out to defy the putschists were determined not to see the clock of history turned back, the old Stalinist regime re-imposed and all promise of democratic change erased.
Boris Yeltsin, elected president of the Russian Federation, had been pushing for ‘reforms’ which would clear the path for the re-introduction of capitalism. They would mean misery for workers but in true Bonapartist fashion, he would lean on workers at this time of crisis. Hypocritically he borrowed from the workers’ movement the idea of a general strike to use as a battering ram with which to defeat the ’putsch’. Workers anyway, across the Soviet Union, were already walking out of their workplaces in readiness for a fight.
In Moscow, soldiers were already defecting. Later whole divisions would come over. Yeltsin famously stood on a tank amidst the crowds that had assembled at the White House to voice total defiance of the GKChP and rally the forces. Hundreds of thousands made their way to the Russian parliament building (– the same building that just two years later, Yeltsin himself was to bombard with tanks! (See Yeltsin obituary on this site).
Anatoly Sobchak, Mayor of Leningrad, called for a mass demonstration in Winter Palace Square for the next morning, 20th August. Up to half a million people made their way to this historic site to learn how the coup leaders could be defeated. One day later the GKChP was falling out and falling apart.
Some saw the attempt at a coup by this layer as a necessary and ’progressive’ step to prevent the break-up of the Soviet Union and to halt the process of privatisation and a return to capitalism. Some still do. The Russian Communist Party under the long-time Stalinist, Gennady Zyuganov, is holding a commemoration of the event. They say none of the problems of today in Russia would exist if the coup had succeeded!
It was very rapidly becoming clear at the time that Yanayev and Co. did not have a chance of succeeding. They would not prove capable of holding on by force to a centrally planned state-owned economy already in crisis. The bloated, 20 million strong bureaucracy sat like a gigantic parasite on the back of the workers’ state. When stagnation beset the economy, those they had held in submission for generations began to move against them.
Workers in the USSR, at the end of the 1980s had seen their economy slowing down to a snail’s pace compared with the past. Many had welcomed the ’perestroika’ and ’glasnost’ introduced by Gorbachev in an attempt to breathe new life into the bureaucratically overburdened planned economy. They had begun to taste at least some elements of change. There were new consultative committees in the workplaces where grievances could be aired. Management could be challenged. There had been elections of new leaderships in the republics and a campaign vigorously promoted by Yeltsin, for parties other than the ruling ’communist’ party to be able to organise and stand in elections.
The position of the CWI members in the USSR in August 1991 was to actively oppose the coup but to give no truck to the policies of Yeltsin and co. who clearly wanted to push ahead with wholesale privatisation and wipe out all elements of a state-owned planned economy. Independent action by the working class – strikes and a struggle for a workers’ government - would have been the best way to defeat both the coup and the pro-capitalists and to take society forward. But there was no force or party with any weight in society advocating this.
As the CWI document ’Revolution and Counter-revolution in the Soviet Union’ put it (para 53):
„During the coup therefore, the Marxists in the USSR called for support for the general strike, not on the programme of Yeltsin (for the return of Gorbachev and the continuation of the market reforms), but to defeat the coup with a revolutionary programme for workers’ democracy. We explained that the limited democratic rights of the last period could only be safeguarded by the working class taking power. We called for the building of democratic workers’ committees, arming of the workers and an appeal to the rank and file soldiers.”
Doomed to defeat
The ’emergency council’ had the idea of protecting the planned economy from the onslaught of the privatisers but, without democracy from below, it had become unviable to maintain it. Their statement spoke of the need to ’protect all forms of property’. But they clearly did not want to see the end of state ownership of industry and finance for fear of the consequences for themselves and the system that had sustained them until now. They saw Yeltsin, Gaidar and Co, even Gorbachev, as a threat to the old way of doing things. The putschists thought they could defeat this layer simply by using the only instruments at their disposal - the forces of the state. And these crumbled in their hands! Their ’take-over’ did not even last three days.
They had not learned from the experience of Jaruzelski in Poland who in 1981 had moved against Solidarnosc and imposed military rule but had failed in his attempt to re-establish the old Stalinist regime. He had found it impossible to save the planned economy by force and abandoned the attempt.
The coup leaders had put Gorbachev under house arrest at his Summer retreat on the Black Sea. Within three days he was in Moscow. The president of the Soviet Union arrived in the capital, beholden to the president of the Russian Federation. Nominally he remained head of state. In fact, he never recovered his full power and status. By the end of 1991 (25 December) he was making a televised speech resigning as president of an almost non-existent entity. This would then be seen as the final ratification of the end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
What was the background?
The disintegration of the Soviet Union was already in process before the attempted coup. It ran parallel with the growth of major economic problems. An agreement known as the Byelavezha Accords or ’New Union Treaty’, establishing a looser federation of states, was to be signed on 20 August. The coup leaders could see their power base disappearing. The ‘shock therapy’ wing of the bureaucracy who wanted to take the fast-track route to the restoration of capitalism, was gaining the upper hand. Gorbachev was floundering – not sure how to proceed. His popularity had plummeted to 14% in the polls.
He had promoted reforms to try to prevent an explosion from below and to retain the state-owned planned economy intact. This was the structure that had for decades provided his own caste in society with its income and privilege. Already during the miners’ strikes of 1989 he had reinstated the use of anti-strike laws. He was putting the lid back on reforms. What was the alternative?
Boris Yeltsin had already been elected president of the Russian Federation, against the wishes of the hardliners, and was eroding the powers of Gorbachev and the Union. Yeltsin most forcefully represented the growing layer within the state bureaucracy who wanted to proceed more and more rapidly with the ’transition to the market ’ - to the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union. He was popular amongst workers, including miners in Vorkuta, in the Kuzbas and in the Donbas. They had been engaged in major strike struggles to get a better return on the heavy expenditure of their Labour and had demonstrated their anger against the privileges of the bureaucracy. Yeltsin, who like to be seen as a man of the people, had supported them for his own reasons as they pushed local representatives out of office and attacked their perks and privileges sometimes literally – blocking the path of their limousines, opening up their boots full of luxury items!
The stranglehold of the Stalinist bureaucracy on society had by this time been loosened; it was split and divided on how to proceed. There was a ferment amongst the intellectuals and the middle layers in society who looked towards capitalism in Europe and elsewhere. Unlike today, world capitalism was still going ahead and apparently offering opportunities for personal and cultural advancement – an escape from the nightmare under Stalinism.
The 100 million or so working class of the vast USSR - stretching across eleven time zones – was wracked with shortages of all the basic necessities of life - bread, meat, eggs, soap, toilet paper! There was no sugar, in the shops to preserve what fruit and berries could be foraged from the countryside. Mushroom-picking became a frantic exercise in survival rather than the traditional leisurely late Summer pastime.
The conditions were developing for the working class of the Soviet Union to move to throw off the vast, parasitic bureaucracy from its back and take control, through elected committees, of the state-owned, centrally planned economy and society as a whole. This had long ago, at the time of the rise of Stalin and his gang, been the programme of Trotsky, the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian revolution of October 1917. This is what led Stalin, who had crushed all those who had argued for the spread of the revolution and workers’ democracy, to send his agents to physically annihilate him.
In the long dark decades up to the 1980s, the economy of the Soviet Union had advanced dramatically, on the basis of state ownership and a plan. This was even without the ’oxygen’, as Trotsky called it, of workers’ democracy that could keep the vast state-owned system functioning healthily. Now that it was stagnating, only workers’ control and management, through totally democratic elected committees making all the planning decisions could enable it the planned economy to survive. This would have meant also fighting to establish a genuine workers’ government to clear out all that was rotten under Stalinism.
19 August 1991
No political force
What was needed was a political force that had the clear aim of carrying through a political revolution, of the working class taking over the reins of power and spreading the idea of genuine socialism internationally.
There was no such force. All opposition had been brutally suppressed, from the annihilation of the heroic Left Opposition in the ’20s, the purge trials and mass executions of the ’30s through decades of police state dictatorship; it had not been possible for such a force to develop. Now it was too late.
If, as today, capitalism was in a major crisis and held no attraction in terms of an alternative way forward, things could have been different. In the crisis in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, brought on by stagnation and political paralysis, some may have found their way towards the ideas of Trotsky - of a way out on the basis of a struggle for workers’ democracy. But this was not what happened.
22 August 1991: the end of the putsch
If the trigger for the Yanayev gang’s attempt to take power was the imminent dissolution of the USSR, the very words ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ had long been a misnomer. Set up in 1922, following the victorious workers’ and peasants’ revolution in Russia, it was originally a voluntary federation of states in which Tsarism, landlordism and capitalism had been overthrown. These states were on their way to establishing socialism. The soviets, at the very beginning, were the seats of real, totally democratic, power.
With Stalin’s rise to power and the crushing of all workers’ and democratic rights, the move towards genuine socialism, with an internationalist approach, was halted. Stalin and his vast state machine then held the nationalities of the Soviet Union together with a rod of iron. Whole nations were punished for representing a threat to his rule, most dramatically in the case of the Crimean Tatars and Chechens, killed in vast numbers and removed en bloc from their homelands.
In the 1980s, as the economic situation across the USSR began to deteriorate and the bureaucracy lost its raison d’etre of presiding over a growing economy, the desire to break free from Moscow domination developed in a number of republics. Neither decentralisation nor centralisation under bureaucratic centralist control could ‘deliver the goods’, satisfy the needs of the workers and poor. In the Baltics and elsewhere nationalist movements grew in strength and came out in open revolt against the centre.
Gorbachev, who now lays great stress on peace and non-intervention, had ordered troops in to hold the line, in fact to crush the movements for independence. This had failed. Lithuania, after the bloody events in Vilnius in January 1991, had simply broken away from Moscow domination.
23 August 1991
In August, as soon as it was clear that the putschists were defeated and Yeltsin had the upper hand, a whole series of Republics declared themselves independent – Estonia on the second day of the attempted coup and Latvia on the third, as the Emergency Committee itself was already collapsing. In September, Moldova, Tajikistan, Armenia and Turkmenistan declared independence. By November only four remained nominally in the Soviet Union.
Independence was being declared in the name of democracy but was being decided by a tiny handful of gangsters at the top of society - in their own interests and without the slightest reference to the wishes of the majority. In fact, it was the same cliques in power in the republics under the old regime – as heads of the Communist Parties - who transformed themselves into national, generally pro-capitalist, powers in the newly reborn states. Their aim was to get their hands on the loot that was to be had through the privatisation process. Witness Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Shevardnaze in Georgia.
In the opinion of a Swedish economist who advised the Russian and Ukrainian governments in the early ‘90s on how to make the transition to capitalism most of the newly formed states, “are corrupt states that have as their purpose to allow the elites to enrich themselves through corruption”. He says this now; the CWI said it then!
Lukashenko in Byelorussia, has retained far more of the old state ownership but also tightened the old Stalinist methods of repression, including brutal beatings and imprisonment of journalists and oppositionists.
Back in 1991, on 8 December, the heads of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus created the Commonwealth of Independent States which broadened out to include most ex-republics of the USSR. At the same meeting the 1922 union treaty, established under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, was annulled.
On 24 December, the Russian Federation announced it would take the place of the USSR at the United Nations, including a seat on the Security Council. On 25th of that month, after Gorbachev’s formal resignation, the red hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin and replaced by the Russian tricolour.
Parties and prospects
In Russia, the present day leaders and the people who preceded them in power, including Yeltsin, were all part of the CPSU apparatus. Suddenly, after the collapse of the coup, they became god-fearing anti-communists but used all their connections in the party and state apparatus to enrich themselves in the orgy of privatisation that swept the country.
The Communist Party itself was banned by the victors of the coup around Yeltsin. Later it reappeared with a new name - the Communist Party of the Russian Federation. It still had the same Stalinist leadership with no word of criticism of the old dictatorship, yet accepting capitalism as an established fact.
In today’s conditions, a new party needs to be built to give a real voice and representation to workers and young people and linking up with the task of building democratically controlled trade unions independent of the state and the bosses.
Putin and Medvedyev’s ruling party – United Russia – is the political face of Russian oligarch-ridden capitalism today. It looks set to win again at the next elections through rigging and fraudulent practices as usual. It has been described by Gorbachev recently as “authoritarian” and a “worse version of the Communist Party”. He has made it known that he favours Medvedyev for president rather than see Putin standing for a third term, but he has still praised Putin for “bringing Russia out of the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin years”.
At a press conference on 18 August this year, the last man to preside over the USSR said he regretted not resigning in April 1991 and setting up a “democratic party of reform” to rival the Communist Party which was blocking the transition to capitalism. He imagines that the catastrophic collapse in the economy that followed the failed coup and the avalanche of privatisation coup could have been avoided. (It is this that the Chinese Communist Party also is desperate to avoid. It is torn between reform and repression as it tries to ride the tiger of a transition to full-blooded capitalism.)
The English Guardian of 17 August this year carries a graphic representation of what happened to the ex-soviet republics in the years immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the planned economies. Moldova’s GDP and that of Tajikistan shrank by more than 60%. That of Georgia, Ukraine, Kirgizstan, Azerbaijan and Russia itself fell by 50% and more. The second largest of the ‘new states’ – Ukraine – has never recovered a positive growth rate. In the past 20 years its average has been minus 1.4%.
Only five of the 15 newly formed states saw a growth in their population; most declined - Russia by 7 million people. Life expectancy plummeted due to poverty, insecurity and the concomitant drug and alcohol abuse. None of the five new states in Central Asia has held a genuinely free and fair election and only one in the Caucasus - Georgia. Even in that country, only two of the eleven elections it has held in the past 20 years, were deemed came into the free and fair category!
So much for capitalist democracy and progress! Many amongst the older generation of the USSR have come to regret the transition to the market; few see what the alternative could have been and can be now. With the world economy spiraling into the depths of depression, Russia will be dragged down again, in spite of its oil riches. (The price of oil is anyway falling.)
Effects and lessons
The collapse of Stalinism and the Soviet Union allowed the capitalists and their defenders to conduct a sustained ideological campaign against socialism which still has a baleful effect on the outlook of workers and young people, even those who enter struggle against the bosses and their system. For twenty years they have been told that there is no alternative to capitalism - not only by capitalist politicians but by leaders of organisations which they and their forbears painfully constructed – the trade unions and most of what once were workers’ parties. Now the task of building new powerful workers’ organisations to combat capitalism in its death throes is urgent.
All the lessons of history have to be learned and re-learned. That includes the inspirational histories of revolutionary movements but also the educational history of counter-revolutions.
Only by understanding processes, the clash of economic and social forces, can a new generation prepare for the disturbed period that lies ahead. The creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a magnificent feat, not possible without the insights and leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. Its degeneration under Stalin and his successors and its final destruction twenty years ago are deserving of study, if only to confirm the validity of Trotsky’s ideas. He foresaw in horrible detail how the capitalist counter-revolution would develop in the Soviet Union if workers were unable to carry through a successful political revolution.
A new era opens up in which the nightmares of Stalinism and its aftermath can become a thing of the past and in which successful revolutions are back on the agenda!