Vicken Cheterian

25 Years After the Soviet Collapse: A Failed Coup that Changed Our World

As the repercussions of the failed military coup in Turkey continue to shape that country and reshuffle Middle Eastern political landscape, we commemorate another failed coup that took place a quarter of a century earlier that continues to shape our world. The failed “August coup” in Moscow in 1991 led to the final disappearance of the Soviet Union four months later. It was a strange death for a superpower, a reflection of its strange life: the USSR did not collapse under the onslaught of Nazi armies, nor as a result of a popular violent revolution. 

It died as a group of its leaders initiated a military putsch to save the Union, and failed. The leaders of the coup known as the “gang of eight” included: the vice-president of the Soviet Union, the Prime Minister, the minister of defense, the Minister of Interior, the head of the KGB... These people were already in power, why did they need to organize a coup? 

In early morning of August 19, 1991, tanks and elite paratroopers started rolling to the center of Moscow, as the declaration of the new order was announced on television. The military coup failed miserably; they even did not manage to arrest Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the major competitor to Gorbachev and his plan of a reformed Soviet Union. Tanks were soon blocked in the streets by citizens in their thousands, and two days later the putschists gave up, not having the stomach to order troops to open fire on civilian protestors. On August 21 three demonstrators had died overrun by army vehicles, as they were trying to block them. Their death was the ultimate price for the putschists to abandon their project: they did not have the stomach to order the army open fire of unarmed civilians. 

Even a quarter of a century later, the collapse of the Soviet state is unbelievable: why didn’t the various armed forces, the Red Army, the OMON troops, the KGB, defend their state? Political science is yet to produce an answer to this paradox. But there is yet a larger enigma: what happened to the working class, the revolutionary proletariat, that failed to defend “its” state, or at least the privileges it enjoyed in the self-declared “dictatorship of the proletariat”? 

The collapse of the USSR was several historic events in one: it was a geopolitical collapse of an empire, the retreat of Moscow’s influence from Eastern Europe, and from 14 out of 15 republics of the USSR. This created a power vacuum that was filled by a number of local, nationalist actors, and international interventions. If the USSR collapsed literally, it was on the heads of the peoples of the Caucasus, leading to a series of violent wars that did not find peace even a quarter of a century later.[1]

Then, there is the collapse of the Soviet model of “planned economy”. The result of this was mass privatization of Soviet property in a short time, in the name of market economy and parliamentary democracy. But privatization led to social polarization unseen before between a small number of “oligarchs” which suddenly became owners of huge capital and property thanks to their political contacts, and masses of population who were stripped off their savings, jobs, and social security. It was this mass privatization under Yeltsin, supported and encouraged by Western politicians and consultants, which produced the new social order in Russia and beyond. Post-Soviet “transition” promised the citizens of the “new independent states” to join the West in becoming capitalist democracies. Instead, today we can clearly see that they have joined the ranks of the Third World.  

Mass privatization did create capitalism and market relations, at the price of killing democracy. Soviet property was privatized for kopeks. My favorite example is ZIL (Zavod Imini Likhachova) vehicle making plant that once employed 100’000 workers in central Moscow, sold for a mere 16 million USD! As factories were being robbed like this workers went without pay for months, sometimes for years. How can one create democracy while those who are supposed to be empowered by political rights while being destabilized in their material existence? This instability continued in the 1990’s until the establishment of the Putin regime to bring a new social order: capitalism without democracy! 

The third dimension is that of the ideological collapse. Since the 19th century the idea of progress was linked to that of revolutionary change. Marxism gave a class dimension to this by suggesting that workers represented a coherent social class with potential to revolutionary change and the establishment of a new type of society classless society, where the state as an apparatus of class domination would be redundant and would “wither away”. This leftist paradigm was dominant until 1968, even after contradictions of Leninist promise: to lead us to a classless society by taking over the state apparatus and reinforcing its coercive power against society! The collapse of the Soviet Union was also the collapse of this world-vision, which largely went unnoticed among leftist intellectuals. They failed to produce a coherent revision of 20th century history from the perspective of the Soviet collapse; they did not answer to the question: how come the Soviet working class, potentially a revolutionary class, did not put up a defense against its collective destruction?  

Instead, they withdrew silently. The field was left to neo-liberal interpretations of the Soviet collapse and what comes after it. It shaped the new political map in the West itself: the former revolutionary left abandoned the idea of revolution and class struggle and instead adopted the defense of the public sector and its social achievements. In other words, the radical left moved away from revolution and dismantling of the state bureaucracy to its defense, what used to be the position of social-democracy. This later, in its turn, moved towards liberal positions, often difficult to distinguish them from liberals or conservative.

The surrender of the old left did not stop history to follow its course: revolutions continued to erupt and to surprise us. But instead of revolutions promising human liberty, equality, and a new social order, they have turned into self-destructive religious wars. A systemic, humanist and critical, anti-systemic thinking is still to replace the old leftist revolution paradigm. But could that happen without a thorough criticism of the Soviet experience?

[1] I discussed them in War and Peace in the Caucasus, Hurst/Columbia, 2009: