30 Years Since The Soviet Unions Collapse
Nothing affected the course of history in the second half of the 20th century as much as the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seventy years after the Communists solidified power over the world’s largest country, tens of millions of victims were not on hand to witness its incredible, though unceremonious, dissolution at the end of 1991.
Thirty years later, Russian historian James Rodgers told the Yated how enough things could have gone wrong that day, which would have allowed a hardline Communist takeover to succeed. But the coup plotters who confined Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to his home and seized power forgot three basic elements of a successful rebellion — control the media narrative, limit freedom of movement, and, most of all, don’t display how nervous you are… on national TV.
Gorbachev, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ seventh leader, was its most stable in years. He was also the first since the early 1970s to show real amenability to negotiate with the United States and offer reforms. His perestroika opened the markets to private business, and glasnost allowed people more freedom to criticize the government. The crumbling of the once-terrifying Evil Empire, as Ronald Reagan termed the USSR, led some Communist states to rebel, beginning with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Hardline Communists were unhappy with this. On August 19, 1991, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other top officials seized power. They formed a “General Committee on the State Emergency,” placing Gorbachev under house arrest.
“Let me say that Mikhail Gorbachev is now on vacation,” Yanayev claimed. “He is undergoing treatment, himself, in our country. He is very tired after these many years and he will need some time to get better.”
The committee then dashed off a series of emergency decrees that suspended personal liberties and most newspapers, figuring that Russian citizens would follow meekly, as they’d done for 70 years. But thousands of people rushed to Red Square, rapidly coalescing around Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected president of Russia. Yeltsin would make his speeches from atop a tank, defying attempts to arrest him. Another mistake by the rebels was their failure to cut communications. Russians around the country were able to follow along the wonderous events in Moscow from Western media outlets — even Gorbachev, holed up in his home, watched BBC.
The thing that doomed the coup, in Rodgers’ telling, was a press conference held by its plotters. Yanayev’s hands were shaking so much that rumors spread — confirmed in later years by Yanayev himself — that the acting president of the Soviet Union was either nervous or drunk.
The coup was quashed four days after it began. Gorbachev was restored to his position, but Yeltsin, technically his subordinate, began asserting his power over the country. The Soviet Union formally collapsed on December 8, 1991, in an agreement that read, in part, “The Soviet Union as a subject of international and geopolitical reality no longer exists.”
Rodgers, a Briton who lived in Russia for many years, is a former BBC Russia reporter and author of Assignment Moscow: Reporting on Russia from Lenin to Putin, published last year. He wrote about the Soviet Union’s final days in a recent column in History Today.
What piqued my interest about your article was your argument that the 1991 coup could have easily ended up like the 1917 coup, which led to 75 years of Soviet rule, but it didn’t — because the plotters failed at the basics. If they would have gone to Coups 10.1, they would have failed the class. They didn’t take control of the media and mass transit, and most importantly, they didn’t show that they had control of the situation. On the other hand, there is a whole Wikipedia page on the dozens of people who predicted the Soviet Union’s collapse over the years.
Yes. It’s interesting, though, that there are lots of people who didn’t imagine it would collapse as soon as it did. When it came, it was very sudden, because those who led the coup in 1991 really lacked those things that revolutionaries and coup plotters, or anybody seizing power throughout the centuries, has had to do. They’ve had to seize control of communications, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, and certainly to be willing to use force to reinforce their power.
Now, the coup plotters did manage to get the army out onto the streets of Moscow, but they proved reluctant to drive away the demonstrators who had gathered against them. They were clearly worried about shedding blood. Ultimately, it was possibly these things that caused the coup’s failure, as well as their inability to control the message and the fact that they were very unconvincing at their notorious news conference, when they did not give a clear impression of being thought through at all. I think that’s really where their mistakes were.
One gets the impression almost that they didn’t really expect to succeed, and having done so, weren’t quite sure what to do. In consequence, their time in power, if you can even call it that, lasted for three or four days.
With the passage of time, have we learned whether they were prepared? Did months of planning go into this, or was it just an ad hoc, spur-of-the-moment decision — you know, they looked at Gorbachev as sliding from Communist ideals, so they said, “Let’s get rid of him and then we’ll see what to do next”?
I think there was an element of planning. I mean, they did manage to get the troops out onto the streets, and it obviously had been talked about for some months before. We’ll probably never know the true extent of the conspiracy.
But clearly there was a plan; it was timed to coincide with Gorbachev’s vacation, when he was down in the south of the Soviet Union. It was timed to the eve of the signing of a new union treaty, which for the coup plotters would have severely weakened the power and the central authority of the Communist Party and the Marxist-Leninist infrastructure that held the Soviet Union together since the revolution.
So there was a degree of planning there, but there were things which clearly weren’t thought through. There were many factors that could have made things turn out differently.
Imagine, for example, that Boris Yeltsin hadn’t courageously — possibly to a foolhardy extent; he took tremendous personal risk — stood up so publicly. Would others have been inspired to follow him? There was an attempt to arrest him, which was unsuccessful. Presumably, if you’re really serious about this coup, he was one person you would want to get under lock and key to proceed with your plan. But they failed to do that, too.
You mentioned they were hesitant to shed blood. That is interesting, because these were the diehard Communists. One dictator’s famous maxim was that a revolution is greased by blood, and 30 years before, during Stalin’s purges, you had tens of millions of Russians killed in the name of the revolution. But now, they were going soft.
I think there was a reluctance to kill civilians, and you can sense that in the way they conducted themselves.
There were three people who were killed, but that was more by accident than anything else; that was not a deliberate attempt. I imagine that once the coup authorities saw that the “White House” — as the Russian parliament building was known — became the focus of Yeltsin’s opposition to them, and that it was surrounded by tens of thousands of civilians, they just figured the cost would be too high.
They didn’t want to shed blood. From a moral point of view, you can obviously admire that. But from the perspective of consolidating power, perhaps that is what they needed to do — or at least to be willing to do — and clearly, they weren’t. There was a sense that if they were going to take power and consolidate it, they did not want to do it by killing large numbers of civilians.
As someone involved in the news at the time, were you surprised both by the coup, and by how easily it was repelled?
I think it was surprising. I mean, obviously, with hindsight, one becomes very wise, but I remember the rumblings. Earlier that summer, I read an article in Sovetskaya Rossiya — the name means “Soviet Russia,” and it was a hardline, anti-reform newspaper — and it was talking about how the country was losing its direction, etcetera, etcetera. In hindsight, that was a sort of call to arms or certainly a call to action for those people who might be willing to oppose the existing government.
But it was surprising, because, as you said, there were plenty of times in Russia’s 20th century history when there was a great willingness to shed blood — think of the 1917 revolution, the civil war that followed, or the terrible casualties the Soviet Union suffered during World War II. One also wonders, perhaps, if that was actually a factor in the coup plotters’ reluctance to use force. They were all of an age to have remembered — either as children or even as soldiers — that conflict in which the Soviet Union lost between 20 and 26 million people.
But still, you didn’t expect that these people — a group yearning for this strong return to Stalinism, very orthodox Marxism Leninism — would have a reluctance to do that. Especially since there were other examples —Hungary in 1956, or Prague in 1968 — where the Soviet Union did send troops to crush what were largely peaceful uprisings to reassert their form of socialist rule.
Taking a broader look at Russia, they traditionally viewed themselves as a continuation of the first Holy Roman Empire, as the spiritual heirs of the Roman church, the Byzantine Empire. Even when beaten into submission, they still had that feeling they were carrying that torch of history. How did they feel after the revolution? How did Russians view themselves in the context of world history after the 1917 Communist revolution?
That’s an excellent question. You’re right — Russia, in pre-Soviet and in post-Soviet times, as Orthodox Christianity became a more important part of the national identity, would refer to themselves as the “third Rome” for the reasons you mentioned. I think that the Soviet period resulted in all that being swept away, and it must have been a tremendous shock to people to see that all the certainties which they’ve held were suddenly gone.
I do think, though, that there were conscious attempts to replace the faith that disappeared. You can see this in the way Lenin was treated — particularly after his death, when they almost canonized him and made him a quasi-religious figure.
And then, subsequently, with the achievements of the Soviet Union, particularly early in the space race — the first space satellite and Sputnik, the first man going into space in the early 1960s. There was this sense that they had really achieved something. This was after the United States and its Cold War allies were worried about the way the Soviet Union was progressing, so that was a chance for Russia to see itself as a world leader again.
It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that it was only in 1861 when Russia liberated the serfs. So, in effect, it was the second half of the 19th century when Russia left the Middle Ages, and exactly one century later, they’ve got the first man in space. You can make a case that Russia went from the Middle Age to the Space Age in just 100 years.
Obviously, while there was that list of achievements, if you look back at the 20th century, Russia spectacularly fell apart twice during that time, in 1917 and in 1991.
You mentioned the serfs being freed. Interestingly, Russia today has no remnants of its serfs. In India, where they abolished the caste system a long time ago, you still have a lot of areas where its upheld. Yuri Gagarin, the first Russian who went to space, could have been the grandson of a serf, but it is just not spoken about. Did Russian society completely break down, with no princes and no serfs?
Yes. It was astonishing. I think that’s why it was such a huge shock. But there was something almost comparable to it. If you think about the Russian Revolution, 1917 is the date that everybody remembers — but most academic histories of the Revolution begin 15, if not 20, years before, because it was such a long process.
Similarly, the way the collapse of the Soviet Union happened was not really foreseen. People thought there were chances that Gorbachev’s reforms would succeed — with hindsight, people would point to the flaws that he made —and there were chances that the coup plotters, too, could have set up a regime which might have lasted for five months or for another 50 years.
We had an elderly BBC Russian contributor who had left the Soviet Union in 1975 and immigrated with his family to Israel. I said to him, “Did you imagine the Soviet Union would last forever?” Because when people emigrated, especially to Israel, you were quite sure it was for good — you knew you weren’t going to come back for a visit.
And he said, “No, we didn’t think it would last forever — but we did think it would last for about 200 years.” To many, it was going to last for their foreseeable lifetime and some time after that. So it was a big shock when it happened and the whole system was just gone. That’s not quite overnight, but in historical terms, yes, it was overnight.
Did world pressure play a role in the collapse? You mentioned this Jewish contributor — in the 1970s, the Jewish community had huge “Let My People Go” demonstrations in Washington. Did that play a role in accelerating the collapse, or accelerating the perestroika and glasnost reforms that Gorbachev implemented?
That’s a difficult question to answer, and it’s one for long-term academics and historians to untangle. But it certainly didn’t help relations with the West.
The general consensus now is that the Soviet Union collapsed from within. Its economic system wasn’t working, reform was absolutely necessary, and Gorbachev wasn’t the first leader to realize that. And obviously, in Andropov and Chernenko, you had two leaders who lasted a very short term — with Chernenko, it was only a matter of months. They were both relatively old and in poor health when they became General Secretary. Gorbachev was young and energetic — he was 54. Remarkably, he’s still alive and celebrated his 90th birthday this year.
So looking back, most people would say that yes, there’s a school of thought that says the Soviet Union was engaged in an arms race with the US in which it couldn’t compete; Afghanistan was a massive problem; and oil prices, which have been a valuable source of revenue for Mr. Putin’s administration at different times, were at very low levels. All these things were contributory factors. But it seems that ultimately, the collapse seems to be based on the fact that the system wasn’t working, and the reforms to try to fix it didn’t work either.
A lot of what you described could also describe other countries such as China and North Korea, where the systems are rotting. North Korea has a pretty good grip on its population, but in China, President Xi may have more control over society than his predecessors, but for the past couple of decades, most of the leaders there didn’t last more than five or 10 years. Based on what happened in the Soviet Union, would you predict anything about what’s going to happen in China?
I’m not an expert on China, and I don’t have much knowledge about it, but it’s true that the Chinese Communist Party looked at what happened in the Soviet Union and decided they didn’t want that to happen to them. So they may not call it capitalism, but they made changes where they’ve moved large swaths of their economy to capitalism, and they have sought to introduce radical economic reforms from the planned economy without introducing political reforms.
Where do you see Russia heading? Putin can be president for another 15 years, and some experts believe he has put the country into a quasi-version of Communism — the same as China — with iron control over the political system but allowing a free economic market. Is that something that Russians prefer? There is a school of thought that Russians like authoritarian leaders.
I think that after the chaos of the 1990s, the decade that followed — of which I spent a lot of time living in Russia — was extremely hard on people economically. There was political instability, and people really struggled to put food on the table. And we cannot underestimate that. People in the West, even if they saw it up close, didn’t really understand how difficult that must have been. So I don’t know if there is any surprise that they elected a leader like Putin, who promised stability and delivered stability and rising living standards.
I think, though, that his future is less certain. You’re right to say that the constitution will now allow him to stay in power until 2036, but Mr. Putin will at that time be well into his 80s. I was in Russia reporting for the BBC the year his political rise began and when he became president in 2000. If there is one flaw in the system he created, it is that it’s built around one man. Even if it appears stable at this stage — with the security forces loyal to him, as we’ve seen from the way they’ve dealt with demonstrations in the last 12 months — nevertheless, there is no clear succession plan, and there is no clear plan for what would happen were Mr. Putin to be taken ill, for example, and would not be able to continue leading.
I also think the political system is constructed in such a way where it is difficult for people to express their opinions; there’s not the free democratic elections that we recognize in many countries.
We can also look at Putin’s approval ratings — from the reliable organizations — to be able to carry those things out. They’re pretty good for somebody in power for more than two decades, but they’re not what they were. So I think Mr. Putin — and I’ve argued this in articles — needs new ideas to get the people engaged again, and I’m not sure what those can be.
So the future is unclear. I don’t see some sort of major collapse in Russia in the next few years, but I do think there needs to be a plan — maybe Mr. Putin has got one, but it’s not obviously apparent. The economy is not going well, which worked to his advantage until now. He had this agreement that living standards would rise, in exchange for political and press freedoms being curbed. Most people, after the revolutionary chaos they’d known for 10 or 15 years, were happy to go along with that. I’m not sure they still are.
One final question. What brought you to study Russia? Is that your ancestral homeland?
No. I wish it was. It’s one of those quirks of history. You see, I changed schools when my parents moved when I was 13 years old. I had started learning German, but in my new school the German classes were full, so I couldn’t continue. But I could start Russian.
Regarding family ancestry, I wish I had that. When I got to the university for my interview, there was a list of names and the times of the interviews, and at least half of them had Russian-sounding names. And I thought, “That’s not fair, how am I supposed to compete with that?” Thankfully, I did get a place at that university.
I don’t know if you speak any other language yourself, but for a native English speaker, it is not a particularly easy language to learn. But I’ve made a reasonable stab at it, I hope.
The thing that engaged me most about the country was the literature. I’ve loved the literature. It was difficult to start, but that’s the thing that kept me going. Also, a general fascination with the country.