The Mysterious End of the Soviet Union
With protests against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continuing in the aftermath of his recent victory in the presidential election, the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow seems particularly relevant to our understanding of what is now happening in Russia.1 The failed coup led not only to the disintegration of the Soviet Union—and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s departure from the political scene—four months later but also to Russia’s subsequent evolution into what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “managed democracy.” Had the coup not been attempted, Vladimir Putin, at the time a mid-level KGB officer, would not now be about to begin a third term as Russia’s president, attempting to preserve a corrupt and lawless political system. Was there a possibility in 1991 for things to have turned out differently, perhaps in the direction of democratic reform?
After more than twenty years there are still mysteries surrounding the coup affair, particularly regarding the actions of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The complete story will not be known until Russian archives are opened, which could be a long time. Nonetheless, new sources, in the form of firsthand accounts and interviews such as those discussed here, continue to emerge in Russia, adding much to the picture of the August 1991 events.
Gorbachev, to his great credit, dealt resolutely with the challenges he confronted after coming to power in 1985 in a politically stagnant and economically decrepit country. He made the bold decision to introduce three key policies that had a dramatic impact on the Soviet political and economic system: “new thinking” in foreign affairs, which included a significant rapprochement with the West and the end of Soviet control over Eastern Europe; glasnost, or openness, which gave the press, and Soviet citizens, unprecedented freedom to criticize the Kremlin; and perestroika—market reforms and democratization of the political process, which had been dominated by the Communist Party.
Unfortunately, however, the reforms had unforeseen negative consequences. Gorbachev’s attempt to eliminate central state control over the allocation of consumer goods without replacing it with an effective supply and demand system led to drastic shortages. Production declined dramatically, along with government tax revenues, resulting in a huge budget deficit. To finance the deficit, the authorities printed more rubles, causing a rise in inflation, which in turn aggravated shortages of consumer goods. According to Gorbachev’s chief aide at the time, Anatoly Chernyaev, whose remarkable diary for the year 1991 was only recently translated into English, Gorbachev expressed the fear at the end of March that “in 2-3 months…we will not be able to feed the country.”2
Equally threatening to the Kremlin were the political effects of perestroika. The Communist Party began to rapidly lose its authority, leaving a political …