by Martin Sixsmith

It has been 25 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but for those who witnessed the drama of 1991, memories remain vivid. Waking on August 19 to hear the news of the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev; driving down Gorky Street as columns of tanks descended on the Kremlin; talking to the tank crews and hearing from nervous conscripts that they had live ammunition in their weapons and were prepared to use it. For three anxious days the fate of Europe and the world was fought over on the streets of Moscow.

After nearly a decade of reporting from the Soviet Union, I knew in 1991 that perestroika -- the attempted restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system by Gorbachev -- was in trouble. The leader hadn't delivered the goods, either politically or in the nation's food stores. Earlier in the year Kremlin hardliners had surreptitiously fomented unrest in the Baltic republics; now they had declared their hand.

Their template for seizing power seemed to be the ousting of Nikita Khrushchev by the Leonid Brezhnev clique in October 1964. Both then and in 1991, the coup plotters had made their move while the leader was absent from Moscow. Both had secured, or attempted to secure, the backing of the power ministries - army, interior, and security services - knowing they would be decisive in a power struggle. And both had grabbed the levers of centralised power. The Soviet Communist Party's so-called democratic centralism, its web of administrative domination radiating from the Kremlin, ensured that commands from the top resulted in action on the ground. But there were differences between 1964 and 1991 that would emerge as the coup progressed.

When I spoke to Muscovites on the streets, I found some who agreed with the coup leaders, attracted by their promises to revive the economy, end the shortages and re-establish the USSR as a superpower. But there was defiance, too, with civilians haranguing the troops or standing in the way of the tanks.

I watched a detachment of armoured vehicles encircle the Russian Parliament building, belching acrid smoke, churning up the tarmac of the Moskva River embankment. And I witnessed the crucial moment of political theatre when Boris Yeltsin clambered onto the top of a tank to urge the Russian people to unite against the coup.

What had changed since 1964 was that the Russian people were no longer resigned to the ineluctability of a political process played out by shadowy cliques in the Kremlin. Khrushchev's reforms were carried out within the rules of the system, so the system, with unchecked power concentrated in the hands of the Party's ruling elite, could oust him. But Gorbachev's glasnost policy had changed the system: it had encouraged the people to have a say in politics and now they were determined to make their voice heard.

Glasnost was what allowed Boris Yeltsin's Russian Parliament to become the Alamo of democracy. It was the reason that thousands of men and women risked their lives to defend it. I watched them form a human shield around the building and waited with them for the attack to come. But when it came to the reckoning, the hardliners balked at massacring civilians. They ordered the tanks back to barracks, the coup collapsed and its leaders were arrested. Instead of restoring communist power, they had destroyed it. The Party was outlawed and in December 1991 the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. Yeltsin, left the undisputed ruler of an independent Russia, announced he would introduce western-style freedoms, political pluralism and civil rights.

I was convinced - and said in my reports - that autocracy was dead in Russia, that centuries of repression would be thrown off and replaced with liberty and democracy. But I was wrong.

For the next decade, Russia tried to turn itself into a western-style market democracy but slid instead into runaway inflation, ethnic violence and chaos. The following years, from 2000 onwards, have seen that process largely reversed. The country is stable and relatively prosperous now, but democracy and freedom once again take second place to the demands of the state.

Back in 1991, I should probably have known better. In the grip of Moscow's euphoria, I'd forgotten the lesson of history that in Russia attempts at reform are followed by a return to autocracy - unchecked power concentrated in the hands of a single unaccountable authority. It had happened so often in the past that it was improbable things would be different this time. It was one thing for me to be wrong; more serious was that the leaders of Europe and the United States were wrong, too. They sent economists from Harvard to oversee Russia's transition to the market, rejoiced at the defeat of communism, and assumed the problem was solved: from now on, they declared, Russia would be like us. George Bush Senior's 1991 Christmas address had all the breathless elation of a baseball coach whose team has won the World Series:

"Merry Christmas to all Americans across our great country! During these last few months, we have witnessed the historic transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the Soviet Union, and the liberation of its peoples. For over forty years, the United States has led the west in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. This struggle shaped the lives of all Americans. But the confrontation is now over! This is a victory for democracy and freedom! It is a victory for the moral force of our values! Every American can take pride in this victory!"

The message was clear: the United States had wiped out autocracy in Russia, 'American values' had triumphed and Moscow would henceforth adopt them, too. A blinkered confidence that its leaders could simply be instructed in the art of becoming good capitalists would be a hallmark of how the west would treat Russia for the next ten years.

At the urging of his American advisers, President Yeltsin agreed to a programme of 'economic shock therapy'. But when price controls were lifted inflation hit four hundred percent. State spending and services were slashed; sickness and infant mortality rose, along with alcoholism and suicide. People's savings were wiped out.

In late 1992, Yeltsin announced the world's biggest privatisation exercise. To denationalise Russia's state industries and create a new class of entrepreneurs, every citizen was given a voucher representing a personal stake in the country's economy. But entrepreneurs like Boris Berezovsky, Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Khodorkovsky bought up the vouchers by the hundreds of thousands. Idealism evaporated, the oligarchs grabbed the country's wealth and the people were left poorer than ever. Corruption and violence flourished. Wages went unpaid and inflation ran out of control; homelessness and poverty grew to unprecedented levels.

In the second act of his presidency, Yeltsin reneged on much of his promised democracy, but still failed to restore order. When Vladimir Putin finally undid the democratic reforms of the 1990s, Russians applauded. They wanted order and didn't mind if Putin suspended civil rights to provide it. Few demanded a return to the Yeltsin era; Russia's liberal opposition today enjoys little following. The reassertion of autocracy, Putin's 'power vertical,' was carried out with the approval of the people, not imposed on them.

For the past twenty years an annual opinion poll has asked the question 'does Russia need to be ruled by an iron fist?' The average of positive responses has been between forty and 45 percent, with an additional twenty to thirty percent agreeing that 'at times Russia needs all power concentrated in one set of hands'. Autocracy has been Russia's default position. It has at times been challenged - as in 1991 - but Russia has always reverted to strong, centralised government that brooks little opposition at home as it flexes its muscles abroad.

It is tempting, of course, to ask if things could be different now. For one thing, Putin and Dmitry Medvedev's 'power vertical' is not absolute. There is at least a semblance of elections and the state no longer stifles the economy. Russians have satellite television and the Internet; they travel relatively freely abroad. So the advantages of democracy and free markets can no longer be hidden, as they were before 1991. Perhaps the globalisation of information and the integration of the world's economies could be the factors that bind Russia into the political and cultural values we treasure in the west?

The immediate signs are not encouraging. Vladimir Putin has achieved many things, but a law governed state is not one of them. The pantomime of his withdrawal from power has been revealed for the subterfuge it was: like Ivan the Terrible withdrawing to the Oprichnina, he was always going to come back.

It is not for nothing that democratic societies have enshrined the inviolability of constitutional and electoral law. It is a free society's best guarantee of security and independence. But Putin has shown contempt for the law. He has sent a clear message to future autocrats and would-be rulers-for-life that authority need not derive from the rule of law. The power of the autocrat is bound by no such constraints.

 

Martin Sixsmith is a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, Washington, Brussels, Geneva and Warsaw. He is the author of several books on Russia. Sixsmith's book, Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, is published by BBC Books. It accompanies the BBC Radio 4 series.

 

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"Russia: Twenty-Five Years On"