VLADIMIR BUKOVSKY ON
GORBACHEV, YELTSIN AND PUTIN
The August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons
by Mikhail Gorbachev
Book Review by Vladimir Bukovsky
After six years of fighting the Gorbomania of the West, I have given up. God is my witness, I tried everything, from logical persuasion to passionate diatribe, from measured sarcasm to outright insult, all in vain. The more I tried, the less I got published. "He is raving, poor chap, he suffered too much," editors sagely observed as they threw my articles in to their wastebaskets.
Meanwhile the mass insanity continued to rage, sparing neither old nor young, neither left nor right, leaving me (and others with views similar to mine) no ground to stand on. A whole library of books extolling Gorbachev's virtues appeared, and to say anything contrary to this common wisdom became almost a sacrilege. So what could I do? In the spirit of the popular American saying — if you can't beat 'em, join 'em — I gave up and repented. Now I admit that I was wrong. Gorbachev is, after all, a great man, a giant of a statesman whose services to humanity are invaluable. For he has a magic touch: whatever he puts his hand on disappears.
As some might still remember, he used to be general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. And where, I ask you, is the Party now? Only two years ago he made himself the president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, that omnipotent nuclear superpower that kept the whole world in trepidation. And where is the Union? And where the Socialist Republics? And where the trepidation?
His miraculous power knows no boundaries. It was enough for him to make a quick trip to Eastern Europe, three times to kiss Honecker, Jakes, Husak, Ceausescu, and the rest of the gang, and they all collapsed, vanishing into thin air along with the Warsaw Pact. If this is not magic, what is? And he did not stop there. He went to China and nearly caused a popular revolution. A few years ago he visited Yugoslavia, praising the "Yugoslav model of socialism" to the heavens, and look what happened to Yugoslavia! Just recently he praised the "Swedish model of socialism," and, lo and behold, only days later the Socialists lost the elections in Sweden. A man of such talents should be encouraged to move around. Since he appears to have lost all his jobs, why not make him head of the Colombian drug cartel or, better still, the next general secretary of the United Nations?
Unfortunately, as his book reveals, Gorbachev does not recognize his real talent. The most striking aspect of the book is its author's incredible modesty. He looks upon himself at best as an innocent bystander, at worst a victim of circumstances; he never quite grasps that he is a mastermind, or the magnitude of the changes that he has masterminded. Throughout the book he keeps talking about the new Union of Sovereign States that he is about to create in place of the old USSR, and about the new socialism that he will soon introduce into that new Union. In these pages he is bursting with creative energy and optimism, even if in reality he has just turned the last page in a climactic chapter of the drama called Communism. As so often happens with historic figures, Gorbachev seems totally unaware that his role has ended, that our Supreme Scriptwriter does not even mention his name in the next chapter.
In Moscow recently I couldn't help recalling an old political joke, popular in the early 1960s. An elderly Russian émigré returns to his homeland in the year 2000, enters a café, and asks a waiter to bring him a cup of coffee and a copy of Pravda. "Here is your coffee, sir," says the waiter, "but Pravda is not available anymore." "Waiter," persists the old man, "I have asked you to bring me a cup of coffee and Pravda." "I am terribly sorry, sir, but I have told you already: Pravda is no longer published." The old man refuses to give up. "But I asked you to bring me coffee and Pravda!" The waiter begins to lose patience: "I told you, sir, there is no Pravda, it is closed, finished. Why do you insist on asking for it?" The old man smiles: "I would like to hear it again, and again, and again …”
I have nearly lived this joke myself (with the important difference that in Moscow there was no coffee either). Indeed, it all happened much more quickly than even a joke could foresee. When I first traveled to Moscow last April after fifteen years away, it was still a Communist country, although the power of the Party was openly challenged. The coal miners were striking and demanding Gorbachev's resignation, republics were in revolt against the center, the black market was thriving despite an official crackdown. One could physically feel the growing tension between society and the ruling Party, and it was not difficult to predict an inevitable confrontation. Yet neither side was eager to force the ultimate showdown, fearing a bloodbath. When I returned to the city at the end of August, however, the confrontation was already over. The Parry was defeated, its headquarters was closed and sealed, its property was confiscated, and — yes — Pravda was temporarily suspended. Whatever might lie ahead, the country was no longer Communist.
Remarkable as it may seem, this historic transition took only three days and only as many human lives. It was a bloodless revolution against the bloodiest political system in history. Ironically, on the night of August 21, 1968, exactly twenty-three years before, Soviet tanks had roared into Prague, crushing the Czech version of perestroika. The scenes that followed were strikingly similar to the scenes that we watched last August on our television screens: angry crowds surrounding tanks on the streets, desperate appeals to the West by the besieged government, impotent and short-lived indignation on the part of the civilized world. Even the tanks seemed similar, or at least they still belonged to the same army. And yet the difference was undeniable: twenty-three years later the Soviet leaders were fighting with their own people on the streets of their own capital for their own survival, instead of carrying out their bold promise to "liberate humanity from the chains of capitalism.”
The fact that once again we observed these familiar scenes proved once again what was proved twenty-three years before: socialism cannot be reformed, it cannot evolve into a democracy and a market economy, no matter how cautious the reformers and how gradual the reforms. It is the very principle upon which this system was built that must be changed, and for this reason the old political structures cannot withstand the pressure. Either they crack down or they break down.
In this sense, Gorbachev was no different from other Communist reformers, such as Deng Xiaoping in China or Edward Gierek in Poland. They all started with economic reforms and "liberalization," but ended with huge external debts and a popular revolution followed by the predictable imposition of martial law. And like other Communist reformers, Gorbachev has no one but himself to blame for his failure. When he came to power six-and-a-half years ago, he generated immense goodwill. He was instantly credited with a desire to introduce Western-style democracy and a market economy, although he had never promised anything more radical than "democratization" and a "socialist market." But as the failure of his perestroika became apparent, he showed his true face; and finally, in January 1991, he curtailed glasnost, postponed indefinitely any substantial economic reforms, ordered a crackdown on private business activity, robbed old-age pensioners of their life savings, and organized a massacre in the Baltic states. In February both Kiev and Moscow witnessed the first political trials of the glasnost era.
Even the so-called hard-liners who allegedly tried to depose him were handpicked by Gorbachev. Once he decided to reverse his previous policies at the end of the year before, he replaced his less bloodthirsty colleagues in the leadership with real henchmen capable of administering martial law. Then, being true to his indecisive self, he stopped halfway and betrayed them as well, when half a million Muscovites defied his ban on demonstrations and whole regions went on strike in March. Thus he simply fell into the trap that he himself had prepared.
This, I hasten to say, is the kindest, the most sparing, version of the events of August. Many in Moscow believe that Gorbachev was much more actively involved in the so-called coup, if not the mastermind behind it. As quite a few cynics would point out, he had very good reasons to want his immediate subordinates to stage a "coup." Successful or unsuccessful, it would have served his interests. Indeed, as his policy of perestroika was failing, he had no solutions to offer, only some tactical moves and short-term schemes aimed at slowing down the inevitable loss of control over the country. By the end of 1990 there was only one way to avoid civil war in the Soviet Union, and that was to dissolve the Union, just as the only way to avert food riots and strikes followed by repression was to introduce a market economy (and far more radically than was done in Poland). Yet neither of these changes could have been accomplished as long as Gorbachev and his Communist "elite" remained in power. For who would Gorbachev have been in those changed circumstances? A non-elected president of a non-existing country. And where would his elite have been? Standing in line for unemployment benefits.
Instead, borrowing billions of dollars abroad became his only economic policy, a pitiful substitute for real reforms: and all sorts of manipulations aimed at forcing republics to sign his new Union Treaty became a substitute for the task of dissolving the Union. Both these "policies," however, required a considerable element of disinformation for their success. The threat of a coup by "hardliners" was exactly the legend that made the West support Gorbachev through all six years of perestroika, and the same threat was used by Gorbachev's propaganda to secure the support of the democrats at home.
By August 1991, however, Gorbachev and his comrades were running out of tricks, and the people were running out of patience. The economic summit in London was a disaster for Gorbachev: no new credits were offered, all the usual scares notwithstanding. At home, the prospects of getting the republics to sign the new Union Treaty were slimmer every day, particularly as the Ukraine, the biggest and by far the most important republic, openly refused. Clearly, the bugaboo of a hardliners' coup was loosing its power to motivate. Stronger medicine, an even more credible warning of disaster, was necessary.
In sum: "the August coup" was, in all probability, not a coup at all, but rather the introduction of martial law disguised as a coup. Gorbachev, of course, could not afford to be seen as its leader, and preferred to stay in the shadow. Had it succeeded, he would certainly have re-emerged from his Crimean retreat as a force for moderation, with his power at least partially restored; and should this strangest coup in history have failed, as of course it did, he would appear to the world as a victim who must be saved from the clutches of the "hard-liners" for another six years. Whatever the case, whether he encouraged the plot or not, Gorbachev could not possibly have been uninformed about the preparations for such a giant operation, particularly since many of his closest aides were involved.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the coup was the behavior of the alleged conspirators. Unlike their Polish colleagues in 1981, they did not close down the country, did not cut communications, did not arrest the most active opponents (especially Yeltsin). Instead they moved tanks into Moscow, thus provoking resentment at home and an outcry abroad, and they called a press conference for which they were comically ill-prepared. Whatever we may think about the intellectual ability of these officials, we can hardly deny them experience in their respective fields of government. These were the people, I believe, who masterminded a brilliant coup in neighboring Romania just two years ago. If a coup is what they wanted, they knew how to stage one.
Moreover, their persistent claim that Gorbachev was just ill, and would be back as soon as he was better, was completely inconsistent with the very notion of a coup. Those who intend to replace a head of state usually do not promise his return. And certainly they do not hurry to their alleged victim once they have failed. Admittedly, we do not know what Gorbachev and the plotters discussed at their reunion in Crimea, hut the scene is not hard to imagine. "You fools, I told you to act without me. Why did you come here?”
"But, Mikhail Sergeyevich, what should we do now? You told us to act without you, but the army refuses to obey our orders unless you confirm them. You told us to make it bloodless, but the crowds surrounded the White House and we cannot take it without massive casualties. Please, come with us. You promised to come a few days later anyway. Please make up your mind: Do you want martial law or not?" -- "You idiots! What are you talking about? I did not say anything about martial law, did I?”
I appreciate that such a scene may seem farfetched to an outsider, but such a pattern of behavior is typical of Gorbachev. He claimed, for example, that he did not know anything about the Tbilisi massacre in 1989, and even punished the local commander, but a year later it was revealed that he took part in a Politburo discussion of possible military action. The same story was repeated in 1990 in Baku and in 1991 in Vilnius, and each time Gorbachev officially did not know anything about it. Small wonder that his generals refused to obey when it was Moscow's turn last August.
It is also typical of Gorbachev to believe that strategic problems can be solved by tactical schemes, most of which at the end turn out to be too clever for his own good. Thus, he certainly did not want to destroy the Eastern European Communist regimes, nor did he plan to hand East Germany over to NATO on a silver platter. Quite the contrary, he wanted to replace "hardcore" Communist leaders there with little Gorbachevs. But after a spectacular beginning, the outcome of his European gambit was a complete disaster for the Kremlin strategists. No analyst at the KGB could fathom the depth of the mistrust and the hatred that the people of Eastern Europe felt for any Communist leader, "liberal" or "conservative." Their new puppets could not possibly "stabilize" Eastern Europe and salvage the cause of socialism by promising to give it a "human face.”
Crazy schemes that go wrong seem to be Gorbachev's trademark. And, come to think of it, wasn't the whole policy of perestroika one such crazy scheme, an attempt to solve a strategic problem by tactical means? As a result, what was originally intended as an internal readjustment of the system grew into a popular revolution that threatened to bring the system down. And the phony coup that ultimately brought it down was only the logical conclusion of the policy of deceit and manipulation.
There is nothing unusual in such a development; Tocqueville observed long ago that the most dangerous moment for a despotic government is when it begins to change. Like so many reforming despots before him, Gorbachev and his colleagues made two basic miscalculations: they overestimated the strength of the ruling party and they underestimated the people's hatred of the old regime. That is to say, if we owe anyone a debt of gratitude for the spectacular changes in the East, we owe it to the people, not to the despots.
These were the truths and the lessons of the events in August, but you will not discover them in Gorbachev's latest memoir. In fact, only a few pages, twelve and a half to be precise, are devoted to a description of the actual events, and even those pages are mostly dedicated to proving his innocence or to refuting the "allegations." The text of his "Declaration," ostensibly written on August 20 to protest the action of the "conspirators"; the description of the way he videotaped his statement and listened to the foreign broadcasts; his preoccupation with a speech he was expected to make before the putsch: all are aimed at convincing his readers of how monumentally unaware he was of the impending drama, and how heroically he resisted the evil plans of the plotters. He writes that the forces that have been defeated will try to think up all kinds of things. They will produce the crudest inventions, try to cast suspicions on the president and the democratic forces, and to compromise them.
Here is one story that is going round: it suggests that I knew in advance about the putsch, and is based on a reference to the interview given by Lukyanov [Speaker of the Supreme Soviet] on 19 August. The investigation wilt reveal everything, including the value to be attached to the rumor being put about suggesting that Gorbachev's communications were not cut off, but that he kept out of the way so as to sit it out and then to arrive "ready to serve." A "no-lose" situation, so to speak. If the coup succeeded, then the president, having given them the chance, would win out. If the coup failed, he would again be right. Similar lies are being spread from various sides. Incidentally, on 18 August, when he was trying to get me to agree to order a state of emergency or hand over to Yanayev, Baklanov argued in the same spirit as the present character assassins. Appealing to me to support the Committee, he said: "You take a rest and while you are away we'll do the 'dirty work' and you will return to Moscow." A strange coincidence, is it not? But if those three days failed to unsettle me it certainly won't happen now.
The trouble, of course, is that we were not present when these conversations supposedly took place, and we are expected to accept Gorbachev's word for it. Meanwhile Lukyanov is paralyzed after a stroke he suffered in custody, and many others of Gorbachev's confidants have died in a chain of enigmatic suicides. One wonders how much that is really new will be "revealed" when the investigation is over.
One is also left to wonder what is the purpose of this book, if it is not to provide a thinly veiled apologia for Gorbachev's complicity in the whole affair. For apart from endless banalities about "cooperation." "progress," and "opportunities," the constant theme of the book is Gorbachev's future relationship with the West, and his hope that it will not abandon its hero in his dark hour:
I hope that now the West will pay greater attention to what I have said insistently and frequently in calling for practical and productive collaboration with our country…. The only thing that has to be remembered is that, at the present stage of rapid transition to the free market and of stabilizing measures, we need understanding on the part of the West, especially of Europe, and their readiness to meet us halfway as much as possible.
In other words, Gorbachev hopes that now, unlike last July in London, the West will bail him out, and without asking awkward questions. This seems to be so important to him that he keeps forgetting how much the world changed during those three August days. He keeps forgetting, that is, that there is no Communist Party anymore, no Soviet Union, no Warsaw Pact, nothing with which the West can have a relationship; that, in short, he himself became irrelevant, while the new forces took over.
With or without Gorbachev's active participation, indeed, this strange coup was a blessing in disguise, because it precipitated the inevitable collapse of communism. In the final analysis the people won, as they did in the other conflicts of this nature, be they in Budapest or Prague or Moscow. They, and not the Communist reformers like Dubĉek or Gierek, Deng or Gorbachev, are the heroes. And what they achieved at the end was a moral victory, without which no true recovery is possible. For only those who regain their dignity can build a new society.
Three days and three nights in August did for the nation what all six years of perestroika could not. They purified the conscience and destroyed the mean spirit of slavery, as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, across the country decided that they would rather be dead than red again. New generations, previously apolitical and socially indifferent, entered the scene and pushed aside the fears that burdened the older generations. One can observe a new expression on their faces, and it is an expression of self-respect.
Now at last we can be sure of our future, for only those who have liberated themselves can erect an edifice of democracy on the ruins of a totalitarian state. As for Comrade Gorbachev, we will always remember him with sadness, as we remember Louis XVI or Nicholas II. And we will always feel inexplicable gratitude to this miracle man, for accomplishing what all the Western policies, from containment to appeasement, failed to accomplish.
New Republic, January 1992.
Vladimir Bukovsky Reviews
Boris Yeltsin's Autobiography Against The Grain
The world learned about Boris Yeltsin long before anyone interviewed him on television. We all heard first about his meteoric rise in the Soviet firmament and then about his meteoric fall, and still we had no opinion. There were all sorts of rumors about him, there was the official biography, which was not much different from the biographies of many Party functionaries, but little was known. The fact that his political resurrection some months ago was greeted with amazement speaks for itself.
When I saw Yeltsin on television for the first time, a few months after his brutal but short-lived downfall, I could not believe my eyes. It cannot be true, I thought; this type of person does not exist any longer. For looking straight into the camera was a typical Bolshevik, a Bolshevik straight out of central casting. Stubborn, overbearing, self-assured, honest, irresistible, a human engine without brakes — he must have jumped from an armored car just a few minutes ago. We have all seen such faces in the old photographs, except that they were usually dressed in leather jackets, they usually dangled a huge Mauser from their belts, and they were usually executed by Stalin.
Where did they find this man? His autobiography is not much of a book, but it does provide a part of the answer, a few details to add to the portrait. Yeltsin was born in 1931 in Sverdlovsk, into an extremely poor peasant family, just when the country was devastated by collectivization. He was nearly drowned at his baptism by a drunk priest, who was paid for his labor with moonshine, and he was rescued at the last moment by his parents. The priest was not particularly worried, and offered a kind of blessing: "If he can survive such an ordeal, it means he is a good, tough lad, and I name him Boris.”
His childhood was joyless: hunger, violence, work. From the age of six he had to look after the younger children and to do all the chores while his parents were working. For the slightest misbehavior, the young Yeltsin was strapped by his quick-tempered father. Yet he was always a ringleader, at school, at the Urals Polytechnic, at the construction site where he was employed as a foreman after graduation. At thirty-two he was already chief manager of a large industrial complex. In 1976 he became first secretary of the provincial Party Committee, and ten years later a nonvoting member of the Politburo.
Yeltsin's most outstanding feature is his love of challenge, his appetite for adventure and risk. Some critics have misinterpreted this as braggadocio. Why, they ask, his long descriptions of his youthful exploits, why all these stories about traveling across the country on the roofs of trains, about playing volleyball without two fingers on his hand? Why did he insist on learning all the trades in the construction industry before taking his designated place as a foreman? Those who question Yeltsin's motives, however, do not understand what real socialism is about.
The psychological atmosphere that was created in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s pushed people to cross the limits of the possible. The slogan of the time was, "When the country commands us to be heroes, each and everyone must become a hero." And there were heroes. They were poorly fed and poorly clothed, but the pilots stormed the skies and the explorers conquered the North Pole. Practically with bare hands they dug canals, built dams, created some of the world's largest industrial complexes. Victorious proletarians marched from triumph to triumph, displaying the irresistible force of collective labor, harnessing the forces of nature, turning deserts into gardens. How could a socialist paradise be created, except by performing a miracle a day? And who but a superman could enter it?
Only much later did they look back and discover that the superhuman and the inhuman go hand in hand. There were a few heroes, but the rest were victims. While some burned with enthusiasm, the rest were terrified. Those magnificent dams and canals turned the rivers into stinking swamps, and those giant industrial complexes turned blooming land into desert, as if nature, the eternal enemy of the people, conspired to wreck the epic effort.
Still, victims and heroes alike remember with nostalgia the time in their youth when life had a clear purpose. Some still believe that another decisive effort, another campaign against corruption, can avert disaster and restore them to the right course. Boris Yeltsin was one of the heroes building socialism twenty hours a day. As first secretary of Sverdlovsk province, which is the third-largest industrial area in the country, he was an exemplary boss, hard-working, demanding, and fair; he even encouraged his subordinates to criticize him, as a good Communist should. Yet he also carried out a secret order from the Politburo to demolish (overnight) the Ipatiev House, in which Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed in 1918, which had become a tourist attraction. Yeltsin actually believed in the ideals and the wisdom of the Party. He had no reservations: his Party, right or wrong. He wept when Stalin died and he condemned Stalin's crimes when they were disclosed.
He was a leader, in other words, ideally suited for the age of perestroika. He was hand-picked by Gorbachev to be first secretary of the Moscow City Committee. There Yeltsin was very much out of place, however, and he quickly became a source of embarrassment for his senior colleagues. Since Stalin's death, true-believing Communists have been perceived as nuisances by Muscovites. Publicly, everyone pretends to be a true believer, of course; but privately they live by exchanging favors, goods, and services, helping each other as good neighbors should in a time of disaster. True true believers are a dying breed, found mainly among old-age pensioners.
If such a monster appeared in a healthy Soviet collective, he could be dangerous. Everyone's livelihood might be threatened by this bull in the china shop. I doubt that Gorbachev knew what was he doing when he appointed Yeltsin to be absolute master of Moscow. Surely he did not want to destroy Moscow, only to shake it up, but he dropped a bomb on his capital. From eight in the morning until two the next morning, Yeltsin was in action, fighting corruption, punishing incompetence, pursuing the "mafia" — and still he "could not get to the bottom of the filthy well." Hundreds of trade officials were sacked by the true believer, 60 percent of the Party bosses were purged.
And yet things got even worse, while his senior Party colleagues were becoming less supportive and more alarmed. Who knows? Had there been more people like Yeltsin in the Party leadership, we might not be witnessing the end of communism.
The higher Yeltsin was promoted, the more he encountered corruption and incompetence. His first serious doubts about his Party coincided with his promotion to the upper echelons of power. There he became aware of the privileges enjoyed by the Party elite. Later, after becoming a member of the Politburo, he discovered that "on the summit of Olympus, the caste system was scrupulously observed," and that the privileges were enormous. It happened also that he was assigned a villa that was previously occupied by Gorbachev, and he found the luxury repulsive:
If you have climbed all the way to the top of the establishment pyramid, then it's full communism! And it turns out that there was no need of the world revolution, maximum labor productivity, and universal harmony in order to have reached that ultimate, blissful state as prophesied by Karl Marx. It is perfectly possible to attain it in one particular country — for one particular group of people.
At the very top, he looked around and was deeply depressed by what he saw. His colleagues in the Politburo were just boring, incompetent windbags:
This, after all, is the general staff of perestroika. These are the brains of the Party, the best minds in the country. But what did I expect? All the members of Politburo are either career bureaucrats who have slowly climbed the ladder of the Central Committee's hierarchy, apparatchiks to the marrow of their bones, or they are former regional or provincial secretaries — such as Gorbachev and Ligachev and a certain Yeltsin, who also made their Party careers during Brezhnev’s era of stagnation…. I sometimes wonder how I managed to end up among those people.
Finally it dawned on Yeltsin that he and Gorbachev probably want completely different things from "perestroika." He, Yeltsin, wishes to save the country from destruction. Gorbachev wishes to change as little as possible. Hence Gorbachev's chief weakness, his fear of taking the decisive but difficult steps that are needed. "The main trouble with Gorbachev is that he has never worked out a systematic, long-term strategy. There are only slogans.”
It occurred to Yeltsin, moreover, that his promotion, as well as the promotion of some others, was just a well-calculated move in a game whose purpose was precisely not to change too much while producing the impression of a fierce struggle. "If I did not exist, Gorbachev would have to invent me," Yeltsin writes, as, indeed, he would have to invent Ligachev and the "conservatives." Yeltsin reached the point at which he could remain neither first secretary of the Moscow City Committee or a member of the Politburo.
And yet he still believed in perestroika, he still was persuaded of the ultimate wisdom of the Party, if only it could be purged of bureaucrats and if "a majority of the Politburo membership [could be] replaced by younger, fresher faces, by energetic people who did not think in clichés." If only he could speak to the Party, things might improve. When the chance to speak at the Party Plenum in the fall of 1987 finally came, however, he was afraid. He knew that he might not survive his imminent "civil execution." And yet he had to speak his mind or "become a different person." "The important thing was to screw up my courage and say what I had to say." What followed was, indeed, a civil execution, "when, eyes ablaze, people came up to the rostrum who had long worked beside me, who were my friends, with whom I was on excellent terms" and betrayed him. And that was just the beginning. Later another Plenum was convened, and then another, to which he was dragged half-dead after a heart attack to be exposed to the same abuse and the same betrayal. "What do you call it when a person is murdered with words? Because what followed was like a real murder…. They were a pack of hounds. A pack ready to tear me to pieces. I cannot describe it any other way.”
This shock almost killed him. He spent two months in the hospital, where he searched his soul:
It is hard to describe the state I was in. A real battle had started up within me. I would analyze every step I had taken, every word I'd spoken. I would analyze my principles, my views of the past, the present, the future. I would analyze my personal relationships with people and even with my family. I was engaged in a constant, obsessive process of analysis, day and night, night and day…. All that was left where my head had been was a burned-out cinder. Everything around me was burned out, everything within me was burned out.
By the time Yeltsin recovered from his nearly fatal illness, he was another man. A Communist had died. A human being was born.
Boris Yeltsin's second life has been no less tempestuous than his first one. From the start he was perceived by the people as the only true alternative to Gorbachev, as someone capable of fighting against the Party. The more he attacked the Party, the more his popularity grew, until he became a kind of St. George. His ideas at that stage were, ironically, not too different from Gorbachev's, and he even remained a member of the Central Committee; but almost 90 percent of the citizens of Moscow voted for him in the elections to the People's Congress in 1989. For the first time in seventy years, the country expressed its will in some sort of elections, and it voted clearly against the leadership wherever it had a chance.
In the ensuing months, the rapid polarization of the country and the logic of political struggle drove Yeltsin and Gorbachev further apart. Yeltsin had the courage to subject himself to the judgment of the nation, and received a popular mandate; Gorbachev never took the risk, and became a hostage of the Party. That fact, more than anything else, determined their subsequent political evolution. Reflecting the differences in their respective bases of power, Gorbachev must hold together a disintegrating empire, even if it requires violence and repression, while Yeltsin must support republics in their rebellion against the center. One chose democracy and left the Party, as a logical conclusion of his human and political development. The other has no choice but to defend the Party to the bitter end.
The evolution of Yeltsin in the last year has been quite spectacular. He started as a populist, campaigning mostly against Party privileges, but he ended as a democrat, advocating the most radical program of privatization. Initially suspicious of his intentions, the finest intellectual forces in the country have now joined his team. One can only guess how many more baptisms this man will have to survive before the country finally frees itself from the Communists. At present, however, and for at least as long as the Party continues to play a significant role. Yeltsin seems to be the only credible leader of the democratic opposition in Russia.
And yet it is difficult to predict what will happen to Yeltsin when the crisis is over, because his Communist past will certainly come to haunt him in any contest with a younger democrat with a "clean" record. He knows it:
I have always understood why many decent people have continued to regard me with suspicion even after I had fallen into disfavor. It is because Yeltsin is still seen as a Party functionary, a former first secretary of a provincial committee. It is impossible to attain that position, still less to be promoted to the Central Committee, and remain decent, fair, courageous, and independent. To make a career in the Party — and this belief is universally held by Soviet people — a person must excel at adapting his personality and convictions to whatever is required by the powers to be at any given moment. He must be dogmatic and learn to do or say one thing while thinking something else. It is no use trying to justify oneself and make excuses.
In the final analysis, for all his many lives, and however unfairly, Boris Yeltsin may be no more than a transitional figure in the Soviet Union, like Imre Pozsgay in Hungary or Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia. Only a figure of impeccable moral authority can lead the country to its spiritual recovery after so many decades of lies and crimes.
New Republic, September 1990.
A LONELY VISIONARY
by Vladimir Bukovsky
Sorry to bother you, but haven't we met before? Aren't you. . . what's his name?”
"I doubt you'd know my name," he said. "Nobody does these days.”
There was a trace of bitterness in his voice, just enough to prod my curiosity. On the whole, he was quite an ordinary looking old man, around 75 I would guess, with a flabby face and a bald head. But there, right on the top of his forehead, was the painfully familiar huge purple mark resembling the outlines of some exotic land on the globe. Perhaps South America, or even India. . . . I could swear I'd seen him before.
We were sitting in a bar on Fisherman's Wharf, the most crowded spot in San Francisco, where you can run across anybody from this or the next world. California, as you know, has the reputation of a weird planet: if there are ghosts, this is their homeland. There is no way of knowing who you might see across the table. Was this fellow one of Hollywood's old faces, a character from a great but unjustly forgotten movie? He looked a bit like Edward G. Robinson, or someone from "The Untouchables.”
"Have I seen you on television?”
"Yeah, sure, television." He was obviously annoyed. "Plenty of times. And even on the cover of Time magazine. All you people know here is television and Time magazine. And if by some chance your face doesn't appear on television for two weeks, you're as good as dead. Finished, forgotten, condemned to oblivion. Don't bother to recall my name, young man. I know, it's beyond your ability anyway. But don't say you don't remember the story. THE STORY! I am the one and only General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union ever to defect to the West. Does this ring a bell?”
To say I felt ashamed would be a gross understatement. I was devastated. How could I not recognize him? There he was in all his glory, Comrade Gorbachev, sitting right in front of me, drinking a vodka-tonic and in a very angry mood. That mark on his forehead. . . . What an idiot I am. Defection. How many times have I told myself never to speak to strangers in California?
Of course I remembered every detail of that spectacular affair, as if it took place yesterday. Was it fifteen years ago, or seventeen? No, it had to be more. Right, it was 1988, the last year of Reagan's presidency. It happened at the Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting in Washington, D.C.: the "first Soviet couple" suddenly asked for political asylum right in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
There was total confusion, complete chaos. Reagan first thought it was a joke and repeated it (off the record) to reporters—those crazy Russians with their black humor! But the couple insisted and refused to leave, hiding away from their own retinue somewhere inside the Old Executive Office Building.
Then there was great embarrassment and even panic: what about East-West relations? Above all, who the hell was going to sign the arms control agreement that was the whole point of the summit? Those damn Russkis! Couldn't they have waited until the deal was signed? Under pressure from Congress, Reagan's cabinet split over whether to accept the defection, and for a while the official version had it that the guests had fallen ill. The Soviets naturally offered to send their own medical team with intensive care equipment to set things aright, but the couple barricaded themselves in one of the OEOB offices together with Nancy, who came to negotiate a peaceful solution.
Meanwhile, the press got a whiff that something really big was going on, particularly after a security guard leaked the story to the Washington Times for $1 million. Infuriated by the cover-up, reporters demanded explanations and practically besieged the White House. Nobody could get in or out without being closely examined by the reporters. A huge crowd gathered outside, blocking all traffic, and grew into the thousands by sundown. The bets were one in ten that the couple would stay.
By morning, seeing the cat was out of the bag anyway, the Soviets claimed their leader had been abducted and they threatened to retaliate. Both sides went on nuclear alert, but a showdown was averted just in time: the defecting couple, pale and trembling, appeared before the press, hand in hand, and confirmed that they had indeed "chosen freedom." This is how the world saw them on the news that night.
For a while, they were all over the place, on every talk show and news hour. They were incredibly popular. There was a pop-song, "Gorby's Gonna Stay," by Huey Lewis; there were T-shirts, badges, even a fantastic docudrama called Escape from the Kremlin. Gorbachev was played by a magnificent young blond with blue eyes and a California suntan, though his role was secondary to that of his wife Raisa, played by Jane Fonda, who was clearly the main figure in the Kremlin and the mastermind of their escape—done, as she convinced the slightly dull but honest Gorby, to save humanity from nuclear holocaust. All he had to do was knock off a few of his colleagues from the Politburo, which he did in style. The ending was truly touching: the two of them, young and beautiful, appear on the steps of the White House before a jubilant crowd. I was quite moved the first time I saw it.
But then came the presidential elections with their usual razzle-dazzle and our "first couple" soon became yesterday's news. Somehow, they never did explain properly why they defected. Surely not because of the swimming pools Reagan had shown them during a helicopter ride over suburban Washington.
"You see," the old man now told me, "by the time we left for Washington, my reform was in a state of chaos. You may remember that it had three parts: perestroika (restructuring), uskorenie (acceleration), and glasnost (openness), and they were designed in precisely that order. In reality, we did achieve dramatic uskorenie, but we did not quite manage to pull off the perestroika — and all this, mind you, in an atmosphere of complete glasnost. Now, can you imagine what that meant? Who needs uskorenie without perestroika, when glasnost allows every fool in the country to see it? It's like pedaling a bicycle without wheels, faster and faster, in the middle of a jeering crowd. And why, you may ask, did we fail? Because, on the one hand, the Party wanted only uskorenie and did not want to hear anything about either perestroika or glasnost. On the other hand, the military and the technocrats wanted perestroika, but nothing else, while the people were all for glasnost, and to hell with perestroika and uskorenie.
"So, it is easy to see that, given this correlation of forces in the country, we finally got uskorenie of glasnost, instead of uskorenie of perestroika. Although it might have pleased the people, it was certainly bad for the Party and the military and, therefore, very dangerous for me. On top of that, there was this damned arms control agreement with Reagan after which there was no hope for perestroika, while we stuck with uskorenie of glasnost. I simply could not go back home after signing my death warrant.
"But how on earth could I explain any of this on a talk show or news program? Usually, I would barely have enough time to introduce the Marxist idea of basis and nadstroika (superstructure), and the show would be over. Yet, without any such explanation they simply couldn't understand that uskorenie of glasnost is just a perestroika of nadstroika, or should I say, a restructuring of the superstructure, while real progress is impossible without a perestroika of the basis. So I gave up. Raisa would chat with them about fashions and diets, and I'd just smile and nod.”
"Wait a minute," I protested, "there were some serious TV programs in those days.”
He smiled sardonically.
"Yeah, sure. Serious programs. I did find one, on prime time, one hour for all subjects. Ridiculous! I needed at least four hours, like at the Party Congress. But even that was better than the talk shows. Two wizards were leading the program: Mr. Indeed and Mr. Neither, Jim and Robin. Good evening, Jim. Good evening, Robin. They were doing all the talking. Who were they? Did they read Lenin? Did they know about basis and superstructure? No, but each had his own opinion. Very polite, very democratic: you have your opinion, I have mine. Idiots! I don't have opinions, I have knowledge. I told them what I knew. Do you agree, Jim? Neither do I, Robin. Indeed, Jim. Indeed, Robin.”
It was even worse with the so-called experts! They never argue, but if your opinion. differs from theirs, they simply ignore you. Well, they say behind your back, he has a chip on his shoulder. He is a defector, isn't he? How can a defector be objective?
"Amazing, isn't it? When I was General Secretary, these very same people were all for 'talking' with me, for 'understanding' me, for 'building bridges' with me. Yet the moment I started to live among them, free to talk, they stopped being interested in understanding me, or talking with me, or building bridges. Am I different just because I am here?”
"When I was General Secretary, they called me 'liberal,' they found me 'charismatic' and 'well-educated,' they praised my every word. Now, I am ‘undemocratic,” “dogmatic,” and “unpleasant.”
“Why didn’t you write another book?” I asked.
“What’s the point? You either write for a wide audience, and then it’s trash, or you write seriously, and then nobody reads it except those who ‘disagree’ with you. I did write three volumes, explaining everything, but I still don’t have a publisher. Anyway, Raisa wrote a book for both of us, My Life in the Kremlin, and it was a best-seller. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not complaining. We’re quite rich, we have a nice swimming pool. But I wanted to explain. Except nobody would listen…”
He was getting drunk and maudlin. I looked around. A couple of elderly joggers passed by, wheezing and coughing—the last survivors of a twentieth-century craze. On the waterfront, a group of naked girls were noisily protesting against equal rights for women, as they do every day. All around us, a festively dressed crowd was eating fresh crab and shrimp. "Do you regret what you did? Would you go back? They'd shoot you if you did, you know.”
"Yeah, I know. But at least they remember me. And will remember, not like here. Anyway, what’s the difference? I’m already buried alive.”
“Why haven’t you tried, then?”
“I have. But they don’t want me back precisely because they have a good memory.” He looked at me and smiled: “Don’t you read the papers? They are about to sign another arms control agreement with the Americans.”
Indeed, there had been something on television the day before about a new era of “absolute frankness and honesty” in the United Soviet Republics of Europe, but I hadn’t paid much attention. Who the hell cares about those damned United Republics?
The American Spectator, December 1987.
Illustration by Asker Mursaliev for Soviet History Lessons.
Goodbye, Gorby, And Good Riddance.
The New York Times, December 18, 1991.
by Vladimir Bukovsky
After living 15 years in the West, I still find it difficult to understand its logic when it comes to assessing the Soviet situation.
Thus, we may recall, 10 to 15 years ago, when thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at the West were in the hands of ruthless, ideologically motivated Communist dictators, when the Soviet Union was an omnipotent superpower with global ambitions, the West was not particularly alarmed.
At best, the West believed in negotiating arms control deals with its "grave-diggers" who were known to violate every agreement they ever signed; at worst, it believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament. If anything at all disturbed the Western public at that blessed time, it was a need to build its own defenses or a suggested deployment of missiles in Europe.
Today, when the old archenemy is disintegrating, when it has lost its ambitions and power, while dreaded nuclear weapons seem to be in the hands of elected leaders accountable to the elected parliaments, the Western public has been stricken with panic. Even those who should have known better, like Secretary of State James Baker and the Director of Central Intelligence, Robert Gates, have talked about doomsday.
What a nightmare: for the first time nuclear weapons are not under control of a Communist but of the pro-Western democrats!
Moreover, the West virtually forced the republics to reconsider their attitude to nuclear weapons. Most of them originally wanted to be nuclear-free. But the willful refusal of the West to recognize their independence and its obsession with Mikhail Gorbachev as a symbol of stability and as a man to "do business with" made possession of nuclear weapons their only chance to be treated seriously.
Moreover, while Mr. Gorbachev was pushing the country into an abyss of civil war by stubbornly denying the republics their right of self-determination, no one in the West perceived the danger. When he deliberately provoked ethnic clashes all over the country in the best traditions of imperial policy to "divide and rule," no one even felt sorry for those countless Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and Lithuanians massacred in pursuit of that policy. Incredible as it may seem, the West recognized the danger of civil war only after 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence and only because the old union appears to be legally dead.
Even more incredible has been the hostile Western attitude toward the newly formed commonwealth of Slavic republics that is, in reality, the first positive step on the way to stability and normalization of republic relations. What an unpleasant surprise for James Baker to see his beloved stability achieved without his beloved Mikhail Gorbachev!
This obviously absurd reaction was only a concluding episode in a long story of Western stupidity and wishful thinking. When Mr. Gorbachev came to power almost seven years ago, he was instantly credited with a desire to introduce a Western-style democracy and market economy, although he had never promised anything more radical than "democratization" and a "socialist market." His task was to salvage the Communist system from bankruptcy, to preserve the Communist Party rule in disguise. Indeed, the grateful West poured some $45 billion of its taxpayers' money into his coffers, simply prolonging the agony of the Communist regime for a few years.
But while the West was completely thrilled with this "golden opportunity," the Soviet population was not about to follow Mark Twain's advice: to have constitutional rights and the common sense not to use them. As a result, what was originally intended as a readjustment within the system had grown into a popular revolution threatening to bring down the system.
Persistent Western aid to Mr. Gorbachev and his central Government became the only lifeline keeping him in power against the wishes of the people. And if the country today is on the brink of economic catastrophe, we should thank George Bush and James Baker and their billions.
Indeed, as the failure of his "perestroika" became apparent, Mr. Gorbachev had no solutions to offer, only some tactical moves aimed at slowing down the inevitable process of losing control over the country. By the end of 1990, the only way to avoid civil war in the Soviet Union was to dissolve the union, just as the only way to avert food riots and strikes followed by repressions was to introduce a market economy far more radical than was done in Poland.
Yet neither could have been done so long as Mr. Gorbachev and his Communist "elite" remained in power. For who would he have been if that was to happen? A non-elected President of a nonexisting country. Where would his "elite" have been? Standing in line for unemployment benefits.
Thus, borrowing billions of dollars abroad became his only economic policy, while manipulations aimed at forcing republics to sign his new union treaty became a substitute for dissolving the union. Both policies required a considerable element of disinformation for their success. Threats of a coup, civil war and starvation were exactly the legends that made the West support Mr. Gorbachev all these years, and the same threats were used to secure popular support at home.
So one can easily understand why they were suddenly played up by his propaganda and spread around by officials whose interests would suffer if the union ceased to exist. But why did the West pick it up so eagerly? Is this just a consequence of Western Gorbomania? Or is this because the Bakers of this world have suddenly realized that they backed the wrong horse and are trying to hedge their bets?
Whatever the reason for the scare-mongering may be, in reality the danger of civil war -- or nuclear war -- are far less today than a couple of years ago, let alone at the beginning of the 1980's. The demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States are the best things that ever happened to us all, East and West, in this century.
Once again, the West got it wrong, as it did throughout 74 years of the Communist regime's existence. Paraphrasing Churchill, one can say that never in the course of its long history was the Western world so consistently wrong in its perception of a problem so vitally important to its own survival.
Vladimir Bukovsky on How Gorbymania Hindered Democracy in Russia
Bukovsky speaking on April 14, 2008 at a conference hosted by the Hoover Institution titled The Soviet Dissident Movement and American Foreign Policy during the 1980s.
Our first rift with many of our Western supporters was exactly along these lines: Would it be possible for the Soviets to reform themselves and to continue ever after, or is that a crucial crisis? Most people, including some good friends of mine, actually welcomed Perestroika as a goodwill gesture on the part of the communist party who has now become liberal, and business-like and whatnot. My good friend Margaret Thatcher said that she can do business with Gorbachev and that he is a good guy essentially, he is pragmatic. And I remember talking to her shortly after she had had that historic meeting with Gorbachev, and I said, "Why did you say that?" -- "Oh, he is pragmatic." And I said, "Well, give me a definition of a pragmatic communist. Because in my view it's an oxymoron. There cannot not be pragmatic communists." She couldn't. So I said, "Alright. I can. A pragmatic communist is a communist who has run out of money. That's very simple." [Laughter in the audience]. But she wouldn't accept this kind of thing.
So most of Western governments, except for the Reagan administration, which was the last one to surrender to this charm of Gorbachev's Perestroika, most of them, actually, accepted it as the best thing ever happening. And we suddenly found ourselves cut off from very many of our supporting groups, and governments, and whatnot. From that moment onwards we found ourselves out in the cold. They were not helping us anymore. In fact, we were perceived as some mavericks who might endanger the good of Perestroika. So the whole world was defending the General Secretary of the Communist Party from us. We were the bad guys suddenly.
That already undercut our position. Yuri put some points -- what should be done in transition after the collapse from a totalitarian regime to democracy. And the first thing is "Assuming power during the transitional period." How could we assume power if werenot even allowed to go to the Soviet Union at that time?! And the Western governments wouldn't make a slightest step for it, to force Gorbachev -- their dear friend -- to allow us to go there. None. They would do whatever Gorbachev wants.
It undercut a lot of effort of our friends who understood that Gorbachev's plan had nothing to do with democracy or market economy and that it's an attempt to salvage the Soviet system at a minimal sacrifice. That's exactly what I discovered later in the papers that actually defined the Perestroika effort as such. But at that time we couldn't persuade anyone that it is just a way of preserving the system. Most people were very pleased with Gorbachev.
That was the first thing that dramatically undercut us. We couldn't be players in the most important moment of historic changes. We were cut off and stayed outside. Our friends inside of the country tried to continue their efforts, but we couldn't help them. All the material help we could previously get from some foundations like Bradley, Scaife, and others, the Conservative Foundation -- it suddenly dried up. They wouldn't give us anything. Even NED stopped giving Yuri with the Center for Democracy in the Soviet Union.
So we couldn't even help people who were under tremendous pressure and necessity to create new structures. The transition from a dissident stage to democratic society is very difficult. Incredibly difficult. It's almost a miracle that it did happen in several countries like Poland and the Czech Republic. And it required certain conditions -- why it did succeed. First, they were continued to be supported by the West. And that didn't stop during the transitional period. And we were. Second, let's not forget that the totalitarian system differs from, say an authoritarian one or from a dictatorship in a way that it changes the society much deeper. It actually destroys institutions and creates false, phony institutions in their place. For example, Franco or Pinochet when they came to power would ban trade unions, but they would never think of creating false or phony trade unions in their place which would be a part of their apparatus. But in totalitarian societies this is exactly what happened. So it is not an easy thing -- you can't come and create democracy. It doesn't happen that way. Let's not forget that we had 73 years of the communist regime while Eastern Europe had only 50. The difference is the entire generation. We had three generations of people who were born an grew up under a communist regime. While in Eastern Europe they had only two. What does it mean? They still had a generation which remembered how to live in democracy, how to work productively, how to live as human beings. In Russia no one remembers about it.
The KGB Settles In, And The West Smiles
National Post (Canada), January 28, 2000
by Vladimir Bukovsky
Can we imagine a former SS officer becoming chancellor of Germany? And if such an unlikely event were to happen, can we imagine his being greeted with enthusiasm by the West? Can we imagine Western pundits noting approvingly that the new chancellor belongs to the “elite” of Germany society and praising his bureaucratic efficiency, personal honesty and intention to invigorate a declining state?
Yet this is exactly what happens time and gain whoever a KGB man make it to the top of the Russian pyramid. It started with Yuri Andropov, who was proclaimed to be a jazz-loving “closet liberal.” He has been followed by prime ministers and KGB graduates Yevgeny Primakov, Sergei Stepashin and Vladimir Putin, now the new president-designate of Russian Federation. Each of them was greeted in his time as a brave reformer and a guarantor of stability.
Mr. Putin is not even a terribly impressive product of the agency, with his career as a cloak-and-dagger merchant never surpassing the rank of colonel and being confined mainly to the secure perimeter of East Germany. He is as faceless and dull as those KGB agents who used to tail me in the streets of Moscow But the praise and expectations heaped on him in the West are extraordinary — at last, at last we are going to see a radical turn for the better, with law and order firmly enforced throughout the vastness of Russia, while democracy and market economy finally take root there.
Despite all this hype, no one can tell us anything about Putin’s program — not even whether he has one. A few quotations from past speeches, ostensibly favoring democracy in Russia, are floated around, even though an equal number of quotations with exactly the opposite meaning could easily be found.
All we really know is that as prime minister he pledged to increase military spending by 57%. And speaking to his former KGB colleagues at the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police, he praised “organs of the state security,” past and present, for “always guarding Russia’s national interests.”
In short, we are observing the result of the last 10 years of development, or rather by the lack of it: a return to power of the KGB, with Putin as just a faceless representative of the corporation. History may judge Yeltsin more leniently than I do, but I cannot describe his presidency better than as a decade of wasted opportunities. When a coup of August 1991 collapsed, and power fell into his lap, he did absolutely nothing to finish off the old regime.
When he had almost no opposition, he failed to dismantle the totalitarian structures of the state. It was not enough just to seal the party’s headquarters and confiscate his property. The rest of the totalitarian machinery needed to be dismantled, including the KGB, with its intricate system of secret agents; the monstrously oversized army with its all too powerful industrial base; and the ministries that still controlled every aspect of production and distribution.
Above all, the communist regime should have been delegitimized once and for all by a systematic exposure of its crimes — preferably in an open trial or a public inquiry where relevant documents from the party and the KGB archives could have been publicized through the media.
Instead, Yeltsin merely shuffled the old deck of bureaucratic cards. As a result bureaucracy multiplied, filling the vacuum of power. Even his economic “reform,” publicized in the West as a step toward a free market, was a total disaster. It “privatized” most lucrative state property into the hands either of the nomenklatura or of outright criminals, while most Russians became indescribably poorer. That alone discredited democracy and the market economy for decades to come, making the old communists look good by comparison.
As for Yeltsin, this disaster signified the beginning of his long retreat. Even storming the White House in October and dispersing the old Supreme Soviet by force did not make his position more secure: Not only was the new parliament (Duma) no improvement, Burt from that moment onward he became virtually a hostage to the “power ministries” (the army, the Interior and the new KGB-FSB). They became the only force in the country that still supported him, although they did so only “as a rope supports a hanged man” in Lenin’s words. In the end, he was glad to hand his power over to them in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
We are watching the logical conclusion of this drama — or rather of the short tragicomedy of Russian democracy. Needless to say, Putin’s ascension does not signify a complete return to the totalitarian past simply because nothing can bring that past back. Ruthless and cunning as it may be, even the KGB cannot perform such a miracle.
But they will certainly try. The way they united the whole of Russian society, including “liberal intellectuals,” around support or the bloody massacre in Chechnya is a harbinger of things to come. Building the state on the blood of the innocent is their craft; it is the only way they know how to “guard Russia’s national interests.” And the result is always the same: much blood and no state.
Is that really what the West wants? If not, why does everyone here seem so pleased?