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.