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August 21, 2006 by AK

Memories of 1991

Fifteen years ago, a group of senior Soviet officials deposed Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev, seized power, and declared their intention to revert to pre-Perestroika Communism. Thanks to — among other things — Muscovites taking to the streets and the military’s reluctance to interfere, the coup failed after only three days. Those three days of fear and resistance were some of the happiest in my life. Unfortunately, what followed was a hasty deconstruction of the Soviet Union, which turned millions of Russian speakers outside Russia into aliens or second-class citizens overnight, and left some nations to the mercy of Oriental tyrants. Yet among the responsible, Yeltsin and the other republican leaders should take a back seat to Gorbachev and his team, whose strategic vision proved shortsighted.

On the other hand, Gorbachev must be credited with a policy that made possible the mass protest of August, 1991 — giving a large degree of freedom to the press. In less than five years, from 1987 to 1991, Russians were exposed, via TV and the printed press, to a massive flow of new information — essentially anti-Communist in content — that made millions of Russians reconsider their understanding of the country’s past and present. Several Soviet newspapers and magazines turned ino outlets severely critical of the Communist regime, uncovering ugly facts on Soviet rule unknown to most readers. Literary journals (the so-called tolstye zhurnaly) printed new and previously forbidden works by Russian and foreign fiction writers, historians, economists, and other thinkers. This culminated in the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in 1989, in the literary journal, Novy Mir.

But when, only a year later, Komsomol’skaya Pravda printed How Should We Develop Russia in a special supplement, Solzhenitsyn’s suggestions and concerns (grassroot democracy, land reform, independence for 12 of the 15 Soviet republics, etc.) was were met with disappointment: they seemed irrelevant. Most readers did not understand how complex the Soviet Union’s problems and diseases were: they thought that, once they shrugged off Communist rule, things would get back to normal and a golden age would set in.


10 comments »

  1. ALEXEI:

    You write “Unfortunately, what followed was a hasty deconstruction of the Soviet Union, which turned millions of Russian speakers outside Russia into aliens or second-class citizens overnight, and left some nations to the mercy of Oriental tyrants. Yet among the responsible, Yeltsin and the other republican leaders should take a back seat to Gorbachev and his team, whose strategic vision proved shortsighted.”

    Hasty? I think not. You unfairly ignore the correct predition of Yeltsin and, especially, Gaidar, that Russians were perfectly capable of going right back to authoritarian dicatorship even without the help of any coup plotters. Many in the West, maybe you too, said that the fall of dictatorship was irreversible and that the clock could never be turned back.

    Oh, how wrong they were! When Russians freely elected a proud KGB spy as their second president, we saw just what Russians thought about things. Yeltsin and Gaidar were perfectly right, and their strategy to disburse the assets of the USSR as fast as possible is the ONLY thing that prevents Putin from being a fully realized Stalin II.

    Russians, in short, always want to blame somebody, anybody, for their OWN failures. The dissolution of the USSR wasn’t a failure of Gorbachev or Yeltsin it was a failure of the RUSSIAN PEOPLE and until they can learn to take responsibility the condition of their lives will never improve.

  2. Alex(ei) says:

    First, I am Russian and I have never voted for Putin or his likes. I am not responsible for the choices my compatriots make, though I have to suffer their consequences.

    Second, supposing the Russian people in general are to blame for everything happening in Russia — what is to be done then?

  3. ALEXEI: What is to be done is the same thing that is done in the case of an alcoholic.

    The first step in treatment is to force the alcoholic to admit that he has a problem. This is done by refusing to allow him to deflect blame for his circumstances and forcing him to suffer the consequences of his actions.

    So, the world needs to point its finger directly at the Russian people and say YOU are responsible, and keep saying it, and let the Russian people keep suffering until they realize and admit the facts.

    But much more important, RUSSIANS need to point that finger at themselves, whoever can be considered “leaders.” Because Russian xenophobia makes it very hard for Russians to listen to foreigners. Russians like you for instance. And those Russians have to be brave, because the Russian people have a tendency to bite off the head of any such leader.

    Then, but only then, everybody should be ready to offer help with the recovery.

    Now let me ask you: When was the last time you blamed the people of Russia for something on this blog, much less another one?

  4. Alex(ei) says:

    This blog is, above all, a whim of mine. At times, I try to explain or understand something but the last thing I want my blog to be is an exercise in assigning guilt and blame. Russians have suffered enormously from the consequences of their actions, as you know quite well, so that a smart guy like me (one who has never known real proverty, need or despair) telling his own nation to cover its collective head with ashes, doesn’t have a chance. What moral authority do I have? Zero. Nor do I believe in collective guilt, be it Russia or Germany. Anyway, should I decide to play a prophet, I would do it to a Russian audience, on a Russophone blog, not here.

    Most educated Russians realize that Russian society is ill and is not going to recover soon; some believe the illness is terminal. Educated Russians are, on average, no more xenophobic than educated Americans and are always ready to take advice from Westerners as long as it is offered in a decent way. (Yes, I am a proud xenophobe, but that does not apply to the West and has to do with immigration.) Ask non-Russian bloggers writing on Russia, and I am sure they will tell you the same. True, some real and wannabe Russian intellectuals are indeed fond of conspiracy theories, which typically shift all responsiblity to powerful exogenous forces, but they are lightweights and can be ignored. Moreover, all Russians capable of reflection are constantly poiting their fingers at themselves — though not in the presence of Russia-haters, which even you, I hope, will understand. You don’t even suspect how good Russians are at self-flagellation, for the NYT would not report on that.

    As for me, you would be hard pressed to find a greater Americophile not only in Russia, but in all of Europe; I have spent my life “listening to foreigners.” This said, I suppose the first hurdle to your dispensing advice has been removed, and I am waiting to get down to its substance.

  5. Alex(ei) says:

    By the way, when I said:

    “Most readers did not understand how complex the Soviet Union’s problems and diseases were: they thought that, once they shrugged off Communist rule, things would get back to normal and a golden age would set in,”

    clearly I was pointing at a mistake, perhaps a grave one, a large number of Russians made. This is my method: I point out mistakes and bad choices but avoid passing moral judgement on others.

  6. Alex(ei) says:

    Another aside. You wrote:

    “When Russians freely elected a proud KGB spy as their second president, we saw just what Russians thought about things.”

    But the truth is that Russians elected, under a barrage of TV propaganda and in the absence of decent competitors, a man who used to work for one of those precious few government agencies that many Russians once saw as untainted by corruption, at least in the late Soviet years. Those Russians acted stupidly and, perhaps, irresponsibly, but their choice should not be interpreted as longing for a KGB spy to rule Russia with an iron fist; rather, as longing for some order and decency. (Not to mention those liberals and libertarian economists who invested great hopes in Putin’s reform early on.)

  7. If you think that saying “most Russians did not understand” constitutes blame, you are deeply confused. Blame doesn’t mean failing to understand the details of a complicated problem. Blame means taking affirmative acts which destroy the country, like voting for a proud KGB spy or allowing the TV media to be taken over.

    Maybe the problem is that Russians don’t even understand what blame means, much less how to do it. They’ve spent so much time over the centuries rationalizing and refusing to take responsibility that they don’t even know the meaning of accountability any more.

  8. Alex(ei) says:

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Alex(ei) says:

    LR — if you think I’m an idiot, quit arguing with me and get lost for good. Else, tell me what I should do, here and now.

  10. Alex(ei) says:

    On blaming the Russians — a comment by LR:

    “However, two key tactics have yet to be seriously tried where Russia is concerned.

    First, to point the finger directly at the Russian people and actually blame (RD’s emphasis) them. This is what my blog tries to suggest; I try to set an example by doing this every single day. For too long, we have enabled the Russians’ gross misbehavior by rationlizing it, claiming they were the victims of a few bad apples. They’ve never felt the world’s united demand that they change. They’re not victims, they’re perpetrators. However, some believe that there is such a thing as rehabilitation of perpetrators, and without such an idea the human condition would be a rather gloomy one indeed.”

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