Notes from the Moscow Putsch

Introduction (October 2007)

In August 1991, Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev had been head of the Soviet Union for six years. He came in knowing that his country needed some significant changes, and these quickly took shape as "glasnost," or openness, and "perestroika," or restructuring.

Glasnost was partly about making a very secretive government somewhat more transparent, but it also included allowing more space for public discussion of topics that had been strictly off-limits for open conversation. The first few years of glasnost were an exciting time of watching as the envelope of acceptability got pushed further and further. Previously banned books that had been available only in "samizdat" self-published versions or smuggled in from abroad were suddenly being legally published in Moscow. Newspapers would address political or economic issues that before would only be mentioned obliquely or not at all.

Perestroika involved yet another attempt to make state-owned firms act a little more like private companies, at least when it came to being efficient. But there was also a little room opened up for truly private enterprise in areas beyond the small garden plots that had long been a staple of the Soviet food system.

These were both major developments, not mere window dressing. But they were also contentious. Some of the political conversation didn't sit well with people who liked the status quo. Some people used the increased openness for a more frank discussion of sexuality and social problems-not nearly as open as was already the custom in the U.S. or western Europe, but a big change from the Victorian standards of the Soviet Union-and social conservatives were predictably incensed.

The new space for private enterprise was a welcome development, but it was hedged about with all sorts of limitations on what kinds of activity people could engage in and how big their enterprises could get-the government wanted the leaven of private enterprising without fundamentally challenging the position of the obsolete, state-owned firms that made up the vast bulk of the economy. And some people couldn't accept even the limited entrepreneurial space that was being created.

Gorbachev was torn between two impulses. He understood the need for more openness and some kind of competitiveness, if the country was not to fall ever further behind the wealthy countries of the west. And once such moves were introduced on a small scale, their internal logic pushed them toward ever more political and cultural openness, and ever more room for private economic activity. But Gorbachev was not a full-on democrat, trying to turn his country into a western-style democracy with a more or less capitalist economy and fully contested elections. He was still a Communist Party boss who wanted to preserve the leading role of the party in the government and the government's central role in the economy. He could never resolve this tension in himself, much less thread the needle between "liberals" who wanted to push for ever more democracy and "conservatives" who thought he'd already done too much and imperiled the basic structure of the Soviet system.

Compounding his difficulties were events in the republics. The Soviet Union was nominally a federal system, with 15 Soviet Socialist Republics together making up the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In practice, the individual republics were administrative conveniences. There were cultural differences among them in terms of the languages that were spoken and visible (next to Russian, which was used everywhere), but substantive policy was made in Moscow for the country as a whole, and lower levels of government were just "transmission belts" for carrying out those policies on a local level.

But during the Gorbachev years the republics started to push the envelope on substantive autonomy, just as the public was pushing the envelope on substantive discussion. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, incorporated into the Soviet Union during and again after World War II, pushed further with this, declaring independence during 1990 and 1991. In January 1991 Moscow organized a coup to try to undo Lithuanian independence, but it wasn't able to carry it out fully. The Soviet government didn't formally recognize Lithuania as an independent country, but it also failed to stop the de facto functioning of a government that considered itself independent.

In Russia, by far the largest of the 15 republics, Gorbachev had kicked Boris Yeltsin out of the Soviet government. Yeltsin turned around and got himself elected president of Russia in an honest to goodness election, giving him a unique base of legitimacy. Gorbachev had started as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the traditional position for the actual ruler of the Soviet Union. He later added President of the Soviet Union, but he'd been elected by the Supreme Soviet, i.e., the legislature, not by the public at large. Relations between the Russian government and the Soviet government were inherently fraught. They shared a capital city, and Russia made up more than half of the Soviet Union's population and an even larger portion of its economy, so that a Soviet Union without Russia was unthinkable. But Russia, like other republics, was testing the limits of what Soviet authority would let an individual republic do. Yeltsin's power base was the Russian parliament, a large, white building on the banks of the Moscow River known as the White House.

Another piece of the puzzle was the country's economic deterioration. The Soviet system was always sclerotic, but starting in the 1970s the country stopped being able to even feed itself consistently, coming to rely more and more on food imports. At the same time, the state budget was building up large deficits. This was blamed in part on Gorbachev's anti-drinking campaign, which reduced the state's collection of taxes on vodka. Probably a bigger factor was the collapse of world oil prices in 1986, since the Soviet Union was a significant oil and gas exporter.

In this context, a group of conservatives (in the Soviet sense) staged a coup to try to halt what they saw as the decline of the country and the disintegration of a system that worked-at least, a system that served them well. While Gorbachev was vacationing in the south of the country, they seized power in Moscow in what turned out to be a poorly planned coup d'etat. They called themselves the State Committee for the Extraordinary Situation, or in a more idiomatic rendering, the Government Committee for the State of Emergency. They were referred to during the coup by their Russian acronym, the GKChP (pronounced "gah-keh-cheh-peh"), which sounds about as ugly in Russian as it does in English, particularly if you pronounce it with disdain in your voice.

The coup was supposed to preserve the Soviet Union from the disintegration that the putschists blamed Gorbachev for allowing. Instead, it further weakened the standing of the Soviet government and emboldened the governments of the Republics, particularly Russia. Throughout the fall, governments of the various republics took over ever greater authority from the Soviet government.

I had come to Moscow to visit my friends Natasha and Sasha. I'd met Natasha the summer before my first trip to Moscow. She was an English teacher who was a chaperone for a group of Moscow high school students visiting the Boston area, and she was lodged with my family. I already knew I was going to Moscow that fall, and as Natasha was leaving she said to my mother, "Charlotte, when Karl is in Moscow, don't worry, I'll feed him." And she and her husband Sasha did. I would call from the pay phones in the lobby of my dormitory, Sasha would answer the phone, I'd say hello, and he'd say, "Are you hungry? Come over." End of conversation.

Sasha is a medical researcher, a former track athlete, and a devotee of the early 20th century Russian opera star Shalyapin. Natasha was an actress earlier in her career and retains a dramatic flair. Between the two of them, classic Russian intelligentsia, though lacking the notion that Russia will have the solution to the world's problems, once it gets its act together.

I arrived in Moscow on the afternoon Friday the 16th of August, by overnight train from Berlin. I spent the weekend visiting friends of theirs at dachas, the suburban cottages with garden plots that many Muscovites have. It was my third trip to Moscow. I'd spent the fall semester of 1988 studying Russian language in Moscow, after three years of studying it in college, so I was reasonably fluent in the language. I'd gone a second time in May 1990 as an interpreter for a music exchange between Indiana University School of Music, where I was studying, and the Moscow Conservatory. I was back now just for a visit, and stepped into much more than I expected.

What follows is my narrative of the putsch. I would travel around the city, or listen to the radio, and a couple times a day I sat down to get as much as I could remember onto paper, including my impressions at the time about the larger context of the events I was witnessing. I wrote different pieces of my narrative into letters to various friends and relatives that I had started before the coup but hadn't gotten around to sending, and now didn't know when I would be able to send. Even once the coup fell apart, I didn't send my letters out through the Soviet mail, which was still unreliable, but carried them with me when I returned to a friend's apartment in Berlin at the beginning of September. There I pieced together the various parts of letters, typing them up into a contiguous narrative and adding a few additional remarks or updates (these are given in parentheses and followed by a date, such as "4.IX," September 4th). I'm not sure why my account of Thursday, August 22, is prefaced by the indication "(September 7)" in my typescript. In some sense I must have composed that part back in Berlin, but it has too much detail to be strictly from memory, so I must have been working off of some sort of notes.