Soviet Fall , Arab Spring, Crimean Winter: Lessons from the 1991 Fall of Communism

“Everything I have worked for is being destroyed.” 

Written on a suicide note left by Mikhail Gorbachev’s military adviser Sergei Akhromeyev on August 24, 1991, these words captured the sense of defeat felt by those who devoted their lives to preserving the hold of communism in Russia, those who would ultimately wage a failed attempt to overthrow the Gorbachev regime.

The events of August 1991 provide America a look at the underlying themes of not just what is occurring in Russia today, but also the Arab Spring uprisings…

However, by late August 1991, the Soviet Union was falling apart, the communist party was losing power, and the Cold War was coming to an end.[i] On its face, it seemed the seeds of normalized relations between Russia and the West were finally being sown after more than forty years of tension. What occurred instead was a fractured pile of fledgling states declaring independence, and a once-dominant and disgraced world power left to pick up the pieces and attempt to embrace a new form of governance. As a result, Russia has since ambled from one political and economic crisis to another, battling insurgencies and separatist movements in some regions, fomenting them in others, and wrestling through strained relationships with the West even today.

The events of August 1991 provide America a look at the underlying themes of not just what is occurring in Russia today, but also the Arab Spring uprisings that further destabilized the Middle East. These themes provide insight to a closer understanding of the aftermath of revolutions and their effect on the government that follows.

Meanwhile on Red Square

On August 18, 1991, eight high-ranking members of the Soviet government began a three-day attempt to assume control, a plot that began nine months prior.[ii] When planning for the takeover began, KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov laid the groundwork for implementing emergency measures that would seize control of the government, military, and economy, and prevent Gorbachev from completing his economic and political openness reforms — the famed perestroika and glasnost.

Twenty years later, Gorbachev reminisced, “Perestroika and new thinking were attempts to respond to the global challenge of history — above all, interdependence.

Essentially, Gorbachev and his lieutenants possessed divergent views of the moral direction of the Soviet Union.[iii] Where Gorbachev wanted to right some of the moral and economic wrongs of the past, many in the Kremlin did not want things to change. Twenty years later, Gorbachev reminisced, “Perestroika and new thinking were attempts to respond to the global challenge of history — above all, interdependence. The momentum it generated and the changes it introduced were so fundamental that it shifted the paradigm not only of Russia but of the foundation of the global order.” However, he also said, “We made mistakes…Not moving on these fronts made the coup possible…”[iv]

Indeed, the lack of agreement between the president and his chief officials sparked the movement within the highest ranks of the communist party that led to the state of emergency and takeover attempt. Unfortunately for the conspirators, their incompetence undermined the efficacy of the coup, and after three days their effort had failed to achieve its desired end. Between rampant drunkenness across the group, their inability to track down Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev at the airport, and their desire to hold a press conference to discuss Gorbachev’s absence (He was away in Foros, Crimea. Whether this was self-isolation or what some consider “house arrest,” is still debated). This series of unfortunate events was indicative of the overall foolhardiness of this coup attempt.[v] Moreover, they failed to even consider a raid on the Russian White House. This lack of audacity of action prevented the immediate shock and effect they needed to effectively take over.[vi] Ultimately, on August 22, the organizers of the putsch were arrested, and a week later the parliament suspended all communist party activity.

Despite the inability of the eight-man junta to wrest control of the government from Gorbachev, the putsch did convince him to leave power, but not on the terms the conspirators sought. Many of the republics had or were declaring independence after the coup attempt, Gorbachev banned communist sympathizers from the military, and relics of communist rule were coming down across the country. Unfortunately rather than a gradual shift away from communism and toward liberal democracy, a massive tectonic shift in Russian governance emerged.[vii] After the failed attempt, Gorbachev resigned his post as president in December 1991, handing over the reins of Russia to Boris Yeltsin. Of the post-coup events that unfolded, Yeltsin noted, “after 19 August the Union disappeared all by itself; it was gone in a day.”[viii] While a stretch, it was gone soon after. Further reforms to governmental agencies would follow, to include the military, as well as the KGB, the intelligence organization that employed Russia’s eventual president Vladimir Putin. Putin’s background as a KGB officer is just one of links to the former Soviet Union many attribute to his hegemonic desires in Eurasia.

25 Years Later

Putin’s recent geopolitical power plays against Crimea and Ukraine have only enhanced a nostalgic longing within some Russian elites to return to the autocratic days of the Cold War.[ix] The return of a time of Kremlin control, and when Russian global hegemony was more of a reality than an aspiration, threatens to further push Putin to grasp for more. According to an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, a return to some semblance of centralized control is needed in Russia after the rampant decentralization of Yeltsin’s presidency.[x]

This demonstrated capacity to expand influence in the face of international pressure and condemnation signals Putin’s ostensible desire to restore at least the influence of the Soviet Union…

Putin’s closest base of support lies within the group of elites who hold the most power in and around the Russian government. With little regard for international opinion, Putin has cast his lot with his domestic constituency by focusing on centralizing more control, increasing military spending, and provoking ethnic tensions.[xi] Further, his actions have signaled a growing tension between Russian and not only the United States, but Europe as well. When Georgia and Ukraine both petitioned NATO for membership, Moscow vehemently opposed the alliance, lobbing expansionist allegations and calling their addition a “direct threat” to Russian security.[xii] The Kremlin had no issue however, with invading Georgia in 2008, or annexing Crimea in 2014. This demonstrated capacity to expand influence in the face of international pressure and condemnation signals Putin’s ostensible desire to restore at least the influence of the Soviet Union, even if not the USSR itself. His actions also exhibit a parallel in thinking between the past and present, which can provide some insight into potential future action. While many in Russia have tried to leave their communist roots in the past, there remains a desire to restore the hegemonic power of the Soviet era, one that may very well lead to renewed and expanded tensions between Moscow and the West.

Universal comparisons

With the world looking for answers to Putin’s actions in Russia and its former states, as well as the seemingly unceasing wave of instability across the Middle East and North Africa, one place to look is the fallout of the 1991 Soviet coup. Given the sweeping revolution that accompanied the attempt to overthrow Gorbachev’s government, as well as the revolutionary breakup of the Soviet state that followed, it is easy to see striking parallels between the fall of the Soviet Union and events such as the Arab Spring.[xiii]

Though there are some parallels between the two events, the biggest lesson is that transitions to democracy are seldom easy or peaceful, and their results are rarely predictable.

However, it is important to note that while both the Arab Spring and Soviet Putsch involved revolutionary methods to remove despotic and autocratic regimes from power, the coup in Russia was carried out by government insiders seeking to keep communism’s hold in place. In Egypt and Tunisia, the revolution started in a much more decentralized manner, with the populace itself rather than the elites leading the effort to overthrow the government. In shaping foreign policy decisions, this distinction can drastically alter the direction a nation takes following such an event.

While Russia certainly had its share of problems to deal with after the fall of communism, the volatility of the situation in the Middle East and North Africa following the Arab Spring uprisings has certainly surpassed what the Kremlin had to manage in the 1990s. Though there are some parallels between the two events, the biggest lesson is that transitions to democracy are seldom easy or peaceful, and their results are rarely predictable. As Clausewitz said, “in war, the result is never final.” The same could be said for revolutions.


Steven Foster is an Army Strategist currently enroute to an assignment at United States Transportation Command. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government. 


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Header image: Soviet Army tanks parked near Spassky Gate, an entrance to the Kremlin and Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. Tanks rolled through Moscow towards the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Soviet-era Russian republic at the time, gathered his supporters after denouncing the coup | Dima Tanin, AFP/Getty Images


Notes:

[i] “Coup de Grace: The End of the Soviet Union,” Foreign Affairs, accessed August 3, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/1992-02-01/coup-de-grace-end-soviet-union.

[ii] John B. Dunlop, “The August 1991 Coup and Its Impact on Soviet Politics,” Journal of Cold War Studies 5, no. 1 (January 1, 2003): 94–127.

[iii] “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong,” Foreign Policy, n.d., accessed August 7, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/06/20/everything-you-think-you-know-about-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union-is-wrong/.

[iv] Mikhail Gorbachev, “Perestroika 20 Years Later,” New Perspectives Quarterly 30, no. 4 (October 1, 2013): 40–44.

[v] “Coup de Grace.”

[vi] Dunlop, “The August 1991 Coup and Its Impact on Soviet Politics.”

[vii] “Everything You Think You Know About the Collapse of the Soviet Union Is Wrong.”

[viii] Dunlop, “The August 1991 Coup and Its Impact on Soviet Politics.”

[ix] Fresh Air, “How Crimea’s Annexation Plays To Russians’ Soviet Nostalgia,” NPR.org, accessed August 6, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2014/03/25/294324006/how-crimeas-annexation-plays-to-russians-soviet-nostalgia.

[x] Gorbachev, “Perestroika 20 Years Later.”

[xi] Air, “How Crimea’s Annexation Plays To Russians’ Soviet Nostalgia.”

[xii] John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault,”Foreign Affairs, accessed August 8, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2014-08-18/why-ukraine-crisis-west-s-fault.

[xiii] “Did the Russians Write the Script for the Arab Spring? | The National,” accessed August 9, 2015, http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/did-the-russians-write-the-script-for-the-arab-spring.