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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why the Putsch Failed

There is nothing so attractive and at the same time so useless as wondering "What if ... " It's no accident that history has no subjunctive mood. However, there always have been and always will be attempts to reconstruct historic events. This is not necessarily a useless activity, for knowledge of the past is a strong ideological weapon, and the skillful manipulation of this knowledge helps win supporters over to one's side.

The events of five years ago, the "August putsch," continually turn into bitter arguments between the nationalist communists and the democrats. The most interesting thing is that with each year there are more proponents of the putschists, just as there were active defenders of the White House during those days. But the most amazing thing is that a significant portion of truly active opponents against the Government Committee on the State of Emergency, or GKChP, not only today approve the actions of the putsch's leaders but now are in the same political camp.

In order to provide an objective evaluation of the events of August 1991, it is necessary to proceed from an analysis of the concrete goals, plans and principles of the forces then in opposition.

Aug. 19 was selected by the putschists because on Aug. 20 a new Union Agreement was to be signed. The agreement gave much wider independence to the country's republics; in essence, the formally declared principle of a confederate structure of the Soviet Union was to become a reality.

The final version of the agreement had been achieved with no little effort, but it appeared that all the difficulties had been overcome. But the proponents of the imperial approach didn't agree. Using the fruits of democracy that had been achieved, they published their manifesto "A Word to the People," in which they effectively called citizens to protest against the new Union Agreement.

Unable to win Mikhail Gorbachev over to their side, they decided on a "coup," relying for the most part on the discipline of the KGB, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Army, and on the passivity of the population, tired of freedom and thirsting for order.

The ideologists of the putsch probably did not read Erich Fromm's classic "Escape from Freedom"; otherwise, they would have used the latter means more effectively. But the leaders of the democratic movement had Fromm's recommendations down. Today few remember that the main ideological core in the fight against the putschists was not the slogan on freedom, but the slogan on the necessity of observing the constitution and Soviet laws. In accordance with these, an order to the armed forces could be given only by the Supreme Commander in Chief, i.e., the president of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev, and he had given no such order. Therefore, the announcement by Boris Yeltsin that he, as president of the Russian Federation and in the absence of Gorbachev, would assume the duties of the Supreme Commander in Chief had great significance for the military.

Nor did the putsch leaders count on the fact that the mass media would focus on the role of the armed forces in society. Almost all participants in the debate spoke out against the use of the army in internal conflicts. The events in Tbilisi, Baku, Vilnius were still fresh. These lessons had been painfully learned by the officer corps. As a result, the armed forces could be neutralized.

Thus, the democratic forces in Moscow won not just thanks to the courage and selflessness of the relatively small cluster of people defending the White House, but also thanks to the fine line of Yeltsin, who insisted on the citizens' observing all laws and the constitution.

Apologists for the putschists try to justify the coup's leaders by pointing to the catastrophic consequences in our country of the victories of democracy as of 1991. They point to strange figures: 600,000 have died, millions have become refugees. I will not try to refute these data, though to some analysts these figures seem inflated. I will simply point to other data, which at first glance have no relation to the period analyzed. But only at first glance.

Within five years after the Great October Socialist Revolution, which even the Bolshevik leaders called "the October coup," our country was led into horrible destruction. During five years, through wars and mass terror, from 12 million to 15 million people died. The Communist Party was at the helm, committing these horrific crimes against its own people. All told, nearly 80 million people died in the Soviet Union under the Communist regime.

History happens twice -- the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. The communists were able to pull off a coup in 1917 -- this was a frightening tragedy for our people. The communists tried to pull off a coup in August 1991, but their attempt turned into a farce, a tragic farce.

No one knows what the fate of the Soviet Union would have been if, on Aug. 20, 1991, the Union Agreement had been signed. Only one thing is clear: The putsch lead to the swift destruction of a once powerful empire and to many armed conflicts, which to this day rock our society with tragic consequences. Unfortunately, the leadership of the new Russia did not learn the necessary lessons from the recent past as regards Chechnya. Here political idiots have won, people who, like the Bourbons, haven't forgotten anything, but also haven't learned anything. Alas ...

The putschists tried to "save the Soviet Union," but without the equivalent of a charismatic Yeltsin, they were doomed. The "irony of history" also played a cruel joke with their "good" intentions: Instead of the country's preservation, they got its inevitable downfall. As Viktor Chernomyrdin said in another context, "We wanted to make it better, but it turned out the way it always does."

So will we begin to study history and avoid repeating these mistakes? Perhaps. I'd really like to believe we will.

Sergei Yushenkov is a State Duma deputy and adviser to Russia's Democratic Choice. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.