Saturday, December 24, 2016

August 22, Thursday

This is the sixth part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the fifth part, see here.

This day's narrative is headed "September 7" in my notes. That implies that I wrote it up more than two weeks after the events, whereas all the other days' accounts were written up on the day they happened. But the level of detail suggests I was working from notes of some kind.

On Thursday Sasha and I went to the White House to see the barricades and to hear the victory speeches. After seeing barricades in other cities on TV, it’s very uncomfortable to see them in real life on familiar streets. The very word suggests noble but failed uprisings from the last century, when citizens tore up their own streets trying to win rights from repressive regimes.

In fact, the White House is in a neighborhood with a revolutionary history: this was where the Moscow workers made their last stand in the 1905 revolution. They blocked off their streets and turned their tenements into a fortress that held off the Czar’s troops for some days. The Bolsheviks of course glorified this, a true workers revolt that only failed because it was dialectically premature—all they lacked was the foresight and disciplined leadership of the Bolshevik party. The nearest subway stops are called “1905 St.” and “Barricade”; in the square next to the White House itself stands a statue in honor of the workers of 1905. So there is yet another irony (they seem to be everywhere these days), that this should be where the Bolsheviks finally fell.

On these new, victorious barricades, young men sit full of importance as they relay commands: “Let the black Volga come through!” Small piles of trash are all around, the grass has been turned to mud by the feet of 50,000 people on two rainy nights. The last of those who kept watch then are drifting home, their faces too tired to show any elation. As the crowd gathers for the noon meeting, a few people appear on the tribune and say a few words, including more than one call for outlawing the Communist Party, which draws from the crowd, “Down with the KPSS!” (the Russian acronym for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). One man got a chuckle with his observation that, “It just worked out that we got the wrong sort of putschists.”

The speeches at the meeting proper were the right sort of stirring rhetoric, typified by Yeltsin’s announcement that he had signed an ukase that morning naming the place where we stood “Free-Russia Square.” Imagine the elation of the crowd. One sentence more than any other caught my imagination: “This must be a final victory.” But there are too many problems for me to believe in anything so decisive.

In immediate terms, some see the danger of civil war, as in Sasha’s gloomy vision. “The party is in a state of shock right now, they’re paralyzed. Sure, they’ve dissolved the Central Committee, they’ve nationalized party property, but I’m not sure they’ve yet undone the structures. There are a lot of people who stand to lose out from this turn of events; when the Communists come to after this blow, it’s conceivable they could try to seize power again, and then it would really be a nightmare.”

Not only is the nature of the Communist party being debated, the whole history of the Soviet Union is up for grabs. Many people have compared the party to the Nazis (on many walls people have painted “KPSS”, with the double-s shaped like the double lightning bolt insignia of the Nazi SS). One editorial suggested the Nuremburg Tribunal as a model, in that only people guilty of specific criminal acts will be punished, not people who were merely members.

But the comparison can only be taken so far. The failure of the Nazis was brought home with crushing force by Germany’s total defeat in the war; standing in Berlin’s ruins, it must have been hard not to see Hitler’s evil. But Stalin won that war and used it to shine his halo, intertwining symbols of Communism with symbols of victory over fascism. Even Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization could not go nearly as deep as West Germany’s de-Nazification, because Stalin built the structures on which Khrushchev stood.

Also, if in Germany it was hard to find people untainted after 12 years of Hitler, then after 74 years of one-party rule in the Soviet Union almost no one is pure. Most of the politicians stepping forward to lead the new Russia are former party members, and understandably so—it was the only way to play a direct role. But if the rhetoric of the new state is going to damn the party and everything about it, then there are too many people implicated.

The impromptu sign says, “We will save Russia from the communists.”
 Someone tried to tear it down; there was a bit of a scuffle; people got it stuck back up.
Also still ahead is the difficult transition from the euphoria of victory to the reality of pluralism. The popular exclamation that “All Russia chose Yeltsin” is an understandable exaggeration, as he won handily with a margin of almost 40%. But when you look at how many people voted, it turns out that about 37% of Russia chose Yeltsin, and it’s not only people with a specific interest in the status quo ante who are against him. On Friday I went to what is now Lyubyanka Square, where Dzerzhinsky’s statue had been taken down the night before, and overheard two women commiserating on being the only two souls in all of Russia not taken in by the dumb show.

“This was all planned.”

“Of course!”

“Yeltsin himself arranged the coup, and its failure too, to raise himself up to power.”


“These fools, they don’t understand; now the repression begins.”

“You’re so right.”

My gut feeling about this particular specimen is not that she’s a partisan of Yanaev, but that she can’t imagine her country without repressions. Anyone who announces an end to political terror is merely biding his time until he can more securely tighten the thumb-screws. After six years of Gorbachev, her patience must have been wearing thin. Now at last there has been a decisive event, Yeltsin has come out on top, soon he will reveal his true nature, soon the terror will start, soon she can breathe free again… It’s a highly original form of self-imposed Chinese water torture. But after so many years of fear, other people must have their own self-defeating attitudes.

The next post is here.

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