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The Coup That Failed: The Fall of Russian Communism

The Coup That Failed: The Fall of Russian Communism

by Binoy Kampmark

The joke swiftly went around Moscow that you knew Communism must be through in Russia when the Bolsheviks couldn’t even mount a proper coup
Victor Sebestyen, New York Times, Aug 20, 2011

American socialist John Reed termed the Bolshevik Revolution the 10 days that shook the world. The historical retort to those who wished to retain its legacy was mounted in 1991 – and it took a mere three days to defeat it. Swan Lake was being played on the television sets as the coup leaders set their scheme into operation. It had been devised at a bathhouse in Moscow, the brainchild of KGB head Vladimir A. Kryuchkov. Then leader Mikhail Gorbachev was being held under house arrest at a Black Sea resort to prevent him from signing a treaty with the other Soviet Socialist Republics that would have given them greater autonomy. Moscow was under siege by those ‘hard liners’ who saw the reforms of perestroika peck away at the foundations of the Soviet state.

On August 22, it became clear that those who had mounted the coup had not succeeded. Three men had died before the tanks two days prior, and the role they played in foiling the coup was quietly acknowledged by Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin. More to the point, the putsch organisers bungled in their efforts, failing to arrest the key targets of their plan, let alone make use of the 250,000 handcuffs they had ordered from a factory in Pskov (NYT, Aug 20).

The scenes seem remarkable today: crowds gathered outside the White House parliament in Moscow; tanks and troops massed outside, and the sight of newly the newly elected President of the Russian republic Boris Yeltsin encouraging soldiers not to fire. Gorbachev was released, with his reputation in tatters, while Yeltsin presided over the liquidation of the Soviet Union. The Communist party was subsequently banned.

For the current leaders, those events are not perhaps worth remembering. The dissolution of the Soviet Union gave little joy to many in the Kremlin, the utmost confession that communism had failed. But there was more than that – it was the idea that Russia itself had failed in its greater nationalist project. It is then little surprise that President Dmitry Medvedev, himself taking holidays by the Black Sea, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, chose to say nothing. We know well what Putin has previous said of the fall of the Soviet Union: ‘a major geopolitical disaster of the century’.

That did not prevent those such as former dissident Vladimir Voinovich commenting in Moskovsky Komsomolets that, ‘The putsch is still going on.’ The battle was a continuous one, and would continue ‘until truth definitively triumphs over lies.’ Such a triumph seems distant, even elusive.

The very same apparatus that was directly challenged during the reaction to the coup was soon reinstated, a form of bandit oligarchy that has done little to serve civic institutions. Gorbachev, who occasionally speaks out against the Putin regime, observed that the United Russia party led by Putin had similar characteristics to the Soviet Communist Party. That has not stopped him from praising Putin’s stabilising hand. And why not? After all, the KGB – or at the very least its veterans – are now in power.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email:

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