The Day the Kremlin Called It Quits



Thursday marks the second anniversary of the beginning of oneof the great events of modern history: the failed coup to evict Mikhail S. Gorbachev from power in Moscow. The failure of the coup in turn dealt a death blow to the Soviet Union itself. It left Boris N. Yeltsin and his democratic allies as the strongest political force in Russia and paved the way for the 14 non-Russian republics of the union to become independent states in December 1991.

The putsch changed the world, yet the world will not mark its anniversary with anything like the celebration such an epochal event deserves. The reason for this inattention is history's frequently noted capacity for irony: the powerful tendency for great events to have unexpected consequences. None of the factions involved in the coup attempt got what it anticipated, or even wanted.

The plotters sought to revive the old order they feared was crumbling under Gorbachev's leadership. They achieved exactly the opposite. Trying to save communism, they destroyed it.

Yeltsin and the liberals were the main beneficiaries of the plotters' ineptitude. He and his allies inherited power. As opponents of the communist system, they were not sorry to see it vanish. But they did not expect it to disintegrate so rapidly. Governing Russia, as they had to do beginning in 1992, was a responsibility for which they were not well prepared. Nor did they expect to preside over the end of the Soviet Union itself. Its dissolution liberated Russia from the imperial burden of ruling others, but also earned Yeltsin the animosity of those who would like to restore that empire.

The collapse of the Soviet Union turned the officials of the non-Russian republics into leaders of sovereign, independent countries. This, too, was ironic, for these men were almost all strong partisans of the communist system, which had given them power and privilege. When the coup attempt began they offered Yeltsin, its chief opponent, neither open support nor private encouragement. The gift of independence that his triumph gave them was entirely unsolicited.

As for the people of Russia, a heroic few resisted and defeated the coup attempt two years ago, but the vast majority stood passively on the sidelines. Most Russians were certainly tired of, indeed disgusted with, communism and shed no tears at its death. Almost all certainly aspired to a Western standard of living. So they approved in principle of Yeltsin's decision to launch a transition to a market economy. But this transition has caused unavoidable hardship. For many of them life was better, and for all of them it was more stable and predictable, under communist rule.

Western countries greeted the downfall of the tyranny they had opposed for almost half a century with undiluted approval. But far too many Westerners expected Russia and the other former Soviet republics to live happily ever after communism in peace and prosperity. That expectation was unrealistic, as the history of the West itself demonstrates. The events of Aug. 19-21 were for Russia what those of July 14, 1789 -- the day the hated `D Bastille prison was demolished by the Parisian mob -- were for France and those of July 4, 1776, were for the United States. But neither July 14 nor July 4 marked the final triumph of liberty.

Even after the fall of the Bourbon monarchs, France endured a bloody revolution, the Napoleonic dictatorship, three periods of foreign occupation and four separate constitutions before becoming a solid citizen of Europe in the last decades of the 20th century. As for the United States, the rebellion against British colonial rule was the beginning, not the end, of an ongoing national struggle for the liberty and equality of all its citizens.

So it was with Russia two years ago. The overthrow of communism gave the Russians and the other peoples of the former Soviet Union the opportunity to build the kind of societies that decades, indeed centuries, of struggle have produced in the West. But the journey to democracy and prosperity can only be long and difficult. The closer the peoples who have embarked on that journey come to the destination they seek, the more they will appreciate the moment when the journey began. The more fully established free elections and free markets become, the more widely and enthusiastically Russians, non-Russians and the West will celebrate the three days that shook the world in Moscow two years ago this week.

Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and directs the East-West Project of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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