Eye on Russia
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RAY SUAREZ: On Monday August 19, 1991, Soviet citizens awoke to the news that a group of Communist hard liners was taking control of the country. Within hours, the plotters had sent tanks into Moscow, which were met by angry protesters — the first sign the coup would face opposition. Meanwhile, Soviet President Gorbachev was under house arrest at his vacation villa on the Black Sea. Several tank crews sided with the demonstrators, forming a shield around the parliament building. That was the headquarters for coup opponents.
Leading the counter coup was the president of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin. That day, Yeltsin climbed atop a friendly tank in an act of defiance. The plotters included the vice president, the defense minister, and the head of the KGB. They said they were acting to prevent Gorbachev from signing a treaty the next day, giving the soviet republics more autonomy. But at a news conference they appeared shaky and nervous.
ACTING PRESIDENT GENNADY YANAYEV, USSR: (speaking through interpreter) We call on all the citizens of the USSR to fulfill their responsibility and to provide the necessary support to the state of emergency committee in its efforts to get the country out of the crisis.
RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, Yeltsin and Gorbachev were winning support from abroad. President George Bush spoke from his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think what he’s doing is simply expressing the will of the people there to have these reforms and have democracy, the steps already taken to democracy, strengthened. And I hope that people heed his call.
RAY SUAREZ: The next day in the Soviet Union, Tuesday, protesters rallied across the country, declaring the coup illegal; 150,000 gathered in Moscow. There were other protests, some bigger, in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. They were pushing for outright secession from the Soviet Union. Then in a public speech intended for the entire nation, Yeltsin asked the soldiers to lay down their arms, but the country never heard the speech, which coup leaders refused to broadcast. That day Yeltsin also spoke by phone with British Prime Minister John Major, who described the call to reporters.
JOHN MAJOR: He hoped that we would continue to coordinate the activities of the world community against the originators of the coup in Moscow. At that stage in our conversation, President Yeltsin interrupted to say that tanks were moving towards the building from which he was speaking. He said to me that he believed he had not very much time left.
RAY SUAREZ: Tuesday evening brought more clashes between troops and citizens, as demonstrators set a few tanks afire with Molotov cocktails. But three protesters also died while taking on the tanks outside the parliament building, there were conflicting report as to how they died. But early Wednesday, day 3, the hard-liners began pulling their troops out of the cities, the coup was failing. As the tanks departed the cities, the masses celebrate, as did some of the soldiers. At 1:30 am, early Thursday morning, President Gorbachev and his family returned to Moscow. The next day he appeared with Yeltsin before the Russian parliament and denounced the coup leaders.
PRESIDENT MIKHAIL GORBACHEV: (speaking through interpreter) There are people who lost their heads, lost all sense of responsibility, you can even call them traitors. Traitors!
RAY SUAREZ: Within days, the 70-year rule of the Communist Party was suspended, and over the next four months the union gradually dissolved; led by the independence of the Baltics, the 15 Soviet republics became 15 independent countries. On Christmas Day 1991, the Russian flag replaced the Soviet flag atop the Kremlin. Six days later, the USSR was no more.
The decade since has been full of political and economic tumult. And today in Moscow, there was no observance of the coup anniversary by Russian President Putin, himself a former KGB officer.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on Russia now and then, we get three perspectives. James Billington is the Librarian of Congress. He’s also the author of “The Face of Russia.” Marshall Goldman — a professor of Russian economics at Wellesley College, and associate director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University. And Katherine Genieva is the director general of Russia’s State Libraries and president of the Open Society Institute, which promotes independent media, education, and rule of law in Russia.
All three happened to be in Moscow during that eventful week a decade ago. Marshall Goldman, when you look back toward that time, take us there with you. Gorbachev was back in the capital; the coup had been suppressed. Did the average Russian citizen greet this time with optimism, with hope?
MARSHALL GOLDMAN: They did. Russia has always been a country for tormented by its history and it looked for a time remarkably like they were throwing that off and moving ahead in a brand new way. I must tell you, I had never seen such euphoria in Moscow. People began to smile at one another, they began to be nice to one another. That’s something you didn’t see very much in the Soviet era, it was a remarkable period of time and one I’m sure I’ll never forget, even when they tore down the statue of Dzerzhinskii, which they did on Thursday night. It was remarkable.
RAY SUAREZ: Katharine Geneieva, you had put out a newspaper that week when it wasn’t quite certain you would be allowed to do so. Once it was all over –
KATHERINE GENIEVA: Of course I wasn’t allowed to do it actually. I never asked for any permission to do it. What happened, all democratic newspapers were banned in Moscow on the 19th of August. And on the 20th in the morning, some Russian papers, independent newspapers, like the Russian Independent asked us whether we were ready to consider printing the newspaper in the library, because we had and have printing facilities.
And naturally I said yes, okay, let’s do it. But it was okay for me to say let’s do it. I should have asked my staff to do it, which was a very brave thing on their part to do. And during the whole night between the 20th and 21st actually the most important night during this coup, we were publishing, printing the newspaper, first we used Xerox machines, which pretty soon ran out of order. And then we started using our traditional ordinary printing facilities. And by morning we managed to print one million copies of the newspaper, which now I think we can find in Dr. Billington’s Library, but I wouldn’t say we can find these copies in many libraries all over the world, not even in Russia. They’ve become quite a rare piece.
RAY SUAREZ: When the dust began to settle by the end of the week, did you feel you were the citizen of a new country?
KATHERINE GENIEVA: You know, that night was very hard because it was quite a surrealistic experience. On the one hand there were tanks in Moscow. People were rioting. But on the other hand, the Soviet government never decided to cut off the Soviet Union from the international lines. That’s why actually why we knew what was happening in our country from the western media, yes, we realized that we were in a new country only on the morning of the 21st. But coming back to these days of ten years ago, the most impressive thing that I can recollect that it was the victory of the young.
RAY SUAREZ: And, James Billington, what do you remember from that week, and what were people telling you on the streets of Moscow?
JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, I think the thing I most remember was the extraordinary way in which it happened. It was unexpected, it really hasn’t been adequately explained since. After all, most of the five and a half million people in uniform, the largest uniformed force at one command in the history of the word, was stared down by 150 armed people in the Russian White House. What happened in effect was the Russian people, the Russian government seceded first from the Soviet Union, because the Russian White House, the headquarters of the subordinate government, became the center of resistance, and then the whole thing fell apart.
But the putsch was very carefully planned. What happened was there was a moral concern, they were not only finding freedom, but that they had been denied under totalitarian rule, they’d been discovering for quite a while and they didn’t want to lose it — but they were also recovering the responsibility, the Siamese twin of freedom, if freedom is ever to be a part of a responsible citizenry, because everybody had to make choices, whether to speak up at your place of work, whether to go to the barricades, whether to do something.
And the heroes were a very unlikely crowd. Women, for instance, you’ve talked to one of them who was the headquarters of publication. But the women on the barricades went out and talked to the soldiers in the tanks who didn’t have clear orders. There was a moral change, a moral transformation of the country. And it affected the people in the army and in the KGB, as well as the people on the barricades, because no one would sign a written order to shoot. Therefore the whole system collapsed and it was one of those great moral transformations, and certainly the most important political event of the late 20th century.
So it’s sad that it isn’t being remembered today. But it will never be forgotten by the history books, because it was the largest contiguous land empire in the history of the world, the most effective secular totalitarian ideology of the 20th century. All of it collapsed in the space of 48 hours largely because of a total change of moral perspective at the very heart of that same empire.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Marshall Goldman you began by talking about euphoria. If I had asked you then to describe for me the Russia of 2001, would you have gotten it right?
MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Well, yes and no. I mean, looking backward it’s always easy to say sure, I had it right. But at the time, it really looked like it was a new beginning. But they quickly discovered that simply saying okay, we’re going to put down the putsch, which was important, but we’re going to move to a market or move to a democracy, was not as simple as it turned out to be. And I had been worried at that point, in fact, that as they began to embark on what Gorbachev at the time called perestroika, it was going to involve economic reshuffling. It meant you were going to close down factories; it meant you were going to let prices find their own mark. That would have meant inflation; that would have been unemployment.And if you would do that at the same time you’re going to have this openness, this glasnost they talked about, there would be protests in a way that they weren’t accustomed to.
So, quickly they began to see that there were more problems. What I didn’t anticipate was that Yeltsin, who was the hero of the moment, would suddenly pull a disappearing act. What I also didn’t anticipate was at the end of the Cold War would eliminate a massive quantity of demand from the economy, as much as 20 percent, and that was a factor that complicated whatever they were going to try to do.
RAY SUAREZ: Katharine Genieva, did you expect that your country 10 years on was going to be in better shape than it is today?
KATHERINE GENIEVA: I wouldn’t say that all my expectations came true, especially the one that we had on this hilarious day, which was the 21st of August, when everybody really felt that we were entering the new epoch in the history not only of Russia but the history of the world. And I never anticipated that Yeltsin would be what he termed to be at the end of his political career.
And also I think that Russia missed many chances of hers, because people who could have done more and talking first of all about our democrats proved to be not very effective. And I think that what we’re having now, who is leading the country and what is happening on the vertical line of power is due to the fact that people who could have put more efforts to the economic development or the economic changes, also to the changes in the field of education, they haven’t done enough. That’s why just to make a long story short, I can say that I put much blame on what many of our democrats haven’t done during these years, though they could have done.
RAY SUAREZ: And, James Billington, how did your expectations match up with the reality of what came in 2001?
JAMES BILLINGTON: Well, I think the expectations were so high then that they were bound to be disillusioned because of the heavy burden of history and the tremendous overcentralization and bureaucratization of the Communist system, which wasn’t that easy to shake off. But I think things are beginning to change now. The economy tanked badly in the summer of ’98, but it’s been recovering since then.
And for the first time I think in Russian history, things are beginning to happen from the bottom up, and the periphery in. I think we have a leader who, while not very inspiring, wants to be a kind of De Gaulle, he’s using dangerous means of nationalism, there’s the sad, tragic war in Chechnya and so forth. And there’s always the risk that he may end up in a totalitarian, or not a totalitarian, but an authoritarian direction, because he’s using authoritarian means to spread reforms. But the reforms are beginning to take. There’s a lot of emphasis on the rule of law now.
We’ve had nearly 4,000 young Russians come over on the Russian leadership program that Congress has mandated through us at the Library of Congress. And not a single one of those has failed to return. Average age 38, a third of them women, it’s a new generation and a new outlook. The hope has to be that they will prevail and that the new leader will follow through on the promise he’s made of reform, and which most people convinced is sincere, but he’s got a very tough row to hoe. And there’s a heavy authoritarian burden.
The one thing that’s interesting about Russian history, though, is their ability to produce surprises, like they did ten years ago. And so it just possible that the reform may catch on under a leader who has at least 70 percent acceptance rating with his own population. They haven’t had that, and he was after all elected. So I think there is some hope, but not the hopes that were so active and so much looked forward to ten years ago.
RAY SUAREZ: Katharine Genieva, you hear what your colleague said about a new De Gaulle there in Moscow. Is there a danger that your countrymen can trade stability for democracy because of their disillusionment?
KATHERINE GENIEVA: I think that the greatest achievement of those August days of putsch ten years ago is, for the world at large, that there is no way back for Russia. And whatever will be happening, how difficult the roads to civil society and roads with all the economic changes, both in federal, regional, local level might be, there is no way back. Whatever means Putin administration and other forces might use, the new generation, which has grown up and which have taste the taste of freedom, there is no way back. That is why I’m looking at Russia not only with hope against hope, but I’m looking at Russia in her development with quite a considerable hope.And my hope is not only with what is happening in the capitals, in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
I think what is happening in this huge, unbelievably huge, country gives me, if you know what is happening inside the country, much hope because it’s really developing with much pain, with enormous difficulty, making steps backwards. But it’s going ahead. And I think that the world at large should also take some responsibility that we people who lived in the 20th century, now we’re living in the 21st century, actually we are witnesses to something which might have not happened during our lifetime, but it did, which puts some additional responsibility on us, the Russian people, and to the world at large.
RAY SUAREZ: And very briefly, Marshall Goldman, your final thoughts, are the necessary institutions in place for a more hopeful coming ten years?
MARSHALL GOLDMAN: It certainly looks better than it was before. But I must differ a little with my colleagues, I’m not quite as hopeful. Putin has still done some bad things, he continues to offset the good steps he takes with bad steps, not only the fighting in Chechnya, but he still supports the oligarchs, the whole climate of morality and the rule of law is still pretty weak, but it’s certainly much better than it used to be; I will grant you that. But I’m still nervous. And if you look at what’s happened in Belarus, right nearby Russia, they have gone back in many ways, so it’s not absolutely guaranteed that the road forward is in the right direction.
RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all for being with us.