Fear and uncertainty dominated the main auditorium of the Russian Parliament. There, the epicenter of resistance to the coup to eliminate perestroika and bring the USSR back to Soviet orthodoxy was established. After hearing speeches in favor of the renovations, I left the building, looking for more news on August 19, 1991, exactly 30 years ago.
In the street, in front of the classic coup scene, I saw tanks. I was immediately surprised by a crowd walking through the door of Parliament, walking resolutely. I identified in the crowd, among bodyguards and supporters, the Russian leader and ultra-reformist Boris Yeltsin.
I followed the crowd. Yeltsin got into an armored vehicle sent by the coup plotters. The stunned tanker accepted the Russian leader’s handshake. The war machine became a platform, and the resistance coxswain said, “The reaction will not pass!”
Prophetics are the words of the Einsteinists. In just three days, the coup orchestrated by Orthodox Communists collapsed, along with the plan to oust Mikhail Gorbachev, the father of perestroika, from the Kremlin.
Designed to save the USSR from the separatist wave tearing apart the empire created by Vladimir Lenin in 1917, the trial had the opposite effect. Its failure accelerated nationalist tendencies and contributed decisively to Soviet disintegration.
The image of Yeltsin above the tank, daring to confuse the putschists awaiting the resignation of a homo sovieticus, galvanized resistance. He has become an icon of the historic moment and the unstoppable rise of Yeltsinism.
Yeltsin ruled Russia, the largest of the 15 republics (in practice provinces) of the USSR, and rivaled President Gorbachev, whom he criticized for slow reform. He aspired to reach the Kremlin and challenged the central government, supporting the flight of power to regional authorities.
The August 1991 victory tipped the political balance decisively in Yeltsin’s favor. Four months later, along with two other regional leaders, from Ukraine and Belarus, the Russian big boss announced that he was ignoring the central power, occupied by Gorbachev, and proclaimed the end of the USSR. The world map began to draw 15 independent countries where there was a red empire.
Exalted in the West for his role in ending the Cold War, Gorbachev faced a formidable process of political corrosion at home. Perestroika had brought unprecedented freedoms, but also the greatest economic crisis since World War II.
The failure of the Soviet model fueled separatist tendencies across the gigantic country, stretching from the Polish border to the seas of Alaska. And Gorbachev blamed himself for the economic meltdown.
The Patriarch of Reforms navigated between separatist pressure and a conservative establishment determined to keep the empire intact. Reform-resistant Communists viewed the coup adventure as a final solution, but were mistaken in ignoring Yeltsin’s ability to mobilize forces against the Brezhnevista-style conspiracy.
When I got to the office, after watching Yeltsin’s historic scene above the tank, I turned on the television. I resumed reading the official communiques of the conspirators and then a monotonous program showing a “happy Soviet Union”.
The conspirators believed they were still living in the 1960s, when a Conservative coup led by Leonid Brezhnev toppled Nikita Khrushchev. Times, however, were different. And even the USSR ceased to exist.
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