Nationalist sentiments existed within various Soviet republics, and some outside of Russia (the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) thought they might do better organizing their economy than the bureaucrats in Moscow. In these republics were Russians who had taken up residency and who tended to oppose breaking away from Moscow. Like them, Gorbachev wanted to keep the Soviet Union together. Elections in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1990, however, gave overwhelming victories to political parties favoring independence.
Parliament for the Russian republic had as its president the cantankerous critic of Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin. In 1987, Gorbachev had dismissed him from the Party's Presidium (previously known as the Politburo). Yeltsin was described by Sakharov as a man he liked but of a "different caliber" from Gorbachev – different suggesting lesser. Yeltsin lacked Gorbachev's grace, but the common Russian tended to like him. It is said that Yeltsin owed at least some of his popularity to Gorbachev's unpopularity.
Perhaps it can be said that Yeltsin was following a grudge. In July 1990, Yeltsin convened Russia's parliament and called for economic sovereignty for the republic, in other words, taking control of the economy away from Gorbachev. Other republics wished to follow suit. The Republic of Ukraine called for the return of all Ukrainian soldiers from the Soviet military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian military. The Soviet Union was unraveling.
The Soviet Union's Communist Party was split between reformers and conservatives. Gorbachev was holding to Lenin's New Economic Policy of the early 1920s as his model for what should be done. (government ownership of big manufacturing, banking, transportation, and energy production, working on the basis of profit and loss, supply and demand (market socialism) while private enterprise was allowed elsewhere in the economy. To many, Gorbachev seemed weak and unable to make up his mind. One moment Gorbachev was praising a conservative Communist such as Yegor Ligachev, and another moment he was praising the liberal Party ideologue Alexander Yakovlev. People were wondering whether he knew where he stood.
In 1991 Gorbachev's popularity in the Western world was at an all-time high, but his approval rating in the Soviet Union was at an all-time low – not only because of the economy but also because of the fall of Communism in the satellite countries. Many in the Soviet Union were angry with Gorbachev for having allowed Germany to unite again. Some saw Gorbachev as having disarmed the Soviet Union. Some saw him as throwing away the victory in World War II that had cost twenty million lives.
In 1991 more Soviet factories were closing down. Parliament in the Russian Republic passed a few reforms in the direction of a market economy, and Yeltsin cut funding to various Soviet agencies that were on Russian soil. Gorbachev turned his strategy in the direction of preservation – what some would call a turn to the right. Gorbachev's foreign minister, Shevardnadze, resigned. Shevardnadze warned that "a dictatorship is coming." Gorbachev suggested to the conservatives around him, including the leader of the Soviet Union's military, that they were free to take whatever extraordinary action was necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In August they obliged him. They made their move while Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were vacationing in the Crimea. The leaders of what some call a coup claimed that Gorbachev was ill. Gorbachev played along. He was, it appeared, under house arrest, but he had a telephone with which he could call anyone he wished.
The coup was a shock to Russians. They associated coups with banana republics and many of them went into the streets to protest. Yeltsin stood with people in the streets. Ideologically "the masses" were much respected in the Soviet Union, and military men were easily persuaded to side with Yeltsin and the people in the streets. The coup leaders were not committed to a military takeover, and their move became a failure. Gorbachev pretended to be liberated, and Yeltsin became more of a hero overshadowing the hapless Gorbachev. In triumph, Yeltsin by presidential decree banned the Communist Party in the Russian Republic and seized all its property.
At the end of the year, 1991, the other former Soviet Republics followed the Russian Republic into independence. Abroad, all Soviet embassies and consulates became the embassies and consulates of the Russian republic. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a legal entity, and Gorbachev was now out of a job, and bitter, blaming Yeltsin for breaking up his beloved Soviet Union.
Relaxed tensions between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West had paid off for the West. Those who had equated bargaining with the Soviet Union and "peaceful coexistence" with appeasing Hitler at Munich had been proven wrong. The Soviet Union fell apart not at a height in belligerence but when relations between the two powers were good.
CONTINUE READING: Yeltsin and Russia's transition to Capitalism
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.