Remembering the Last Iron Curtain as the New One Descends

Vladimir Kara-Murza, writing on his blog Spotlight on Russia, remembers the end of the old Iron Curtain as the new one descends across the continent:

Just the same, no simpler
Are the tests of our times:
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
When that hour strikes?

— Alexander Galich, St. Petersburg Romance (1968)

On August 19, 1991, Muscovites awakened to the sound of tanks. In a fitting conclusion to the decades of Soviet tyranny, the tanks that once rolled on the streets of Budapest, Prague, and Vilnius, came to the heart of Russia. By mid-morning, Moscow was occupied by troops. Television channels were broadcasting Swan Lake, interrupted only by pale-faced news anchors who read out decrees by self-proclaimed “acting president” Gennady Yanayev declaring a state of emergency, suspending most constitutional rights, shutting down newspapers and radio stations, and announcing the formation of a new governing body—the “State Committee on the State of Emergency” (known by its Russian acronym, GKChP), composed of the top Communist leadership, including the vice president, the prime minister, the minister of defense, and the chairman of the KGB. Their objective: to save the rapidly crumbling Soviet dictatorship

If history was any indicator, the coup was bound to succeed.

Its leaders controlled the armed forces, the security services, the airwaves, and the state apparatus. The international response was, at best, dubious. French President François Mitterand recognized the plotters as “new leaders” of the Soviet Union, while US President George H. W. Bush deduced in Yanayev “a certain commitment to reform.”

Then something happened; something the old-school apparatchiks could not comprehend (it was said that KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov asked to be personally driven, in a stained-glass limousine, around Moscow, because he did not believe the reports he was receiving). First hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands of Muscovites, young and old, began assembling on the streets and squares of the city. If Galich had lived to see that day, he would have had his question unequivocally answered. By the morning of August 20, some 200,000 people gathered in front of the Moscow White House, the Parliament building, and the residence of Boris Yeltsin—the recently elected Russian president who led the resistance to the coup and declared all GKChP decisions illegal. The people on the streets of Moscow were peaceful, unarmed, and determined—determined not to allow a return to the hated past. In Elena Bonner’s words, in those three days Muscovites proved that they were not just a crowd, but citizens of their country.

On the night of August 21, the coup spilled its first blood: three White House defenders—Ilya Krichevsky, Vladimir Usov, and Dmitry Komar—were crushed to death by armored vehicles of the Taman division in the tunnel under Novyi Arbat Street. There would have been many more victims, had not the operatives of the “Alpha Group”—an elite KGB team sent by the GKChP to storm the White House and disperse the demonstrators—refused to follow the order.

By August 22, it was over. What began as a hardline coup turned into a popular revolution. In the face of hundreds of thousands of unarmed Muscovites, the tanks turned away. The members of the GKChP were arrested. In an enduring symbol of the “Moscow Spring,” jubilant demonstrators tore down the statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky from its pedestal on Lubyanka Square. With two decrees, President Yeltsin abolished the red flag—replacing it with the pre-1917 white, blue, and red tricolor—and banned the Communist Party. The Soviet Union itself was to fall in four short months.

Much has changed in twenty years. On the last day of the 1990s, the hero of the August revolution handed the keys to his office to a former KGB operative who would invite his former boss, GKChP leader Vladimir Kryuchkov, to his inauguration. In 2000, Glinka’s “Patriotic Song”—the national anthem of democratic Russia—was replaced with the Soviet anthem. By the mid-2000s, the political freedoms of 1991 had effectively disappeared; the new inhabitants of the Kremlin successfully implemented many of the policies of the GKChP. In 2004, Vladimir Putin ended the tradition of sending a presidential wreath to the memorial of Krichevsky, Usov, and Komar; and this year—for the first time—the defense ministry refused to station a military honor guard at their tomb on August 21. A few weeks ago, Sergei Surovikin, who in August 1991 commanded the armored vehicles that killed Krichevsky, Usov, and Komar, was appointed head of Russia’s military police. Sergei Baidakov, the prefect of the central district of Moscow and a functionary in Putin’s United Russia party, has proposed reinstating Dzerzhinsky’s statue on Lubyanka Square. Needless to say, the Russian government took no part in the twentieth anniversary celebrations. The best it could do was refrain from arresting pro-democracy demonstrators led by Garry Kasparov and Boris Nemtsov (himself a White House defender in 1991) who rallied in downtown Moscow on Monday to commemorate their victory.

Revolutions are almost always followed by restorations. One of the principal reasons Russia’s experiment in freedom proved so short-lived was the ill-judged magnanimity of the victors of 1991 who shied away from a Nuremberg-style condemnation of the Soviet regime and its KGB enforcers, and from lustrations that would have inevitably followed. The voices of the most farsighted leaders, such as Vladimir Bukovsky and Galina Starovoitova, fell on deaf ears. The new democratic Russia would not “conduct a witch-hunt.” In a few years, the “witches” would return to destroy it.

But whatever followed, those three days in August will be remembered as one of the most inspiring moments in Russia’s history—and will serve as a reminder to despots. A reminder that there are times when the entire might of the state counts for nothing; when thousands of people come out onto the streets—and the tanks stop.

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