Baktybek: It was a combination of despair, of rising hopes, expectations, anxiety.
Hugh: Talking to the interior ministry troops around the Kremlin and someone says, "So what would happen if the order came to shoot into your own people. Would you shoot?" And the guy paused briefly and without much hesitation said, "Yeah, I would shoot."
Oxana: And all of a sudden the door is kicked open in the classroom, and this student runs in and he basically says in Ukrainian, "University has been taken over, classes are suspended, revolution is coming."
In late December 1991 — 74 years after the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin—the Soviet Union ceased to exist. This momentous event brought an end to a country that for more than four decades after World War II had been a global superpower rivaling the United States. The demise of the USSR occurred less than seven years after Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Soon after taking office in March 1985, Gorbachev launched a series of drastic political and economic policies that he hoped would improve and strengthen the Communist system. These measures sparked a rush of unprecedented developments that transformed the USSR in a remarkably short time. The political and social change that accompanied Gorbachev’s reforms increasingly eluded his control. In the end, far from strengthening Communism, Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (official openness) led, inadvertently, to the collapse of the Soviet regime and the unraveling of the Soviet state.
This episode of Eurasian Enigma looks back at the major events that precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union through the stories of people who were there. They’ll share their memories, fears, hopes, and expectations during that turbulent time, and with twenty-five years of hindsight, they’ll discuss the impact of the fall of the Soviet Union on their lives today.
In today’s episode, you’ll hear from four voices who represent different aspects of our story, from former Soviet citizens to American scholars.
Hugh: This is Hugh Truslow and I was the librarian for the Davis Center from 2008 to 2016. I was an exchange student in Moscow in '89, '90, and then I returned again in August '91 on a theater exchange program and was there during the attempted coup.
Baktybek: My name Bak Beshymov. I grew up in a remote village in Kyrgyzstan, my home country. Currently I'm teaching as a professor at Northeastern University.
Mark: My name is Mark Kramer. I'm Director of Cold War Studies and have been at the Davis Center, or what was previously the Russian Research Center, for about 30 years.
And Oxana Shevel, now a professor of political science at Tufts University.
Oxana: I was born in 1970 in Soviet Union and Soviet Ukraine. So I grew up with sort of two languages and being brought up as a Soviet person.
Gorbachev’s initial economic reforms intended to boost the floundering Soviet economy, but it soon gave way to the much broader and bolder program of perestroika and glasnost. Gorbachev thought that political liberalization would be a prerequisite for economic advancement. In 1988, he combined perestroika and glasnost with demokratizatsiya--democratization-- including the first free elections the Soviet Union had ever held. As the Communist Party of the Soviet Union gradually relinquished its pervasive grip over political and social life, unrest emerged in many parts of the Soviet Union, particularly the three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and the Caucasus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and Moldova.
The freer flow of information under glasnost contributed to the decline of central control. Soviet citizens became aware of the full magnitude of Stalin-era crimes, the wide range of social issues afflicting the Soviet Union, such as high rates of alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, declining health indices, homelessness, crime, poverty, as well as the destruction caused by environmental disasters like the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine. The spread of this information helped to delegitimize the Soviet regime in the eyes of many Russians as well as non-Russians.
Mark: It was striking how rapidly the Soviet Union changed. Back when I first was there in May, June 1983, it seemed like a society that would always remain an extremely repressive dictatorship. It continued to seem that way in 1986, but then by 1987, especially 1988, there was a real sense that forces were moving and had set off in motion what would be very difficult to arrest. At that point, people were extremely excited about what was going on, ordinary Russians. You would see long lines on the streets to buy the latest newspapers and especially the reformist newspapers like Moscow News. People would be extremely interested in reading the latest revelations about Soviet history, Stalin's crimes.
Oxana: So I remember, we had a history course, already in college, it was late perestroika period, it was '89, '90. So we had this history teacher, and the course was still called History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But she would come to class and say, "Okay, we had this lecture of collectivization two weeks ago. Cross everything out. I'm going to lecture again." Seriously. So we would cross everything out, and she'll lecture based on whatever came out in the newspapers then. And this thing, she had to do it three times. So by the time the exam period came, nobody knew what the correct answer was. So everybody was hoping to get a question on like Party Congress in 1903 because there had been no change.
Batybek: You know, perestroika really changed the life of a lot of people, and the first time in our history got the chance to speak and express themselves. When I was in Almaty, I published articles [about] how I see the current situation and what we should do in order to improve our Republic. When I was student, I was a part of a group in which people disseminated different articles. We used to listen Voice of America and Radio Liberty and so on. And we started to understand that something is really going wrong in this country.
Oxana: it was very clear that something bad is going on because the Swan Lake was on. And of course they had Swan Lake on when something was happening with the regime that they didn’t want the people to know.
Hugh: All the state broadcasting stations had changed to Swan Lake. So I feel like I can remember hearing it in the lobby of the apartment building where we were staying.
Soviet citizens had come to know that when state-controlled TV and radio broadcasted nothing but Swan Lake on a continuous loop, something was amiss. The placid ballet belied the turmoil behind the scenes--a coup attempt by Communist hardliners to wrest Gorbachev the reformer from power.
On 17 August, eight high-ranking Soviet officials who had worked under Gorbachev formed a State Committee for an Emergency Situation and moved swiftly to take over the Soviet government, especially the armed forces and state security organs. On 18 August they traveled secretly to see Gorbachev at his presidential dacha in Foros, where Gorbachev was vacationing. These eight Soviet officials were hoping to restore a much more orthodox Communist system and to prevent what they feared would be the disintegration of the country under Gorbachev. In traveling to Foros, they hoped they could pressure Gorbachev to go along with the coup, if only reluctantly. But they miscalculated. Gorbachev angrily refused to give his consent and stuck by that position. Although extensive planning and preparation went into the coup, the plotters made several crucial mistakes, including their failure to develop a backup plan if Gorbachev declined to support them. Though on August 19 the coup leaders announced announced a state of emergency on TV and radio--breaking the continuous loop of Swan Lake--the leaders would find that they would be unable to recover from their miscalculations. The coup ended on August 21 as an abject failure.
Mark: I was there after the start of it for the very final days because I was there actually to run a race. I wasn’t there because I knew a coup was going to take place and in fact I got there a day late because air traffic had been suspended. And I witnessed the aftermath of it, including the demonstrations in front of the Lyubanka.
The Lubyanka Building was the headquarters of the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police.
Mark: Crowds had gathered to protest the KGB and I thought they were going to storm the Lyubanka. In any event there was a statue in front of the Lubyanka at that point of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet state security service, then known as the Cheka. And that statue had been there for many years. It was a huge, very solid statue and the crowd tried to tear it down, and they couldn't budge it. So then eventually someone knew that the U.S. Embassy was undergoing renovation and there was a large construction crane there, so they approached officials at the embassy, who sent over the crane. The crane attached ropes around the statue and eventually pulled it and there was a loud cheer from the crowd.
Oxana: I actually didn't even know the coup was happening because I was working as a girl scout camp counselor in Long Island. I got myself there through this Camp America program, where you can apply and they bring foreign counselors. So I was like in the wilderness, in the tent, the whole time. The camp just ended, and in the airport, this was the first time that I learned. And I was completely in shock, because I had no way to call home, I think you couldn't call the Soviet Union from some payphone, and I didn't know if they were okay, or what really was going on, and then I get on the plane. I think I was close to hysterics, and the people realized I was from the Soviet Union, and they were like, "Oh, come stay with us, you can apply for political asylum, you’ll get it, because look at what’s going on in your country."
Hugh: We were very curious, obviously, about what was going on and so we obviously wanted to get closer to the action. So went down to the White House and where the barricades were and that kind of thing. Talking to the interior ministry troops around the Kremlin, they were sort of their like objects at the zoo and there were crowds gathering around them. They're sitting on the tanks or their armored personnel carriers and someone said, "So what would happen if the order came to shoot into your own people. Would you shoot?" And sort of, the guy paused briefly and without much hesitation said, "Yeah, I would shoot." You realized that if something happened, if a shot was fired or if suddenly people started to panic that you would be trampled, because there was no way to get out of this space. And that was actually the only time I remember being frightened for my safety.
Hugh: I had one very vivid memory from the coup itself that just has always stuck with me. There was one point, and this was early on when all the tanks and armor was moving into the center of town to Red Square. And there was this moment where these tanks and armored personnel characters were coming down the highway heading to the center of town. And it was just this endless column of them. And they kicked up this very, very fine dust, And I just have this image in my mind, but also a picture I took of a young Soviet boy wearing a blue jacket and I'm pretty sure he had a red kerchief and was holding a toy gun. And he's standing there at this bus stop watching tank after tank after tank after tank go by, and this white dust being kicked up. That’s an image that’s stuck with me, just how jarring a sight it was.
The failure of the coup was equally crucial in giving unstoppable momentum to several of the union republics—the Baltic states, Georgia, Moldova, and others—in their drives for independence. In the wake of the failed coup, the drive for independence became unstoppable. When a republic-wide referendum was held in Ukraine on 1 December 1991, more than 92 percent of voters, who made up 85 percent of the electorate, voted in favor of full independence. Even the ethnic Russian inhabitants of Ukraine voted by large majorities in support of Ukraine’s independence. This overwhelming shift of public opinion in Ukraine in support of outright independence had a big influence on other Soviet republics which were also experiencing the rising tide of nationalism.
Mark: The main separatist movements were not in Russia, because it wasn’t really a separatist movement in Russia, partly because it so much overlapped with the organs of the Soviet regime, both headquartered in Moscow. But there were very active separatist movements that arose in some of the outlying republics. They also again greatly benefitted from Gorbachev’s liberalization because in 1989 and 1990 they were able to hold free elections and the governments that came to power came to power on explicitly separatist agendas. So for Gorbachev this posed a real dilemma. Did he want to crack down violently and thereby perhaps stifle some of the other reforms he was carrying out? On the other hand did he want to tolerate what might become the first of a wave. If he for example granted the right to the secede to the Baltic republics he was concerned it would open the flood gates.
Oxana: And then, of course when the perestroika advanced and this whole issue of secession, of possible sovereignty for the republics came in, and sort of acquired the whole other layer of both thinking for ourselves and debates within school, public debates. So that was really quite transformational. I think for many people yes, it was associated with expectations and even with Ukraine and the referendum, there was a lot of pitch for independence. That Ukraine, being sort of one of the wealthier republics, wouldn't have to pay to the central budget, and the fliers would say we would be like France in no time and of course that didn’t happen.
In the first week of December 1991 the leaders of the USSR’s three Slavic republics—Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, which was represented by future Russian President Boris Yeltsin—gathered in Belarus to sign what became known as the Belavezha Accords, an agreement that called for the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was to be replaced by a loose union of states called the Commonwealth of Independent States. Two weeks after the Belovezha accords were concluded, all eleven republics that were still in the USSR joined in signing the Almaty Protocol, which provided for the final dissolution of the USSR.
Baktybek: Then, Yeltsin, Shushkevich, and Kravchuk, they decided just to go to the Belorussia and signed this agreement. My personal reaction was, why the leaders of the Slavic republics decided just to separate themselves? I started to think that probably it's the time when we should start to think about our own destiny. I was right because a few months after that, after one year Kozyrev, the Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time in the Yeltsin government, he spoke about the Central Asia as a not significant area for the interests of the new Russia.
On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation from the Soviet presidency in a brief televised address. Later that evening the Soviet flag flying over the Kremlin was replaced by the Russian tricolor flag, and the next day the Soviet parliament adopted a resolution dissolving the USSR, bringing a formal end to both the Soviet regime and the Soviet state—a state that less than a decade earlier had seemed destined to remain a global superpower. But as citizens of now sovereign states would find out, there was a steep learning curve in building a new state.
Oxana: I think probably as a little bit of time went by, you kind of realize the historical significance of building a new state. Because the most basic things have to be worked out. And I actually at the time was working as an interpreter for a Guardian correspondent. So it was really fascinating to meet all these new political elites, you know, that he wanted to interview. They really often times didn't have a clue about the basic things like how do you create a currency system.
Then the prices were liberalized. So you go to a store,and the store has toilet paper, say, and there is a lot of it, which was unheard of. But they're not selling it because they can't figure out what the price should be. Nobody told them, because it's no longer price controlled. So they have all these customers willing to buy toilet paper, and they have a ton of toilet paper, and there are no transactions. And this poor British guy, he just could not understand. He's like, "What about if I gave you, like, 20 dollars for it?" "We need, like, some resolutzia, some decree, which will say, you know, what should be the price." It was very surreal. So there are many of these surreal moments in the infancy of a new state.
Bakytbek: As I said as a young, inexperienced man I didn't understand the scale of the problems awaiting us ahead and the challenges which can rise in the next months and years. I can tell you that as a young man, naturally, I exaggerated our ability to create the economic miracle of course. I didn't realize the scope of the problems of a newly independent state.
The collapse of the Soviet Union remains a contentious topic. For some, it meant independence from Moscow’s centralized system of control. It also meant an awakening of national identities that had been subordinated to an all-encompassing Soviet identity. In the wake of Soviet collapse, several former republics, such as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, became part of “the Western world” via NATO and the European Union. Georgia and Ukraine have for more than two decades now remained on the periphery of membership, but economic strife caused by frozen conflict with Russia has for now stifled those aspirations. For others, especially Russians, the end of the Soviet era meant the loss of an empire and prestige on the world stage.
Baktybek: I was very very optimistic about the future of my country because I believed at that time that relatively better educated Kyrgyzstan could make country better and they can support the best reforms, they can calibrate the priorities, and introduce really good policies but unfortunately it never happened.
Oxana: For me, I mean clearly, Ukraine remains pretty corrupt, even though we had a few of these electoral revolutions and I think there is clearly a will on the part of the people for clean government, it really has been very slow in coming. Many say that's a disappointing thing, and I would agree with that, but at the same time I think the idea that Ukraine is a separate country, I think that's a hope realized.
Mark: I was monumentally happy in some ways that the Soviet Union came to an end. Even though I felt torn about it because I think Gorbachev made it a much more livable country and achieved an enormous amount for which he received no credit in Russia today. Russians today live in a much freer country even under Putin than they did under the Soviet regime. That's a direct result of Gorbachev. It has really nothing to do with anyone else. It is a direct result of Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yeltsin deserves credit for having implemented important reforms in the early-1990s. Even under Putin and the authoritarian backlash that's occurred now, it is still a much freer country. There are things Russians can do nowadays that were impossible under the Soviet regime to read Western publications, to travel abroad, to see Western films, read Western books. All kinds of things that people take for granted in Russia nowadays were not possible under the Soviet regime.