The Failed Russian Coup of 1991

The Russian Coup

The Russian people were Communist for three generations. In politics they are a passive people, willing to do whatever the State requires them to do, provided this does not make too great demands on them to display initiative. Historically, they are a people organised by a State. They have never led a national life independent of the State, as the Germans did for centuries. And they have never been greatly concerned about the label which the State stuck on itself. Among Slavic peoples they and the Poles are polar opposites. Their only requirement of the state is that it should be the stable framework of their existence, and should not suffer from existential problems.

Some readers may find this kind of generalisation objectionable in principle. If so, they are living in a bygone era. There was a time when it was widely supposed that nationality as a basic organising principle in human affairs was being superseded by some other organising principle which was cosmopolitan in character. That was the time of the Cold War-the time when the world was organised by the conflict of the two great social principles of undiluted collectivism and undiluted economic egoism. That conflict overlay the national question on both sides.

In that bygone era, it might have been unbecoming to show much concern for national characteristics as political factors. The real entities in world affairs were the cosmopolitan blocs of NATO and the Warsaw Pact – the instruments of the Truman Doctrine on the one hand and of the Brezhnev Doctrine on the other. But the Warsaw Pact has dissolved and, in the absence of the Warsaw Pact, NATO has become an ineffectual force in world affairs, despite the ambition of the American and British Governments to preserve it as an instrument of world domination.

When most of the world was organised by NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and conflict was limited to regions of the Middle East, South East Asia and Africa where new states were being formed in the aftermath of the inglorious winding up of Anglo-French-Portuguese Imperialism, national antagonisms were thought of as atavistic remainders of more barbarous times. But, now that we are to have a multitude of states in central and eastern Europe, where previously there were in effect only two states ( or two systems of states in which the system hegemonized its component states), that old sentimental attitude towards nationality will no longer do.

Stalin said that the component parts of the Soviet Union were “national in form and socialist in content”.  After 1945, the ‘West’ took a similar view of its component parts as national in form and social democratic in content. On both sides, nations were regarded as superficial decorations, creating a semblance of variety in populations that were all basically the same. Each side tried to disrupt the other by encouraging nationalist rebellions, but neither side had any real success in that enterprise.

Soviet instigation was not the cause of the nationalist rebellion in Northern Ireland, any more than Western instigation was the cause of Polish resistance. Irish Republicanism-the genuine article, not Roy Johnson’s Marxist concoction of the late sixties-and Polish nationalism lived their own lives, oblivious to the spirit of the age. They, like the Afghans, are the authentic articles-the incorrigible nationalist flies in the cosmopolitan ointment. They are the insuppressible nationalisms, though none of them has much aptitude when it comes to running states. The IRA spoiled the atmosphere for the West in the idyllic days of the 1970s, and rightly rejected comparison with disgruntled cosmopolitan fragments such as the Red Brigades and the Baader Meinhoff group.

Now that the number of the states in the world is to be increased by the formation of many new nation states in ‘Europe, and that the world is hailing this as progress, let us have the decency to recognise that it was the Provisional IRA that kept the national principle operative in the West during the age of cosmopolitan illusion.

The Russian people were Communist for three generations because the State was Communist. Before that, they were democrats for about nine months because the State was democratic-but because Russia has never sustained civil society at a national level, the Russian democracy of 1917 was chaotic. And, before 191 7, the Russian people were the children of their Little Father for about three centuries.

On Sunday, 18th August, the Russian people were still Communist, though their political identity was made insecure by the uncertainty which was emanating from the State. On Monday, 19th August, the Russian people believed that the State had sorted out its existential problems, and that the framework of their lives had been made secure again.

Western ‘experts’ also took the coup to be an accomplished fact on the Monday. And the only question being discussed was whether the West should conciliate the new Soviet Government, or should start up the Cold War again. And a BBC commentator made the remarkable statement that everything now depended on what “the ordinary decent Communist” in Russia did.

Over the years, British media discussion of the prospect for peace in Northern Ireland has centred on the mirage figure called “the ordinary recent citizen” (ODC). The ODC is a political mirage because he is by definition apolitical. The ODC is the person who wants to get on with personal life and only requires from the authorities that they will provide him with a secure public framework for his private affairs The Protestant community consists of an abnormally high proportion of ODCs. But the ODC is a figure of no political consequence. If he were of political consequence, he would not be an ODC. Political affairs are, by definition, tended to by people who are not ODCs.

The ordinary decent Communist (ODC) in Russia is very similar up to a point with the ODC in the North. The identity of acronym between the two is entirely appropriate-up to a point. But a point is reached when the ODC in the North ceases to be an ODC. In October 1985 the Ulster Protestant community consisted of something like 99% ODCs. But, in November 1985, almost all the ODCs ceased to be ODCs. The Anglo-Irish Agreement provoked the great majority of the hitherto ODCs into heated political demonstration in Belfast.

In Moscow, on the other hand, the ODCs remained ODCs on August 19th. The ordinary decent Communist, being a sample of Russian citizenship, did not take it to be his business to interfere in the affairs of State. He wanted to know whether the coup had succeeded or failed, so that he might know what he was. But he was not so presumptuous as to take sides in the matter before the issue was decided.

The fate of the coup was determined behind closed doors. Yeltsin assembled a very small group of people around the Russian Parliament in an act of defiance, and he made a speech or two. When he was not arrested, and when the Parliament building was not occupied, the people of Moscow realised that the old State had crumbled from within, and that they would have to change. They observed this on the Tuesday. And, on the Wednesday, they flocked onto the streets-not to defend the “reform ” against the “hardliners “, but to show themselves that they had adapted to the new order, whatever it be.

On the first anniversary of the coup-the first weekly anniversary, that is-an Army Colonel who had opposed the coup gave an interview to the BBC explaining his position. He explained that, in his view, the situation had required extraordinary measures. On the Monday morning he had agreed with the declaration of a state of emergency, and he had therefore supported the group which had taken it upon itself to declare a state of emergency. But, in the course of the day, he judged that the coup had been bungled from the outset and would degenerate into fiasco, and therefore he opposed it. He sounded pleased with the way he had behaved. But the BBC reporter could not get her mind around what he was saying. Because he had not opposed the coup unthinkingly, on the ground of some abstract principle, but had made a practical reckoning on the basis of some hours’ experience of it, it seemed to her that he had acted a discreditable and shameful part in the affair. That is what BBC reporters have come to.

(The BBC was placed at the centre of the Russian stage by Gorbachev on his return to Moscow. That was one more act of extraordinary ineptitude on his part. Even if the BBC had not lost the aptitude for well-informed, analytical reporting which it once possessed in some degree, it would have been entirely imprudent for Gorbachev to place it at the centre of Soviet affairs at a moment when those affairs were in flux. British broadcasting is, by a Parliamentary decision of the early 1920s, a propaganda apparatus of the British State. And no competent head of any state, whatever the circumstances, recommends the propaganda apparatus of a foreign state as Gorbachev recommended the BBC.)

A coup had become inevitable in the Soviet Union this Summer, insofar as any political event is ever inevitable. I can say that with assurance now, a week after the event, having said so in print a couple of weeks before the event, despite having taken only the most casual interest in Soviet affairs during the past ten years.

After the death of Brezhnev, the KGB decided to reform the Soviet State on lines which I described at the time as “liberal totalitarianism”. Andropov did not live long enough to give any definite shape to this reform. His protege, Gorbachev, took over in 1985. He was safe against the “hardliners” because he was known to be a KGB man, and Lenin had declared that the KGB ( or the Cheka as it was then) was the cream of the Party. The KGB was not only feared but also admired. The talent of the Party was concentrated in it. It was the only region where a semblance of thought occurred.

So the KGB determined on a liberal totalitarian reform, and Gorbachev was its agent. The envisaged reform was self-contradictory in principle. It did not have a realisable objective, and therefore no method could be found of realising its objective.

By the mid-1980s, I had only a residual interest in Soviet affairs. About fifteen years ago I decided that Marxism-Leninism was dead from the neck up. Some Gorbachev enthusiasts told me a few years ago that I should not be so dismissive of him because he was something new and vital. It seemed to me that he was new only in the sense of knowing less about the character of the Soviet system than I did, and of trying to do what could not be done, and not trying to do what could be done.

Gorbachev’s political skill resembles that of Captain O’Neill, who became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1964, when it was a comparatively stable little statelet, and with ineffectual gestures towards an unspecified reform reduced it to a shambles in five years.

Gorbachev brought about a state of affairs in the Soviet Union which could not continue. In the name of economic reform he had worsened the economy year by year. In the name of the market, he had erected barriers to the flow of goods between the different parts of the Union. And he had stimulated the growth of nationalism in the Baltic and the Caucasus, but was not prepared to let the nationalities go their own way. He had disrupted the politics of the State to an extent that had thrown all regions of it into turmoil and prepared it for dissolution, yet he had made no provision for an orderly dissolution. Week by week he was inflaming nationalist sentiment by stimulating it in words and stamping on it in deed. He had reduced the political atmosphere to a condition appropriate to a country defeated in war. But the Soviet Army had not been defeated in war. The Red Army remained the Army of a Superpower, while the State which in constitutional theory was its master was dissolving all around it.

It required no great perspicacity to see that Gorbachev had brought about a highly unstable condition in the relationship of the elements which constitute a state. Since nobody else seemed to be pointing this out, I pointed it out:

“The collapse of the state system of Marxist Communism in 1989 was an unprecedented event in the history of the world, and it has placed the world in a position of unprecedented danger…

“The Red Army is well educated in politics and knows its proper place in the scheme of things. But when the scheme of things in which it knows its places ceases to exist, what then?

“No single element in a society can remain in its proper place, unless the other elements are in their proper places. There are no absolute positions for social elements taken in isolation. The elements exist in relationship. Position is defined by relationship. An Army cannot remain in its proper place under the command of the civil power, if the civil power is disintegrating and is incapable of commanding it effectively …

” … If the Government of the Soviet Union continues to subvert the state, a point must be reached when the Army, as a matter of survival, will consider interfering in politics in order to find a state to be subordinate to. The sharp lesson against meddling in politics, which Stalin taught it in the late thirties, is likely to wear off as the politicians continue to demonstrate their incompetence in affairs of state … ” (Problems Of Communism, No. 33, August 1991).

In the event, the Army could only very partially unlearn the lesson in political obedience which Stalin had taught it by such painful methods. But the bungled gesture in the direction of a coup was sufficient to dispel Gorbachev’s dream world. The sleepwalkers woke up with a shock, and what they have been doing and saying for some years began to register in their minds as ideas. And, suddenly, “in the twinkling of an eye”, as the Bible puts it, they were transformed. One day they were ordinary decent Communists. The next day they were ordinary decent something elses- “Russian nationalists” is the word being used, but at this distance from the Black Hundreds, Russian nationalism is to most ODCs a name without definite connotations.

Russian nationalism without the Little Father, without Pan Slavism, and without Gogol, Dostoevsky and Berdyayev-what is it going to be? What is it that is going to be the human subject of Russian Democracy? Democracy is an empty form. And just now Russian nationalism is an empty formula. But it is well to remember that the Russian nationalism of a century ago, which in its most progressive tendency contributed heavily to some of the greatest literature of the world, had three common features: Slavic sentimentality, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism.

Dostoevsky’s novels were laid on in the rudimentary Irish public library service of the early fifties, probably because he had the reputation of being a religious reactionary, and had opposed Russian Communism when it was little more than a notion in the mind of Chernyshevsky who was an influence on Lenin a generation later. I was then engaged in a solo rebellion against the dictatorship of Catholicism in Ireland (solo because nobody else would join), and I fed myself on Dostoevsky’ s exuberant anti-Catholicism. The Brothers Karamazov killed Catholicism stone dead for me. So I look forward with interest to what Russian nationalism is going to be this time round. And it will not upset me if Leningrad is changed back into Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s city of White Nights, which is how I first encountered it.

A Russian lady (Nora Grinberg) who had been an ordinary decent Communist for a while (she explained that she had joined the Komsomol out of respectability and an honest ambition to advance her career), appeared on Channel 4 ‘s Opinion programme on August 29th, and talked into the camera for half an hour about being Russian. It was a fascinating performance-not a performance at all in fact-which I happened to see just after I had written the preceding part of this article. If I had been doubtful about what I had written she would have dispelled my doubts.

She spoke of the change of Leningrad back to St. Petersburg. (Nobody seems to be proposing that it should have its democratic Russian nationalist name of Petrograd. Petrograd is nothing. It is where Russian nationalist democracy, in the form of Kerensky, strutted about in its brief moment of glory before driving off to America.) And she made some affectionate comments about Peter the Great. Peter was the Lenin and Stalin of the early 18th century. He compelled Russia to Europeanise, but did so by methods which were not European. He built a city in the marshes to be the nucleus of the European development of Russia, and made it the capital of his Empire. But he built it with forced labour, on a piece of Finland which he gained in a war fought for no other purpose than to gain it. Peter was the organiser of the policy, later adopted by Lenin, of “fighting Russian barbarism with barbarous methods”. And the people who were sent to Peters burg to be Russia’s new European middle class were required by Tsarist decree to learn the art of cultured conversation and apply it at dinner parties to which they invited each other.

(Two centuries and a quarter later, the exposed position of Peter’s city on the margin of the state caused the Soviet Government to decide that it needed another bit of Finland to make it defensible. It asked the Finnish Government nicely to hand over a chunk of Karelia. When its request was refused, it fought a war against Finland in the Winter of 1939-40 and took it. The League of Nations condemned Russia for breaching international law. In 1944 Churchill was negotiating with Stalin about the establishment of the United Nations. Stalin mentioned how badly the League had behaved over the Soviet invasion of Finland. Churchill apologised, and assured Stalin that the Unite Nations would not be permitted to pass judgement on actions which the Great Powers considered necessary to their interests. And Churchill’s successors have kept his word. I have heard no suggestion in recent weeks that Karelia be returned to Finland, even though it was annexed by Russia by one of the clearest acts of unprovoked aggression there has ever been. Finland itself does not seem to have asked for it. But Finland learned the hard way that there is no such thing as international law in the world, only Great Power politics)

Nora Grinberg said that Russia is the most literate and most literary country in the world.

So it is. That it is the most literate is an achievement of Stalinism. But it has been the most literary since the 1820s at least. That is to say, it has been the country where literature counted for most in public life. Russia has had literature in place of civil society, and has therefore found it difficult to acquire the petty, universal egoism needed for capitalism of the Anglo/ American kind. (The unique social status of Russian literature may derive from the fact that, like the middle class, it was created as an act of State by Peter the Great, who founded and edited the first Russian newspaper.)

Nora Grinberg complained that Britain did not understand this aspect of Russian life. And she clearly felt that a vital element was missing from the life of the free and opulent West, into whose middle class she defected last year, because literature counted for nothing in it. And yet she gave the conventional Western explanation of the course of events in Russia during the past six years – the economic determinist one.

I cannot see how a political movement caused by economic requirements could year by year have the consistent effect of disrupting the economy and cutting off the supply of consumer goods and yet carry on. Russia under Brezhnev was an economic paradise compared with Russia after six years of Gorbachev.  But Gorbachev was still offering more of the same.

I have seen the cause of the Gorbachev reform as literary. The KGB was hit by a literary battering ram during the eighties and it was destroyed by the shock.

The name of the cause of the reform is Solzhenitsyn.  I published long reviews of Gulag, August 1914, The Oak & The Calf, and From Under The Rubble, in which I defended them against the Irish and British Left. The Western Left turned on Solzhenitsyn when he made it painfully obvious to them that he would have no truck with “positive criticism’ of the Soviet regime. These “positive critics” and “creative Marxists” were the most useless form of political life ever seen. And the chief of them, Roy Medvedev, was the kept man of the KGB. As I was writing dismissive reviews of Medvedev etc., I often wondered if it was possible for a writer to develop within the Soviet system and do the kind of human job on it that Dostoevsky did on Chernyshevsky. I did not think the writer of Ivan Denisovich was it. But then it transpired that Ivan Denisovich was a mere ploy which its author used to buy time.

Solzhenitsyn was no mere “dissident”. He was the philosopher and publicist of an alternative world, and he attacked the existing State at its foundations in the mind. The State withheld his writings from the people, but it could not withhold these writings from itself. And it was the State itself which was most capable of being affected by that literature.

Economic determinism was not an observed fact of life in Russia, but a system of belief. Solzhenitsyn – who would have learned from Dostoevsky that the human environment is not amenities but people-declined to have anything to do with economic determinism. He viewed Soviet history from a standpoint which had nothing in common with either “creative Marxism” or the egoistic simplicities of Thatcherism. And, speaking as the heir of Dostoevsky, he told Chernyshevsky’ s heirs that they had no insides, that they were hollow men.

The KGB were never mere thugs, any more than the Dominicans were mere thugs. Like the Dominicans – the dogs of God who held Southern France for the Church by terror and preaching – they were capable of great brutality, but were also an intellectual elite. Solzhenitsyn’s effect on them seems to have been to change them from Dominicans into Jesuits. And the Jesuits have had a tendency to get too clever by half and endanger the Papacy.

I have no evidence that the KGB, having their heads battered by Solzhenitsyn, sought refuge in Louis Althusser’s tortuous Marxism, which took over Western academic life in the seventies. But, when I saw a report that Andropov was dabbling with the idea of governing through sociology departments, I thought they probably had.

Anyhow, there seems to be little doubt that the KGB got too clever by half and undermined a system which would have lasted we! I into the next century if it had been left alone, and when they tried to call a halt, they found it was too late. At one point the Pope had to abolish the Jesuits in order to safeguard the Papacy. But the man in the Kremlin was no Pope-he was only one of the Jesuits.

I know nothing of Yeltsin, except that he has shown himself to be a politician of Leninist calibre. The day after the coup ended, when the world was basking in euphoria under the influence of the BBC, he sobered everybody up by saying that, if the other Republics chose separation, there would have to be revision of borders and population transfers, so that Russia might flourish. That was a slap in the face for “the world”, otherwise known as the BBC, and you could feel their faces stinging from it.

Nothing like it has been seen in the world since Lenin got off the train at Finland Station in 1917 and, ignoring the garlands, told the welcoming committee that he intended to overthrow what they represented.

The euphoria has been dispelled and apprehension has taken into place. “The world” is beginning to realise that nationalism is not to be trifled with.

Brendan Clifford Irish Political Review September 1991


This article is one of six that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War.  It was also republished in July 2014, in Issue 15-16 of Problems magazine.

It was in practice two articles – one on Russia and another loosely connected on Yugoslavia as it then was.  I separated out the Yugoslav remarks as a separate web pages.

Irish Political Review is a magazine which has been in existence in 1986. It was a follow-on from the Irish Communist.

You can find more at the Problems page on the Labour Affairs website.[1]  A PDF of the whole magazine is available there.