The 1991 Soviet Coup – viewed just afterwards

Russian Roulette

The editorial was written in September 1991, when Soviet politics still seemed open to any sort of development.

The failure of the comic-opera coup in Moscow suggests that the forces required to preserve the Soviet Union as a state no longer exist. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has been accelerated by this suggestion. The reaction of Western governments and media to these events has also suggested that the ability to make sense of the state of the world no longer exists in the council chambers of the West.

The rapid and uncontrolled dis-integration of the Soviet Union is a political catastrophe without precedent in human history. It is creating dangers on a scale which the world has never known. But the West has greeted it with a chorus of ideological triumphalism and mindless complacency.

On August 26 the leader of the Soyuz group of deputies in the Soviet parliament, Colonel Victor Alksnis, was interviewed on the BBC programme ‘The World At One’. Alksnis is a spokesman for that element of Soviet opinion which understands the catastrophic implications of the disintegration that Gorbachev set in train a few years ago. He explained that while he was initially inclined to sympathise with the declared aim of the coup (which was not to reverse the economic reforms but to restore order and preserve the state as the necessary framework of a reformed economy), he withdrew his support from the junta early on because of its unconstitutional behaviour. But he insisted that order would need to be restored sooner or later. And he reported an incident which illustrated this.

On the Thursday following the coup the division between supporters and opponents of the junta had reached the section of the Soviet nuclear fleet based at Archangel. One flotilla of nuclear submarines decided to support the junta; another flotilla of nuclear submarines backed Yeltsin. Think about it.

The Soviet Union has lost the political coherence of a state while retaining the military capacity of a super-power. The Red Army possesses thousands of nuclear weapons and nuclear bases and these are distributed all over the place. The disintegration of the Soviet Union is bound to entail the disintegration of the Red Army. It is already generating violent conflict between its component populations, there is every reason to expect these conflicts to gain in intensity, and there is no reason to suppose that the Red Army will be able to preserve its own unity in the face of them indefinitely. Either the Red Army will launch another coup with the purpose of preserving the Soviet Union as a viable political framework for itself, and do things properly the second time round, or it will begin to break up.

The uncontrolled break-up of the Red Army will lead to its elements lining up on opposite sides in the national and communal conflicts which are developing all over the place. And it will mean that some of these opposing sides could find themselves confronting one another with nuclear weapons in conditions of enormous subjective political confusion.

It now looks unlikely that the Red Army will try a second coup. The decision to ban the Communist Party has almost certainly precluded such an attempt, and may well be explained by the lucid purpose of pre-empting it. The Red Army could not govern the Soviet Union by itself. Only a reinvigorated Communist Party could do this for it. And this has now been ruled out by the action of Boris Yeltsin, the current ruler of Russia.

[This was formalised in December, when Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussia declared that the Soviet Union was replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.  This initially included all of the former Soviet republics apart from the three Baltic states.  And has proved as weak in practice as the Commonwealth that succeeded the British Empire.]

Russia is the indisputable gainer from these events. What is now in prospect is the emergence of a sovereign Russian state in its own right which can hope to attain the status of a major power in a decade or two if it can sort itself out in the short-term. That this is the case must be assumed to have occurred to strategically placed individuals within what’s left of the Soviet power structure, especially the KGB. And if the substance of the KGB has been reasoning along these lines, this may well explain the substance of recent events.

The fact that the nominal boss of the KGB was involved in the coup attempt is neither here nor there. Secret services are not run by their nominal bosses, least of all when these are appointed from outside the service. It is entirely possible that the KGB has long been aware that the premises on which the Soviet Union has been based have been quietly crumbling for years and has been thinking seriously about the future.

[But either their understanding was poor, or they had too little power, or they were corrupt.  Yeltsin was to vastly weaken Russia by accepting foolish and destructive advice from the West about how to reform the economy.  Made such a mess that the re-formed Russian Communists came close to being re-elected in 1997.  See ‘Yeltsin’s Final Election and the Near-Return of the Russian Communists‘.]

The Soviet Union was a sequel, and in some respects a caricature, of the old Tsarist empire rather than a development of it. What held the Tsarist empire together was the combination of four elements: the Tsarist absolute monarchy with its state apparatus, including the Okhrana (the secret police); the Russian aristocracy which was politically subordinate to this monarchy; the Russian Orthodox Church which provided religious legitimation for Tsarist rule; and the fact that Tsarist-Russian imperialism, while experienced as oppressive and backward in places like Poland, was a progressive force with respect to the populations of Russia’s southern and eastern peripheries.

The Bolsheviks provided effective substitutes for these four elements in the charismatic leadership of Lenin and Stalin, buttressed by the Cheka/OGPU/KGB; the new ruling class, the proletariat, which was maintained in a state of political subordination to the state apparatus which governed on its behalf much as the aristocracy was held subject by the monarchy; the Communist Party which substituted for both the Romanov dynasty and the Orthodox Church; and the capacity of this socialist empire to precipitate progressive development among its backward subjects.

But the Bolshevik formula began to run out of steam in the 1950s. The central premise on which the USSR has been based has been the vitality of the Communist Party and the vigour of its leadership, with the former heavily dependent on the latter. But the political leadership of the CPSU ceased to be vigorous in 1953. Its vigour under Lenin and Stalin had been a function of the fact that they governed as revolutionaries committed to realising a conception of society derived from a metaphysical doctrine. The behaviour of Stalin’s successors demonstrated that they no longer adhered to this doctrine or cared a fig for the social conceptions derived from it.

An opportunist pragmatism became the medium of policy-making from Stalin’s death onwards. This oscillated between recklessness under Khrushchev and prudence under Brezhnev, but that is about all the variety that was allowed for. And with the leadership no longer incarnating the faith, the apparatus and rank and file of the CPSU were inevitably gangrened by apathy and cynicism and, of course, corruption, and the CPSU became incompetent to discharge its political function of holding the USSR together indefinitely.

If the substance of the KGB has reasoned along these lines, it may well have decided that the most that can be salvaged is a viable Russian state, and that such a state will, of course, have a use for an apparatus like the KGB. And if an understanding has been reached with Boris Yeltsin on these matters, we can expect that a serious attempt will be made in the coming months to subject the Red Army to a controlled disintegration, in which the dominant Russian element of the army is taken over by the fledgling Russian state, and as many non-Russian units as possible are disarmed and disbanded, and, above all, a pre-emptive bid is made to establish Russian control of the army’s nuclear capacity everywhere.

But if this scenario is not in prospect, if such an attempted Russian take-over is botched, or if the KGB is itself fundamentally disrupted rather than largely redeployed to service in the Russian Republic, then we should expect that events will spiral entirely out of control, and that there will be hell to pay. But you would not think so if you relied on British politicians and the British media for your understanding of events.

According to that epitome of establishment smugness, Sir William Rees-Mogg, one certainty we can count on is

“that the new society, in at least the majority of the republics, will follow the Western model; it will be democratic and will operate an open-market economic system, based on private ownership” (The Independent, September 2, 1991).

Whatever about market economics, there is no reason to assume that the new republics will be democracies.

The collapse of the Soviet Union entails the collapse of the category of Soviet citizenship as the principal element of the political identity of the individual. Over two hundred million individuals are going to have their secondary, ethnic-national, identity (Russian, Uzbek, Lithuanian, etc.) worked up as their primary identity. This is not going to happen of its own accord. It is going to be developed actively by emerging political forces. And it is going to involve placing many millions of individuals in difficult if not impossible positions. What is to be done with ethnic Lithuanians or Georgians or whatever who have lived in Leningrad or Moscow for years on a legal par, as Soviet citizens, with their Russian neighbours? What is to be done with the millions of Russians scattered all over the non-Russian republics? Each of these republics is going to be governed, if it survives, by a form of politics which will be heavily nationalist and heavily populist. Populist nationalisms are invariably the least able to allow for minorities in their midst. There is going to be conflict all the over the place, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that democracy will last long in the circumstances.

The Labour Party and the British trade union movement seem neither to know nor care what is on the cards in the collapsing USSR. It is certain that the Labour Party, in its current state, is incapable of making the slightest useful contribution to the situation. But the trade unions are another matter.

There are now genuine trade unions in Russia and in at least some of the peripheral republics. It is clearly in the interest of British trade unionism that the principles of free trade unionism take root in the new sovereign states emerging from the USSR. The elements of such a development already exist. The question is whether they can survive the explosion of demagogic populist nationalism which is now under way.

The British trade unions should make a point of establishing close and strong links with these unions as a matter of urgency, and should do everything in their power to provide effective and practical solidarity to these unions in the difficult conditions in which they find themselves. In the process, Britain’s unions would be able to find out for themselves what is really going on in Russia and the other republics, and would begin to recover the capacity for thinking for themselves about major international affairs, and for framing far-sighted and responsible policies for dealing with international affairs, that they acquired under Ernest Bevin’s leadership in the 1930s and have largely squandered since his death.


This article appeared in September 1991, in Issue 25 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at