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|Aug. 19, 2001|
RUSSIA 1991: FOUR DAYS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD
BANFF, Alberta - The world's third richest man, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, certainly knows how to throw a party. Last weekend, he chartered Radisson's luxurious cruise liner `Seven Seas Navigator' and took 200 celebrities on a four-day, $13 million super-visit to St.Petersburg, Russia.
I'm sure they had a great time. In July, I took the same ship from England to St. Petersburg. One of the high points of this memorable trip was seeing the Russian naval base at Kronstadt. From there, in 1917, Bolshevik sailors went to St. Petersburg(then Petrograd) and, joined by the Latvian Rifles, stormed the Winter Palace, ousting the moderate reformist government of Alexander Kerensky. Lenin and his Bolsheviks seized power; Kerenesk fled to exile and ended up teaching at UCLA, of all places.
Far from a popular uprising, as communist propaganda claimed for 70 years, the Russian Revolution was really a military coup. This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of a second historic Russian coup: four days that shook the world - the failed putsch by communist die-hards against another reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev.
The August coup against Gorbachev caught the Kremlin and western intelligence services by surprise. However, I predicted the coup in my newspaper column on 21 July, 1991, noting, `when Soviet bigwigs return from their August vacations on the Black Sea, all sorts of fascinating things are going to start happening.' I also named the main plotters, detailed a new alliance between former rivals, the military and KGB, and reported the growing struggle between communists and anti-communists.
The coup date I predicted, based on contacts with Soviet security, was 13 days late. The coup plotters acted prematurely, two weeks earlier than originally planned, while Gorbachev was still at his Black Sea villa in order to forestall signing of a new union treaty. Had the coup succeeded, our world would be very different: an intact Soviet Union, relentlessly hostile to democracies, and bent on world domination. East Germany, Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Central Asia still subjects of the last great 19th-Century colonial empire.
Post-1991 revelations of Soviet General Staff war plans show the USSR, with 6 million men under arms and 53,000 tanks, had been actively considering launching an invasion of western Europe. Tactical nuclear weapons would have been extensively used. Hamburg, for example, was targeted with 40 nuclear weapons. Soviet forces were expected to reach the Atlantic in 2-3 weeks.
The putsch, led by Marshall Dimitri Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Interior Ministry head Boris Pugo, and senior communist party officials, was launched on 18 August. Gorbachev was isolated in Crimea, martial law was declared. The next day, elite KGB Alpha commandos surrounded Boris Yeltsin's dacha outside Moscow.
In spite of commanding the army, KGB, and Interior Ministry troops, by 21 August, the coup fizzled. The main reason was identified by Lenin, back in the 1920's. The communist system would survive only so long as communists were prepared to ruthlessly shed blood to defend the party, Lenin warned. He murdered 2 million opponents; Stalin upward of 30 million. Their successors, however, lacked the bloodthirst of communism's founders.
The plotters couldn't decide whether to assassinate Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who was allowed to escape to the Russian parliament building, or `White House,' and rally his anti-communist supporters. Alpha commandos refused orders to mow down crowds of Yeltsin supporters around the `White House.' So did Interior Ministry troops.
Two elite divisions, Taman and Kantemir, the Kremlin's Pretorian Guards, sent their tanks and APC's into central Moscow, but then sat waiting for orders that never came. Airborne divisions from Tula, Ryazan, and Kostroma never arrived. Marshall of Aviation Vevgeny Shaposhnikov grounded the transports that were to fly in the paratroopers, and aligned the air force with the anti-communist forces. `The air forces will not act against the people,' he declared. The Leningrad military commander, Gen. Samsanov, threatened to shoot himself rather than obey party orders to fire on pro-democracy demonstrators.
Gorbachev was allowed to return from Crimea, humiliated and shorn of power, but still alive. The coup leaders, paralyzed by inaction and indecision, blamed one another and got drunk. Boris Yeltsin seized power, proclaiming the end of communist rule and the death of the Soviet Union.
Former US National Security Agency director, Lt. General William Odom, told me the coup failed because hypocrisy, mistrust, and careerism - hallmarks of the communist system - had crippled both party and military leaders. The party was too weak to control the military - as the coup plotters discovered - and the military leaders too weak, indecisive, and timid to act on their own. Communist bureaucratism ended up bringing down the communist system.
A brilliant, decent, but indecisive leader, Gorbachev's attempts to reform, humanize and demilitarize communism, while still preserving the socialist system, failed, fatally undermining the Soviet Union, which was held together by fear. Gorbachev failed to understand that fear, not logic or dialetic, held the Soviet Union together and kept the communist party in power. Once repression was eased, the Soviet Union literally blew apart amd Gorbachev was powerless to stop of the process. Yet by plan or error, he still managed to decisively changed 20th century history.
Gorbachev's refusal to use force to halt the Soviet Empire's unraveling was an heroic act. He ended the ruinous Cold War that consumed nearly 40% of Soviet economic output, and made Russians face the painful truth that Moscow was no longer `the Third Rome,' but a Third World nation that needed democracy and modernization.
Though Gorbachev is still reviled today in Russia, I believe history will be kind to him. The world owes Mikhail Gorbachev an enormous debt.
Copyright: Eric S. Margolis 2001
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