(END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION – continued)
The economy in the Soviet Union was not a good argument for Soviet republics to stay in the Soviet Union. Instead, some were eager to break with Moscow on the ground that their republic could organize their economy better than could bureaucrats in Moscow. Also, nationalism was alive within the republics – where many Russians lived and considered home. There was some hostility towards these local Russians, who tended to be opposed to breaking away from Moscow. Gorbachev was on their side. He wished to keep the Soviet Union together. On the other hand, in 1990, elections in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gave overwhelming victories to political parties favoring independence. And the biggest republic in the Soviet Union, Russia, was also threatening to break away.
The President of the Russian Republic's parliament was Boris Yeltsin – a former Communist who had been dismissed from the Party's Politburo by Gorbachev and others in 1987. Yeltsin had been described by Sakharov as a man he liked but of a "different caliber" than Gorbachev – meaning lesser. Of a different caliber he may have been, but he appealed to the Russian people, and he took advantage of the new freedom in the Soviet Union to denounce the Communist Party and the policies of Gorbachev. As a rival to Gorbachev, Yeltsin owed at least some of his popularity to Gorbachev's unpopularity.
In July, 1990, Yeltsin convened the Russian Republic's Supreme Soviet and called for economic sovereignty for the republic, in other words, taking control of the economy away from Gorbachev. Other republics wished to follow suit. The Ukraine called for the return of all Ukrainian soldiers from the Soviet military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian military. In the new atmosphere of freedom and democracy, the Soviet Union was unraveling.
The Communist Party was split between reformers and conservatives, and both were critical of Gorbachev, who was trying to steer a middle ground between state control of the economy and free enterprise. Gorbachev spoke of his belief in socialism and of his being a Communist. He was holding Lenin's New Economic Policy of the early 1920s as his model for what should be done. [note]
To many in Russia, Gorbachev seemed weak and unable to make up his mind. One moment Gorbachev was praising a conservative Communist such as Ligachev, and another moment he was praising the liberal Yakovlev. People were wondering whether he knew where he stood, and they were holding him responsible for the continuing failure of the economy.
In 1991 Gorbachev's popularity in the West was at an all- time high, but his approval rating in the Soviet Union was at an all-time low – not only because of the economy but also because of the fall of Communism in the satellite countries. Many in the Soviet Union were angry with Gorbachev for having allowed Germany to unite again. Some, including conservative and patriotic Communists, saw Gorbachev as having disarmed the Soviet Union. They saw him as having thrown away the victory in World War II that had cost twenty million lives.
In 1991 more Soviet factories were closing down. The parliament in the Russian Republic passed a few reforms in the direction of a market economy, and Yeltsin cut funding to various Soviet agencies based on Russian soil. Gorbachev was being destroyed by the new freedoms he had helped to create. He saw the power of the Soviet government as falling away, and he turned his strategy in the direction of preservation – what some would call a turn to the right. Gorbachev's ally, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze, resigned, warning that "a dictatorship is coming." Around this time Gorbachev suggested to the conservatives around him, including the leader of the Soviet Union's military, that they were free to take whatever extraordinary action was necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In August, 1991, they obliged him and staged what appeared to be a coup, while Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were vacationing in the Crimea. Leaders of the coup claimed that Gorbachev was ill. Gorbachev played along. He was, it appeared, under house arrest, but he had a telephone with which he could call anyone he wished.
The coup was a shock to Russians, who saw their nation as something different from what they thought was a Latin American banana republic, and many of them went into the streets to protest. Their cry was for the protection of what people in the United States believed they had never had: democracy. Yeltsin stood with people who were in the streets against the coup. Ideologically, the masses were much respected in the Soviet Union. Military men were easily persuaded to side with Yeltsin and the people in the streets. Coup leaders did not believe in the coup to the extent that they would commit themselves to a military takeover. Gorbachev's turn to the right and the coup were colossal failures. Gorbachev pretended to be liberated, and Yeltsin was more of a hero, overshadowing the hapless Gorbachev. (See book review on Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders.) In triumph, Yeltsin, by presidential decree, banned the Communist Party in the Russian Republic and seized all its property.
At the end of the year, the other former Soviet Republics followed the Russian Republic into independence. Abroad, all Soviet embassies and consulates became Russian embassies and consulates. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a legal entity, and Gorbachev was now out of a job, and bitter, blaming Yeltsin for breaking up his beloved Soviet Union.
The collapse had come after years of attempts by non-Communist governments to "peacefully coexist," to negotiate, sign agreements and to have cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union – opposed by those who demonized the Communists and falsely equated bargaining and befriending the Soviet with appeasing Hitler at Munich. Relaxed tensions between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West had paid off. The Cold War was over. Communism had not died, but it had declined dramatically. The Soviet Union fell apart not at a height in belligerence by the United States but when relations were good.
Copyright © 2000-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.