Infarction and death of USSR. Birth of Soviet nostalgia. Op-Ed by Anatol Țăranu



The death of the USSR hadn’t been yet registered officially but Soviet nostalgia already started to appear in the minds of some of the citizens of the Republic of Moldova, mostly Russian speakers who intuited the loss of the privileges of affiliation to the dominant imperial Soviet nation and were preparing to take revenge after the failure of the August putsch...


Anatol Țăranu

On August 20, 1991, five union Soviet republics were to sign the New Union Treaty that Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated with big difficulty with the leaders of only five union republics and that was expected to save the seriously shaking URSS. But in the morning of August 19, the Soviet radio and television transmitted the press release of the official agency TASS about the formation of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCSE), which informed that Gorbachev’s state of health worsened suddenly and he was unable to further manage the state and the party. His duties were taken over by the SCSE members who declared a state of emergency for six months and introduced censorship, while the army’s units were ordered to patrol the streets of Moscow.

Putsch and anti-putsch as reaction of the masses

The formation of the SCSE whose goal was to restore the Soviet Union to its political format from before “Perestroika” in the afternoon of August 19 was declared an anti-constitutional putsch by the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin, who was elected in June. He made the statement inside the Russian Federation’s Parliament – the White House that later became the headquarters of the anti-putsch resistance in Moscow. The military troops and several tens of tanks that surrounded the White House by order of the SCSE took sides with the administration of the Russian Federation. Shortly afterward, Boris Yeltsin left the White House, mounted a tank of those that already protected the headquarters and from there – before an audience of over 200,000 people who came together to protest against the state of emergency – read the own recently signed decree by which he declared the SCSE’s actions “a coup”, while the members of the Committee were declared “traitors“. The reading of this document before the crowd that came to protect the Russian White House generated the non-dissimulated enthusiasm of the protesters and confirmed the creation of a situation of dual state power in Moscow.

The context of the August putsch remains not yet fully elucidated. For example, it is not clear what role Gorbachev played in these events. At least, some of the witnesses in a subsequent investigation into the putsch stated under oath that Gorbachev had never been isolated in Foros (Crimea) and was even aware of the intention of the putschists, deciding to passively wait for the results. According to another version, Gorbachev was warned by the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Jack Matlock about a coup planned against him but he ignored this warning. This way or another, the putsch had its roots in the “Perestroika” policy initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and that in time caused a change in the balance of power between Moscow and the union republics, with centrifugal processes being started inside the USSR in anticipation of the eventual dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the formation of independent states on its ruins. Respectively, the putschists reacted, after years of perestroika, initiating the putsch and trying this way to stop the process of democratization and decentralization that they regarded as a power loss process.

“Perestroika” generates effect of political infarction for Soviet system

In August 1991, in Moscow, the conservative part of the Communist Party, the leaders of the army and of the Soviet intelligence services hoped that they can “save” the Soviet Union by a coup. But the reality created by the “Perestroika” policy thwarted their plans. Socialism and the Soviet-type political regime were unable to survive when the state theory was turning weaker. Any attempt to liberalize the regime invariably led to failure. The attempt to tighten the straps of the theory by staging the coup in August 1991, when the “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” policies unleashed the activism of the masses and substantially reduced fear of the terror in Soviet society, caused the effect of political infarction for the Soviet system, hurrying considerably the death of the USSR that occurred on December 25, 1991.

The virulent scope of the national liberation movements in the union republics was the most surprising effect of “Perestroika” for the initiators of this policy in Moscow. The paradox of the situation resides in the fact that at the incipient stage, the national movements developed against the placidity imposed consciously on the coercive bodies of the state by the initiators of the reforms in Moscow or were even inspired by the Soviet security with the aim of breaking the resistance of the conservative part of the party to Gorbachev’s reforms. But the security’s hope to control by infiltrated agents the scope of the national renaissance and liberation movements turned out to be useless. This became especially evident when the Moscow putsch gave up irremediably on the periphery of the Soviet Union, being virulently defeated by the national movements. The formation of democratic parliaments in union republics transferred the real power from party bodies to legislative bodies that were increasingly influenced by the national liberation movements. Against such a background, the August putsch promised to turn into a real civil war whose perspective fully demobilized the putschists and made them surrender to the democratic resistance. Consequently, the fate of communism and of the Soviet empire, which were the work of several generations of indoctrinated nomenclaturists, was doomed, while the putsch of August 19, 1991 is one of the crucial moments in the dismemberment of the USSR – alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations of sovereignty in union republics, which expanded in a determined way after the failure of the putsch, and that were close to becoming “ex-Soviet”.

Illustrative case of yet Soviet Moldova

In this regard, the combating of the August putsch by the democratic forces of the yet Soviet Moldova was illustrative. By the day the putsch was announced in Moscow, Moldova obtained a series of important accomplishments on its way to democratization and national renaissance. Moldovan society lived events of really national reviviscence together with the adoption of the state flag, the exclusion of the constitutional norm that envisioned the monopole of the Communist Party, declaring of sovereignty, boycotting of the union referendum for keeping the USSR and others. That’s why when news about the coup in Moscow reached Chisinau, the reaction of the authorities and the population was mainly disapproving. The attempt by General Osipov, who was named the military commander of Chisinau by the putschists, to take over his duties met with Premier Muravschi’s categorical refusal to cooperate with representatives of the plotters.

In the evening of August 19, the President of the Republic of Moldova Mircea Snegur and Parliament Speaker Alexandru Moșanu returned to Chisinau from the interrupted leave. Shortly afterward, there was transmitted the President’s official reaction to the putsch. This said that the Soviet administration in the person of the putschists “practically renounces the fundamental reforms and intends to ensure the priority of the Constitution and Union law over the constitutions and laws of the republics. This way, the rights of the nations to self-determination are annulled; their aspirations to independence and state sovereignty are blocked. In a brutal way, using the reactionary and antinational forces that dominate the state bodies, the army, the KGB, some of the economic and political groups, they try to reanimate at any cost the empire, to establish state and party dictatorship and... The administration of the Republic of Moldova states that the domestic and foreign policy will be based only on our Constitution and laws...”

Late in the evening of August 19, tens of thousands of citizens came together in the Great National Assembly Square of Chisinau to vehemently condemn the Moscow putsch. The administration of Moldova spoke in front of the crowed and called on the people to organize groups for defending the strategic institutions. Throughout the night, volunteers from different regions of Moldova came to Chisinau to defend the national liberation movement. It was evident that the August putsch suffered a failure from the very beginning in Chisinau as this was based on terror and bloodshed only. As a result of the putsch, the Republic of Moldova practically refused to obey the new administration in Moscow, taking a determined step towards independence.

But not the whole Moldovan society rejected the putsch. The separatist Transnistrian and Gagauz authorities supported the putschists, similar to the managers of the local Communists, but the latter didn’t do it so evidently as the leaders from Tiraspol and Comrat did. After the putschists suffered a defeat, the leader of the anti-putsch movement in Moscow Boris Yeltsin demanded to punish these and those who supported them. Ultimately, the Communist Party was banned in the Republic of Moldova, while the Transnistrian and Gagauz leaders who supported the putsch were arrested.

Birth of nostalgia for late Union before its death

Shortly afterward, the arrested leaders were set free under the pressure of separatist protesters, signaling by such an action a profound division of Moldovan society according to the criterion of attitude to Sovietism. The death of the USSR hadn’t been yet registered officially but Soviet nostalgia already started to appear in the minds of some of the citizens of the Republic of Moldova, mostly Russian speakers who intuited the loss of the privileges of affiliation to the dominant imperial Soviet nation and were preparing to take revenge after the failure of the August putsch. Not long after that, the war in Transnistria was incited by using the fuel of Soviet nostalgia, in the same way as the Transnistrian separatism survives in time also owing to the continuous inciting of social and spiritual practices of the Soviet past by the separatists. The conclusion about the conditions of comprehensive settlement of the Transnistrian conflict that cannot occur in the absence of a profound process of de-Sovietization of Moldovan society derives from here.

Anatol Țăranu
doctor of history, political commentator

IPN publishes in the Op-Ed rubric opinion pieces submitted by authors not affiliated with our editorial board. The opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the opinions of our editorial board.

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