USSR: Born and Destroyed by Putsches. IPN debate

The putsch of August 1991 practically determined the end of the life cycle of the former Soviet Union. In this regard, the given putsch meant a fatal destructive factor for the Union. And it couldn’t have happened in a different way as a series of such factors that were fatal for the USSR existed during about the 70 years of its existence. Moreover, the USSR was born in 1917 out of such a putsch that predetermined its dishonorable end the day the state was born. Was that amalgam of putsches an accident or a rule for the existence and disappearance of that state and for other states built according to similar principles? Did the two putsches have similar or dissimilar features? What should be done for the era of putsches to remain in the past? These and other issues were discussed by experts invited to IPN’s public debate “USSR: Born and Destroyed by Putsches”.

The permanent expert of IPN’s project Igor Boțan said that “putsch” means a coup, which is violent taking over of power in the state that is inevitably accompanied by the violation of the constitutional norms and laws in force at that moment, usually with the use of force in order to seize the central government and to physically isolate the legally named leaders. “In political terminology, the concept “revolution” is applied to mass events, accompanied by fundamental social changes, while “coup” means violent replacement of the senior administration by a relatively narrow group of people. So, the revolution lasts longer, while the putsch is a shorter event,” stated the expert.

Igor Boțan noted that the Bolsheviks and their allies named particular events of October 1917 a “revolution”, while other times called this a “coup”. In the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, held on October 25 (November 7, 1917), Lenin announced that the workers’ and peasants’ revolution about whose necessity the Bolsheviks spoke occurred. One of the sections of an article written by Stalin on the occasion of the first anniversary of the October putsch (1918) was entitled “About October coup”. During the first decade after the revolution, it was often called the October Revolution. Towards the end of the 1930s, the name of the Great October Socialist Revolution was stipulated in the official Soviet historiography.

According to the expert, the putsch of August 1991 – the events of August 18-21, 1991 in the Soviet Union - were described by the Soviet authorities and officials as “conspiracy”, “coup” and “unconstitutional takeover”. The members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency attempted to hamper the signing of the Union Treaty planned for August 20. The coup led to the definitive discrediting of the allied authorities and the Communist Party. The State Committee on the State of Emergency was a self-styled authority that existed between August 18 and August 21. The official motivation was that only 9 of the 15 Soviet republics agreed to sign the new treaty.

Vice president of “Alexandru Moșanu” Association of Historians of Moldova Ion Negrei said the putsches do not happen out of the blue, but are a consequence of particular realities. The realities when the Bolshevik putsch occurred in Russia in October 1917 were that the whole world was engaged in a war. World War I went into its fourth year already and all the countries were embraced. There was general dissatisfaction among soldiers, workers, peasants as the war continued with considerable destruction, casualties and other consequences.

“In Russia, those things became very pronounced and worsened as a result of a revolution. Before the putsch of October 1917, a Bourgeois-democratic revolution occurred in Russia – the February revolution. The autocratic, monarchic regime in Russia was removed and a democratic regime tending to be liberal was established even if the majority were social revolutionaries. The event produced a colossal effect in the world – the last, Russian empire that was so harsh and lasted for so long – fell on one sixth of the globe’s territory. Those developments were welcomed in Russia and also outside it, by nations,” stated the historian.

Ion Negrei noted that the nations that didn’t form part of the Russian Empire felt a relief as they could decide by themselves their national, political, cultural life. Those things led to a release of energies against the background of dissatisfaction, war, poverty. “That democratic path didn’t suit many persons and a part of society welcomed it, while another part didn’t welcome it. Surely, the administration installed after the revolution of February 1917 was weak. One could not immediately establish a liberal, democratic regime in conditions of war and in a former monarchic society and maintain that process and deliver results. The expectations were big, while the results were insignificant. The Bolsheviks used the crisis created by the provisional government and triggered an overthrow in October,” said the historian.

Ion Negrei also said that a Government of people’s commissars led by Lenin was constituted – a government created by a coup, which didn’t enjoy popular support. To improve the image of this inside and outside, they used different notions that are inappropriate for a putsch, which they called “revolution” and then named it the Great October Revolution in order to make a greater impact. Those were propaganda methods. It was actually a classical coup or putsch that had unfavorable consequences in society, domestically and globally.

Director of the Institute of Political Studies and Social Capital of Chernovtsy Marin German, university lecturer, doctor of the “Ștefan cel Mare” University of Suceava, said that 1917 is a model year for the researchers interested in the history of Russia and the sociopolitical processes in Russia, who look for an answer to an ordinary question: “How long can a liberal government last in Russia?”. “We call the events of February 1917 a revolution. A revolution is the change of the sociopolitical, economic order, of the way of thinking in particular cases. The whole world applauded then: Russia aligned itself with the liberal models and with the changes. The globe rejoiced at that anti-monarchic, pro-democratic change in the spirit of processes that took place during the last decades until then in other countries,” stated Marin German.

However, according to him, what was called the “February revolution” didn’t produce revolutionary changes at macro level. Revolutionary changes were caused by the coup of October 1917. “We didn’t have a liberal Soviet Union after the February revolution, but witnessed revolutionary changes in the way of thinking – creation of a totalitarian state, taking over by the state of all the sociopolitical areas namely as a result of the coup of 1917,” said the director of the Institute of Political Studies and Social Capital of Chernovtsy.

He noted that among political scientists, there is a big discussion called revolution – the historical event or the consequences of this event? The second debate  issue is to what extent can the formula that a society can be democratized as a result of a coup and even a dictatorship can be accepted

Marin German believes the revolution of February 1917 was a normal consequence of the tendencies seen inside Russia, while the swift disappointment in the then provisional government showed how tired Russian society was then, how indifferent could a society that lacked appropriate civic education and was illiterate in particular regards be and how easily those marginal persons took over without meeting with resistance on the part of the people. “They were marginal because they didn’t enjoy Bolshevik support in that period. In other words, it is a disease of some of the nations in Eastern Europa and Russia forms part of that category. We easily destroy a regime and then don’t have sufficient resources and capacity to defend the values for which we fought. In Russia, something like this happened very quickly,” stated Marin German.

The public debate entitled “USSR: Born and Destroyed by Putsches” was the 16th installment of IPN’s project “Impact of the Past on Confidence and Peace Building Processes” that is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation of Germany.

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