WORLD/COVER

THE LAST RITES OF COMMUNISM

THE DEFEAT OF A HARD-LINE COUP BURIES THE HAMMER AND SICKLE

BOB LEVIN September 2 1991
WORLD/COVER

THE LAST RITES OF COMMUNISM

THE DEFEAT OF A HARD-LINE COUP BURIES THE HAMMER AND SICKLE

BOB LEVIN September 2 1991

THE LAST RITES OF COMMUNISM

WORLD/COVER

THE DEFEAT OF A HARD-LINE COUP BURIES THE HAMMER AND SICKLE

Soviet communism, the political powerhouse either revered or reviled for most of its life, died last week of heart failure and spreading democratic aspirations. Jubilation greeted its passing, which was marked by the flight of coup plotters who had tried but failed to revive communism as a political force. It was 73 years old.

It is survived by 15 million party members, some of them insisting that it is not really dead, and by fervent followers in China, Cuba, North Korea and a few other places. But in the Soviet Union, the force that seized power when the Red Guards stormed Petrograd’s Winter Palace in 1917, that wielded its hammer and sickle over the enormous nation for most of the century, succumbed on Aug. 21, 1991, when the coup collapsed. Three days later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev spoke the last rites, not only resigning as party leader but calling for the dissolution of the policy-making Central Committee.

The party’s final political act was a coupmakers’ amateur hour. The perpetrators, eight grey men in sombre suits, spoke with straight faces of Gorbachev’s ill health, then were stricken by a near-epidemic of sudden sickness

themselves. They did not silence the media, a must-do in the plotters’ handbook. They did not lock up the opposition, in particular Boris Yeltsin, the lightning-rod leader of the Russian republic. They seemed almost embarrassed by their cause, acting not in the name of old-line communism but of law and order, and they insisted that they were reformers, too.

The Soviet people—or enough of them to turn the tide—knew better. The people, who until recent years had no history of democratic reform, who had remained markedly apathetic even as their Eastern European satellites toppled one Communist government after another—those same people thronged into the streets, chanted defiance, threw up barricades, stood in the way of tanks. Many Soviet soldiers refused to turn on their countrymen, while the much-feared KGB seemed tattered and toothless. That is what the bungling Gang of Eight

ultimately accomplished: they showed the world—and perhaps the Soviets themselves— how deeply the reformist ethic had become embedded in the national psyche, how moribund communism really was.

But it was Yeltsin who taught that lesson most impressively. Beefy, bellicose, climbing theatrically to the top of a tank, Yeltsin steeled the nerves of many Muscovites who, at least in the coup’s stunning first day, seemed resigned or openly terrified. He was a freely elected president and his constituents welcomed him as a savior. And when the coup crumbled, Yeltsin, unveiling a new Russian flag, seizing Communist party property, was unquestionably the man of the hour, while Gorbachev, his longtime rival, was a man on the spot.

Gorbachev, the adroit and energetic politician who has already established himself as one of history’s giants, returned from Crimean captivity with his office restored but with key questions unanswered. Critics wanted to know why he had surrounded himself with such a treacherous team. Some even accused him of masterminding the coup himself. At the very least they asked, now that the old guard had been vanquished, whether he would finally abandon the middle road for fast-track reform. But to all those who contended that his political career was over, that history had passed him by, Gorbachev’s resignation as party leader— one day after insisting that he was a committed Communist—was an eloquent answer. He had made startling shifts before; he could do it again—and prosper.

For Western leaders, the week’s events produced a heart-stopping scare. They realized, as perhaps never before, how much of their foreign policy depended upon Soviet liberalization and, to some extent, on Gorbachev himself. The superpower arms-control accords, the freedom of Eastern Europe, even the prospects for a Middle East peace conference—all seemed imperilled by the hard-line takeover, by the threat of Soviet armor crushing protesters like the Chinese in Tiananmen Square. Now, in their infinite relief, Western leaders will have to decide whether more generous infusions of aid would speed reform and stave off national collapse.

The Soviet people, meanwhile, were already discovering the lighter side of their traumatic three days. The conspirators’ actions, after all, were seemingly scripted not by Tiananmentype freedom-bashers but by Woody Allen. How else to explain, after the coup’s failure, four of its instigators flying to the Crimea, apparently to plead for Gorbachev’s forgiveness? Or the Communist party condemning the coup—hours after it ended? But Soviet-style People Power showed its wrath, as well— Muscovites pulled down the mammoth bronze statue of secret-police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. The statue was a symbol of state terror, of a Communist system that had oppressed, imprisoned, deprived and even killed its citizens, and that in one remarkable week in August, breathed its last desperate gasp.

BOB LEVIN