The fall of the Berlin Wall is probably the thing people remember most, but the Soviet empire, truncated and divided, limped on for another two years. It was the August coup, 20 years ago today, that really finished it off.

Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev had dragged his country as far and as fast as he could towards openness and reform (“glasnost” and “perestroika”). But he was always looking over his shoulder, aware that most of his Communist Party colleagues were at best lukewarm about the idea and could move to stop him at any time. A BBC report this morning records him saying to the then US ambassador, “I’m going to have to zig and zag”.

By August 1991 the hardliners realised that Gorbachev was going to have to sack them before moving any further, and they decided to get in first. But it was already too late. Russia had changed; citizens massed to defend the Russian parliament, troops refused to fire on protesters, foreign powers refused to recognise the conspirators. In three days it was all over.

As Gorbachev put it in his subsequent account, “These people [the plotters] turned out to be incapable of understanding or accepting where perestroika was leading us. The August events confirmed the irreversibility of the changes …”.

Boris Yeltsin, who led the resistance in Moscow, rightly received most of the credit for the defeat of the coup, but it was Gorbachev who had so weakened the institutions of authoritarianism that they were unsure of themselves and unable to put up much of a fight.

From that point on it was Yeltsin’s country; Gorbachev never forgave him for, later that year, effectively disbanding the Soviet Union behind his back, and, according to the BBC, they never spoke again. (Echoes there of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, who co-operated in an only slightly less revolutionary transformation of Australia but destroyed their personal relationship in the process.)

Twenty years later, Russia is in better shape than it has ever been. Under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev it has taken steps back from democracy (for which Gorbachev, who at 80 remains active, has sharply criticised them), but nonetheless it fits the description of what Gorbachev was trying to achieve: a “normal country“. The totalitarian state is gone for good.

On Yeltsin’s death in 2007, Putin paid tribute, saying that thanks to him “A new democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world. A state in which power truly belongs to the people.”

As a description of Putin’s Russia, that still falls short. But in comparison to the state Gorbachev inherited in 1985, and that the August coup tried to preserve when it was already half gone, the transformation is spectacular.

Until 1991, no one really knew if it was possible to dismantle such an all-pervasive empire without cataclysmic violence. Gorbachev’s program was a giant gamble, a leap in the dark. It could easily have failed — if the coup had been mounted earlier or directed more ruthlessly. But it worked, and we all live in a better and safer world as a result.

And what of the plotters, the eight shadowy figures whose bumbling attempt to seize power held the world spellbound for three days? One, interior minister Boris Pugo, shot himself after the coup failed, but the others survived to be charged with treason. In the chaos of the next few years the proceedings fell apart, and they were pardoned by a general amnesty in 1994.

According to Wikipedia, four of them are still alive, apparently enjoying successful careers out of the limelight. Successful tyrants need to be hunted down, but for the conspicuous failures, perhaps their failure is itself warning enough.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey