Book review: TJ Coles – Fire and Fury: How the US Isolates North Korea, Encircles China and Risks Nuclear War in Asia

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 15 February 2018.

Clairview Books RRP £10.99

This short book by British academic TJ Coles will perhaps not receive as much attention as another recently-released text that shares its name. It is, nonetheless, an important and insightful book, providing an alternative viewpoint on the escalating crisis over Korea, and promoting an urgent message of peace.

The primary aim of the book is to dismantle the idea that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is a serious danger to regional and global stability; that it’s an aggressive nuclear state that deserves to be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen”, such has been threatened by the president of the United States.

The ball is in the US’ court in terms of promoting denuclearisation and de-escalation, as the DPRK has stated many times that it would be willing to end its nuclear programme in exchange for diplomatic recognition by the US, an end to sanctions, and a guarantee against regime change operations. In a world where Iraq, Libya or Yugoslavia can be “taken out” by NATO, such demands are not unreasonable. Coles catalogues the numerous attempts made by the North Korean government to conduct substantive negotiations with the US and South Korea, only to have its efforts frustrated by successive White House regimes.

Coles makes it clear that it is the US, not the DPRK, that is the serious threat to peace. He notes: “Western media very conveniently hide the fact that, 1) the US refuses to adopt a no-first-use policy when it comes to nuclear weapons and, 2) China, Russia and North Korea each have a general no-first-use policy.”

The DPRK has invaded and bombed not a single country, unlike the US, which has invaded and bombed dozens of countries. On top of that, the US maintains a permanent threat of nuclear annihilation, for example using B52 nuclear-enabled bombers in joint military exercises with South Korea. Its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) ‘missile defence’ system is highly dangerous and provocative, and is aimed not only (or indeed primarily) at preventing North Korean aggression but at containing and threatening China. The THAAD system, much like Reagan’s ’Star Wars’, seeks to render other countries’ nuclear weapons redundant, thereby expanding possibilities for the US to engage in nuclear blackmail.

The take-home message is that we must demand an end to US warmongering and bullying; expose the attempts to paint the DPRK as a threat to regional stability; and support multilateral negotiations towards a lasting peace.

The book isn’t without its flaws. Without any real analysis of the subject, Coles writes off the DPRK’s political system as ‘despicable’. The DPRK’s form of socialism is certainly quirky, and its leadership makes mistakes, but it’s important for the western left not to universalise its own idiosyncratic culture and take an arrogant attitude towards those that don’t follow it. The DPRK’s vision of socialism incorporates elements of Korean nationalism and Neo-Confucianism that, while not Marxist, bridge the gap between strongly entrenched traditions and modern socialist ideas. Much the same could be said about Latin American liberation theology and its combination of socialist ideology with Christian teaching. When assessing a political culture, we should be careful to avoid subtly bolstering imperialist cultural hegemony.

Another criticism is that the book is not terribly well organised, moving unpredictably from well-sourced and properly-referenced sections to bold, unsubstantiated statements.

Defects aside, ‘Fire and Fury’ is an important book that deserves to be read by all those that wish to see peace in the Korean Peninsula. Good books to read alongside it include Selig Harrison’s ‘Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and US Disengagement’ and Tim Beal’s ‘North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power’.

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 6: Things fall apart (1989-91)

Many of us aspire to change the world for the better: you are among the few who have successfully done so. (John Major to Mikhail Gorbachev, December 19911)

The early Gorbachev era was relatively exciting and inspiring; there was a sense that the new General Secretary had the energy, creativity and commitment to lead the USSR out of economic stagnation and political disillusionment. By 1987, this initial excitement had waned, replaced with apprehension and worry. Economic growth, which in 1985 had been relatively slow, was by now anaemic, and the Communist Party was being actively marginalised. Many party members and leaders started to wonder – some openly – if perestroika and glasnost were really such great ideas after all.2

Nonetheless, the years 1987 to 1989 were still pretty much business as usual in the USSR. People went to work, received their salaries, and enjoyed an acceptable standard of living. Economics professor David Kotz notes that “the increasingly radical economic reforms of the late 1980s were disruptive, but economic growth continued at 2.2% per year from 1985-89. The Soviet economy did not have a single year of economic contraction over the whole period from 1950 to 1989”.3 However, from 1989 the winds of change picked up pace and gathered into a hurricane, the destructive power of which caught the masses off-guard and ultimately turned Soviet socialism to rubble.

By 1989, Gorbachev and his allies had completed their quiet coup, consolidating their power, removing enemies and rivals from positions of influence, and creating an open road for their ‘restructuring’. In the Congress of People’s Deputies, they now had a legislative body that was more-or-less free from the reins of socialist sanity that might otherwise be applied by ‘conservatives’ and ‘hardliners’. The media had succeeded in creating a political atmosphere in which any criticism of perestroika was simply ‘Stalinism’ – a word whose usage had come to imply acceptance of the most hyperbolic McCarthyite propaganda.

The leadership used its new-found freedom to start implementing much more radical reforms, closing down the central planning agencies altogether, liberalising prices, establishing market-based trade between the republics, and forcing state enterprises to survive or die in the open market. Many large enterprises were sold off at bargain-basement prices to budding capitalist opportunists. These abrupt, hasty and sweeping reforms were meant to introduce ‘dynamism’ into the economy; to leverage the supposedly dormant creative spirit of the Soviet people; to incentivise innovation and quality. Judged against their purported intent, the reforms were spectacularly unsuccessful, leading to the first recession in Soviet history and to terrible shortages of low-margin and previously subsidised products: “the Soviet economy moved from a condition of severe problems to one of crisis”.4

At the turn of the decade, the economy was in free-fall. With discontent rising and the CPSU in forced retreat, other political forces started to rise. Nationalist separatists in the non-Russian republics were able to prey on rising popular anxiety over the economy. Russian demagogues started denouncing the unequal relationship within the union whereby a wealthier Russia helped to sustain living conditions in central Asia. ‘Radical reformers’ like Boris Yeltsin, strongly backed by western media and money, stirred up mass discontent. Strikes became a feature of everyday life. The threat of counter-revolution, previously unthinkable, became all too real.

Dangerous economic deterioration

Kotz and Weir describe the deteriorating economic and social situation in 1989-90: “The Soviet Union experienced ever-lengthening lines outside stores, the rationing of more and more commodities, and the complete disappearance of many goods from the stores. The growing shortages had a profound impact on the political climate, changing it from one of optimism to one of crisis. This made it much easier for advocates of more radical changes to gain a serious hearing.”5

The following year, per capita GDP fell by around 15 percent; the reformers’ blind faith in the inherent corrective power of the market turned out to be misplaced; investment collapsed. “Net fixed investment declined at the astounding rate of 21 per cent in 1990 and an estimated 25 per cent in 1991.”

Price liberalisation inevitably led to speculation and inflation, which in turn exacerbated the acute shortages of everyday consumer items, in particular food. This had its most visible manifestation in the notorious shopping queues that were much talked about in the west and which were, ironically, used as examples of the failure of socialism. Keeran and Kenny observe: ”Private hoarding by consumers and, more important, public hoarding by republics and cities, spread dramatically, first with respect to food, then other consumer goods. Empty food shelves, the most glaring and most resented shortage, drew sharp public anger and had widespread political, psychological, and economic results”.6

In 1989 and 1990, socialist allies in Europe were transformed overnight into pro-western capitalist regimes, leading to further imbalances in the Soviet economy – the USSR had long enjoyed a symbiotic trade relationship with the German Democratic Republic, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Czechoslovakia – as well as to a growing popular perception that the writing was on the wall for European socialism. Much frustrated by the economic crisis, and falling prey to the cynical demagoguery of Yeltsin and his coterie, who blamed all problems on socialist planning and the ‘privileged bureaucracy’, coal miners carried out strikes on an unprecedented scale. This contributed to a crisis of legitimacy. Gorbachev had little choice but to go running to the western banks, with which the Soviet Union quickly worked up a sizeable debt.

Yegor Ligachev, the most prominent ‘hardliner’ (ie socialist) on the scene at the time, describes the dangerously unstable situation of 1990-91: ”The consumer goods shortage hit hard, and people’s dissatisfaction mounted. In the republics of the former Soviet Union, separatist tendencies gained strength. The Soviet Union’s position in the international arena was weakened. There arose in the country political movements that aimed at eliminating the Soviet system and creating a society on the western model. Relying on active support from foreign powers, the shadow economy, the ‘elite’ of the creative intelligentsia, and a portion of the state apparatus, by means of deceit and demagoguery, especially regarding the nonexistent privileges of the nomenklatura [high-level party appointees], these movements were able to enlist the support of a certain segment of society”.7

In spite of everything, most people wanted to stick to socialism

“Our people have never rejected socialism. They were simply deceived by demagoguery and false promises.”8

As bad as things got, the Soviet working class was still not won over en masse to the putative delights of capitalism. Even with the level of ideological deterioration that had taken place; even with the pernicious influence of a hostile, anti-communist media; Soviet workers remained proud of the world-shaking achievements of their forebears and of the USSR’s record of solidarity with the global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle. These were for the most part educated people whose loyalty could not so easily be bought. Many understood that the luxurious and carefree lifestyle portrayed in Hollywood movies had its counterpart in the suffering and exploitation of the western working classes and the oppressed masses of the developing world. Indeed there were many in the grassroots of the CPSU that were highly critical of the retreat from Marxism-Leninism, but these were precisely the elements that were disenfranchised under Gorbachev’s glasnost.

Facing a nationalist-separatist challenge throughout the federation, the Soviet government decided in late 1990 to hold a referendum on the preservation of the USSR – the only referendum in Soviet history. On 17 March 1991, Soviet people across the union went to the polls to give a yes-or-no answer to the question: “Do you consider it necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, which will fully guarantee the rights and freedoms of all nationalities?”

The vote was boycotted by the governing bodies in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Armenia, Moldova and Georgia, but in the rest of the country turnout was 80%, with 147 million total votes cast. The result was an overwhelming majority in favour of maintaining the USSR: 78% voted in favour.

Interestingly, the proportion of ‘yes’ votes was slightly lower in Russia (73%) and Ukraine (71%) but extremely high in the Central Asian republics (over 94% in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and Belarus. This reflects a growing eurocentrism and reactionary nationalism within Russia and Ukraine that resented sharing a state with ‘backward’ and ‘burdensome’ Asians – a prejudice that Yeltsin and others played to. Realising that there was precious little support for dismantling socialism in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, and reasoning that an independent Russia constituted a more promising environment for the type of free-market capitalism he had in mind, Yeltsin led the drive towards greater autonomy for Russia. He is on record as saying, in 1990, “I soon understood that there would be no radical reforms at an all-Union level … and so I thought to myself: If the reforms cannot be carried out at that level, why not try in Russia?”.9

Even the lead capitalist restorationists didn’t feel confident enough to talk about getting rid of socialism altogether, because they knew they would never get a popular mandate for their plans. Yeltsin didn’t talk openly about capitalism, only about accelerating the reforms, removing the privileges of the ‘nomenklatura’ and ending the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Kotz and Weir write: “Yeltsin and his associates understood that a large majority of the Russian public were unfavourable toward the prospect of free-market capitalism. But the majority responded very well to criticism of the Communist Party leadership and to appeals for faster market reform, democratisation, and greater autonomy for the Russian Republic.”10

Soviet workers wanted to maintain and improve socialism and maintain the union; the USSR’s dissolution at the end of 1991 was in that sense profoundly anti-democratic. However, crisis and confusion were so entrenched that, while people might vote for socialism, most weren’t mobilised to fight for it.

The balance of forces favoured the capitalist restorationists

In spite of their catchphrases about ‘democratisation’, the anti-communists had absolutely no interest in the will of the Soviet people. Instead, they were intent on pushing through their programme of capitalist restoration by any means necessary. Thanks largely to perestroika and glasnost, they had both the economic incentive and political leverage to dismantle socialism, break up the USSR and send its people hurtling into an economic and social crisis of untold proportions (about which more in the next article in the series).

The major constituency pushing for capitalism was, to use Kotz and Weir’s terminology, the party-state elite – mid-level officials and enterprise managers who had taken advantage of their extensive connections and new-found economic freedoms to win control of assets and engage in trade and finance. Dissolution of the USSR offered such people (together with the bigger players in the underground economy) the promise of a completely deregulated trade environment in which they’d be able to get unimaginably rich, albeit at the expense of the remaining 99% of the population. Kotz and Weir discuss the mechanics of how these people came into money, and why the destruction of socialism was so close to their hearts:

The decree on foreign trade of 1988 opened an important means to get rich. The Soviet Union’s low controlled prices made many Soviet goods, particularly oil and metals, potentially lucrative export items for anyone who could get hold of them. After this decree opened up foreign trade to private firms, import-export companies were formed, in the legal form of cooperatives, which soon began to conduct a partly legal, partly illegal, and very profitable export trade. Over three thousand such firms were formed… By 1990-91 a new group of private capitalists had developed and was getting rich mainly through connections with the outside world… Any turn away from the emerging pro-capitalist direction of change, toward either a return to the building of a reformed socialism, or an effort to bring back the pre-perestroika system, would threaten the basis of their lucrative economic endeavours. Proceeding to capitalism was essential to the survival of their new businesses.

This pro-capitalist constituency had money. And money, for the first time, had become a significant factor in the Soviet political scene. ‘Free elections’ turned out not to be so free in the case of the Congress of People’s Deputies, where money bought high-profile campaigns and extensive media coverage. This was an unfamiliar environment for the silent majority in the Communist Party that had been brought up to believe that political leadership was a responsibility and honour earned through service to the people, not paid for with ill-gotten gains. This change, together with Gorbachev’s insistence on dropping quotas for working class representation, meant that “a striking change occurred in the percentage of deputies who were workers, collective farmers and office employees: this dropped from 45.9% of the 1984 Supreme Soviet to only 23.1% in 1989”.11 The counterpart to this was the monumental increase in the representation of management and intelligentsia.

With the formation of the overtly anti-communist ‘Democratic Russia’ movement in January 1990, the pro-capitalist elements joined forces and consolidated around a political vehicle that seemed to offer the quickest possible route to their chosen destination. Democratic Russia candidates managed to win a plurality of seats in the Russian parliamentary elections of March 1990, including several key Soviets (Moscow and Leningrad among them).

Democratic Russia also played the major role in electing Boris Yeltsin as Chair of the Russian Parliament in May 1990. By this time, Yeltsin had become recognised as the undisputed leader of the anti-communist opposition. He resigned from the Communist Party in June 1990, realising that his differences with Gorbachev were insurmountable: Gorbachev, for all his ineptitude and liberalism, still hoped to keep the USSR together and maintain some elements of socialism – for example the welfare state.

We are well aware of our weaknesses and unresolved problems, but neither can we forget the fact that socialism has given every one of us the right to work and to an education, free medical service, and accessible housing. These are genuine values in our society which provide social protection for the individual today and for the future.12

Yeltsin and his cohort wanted to press ahead with ‘shock therapy’ neoliberalism and had lost patience with Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s bold statements against the communist ‘conservatives’, his nationalist demagoguery, and his carefully nurtured (and entirely inaccurate) image of incorruptibility won him phenomenally high approval ratings from 1989 onwards. The reactionaries placed their hopes in his shaking hands.

The imperialist countries made it perfectly clear which side they were on, openly stating that any support for the Russian economy via the international banks would be predicated on an economic programme of large-scale privatisation and deregulation. Within this framework, “saving Russia” meant embracing the most brutal neoliberalism.

Counter-revolution in Europe

Reagan’s vocal support to ‘pro-democracy’ movements in Europe, along with Gorbachev’s clear indications that the Soviet Union wouldn’t intervene militarily to protect its allies, gave a tremendous impetus to the project of capitalist restoration across the region. With communists almost entirely sidelined in Moscow, pro-capitalist and pro-perestroika elements in the rest of the Warsaw Treatyf zone were emboldened. Well-funded western-backed organisations were able to use sophisticated marketing and radical posturing in order to leverage popular dissatisfaction into powerful movements for counter-revolutionary change. In the words of Margot Honecker, people came to believe they could “join together the glittering world of commodities under capitalism and the social security of socialism”.13

In August 1989, following extended negotiations between the Polish government and the ‘Solidarity’ union movement (a grateful recipient of bountiful CIA funds and papal support), leading anticommunist Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister and Poland became the first of the European socialist states to fall.

Perhaps the most dramatic and symbolic events in Europe were in the German Democratic Republic, where large demonstrations were held, initially calling for greater democracy and bemoaning a stagnant economy. Anti-communist elements saw their opportunity and started steering the demonstrations towards a demand for German reunification – thereby implying that the GDR authorities were responsible for the ongoing division of the country.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the basic history of German partition and the Berlin Wall continues to be wilfully misrepresented. In the negotiations over the status of postwar Europe at Yalta and Potsdam, the Soviet Union and its allies in the German Communist Party (KPD) had pushed strongly for a unified German state that would have multiparty elections, that would be prevented from rearmament and that would be committed to neutrality. This approach took into account both the wishes of the German people and the Soviet Union’s need to avoid another major war. Anxious to maintain a military foothold in Germany, the US and Britain worked with right-wing forces in the western zone (including many former Nazis) to set up a separate state in western Germany: the Federal German Republic (FRG), established in May 1949. It was only then that the GDR was set up as a separate, socialist state. The border in Berlin then became the nexus for covert actions by western imperialism against the socialist bloc (let nobody forget that, throughout this era, US-led capitalism was waging a horrifically violent global crusade against progressive forces, from Cuba to Korea, from Vietnam to Indonesia, from Guatemala to Congo). The constant threat of war was the sole reason for the construction of the Berlin Wall. Margot Honecker notes: “The Political Advisory Committee, which was the governing body of the Warsaw Treaty states, decided in the summer of 1961 to close the border in Berlin and the western state border after they decided a military confrontation could no longer be ruled out. I do not think that one can call the prevention of a possible third world war a mistake.”14

The counter-revolution in the GDR picked up pace rapidly after the Hungarian state – by now well advanced along the road of its own version of perestroika – tore down its border with Austria. Much encouraged by the western authorities, several hundred East Germans took the opportunity to cross the Austria-Hungary border and make their way to the FRG. This created a panic situation in East Berlin. In November 1989, crowds of Germans on both sides started dismantling the wall. Given the ‘facts on the ground’ created by the Hungarian border opening and the Soviet refusal to intervene, the authorities in the GDR – by now vulnerable and indecisive, with the Erich Honecker leadership sidelined – chose not to prevent the fall of the wall. Within a year, the GDR ceased to exist.

By 1990, communist parties had been removed from power in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. Albania would soon follow suit, and Yugoslavia was descending into a series of nationalist secessions and terrible wars. The Warsaw Treaty of collective security was disbanded in February 1991. A few months later the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (popularly known as Comecon) was dissolved.

The collapse of the socialist states in Central and Eastern Europe served to significantly increase the pressure on Soviet socialism. At the most practical level, there had been a tight economic integration between the CMEA countries: a similar economic model meant that economic planning could be internationalised. The sudden disappearance of the USSR’s key trading partners meant a vertiginous decline in imports and exports, leading to sudden shortages of various essential goods.

The rising tide of nationalism in the USSR

National tensions started to escalate in the Gorbachev period, fuelled to a significant degree by Gorbachev’s insensitivity to the national question and his purge against those not toeing the perestroika line. Breaking with the tradition that the politburo and central committee should have representation from all the republics, Gorbachev oversaw a ‘russification’ of the central bodies, feeding into resentment and rising complaints about Russian chauvinism. For example, the highly capable Azeri leader Heydar Aliyev, promoted by Andropov to the position of First Deputy Premier of the Soviet Union, was unceremoniously kicked out of the politburo in 1987.15 Another senior party leader from Azerbaijan, Nikolai Baibakov, was fired in 1985.16 Dinmukhamed Kunayev, longstanding party head in Kazakhstan and a full politburo member for 16 years, was also dismissed as a result of his ambivalence regarding perestroika. His replacement as Kazakh party chairman by Gennady Kolbin – a Russian who had never lived in Kazakhstan – prompted rioting on the streets of the capital, Almaty.17

The sorry state of affairs in the Soviet economy gave a further stimulus to nationalist separatist movements, particularly in the western republics. Between March and May 1990, national separatists dominated the elections to the Supreme Soviet in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia; all three republics promptly declared independence. Although Gorbachev opposed the independence of the Baltic states, he ultimately chose to accept it rather than enforce the union and thereby invoke the ire of his new-found friends on the international scene: US president George HW Bush and German chancellor Helmut Kohl.

By late 1990, with the writing on the wall for the union, the remaining republics had declared ‘sovereignty’ (not independence), asserting control over their own territory and the economic resources within it. The first republic to do so was in fact Russia, in June 1990 – an unconstitutional move by Yeltsin motivated primarily by the neoliberal hawks’ desire to go faster and further down the capitalist road than Gorbachev was willing to. The other republics responded to Russia’s declaration in kind. Kotz and Weir write that the passage of the sovereignty law in Russia ”had an immediate and profound effect on the other republics, transforming the nature of the nationalist impulses coursing through the republics. However much ethnic Russians might have dominated the Soviet system, the structure of the Union at least provided some safeguards and powers, as well as significant economic benefits, to the non-Russian republics. For example, Russia’s plentiful raw materials had been provided cheaply throughout the Soviet Union. Now the Russian Republic was asserting its right to control its own natural resources and their disposition. The leaderships of the republics which had previously been relatively quiet now immediately passed sovereignty resolutions. By August 1990 sovereignty resolutions had been passed by Uzbekistan, Moldavia, Ukraine, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. By October even loyal Kazakhstan followed suit as well.”

The breakup of the integrated economic system had an acute economic impact. “Since the beginnings of Soviet state socialism, the economy had been built as a highly integrated mechanism. Many products, including critical industrial inputs, were produced by only one or two enterprises for the entire Soviet market. A single factory in Baku was the sole manufacturer of deep-water pumps. One consortium produced all of the Soviet Union’s air conditioners. An estimated 80 percent of the products of the Soviet machinery industry had a single source of supply. Now many of the links in this highly integrated economy began to break down, as traditional supply relations between enterprises located in different republics were disrupted by the autonomy policies pursued by the newly assertive republics… This process was a major contributing factor to the economic contraction of 1990-91”.18

Too little, too late: the events of August 1991

By mid-1991, the confidence of the anti-socialist opposition was growing by the day. On 20 July, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Russian branch of the communist party from operating in government offices and workplaces within the Russian Republic.19 It was perfectly obvious to all concerned that this was a power grab aimed at finishing off the CPSU and establishing Russia as an independent (capitalist) country.

Seeing their country hurtling towards oblivion – and recognising that Gorbachev lacked either the will or the ability to save it – a group of high-level Soviet officials organised themselves to take control of the country and establish a state of emergency, with a view to pausing the reforms and pursuing all measures to prevent the dissolution of the USSR. These officials organised themselves under the name State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCSE). Among them were some of the government’s top leaders, including Gennady Yanayev (Vice President), Valentin Pavlov (Premier), Boris Pugo (Interior Minister) and Dmitry Yazov (Defence Minister). They were joined by army commander-in-chief Valentin Varennikov and KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov.

On 18 August, with Gorbachev on holiday in the Crimea, tanks moved into Moscow and a state of emergency was declared. The SCSE issued its Appeal to the Soviet People on 19 August, noting that “there have emerged extremist forces which have adopted a course toward liquidation of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the state and the seizure of power at any price” and denouncing the economic reforms which had caused “a sharp drop in the living standards of the overwhelming majority of the population and the flowering of speculation and the shadow economy”.20 The statement promised to clamp down on the emerging capitalist class and to initiate a country-wide discussion on the future of the federation.

However, the SCSE leadership quickly developed an acute case of cold feet, dropping its plan to storm the Russian parliament and showing no willingness to use force in support of its aims. They didn’t even perform the most basic preparatory task of cutting off Yeltsin’s telephone. Gao Di, chief editor of People’s Daily and high-ranking member of the Chinese Communist Party, wrote at the time that the SCSE “should simply have arrested Yeltsin and Gorbachev before they did anything else, just as we did the Gang of Four… You do not ask a tiger politely for his skin – either you kill him or he will kill you!”.21

On 21 August, Kryuchkov flew to Crimea in an attempt to persuade Gorbachev to give his stamp of approval to the SCSE and to join them in forestalling Yeltsin’s plans. “Gorbachev would not meet them. At 2:30 am on August 22nd Gorbachev returned to Moscow on the presidential plane along with the Russian Republic’s Vice President Rutskoi (Yeltsin’s ally, who had arrived in Foros on another plane), and Kryuchkov. Kryuchkov had agreed to join Gorbachev on the presidential plane, on the basis of a promise he would speak as an equal with Gorbachev. On landing, however, Kryuchkov was arrested by Soviet authorities. Back in Moscow, Gorbachev resumed formal power, though his real power was fast slipping into the hands of Yeltsin. At 9 am on August 22 the Soviet Ministry of Defence decided to withdraw its troops from Moscow, and the bizarre drama came to an end”.22

All in all, it was a thoroughly inept and half-hearted operation. As Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, remarked many years later in a statement on the death of Gennady Yanayev: “If they had acted much more decisively, our unified country would have been preserved”.23 Ligachev similarly remarks: “They courageously attempted to preserve the Soviet Union. If they are to be criticised, it is for their inconsistency and indecision”.24

Yeltsin was quick to exploit the events to further his own position and accelerate the overthrow of socialism. The pro-capitalist leadership within the Russian parliament immediately denounced the coup attempt, and called their supporters to defend Moscow’s White House (the base of the parliament), where the speakers called openly and defiantly for ending socialism without further delay. “This appeared to be the final confrontation over what system would prevail in the country. Russian Republic vice-president Alexandr Rutskoi told the crowd that ‘Either we shall live like the rest of the world, or we shall continue to call ourselves “the socialist choice” and “the Communist prospect”, and live like pigs.’ Former top Gorbachev aide Alexandr Yakovlev and former foreign minister Shevardnadze, who had left Gorbachev’s camp, joined the crowd at the White House.”25

The image of Yeltsin sitting atop a tank outside the Russian Parliament served as powerful fuel for his self-promotion engine, appearing on TV screens and front pages across the country and around the world. In the mainstream narrative, he was a courageous democrat, a hero of all that is good and pure. As Keeran and Kenny put it, the ultimate effect of the August crisis was to “enable Boris Yeltsin to seize full power in Russia, eliminate the moribund CPSU and do away with the USSR. That was the real coup.”26

The inexorable tide of disaster

With the SCSE defeated and imprisoned, events moved at lightning pace. On 23 August, Yeltsin pushed through the suspension of the Russian branch of the Communist Party. On August 24, Gorbachev dissolved the CPSU Central Committee and resigned from his role as General Secretary (maintaining his position as President of the country). A day later, Yeltsin ordered the transfer of the Russian Communist Party’s property to the Russian Parliament. The Soviet flag outside the Kremlin was replaced with the Russian flag. Nothing meaningful remained of the Soviet state.

In early November, Yeltsin issued decree number 169, banning the CPSU altogether. He sought to justify this move on the basis that “it has become evident that as long as the CPSU structures exist, there can be no guarantee against one more putsch or a coup”.27 This was thoroughly disingenuous, given that his executive order restricting the party’s activities in Russia was one of the key factors precipitating the SCSE’s attempt to restore socialist governance. However, there was by now nobody left in the leadership with the courage or strength to sabotage Yeltsin’s bourgeois bulldozer.

Yeltsin ignored the negotiations for a new union agreement and moved purposefully towards declaring Russian independence. On 8 December, he met with the Ukrainian and Belorussian presidents, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, ostensibly for informal discussions. At this meeting, the presidents and their advisers drafted a document (known as the Belavezha Accords) announcing – with absolutely no legal authority – the dissolution of the Soviet Union: “The USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.”28 Shushkevich’s memory of the discussion gives some idea as to how much attention was paid to the nuances of constitutional law: “Yeltsin said, ‘Would you agree for the Soviet Union to end its existence?’ I said OK and Kravchuk said OK too.”29

Even Gorbachev was shocked at the arbitrary and sudden nature of this declaration. “The fate of the multinational state cannot be determined by the will of the leaders of three republics. The question should be decided only by constitutional means with the participation of all sovereign states and taking into account the will of all their citizens… The hastiness with which the document appeared is also of serious concern. It was not discussed by the populations nor by the Supreme Soviets of the republics in whose name it was signed. Even worse, it appeared at the moment when the draft treaty for a Union of Sovereign States, drafted by the USSR State Council, was being discussed by the parliaments of the republics”.30

As discussed above, there was little support for Soviet dissolution in the Central Asian and Caucasian republics, but it wasn’t conceivable to carry the Soviet Union on without its most populous and prominent component. The Belavezha Accords were ratified a week later by the leaders of the remaining republics. Gorbachev’s resignation finally came on 25 December 1991. With no legal precedent or constitutional framework, Yeltsin simply transferred the Soviet state bodies and property to Russia, and on 31 December, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. This was the real coup d’etat. A great country was removed from the map, against the wishes of the majority of its people, by opportunist and conniving leaders. It was nothing short of a tragedy.

The next article will discuss the effects of the Soviet collapse, both within the territory of the former USSR and in the wider world.

  1. Financial Times: EBRD drew up debt-for-nuclear swap plan as Soviet Union fell 

  2. See part 5 of this series for an extensive discussion of perestroika and glasnost. 

  3. David Kotz: One Hundred Years after the Russian Revolution: Looking Back and Looking Forward, International Critical Thought, October 2017 

  4. David Kotz, Fred Weir, Revolution From Above – The Demise of the Soviet System, Routledge, 1997 

  5. ibid 

  6. Roger Keeran, Thomas Kenny: Socialism Betrayed – Behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  7. Inside Gorbachev’s Kremlin: The Memoirs Of Yegor Ligachev, Westview Press, 1996 

  8. My Russia: The Political Autobiography of Gennady Zyuganov, Routledge, 1997 

  9. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  10. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  11. Sam Marcy: Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, WW Publishers, 1990 (Introduction

  12. Interview in Pravda, 22 June 1987, cited in Marcy, op cit (Chapter 10

  13. Workers World: Interview with Margot Honecker 

  14. ibid 

  15. BBC News: Obituary: Heydar Aliyev 

  16. New York Times: Nikolai K. Baibakov, a Top Soviet Economic Official, Dies at 97 

  17. NB. Almaty was at the time known as Alma-Ata 

  18. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  19. New York Times: Yeltsin Bans Communist Groups in Government 

  20. Cited in Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  21. Cited in David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  22. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  23. Al Jazeera: Leader of failed Soviet coup dies 

  24. Ligachev, op cit 

  25. Kotz and Weir, op cit 

  26. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  27. UPI: Yeltsin bans Communist Party 

  28. New York Times: Texts of Declarations by 3 Republic Leaders 

  29. BBC News: New light shed on 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup 

  30. Statement made on 9 December 1991, cited in Gorbachev: On My Country and the World, Columbia University Press, 2000