Mini Teaser: America is at war, and its citizens are understandably fixated upon events in the Persian Gulf.

by Author(s): John B. Dunlop

And then there was personal hubris, the fact that Gorbachev has, in Stanislav Shatalin's word, become "obsessed" with power.  An adoption of the Five Hundred Days program, while manifestly beneficial to the Soviet populace, would have led to an inexorable diminution of Gorbachev's personal power.  Even worse from his perspective, it would have fortified the positions of such hated rivals as Boris Yeltsin and Vytautas Landsbergis.  For a Gorbachev desiring to cling to power it made better sense to side with the hardliners rather than with the fifteen republics and the democrats.  In making this decision, Gorbachev's monumental ego probably allowed him to believe that he could ultimately outwit and outmaneuver the hardliners, even while forming an alliance with them.

The Willing Captive

In my opinion, this decision by Gorbachev will turn out to be a definitive and irreversible one, drastically limiting his future freedom of action and perhaps making him superfluous.  Once it became known, the domestic "correlation of forces" in the Soviet Union immediately changed dramatically, and a powerful upsurge of the hardline anti-reformers became noticeable as early as September of last year.  This surge continued unabated until the time of the January 13 massacre in Vilnius, after which a brief pause set in.  It has become apparent that, in forming an alliance with the hardliners, Gorbachev has to a considerable extent been taken captive by them.

In September 1990, a kind of "dress rehearsal" for the January coup appears to have occurred.  Six regiments of airborne troops, including at least two that would subsequently be employed in Vilnius, mysteriously converged on Moscow.  A rumor was spread that democrats were seeking to mount a coup in the capital.  True to character, Boris Yeltsin responded vigorously to this looming threat--and was then taken out of action in a suspicious automobile accident in which he suffered a concussion.  The reformist Ukrainian newspaper, Komsomolskaya znamya, has noted that rumors that Yeltsin would be involved in a car crash began to circulate the day before the accident occurred.

During November and December, the resurgent communists, sensing their political clout growing day by day, stepped up the heat on a president who, in any case, was himself steadily moving in their direction.  On November 13, a meeting was arranged between Gorbachev and eleven hundred hardline military officers who had been elected to federal and local legislatures.  Adherents of the reformist "Shield" movement in the military were pointedly not invited.  Gorbachev was reportedly jeered and heckled during this meeting, especially when he mentioned the need for military reform.

Four days later, on November 17, a forty-year-old air force engineer from Latvia, Colonel Viktor Alksnis, attracted world attention when, at a session of the USSR Supreme Soviet, he gave Gorbachev thirty days to turn the country away from reform or face removal from office.  Alksnis is a leading spokesman for the anti-reform Soyuz (Union) faction in the Soviet Congress, which claims a quarter of that body's membership.  Former Gorbachev economic adviser Nikolai Petrakov has reported that Alksnis' threat made a dramatic effect on the Soviet leader and that he began seriously to plan the imposition of "presidential rule" on the same day.

During December, the muscle-flexing of the old guard increased dramatically.  In that month, Soyuz succeeded in achieving the removal of two Soviet ministers whose policies it despised.  Moderate Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin was forced out of office and replaced by former KGB General Boris Pugo, with General Boris Gromov, the last military commander in Afghanistan, installed as his deputy.  On December 20, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze--who had been excoriated by Soyuz for pursuing allegedly pro-American policies--announced his resignation from office and cited attacks from Soyuz as one of the factors leading him to make that decision.

Through December, KGB chief Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Yazov repeatedly warned that the unity of the Soviet Union was in grave danger.  In the middle of the month, there came the "Letter of the 53" which politely but insistently urged Gorbachev to effect a clampdown in the country.  Among the signatories of the letter were the Soviet military chief of staff, the deputy defense minister, the commander of the Soviet navy, and the head of the Interior Ministry ground troops.

By the time of the attempted putsch in mid-January, Gorbachev found himself virtually alone amid a sea of hardliners and reactionaries.  Speculation was rife in the Western press concerning the extent to which the Soviet president remained in control.  But as leading democratic spokesman Yuri Afanasyev has commented, such speculation is essentially irrelevant: "Either Gorbachev will rule through the army and the KGB," he asserts, "or they will rule without him."(1)  In having decisively sided with those forces, Gorbachev had committed himself to their agenda, though he could continue to finesse some issues on the margin.

The Old Tricks

When it occurred in the middle of January, the putsch proved to be a sobering lesson for a West mired in residual Gorbophilism and distracted by fast-moving events in the Persian Gulf.  Chillingly, the attempted coup--whose aim was unquestionably to remove the democratically elected parliaments and the presidents of the three Baltic republics--recalled the classic modus operandi of Stalinism.  Gorbachev and his generals reached deeply into a sordid bag of totalitarian tricks--front organizations, national salvation committees, suppression of the press, double speak (whereby repression becomes "salvation"), violent anti-American rhetoric--that had been used in the past to facilitate and justify the absorption of the Baltic region in 1940 and the installation of puppet regimes in Eastern Europe following World War II, as well as the subsequent invasions of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979.

The fact that the regime, after nearly six years of glasnost, was able to summon the will to attempt a classic communist putsch is proof that the totalitarian energies of the system are very much intact and that they have merely been lying dormant, concealed from all but the most perceptive observers.  On "Bloody Sunday," January 13, elite KGB airborne troops sent in from outside the republic attacked the Vilnius radio and television station.  According to a report subsequently issued by the Lithuanian procurator general, 14 were killed and 580 wounded.  In the course of the attack, loudspeakers announced that power had passed into the hands of a mysterious "Lithuanian National Salvation Committee."  "This is the power of working people," the loudspeakers trumpeted, "of workers, peasants, and servicemen.  The power of people like you...."  In a well-coordinated effort, Soviet central television, the official Soviet news agency TASS, and Pravda all announced the assumption of power by the newly emerged salvation committee.  In Latvia, where a similar attack on the republic's interior ministry by MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) special forces on January 20 had left four dead and eleven wounded, a "national salvation committee" also came forward to claim that it had taken power.  This assertion was also supported by the regime-controlled media.

The regime's return to well-tried totalitarian practices was underlined by those shadowy front organizations which now claimed power in both Lithuania and Latvia.  In Lithuania, the membership of the alleged ruling committee was kept a deep secret, purportedly out of fear of popular reprisals.  One spokesman for the committee was identified--Juozas Jermalavicius, chief of the ideological department of the Moscow-loyal Lithuanian Communist Party--but he claimed not to know who the committee's other members were.  He received documents from the committee, he explained, "by courier."  Jermalavicius readily admitted that a majority of Lithuanians did not support the committee but maintained that they were suffering from "national psychosis and euphoria."

The activities of the "Lithuanian National Salvation Committee" were also defended by such high luminaries as Defense Minister Yazov, Interior Minister Pugo, and President Gorbachev himself, though none of them claimed to know the names of the committee's members.  This evil farce, which took one back to the Orwellian practices of high Stalinism, demonstrated the extent to which the regime had retrogressed both politically and morally.  Latvia's version of a national salvation committee did announce the name of its main leader; not surprisingly, it turned out to be Alfred Rubiks, head of the Latvian Communist Party and a member of Gorbachev's Politburo.

There was a black humor in the attempts of Gorbachev and his generals to distance themselves from responsibility for the bloodshed.  Lacking the discipline of Stalinism, the perpetrators could not keep their story straight.  Colonel Alksnis of the Soyuz parliamentary faction, who admitted to having close ties to the Baltic salvation committees, gave a number of interviews to Soviet and Western newspapers in which he asserted that Gorbachev had been intimately involved in preparations for the putsch.  Alksnis reproached Gorbachev bitterly for having failed to institute "presidential rule" in response to appeals from the newly formed salvation committees; that, Alksnis said, had been the plan.  Gorbachev, significantly, has not attempted to refute these damaging claims.  In a sense, indeed, it is irrelevant whether Gorbachev called the shots.  For as former Gorbachev adviser Vyacheslav Dashichev aptly commented, what happened in Latvia and Lithuania was "a logical consequence of his policies."

Essay Types: Essay