Russian history rhymes — from Soviet collapse to Putin’s folly

The Soviet collapse pointed to the possibility of great reversals and historic surprises. In invading Ukraine Putin may have sealed the demise of his political enterprise.
Attempted coup 1991 Moscow
Shot from Moscow during the attempted coup of 1991. Credit: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo
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Last spring, I was putting the final touches to my bookCollapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union. I argued that the Soviet world’s collapse had been neither inevitable nor predictable, much like most of the game changing events of history. I did not expect that my message would soon receive a thundering confirmation. A major theme in the book is one of human agency: reformist zeal, nationalist aspirations, illusions and delusions, anger, impatience, and sheer folly. 

The Soviet Union, I thought, was a huge monstrosity held together by iron and blood. Yet this immense country also displayed surprising continuity and resilience. Its glue was the Communist Party, yet also the habits and convictions of millions of Soviet people who lived inside the bubble. Those who lived outside, as anthropologist Alexei Yurchak described, did not represent a threat to the status quo. Ironically, the decisive blow to the Soviet system was delivered by Soviet idealists and patriots, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, the educated and reform-minded head of the party.  In 1987-88, Gorbachev convinced himself he should steer the Soviet Union from a unitary party-state to a voluntary federation of republics, without breaking it up. It is easy to say in retrospect that it was an impossible task. Yet my sifting through archival materials, diaries, and transcripts, convinced me that it was Gorbachev’s convictions and reforms that led more than anything to the destabilisation of the Soviet monster. Gorbachev was ill-prepared for the challenges he faced. At first, his loadstar was Vladimir Lenin’s late works. Then he talked to a huge number of people: advisers, economists, foreign leaders. Many of them gave him disastrous advice, which he took. A few produced excellent ideas, yet he sat on them. 

The 1991 Soviet coup d’état and Gorbachev – alternative histories

As late as July 1991, no one wanted to believe that the Soviet state would collapse within months and that events would unfold unexpectedly, sometimes violently. Gorbachev went on holiday with his family on August 3, 1991. Had he stayed in Moscow, he might have signed a new Union Treaty that would have kept the Russian Federation, Belarus, and perhaps even Ukraine in a voluntary confederation, with Gorbachev as the president. The signing ceremony was scheduled for August 20. Instead, two days before, Gorbachev was put under house arrest in his luxurious summer villa in Crimea by his allegedly loyal ministers in an attempted coup

The Soviet leader was an optimist and, in contrast to Joseph Stalin, had not conceived that his entourage and government would act against him. Moreover, he convinced himself that any attempt to depose him and restore authoritarian rule, of the party and the military, would be criminal and senseless. The future, he reasoned, belonged to liberalisation, transition to a market economy, and opening the country to the West – the source of innumerable technologies and know-how. There was no alternative to perestroika, Gorbachev argued. ‘Introducing emergency rule,’ he wrote during his holiday, ‘is the road to perdition – to a civil war.’

Yet there were people around him who were guided by entirely different mode of thinking. Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, convinced himself that Gorbachev’s Union Treaty spelled certain death to the common country, which he had taken an oath to protect. Others, including the Minister of Defence, Dmitry Yazov, shared this conviction. Later, historians assumed the plotters feared for their jobs under Gorbachev, but to take such huge risks they must have had deeper motivations, derived from their perception that the Soviet Union stood on the brink. Their act of folly stemmed from their belief that there was no alternative to emergency rule. When Kryuchkov pressed the reluctant and trembling Gennady Yanayev, vice president at the time, to rule on behalf of the ‘sick’ Gorbachev, he told him: ‘Don’t you see? If we do not save [the country, then the economy collapses], in a few months people will go out into the streets and civil war will start.’

Kryuchkov drew on fears of the same ultimate danger as Gorbachev, but deployed it to justify an entirely different course of action. Such fears and convictions account for fateful decisions that change the course of history.  

Marshal Yazov did not want any blood spilt, and the KGB leader assured him that if tanks moved into Moscow, people would be intimidated into submission. On August 19, when the Muscovites woke up to the thunder of tank columns in the streets, many people did indeed feel shock and fear. The junta members were in a state of euphoria – in some cases, charged with drugs and alcohol. During the first day, Kryuchkov did not even order the arrest of possible opposition members, such as democratic minded politicians and Boris Yeltsin, recently elected by popular ballot as president of the largest Soviet republic, the Russian Federation. The KGB chief clearly counted on keeping as much ‘legality’ as possible, and the junta announced their Emergency Committee was perfectly in accordance with Soviet laws and Gorbachev’s earlier decrees. Yanayev, who became the head of the committee, immediately sent letters to all Western leaders that reforms would continue, democracy, glasnost, and civil rights remained untouchable, and all treaties and agreements with the West would remain in force. Some in the West, for instance President Mitterrand of France, responded to such declarations positively. 

However, these first successes soon proved to be illusory, and events began to develop again in a way nobody envisaged. The Muscovites, after the first shock, flocked to the Russian parliament where Boris Yeltsin, whom Kryuchkov still did not dare arrest, proclaimed the coup illegal and criminal. CNN, the first global television company, beamed Yeltsin’s declaration across the world, unimpeded by the KGB. Inexplicably, it was broadcast by the state-controlled news the same night. The opposition to the junta mobilised rapidly, driven by rage, fear of a return to dictatorship, and a sense of destiny. The troops, brought into the midst of the giant city, soon began to wonder what their objective and mission was. 

The August coup had taken Western leaders by complete surprise; even the US intelligence antennae failed to detect the preparations. Soon, however, they realised that it was half-baked and overcame their caution. President George H.W. Bush and other leaders – tipped by Russian democrats who widely used Western media connections – refused to recognise the legitimacy of the junta and demanded that Gorbachev be returned to power. Non-recognition meant Western financial sanctions, and the Soviet Union in August 1991 was nearly broke. The junta members learned in horror that the Ministry of Finances no longer had hard cash in the vaults. The subsidiaries of the State Bank abroad were also insolvent, without cash inflows, and other Western banks were unwilling to collateralise foreign trade operations. Without Western credit, or supplies of food, medicine, and many industrial parts, a chain reaction could bring the whole Soviet economy to a grinding halt. 

The junta’s gradualist plot began to unravel with breath-taking rapidity. After initial shock, the majority of top Soviet bureaucrats, the brokers of a nascent Moscow stock exchange, and the media began to view the junta as a conspiracy of the doomed, who insanely defied the course of history. This course, those elites thought, should mean the end of Soviet isolationism and transition to a market economy. Returning to the past was not an option. The junta was out of synch with this zeitgeist and failed to offer a convincing economic scenario under which they could succeed. And, lacking a plan, they hesitated to use lethal force against growing civilian opposition. 

The tipping point in the coup occurred during the night of August 20-21. With a military curfew and elite troops preparing to launch an assault against Yeltsin and the resistance forces, Marshal Yazov’s nerves gave in. He refused to kill his countrymen, stopped the troops and then ordered them to leave Moscow. By the dawn of the third day, it simply crumpled, along with the main structures of the Soviet state: the KGB, the army, and the party. Incredulous Russian democrats celebrated an uncannily easy victory. The whole affair only cost the broken asphalt of Moscow streets, burnt trolley-buses, and the lives of three young men, killed in a night scuffle. All of a sudden, the authoritarian monster was no more; the opposition, that consisted mostly of intellectuals and a few provincial officials, had to fill the enormous void created by the failure of Soviet statehood. 

The 1990s turned out to be a false dawn for Russian democracy

In August 2021, I sent my manuscript to the Yale University Press. In my conclusion, I shared my reflections that the victory over darkness in Moscow 30 years earlier had been precarious. Moreover, the 1990s, when so many people began to breath freely, turned out to be a false dawn for Russian democracy. After that festival of independence and freedom in August-December 1991, the uncontrollable fury of market forces swept through the post-Soviet space.

The educated, young, well-connected, and entrepreneurial minority flourished, made money, bought foreign cars, tasted cultural freedom and foreign travel. The majority felt that the rug had been pulled from under them. Soviet social safety nets, however miserable, disappeared. Basic safety, one of the few advantages of late Soviet reforms, vanished. People protected their domiciles with steel-made doors and security cameras; they felt unprotected, vulnerable, and humiliated. Children felt pity for their parents, who could not provide for them, and many old people died. Many other people went into business and crime, often the same thing; and many failed in the brave new world of the ‘Wild East’ and died prematurely. Russia experienced the worst of the Latin American capitalism of the 1980s. The level of poverty sank from 30 to 80 per cent. Life expectancy for males dropped from 64 years in 1990 to 58 years in 1994. By the end of the 1990s, there were 3.4 million premature deaths of working-age men and 3.7 million fewer children than in 1990. 

The statistics in Ukraine, next door, were dire as well, but the Ukrainians had a huge advantage over the Russians: they celebrated their new national independence. Many Russians, in contrast, could not imagine Ukraine, the cradle of Russian statehood and Christianity, to exist separately. Many Russians felt instead that they had been robbed of significant parts of their country, such as Crimea. Even those who ultimately readjusted to the new life did not forget or forgive the collapse. 

The KGB colonel Vladimir Putin was one of them. During August 1991, Putin worked loyally and energetically for the democratically elected mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Yet he never shared his boss’s democratic goals. He just realised that the time had come to make money and use his resources as a stepping stone towards the highest echelons of power. He also saw that the old men who defended the old order, such as Kryuchkov and Yazov, had blown their chance out of stupidity, a fear of Western sanctions, and lack of money in their coffers. And, above all, they lacked resolve. Putin was determined to learn from their mistakes and do better, much better.

Putin’s project

Many of the components of the current war in Ukraine converged in February-March 2014, when Putin, with almost complete impunity, declared the Maidan revolution in Kyiv ‘illegal’ and annexed Crimea. By that time, he had become an unchallenged, virtually absolute ruler, with vast reserves of currency and gold from the sales of Russian oil and gas. He acted ‘to avenge’ 25 years of Russian ‘humiliation’. He also became convinced that the United States had embarked on a strategy to turn Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia. He began to prepare for a confrontation. On Putin’s orders, the Russian military helped set up insurrectionist statelets in Donbass; then intervened in Syria. Boris Nemtsov, who warned of Putin’s war against Ukraine, was killed; Alexey Navalny and many other protesters were thrown into prison or fled Russia; and droves of media outlets and journalists became stigmatised as foreign agents. The constitution adopted in 1993 by a national referendum was emasculated in 2020 in another ‘managed’ national referendum, when a passive majority voted for what the Kremlin boss wanted. And the state-controlled media in Moscow continued a brainwashing campaign against the ‘neo-Nazis’ in Ukraine, the ‘genocide of Russians’ in Donbass, and the efforts of the US and its Nato partners to set up Ukraine against Russia. 

Three decades after the disastrous coup in Moscow, the ex-KGB colonel Putin had the same fearful mindset as Kryuchkov and Yazov. In his article on the ‘historical unity’ of Russia and Ukraine, published in July 2021, he explained his deep-held belief that it was the West that had forced the Ukrainian nation to become an ‘anti-Russia project’ and that the future of Ukraine should be ‘up to its citizens to decide’. At the time, most observers read the article as a continuation of Russia’s hybrid warfare against its neighbour. Constant flare-ups took place in Luhansk and Donetsk, yet they seemed to indicate a frozen conflict, comparable to Nagorny Karabakh or South Ossetia. The idea that the Russian leader would order his troops to attack Ukraine frontally and openly was tantamount to folly. 

In October 2021, Putin made a rare physical appearance at Sochi’s Valdai club. This was one of his authorised assemblies that gathered pundits and intellectuals to discuss global affairs. The Russian ruler seemed to be in good shape, full of beans, talked a lot, and even said a few nice words to Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, a known fighter against corruption and violations of human rights. The president maintained his Buddha-like calm and detachment, except over the Ukrainian question and the West’s backing of an ‘illegitimate’ regime. 

Putin’s alternative history

My book went out to print two weeks after this. Journalists asked me if Putin would start a war. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘he must be bluffing and attempting to up the ante.’ I made a commonplace cognitive mistake: because something made no sense to me, it was impossible. Like Gorbachev in August 1991, I ignored the fact that there was a man in the Kremlin who had constructed an entirely different reality and logic. Putin was not alone in his mind-frame. There was a sect of nationalist thinkers who viewed Russia as an Eurasian empire, a successor to the Soviet Union, the Tsarist empire, and even the realm of Genghis Khan. Their ideas, that made no sense to me and other professional historians, worked on Vladimir Putin; and he interiorised and weaponised them. 

His own historical research was probably the last straw. His article on Russian-Ukrainian unity was not only a manifesto of his intentions. It was a mandate to act very soon. In his imagination, Ukrainians had to be ‘returned’ to the bosom of the Russian Volk or would become forever an ‘anti-Russia’, a force that the perfidious West would pit against the Russian Federation. Within this logic, there was no alternative to the use of military force. 

In Collapse, I wrote how the newly born Russian Federation and near-independent Ukraine almost came to blows in August-September 1991 over Crimea and Donbass. Boris Yeltsin, who began to ease out Gorbachev, told his press secretary to announce: if Ukraine wanted to separate from Russia, then Russia would want its ‘Russian’ regions back. At a press conference in Moscow, one Ukrainian journalist called this a continuation of communist imperialism. Yeltsin’s media man snapped: ‘You don’t want to live with Russia in a union? This is a communist legacy for you? Then go, but return Crimea and Donbass to us! Because they became part of Ukraine because of the “communist legacy”!’

On February 21, 2022, Putin performed a macabre show. At a pre-recorded Security Council gathering, shown on 14 Russian TV channels, he forced his entourage to sign up to ‘recognition’ of the Donbass statelets. It was a replay of the 1991 junta. Some of Putin’s subordinates looked almost like copies of Yazov and Yanayev. Some brooked no emotion or doubt, others clearly trembled like schoolchildren. And Putin behaved with uncanny calmness, just like the KGB chief Kryuchkov had done 30 years before. From time to time, his fingers drummed on his desk. 

Putin was convinced that, in contrast to the hapless conspirators of 1991, he was not a sorcerer’s apprentice. He has wielded absolute power for years and has never wavered over using force. Late at night on February 21, he appeared on TV again, with a pre-recorded speech, in which he rehashed his historical grievances about Ukraine and repeated almost verbatim Yeltsin’s press secretary in August 1991: ‘You want de-communisation? Very well, this suits us just fine. But why stop halfway? We are ready to show what real de-communisation would mean for Ukraine.’ At that moment, the awful suspicion entered my mind: the Russian ruler was going to grab the whole of Ukraine, without any diplomacy, talks, and compromises. I hoped against hope this was not true. Yet on February 24, Europe woke up to witness a full-scale invasion. 

Putin believed he was well prepared. He amassed 200,000 troops, he had stashed $640 billion in currency reserves and gold. Yet it quickly became apparent that, like the plotters of August 1991, Putin had made a gross miscalculation. The Russian ruler convinced himself and many Russians that the invasion of Ukraine would end up in a quick collapse of Ukrainian resistance and a set-up of a new, pro-Russian government in Kyiv. For him, the invasion of Ukraine was not even a war, it was an operation to liberate Ukrainians and help them ‘reunite’ with Russia. How could one declare a war on another part of your Volk? For Putin, using the analogies of the past, this move was closer to Austria of 1938 than to Poland of 1939. He thus presented it as a mere ‘special operation’ in Ukraine to eliminate ‘neo-Nazis’ in Kyiv, who were backed by the United States and its allies. 

The West fights back

This time, in contrast to 1991, the US intelligence detected and interpreted Putin’s preparations and intentions as early as October 2021. American special services, including cyber teams, rushed to prepare the Ukrainian army and infrastructure for the Russian invasion. Later, President Biden decided to make the intelligence scoop public. He and other American actors warned Putin of terrible consequences if he went to war. There was most probably an element of calculation in this. After all, the West had been involved in the open and secret assistance of the Ukrainian state against Russia’s aggression at least since 2014. The US intelligence and leadership must have concluded that nothing would help to dissuade the Russian leader from his course. But this pre-emptive publicity and warnings helped to build up Western unity and magnify the negative fallout for Putin after the Russian attack. Indeed, the calculus proved to be correct. Putin continued to deny his intent while preparing for his ‘operation’, which came as a shocking surprise to most of Western European public opinion, as well as Russian ‘elites’, the State Duma, and even Russian military. The war theorist Clausewitz would have nodded with approval at American pre-emptive actions. 

Like the August coup of 1991, Putin’s plot stalled very soon. On the second or third day, it became apparent that Ukrainians were not expecting the Kremlin ruler to ‘liberate’ them. To magnify his strategic blunder, Putin ordered a limited use of force, to destroy only vital military infrastructure, and spare civilians. This failed to defeat the Ukrainian sinews of war, yet gave the country and its US allies time to react. The Ukrainian people were furious at the unprovoked aggression; their armed forces were ready and motivated to fight. Many began to view the war as their war of independence and national survival. The collective Western leadership, previously reluctant to use economic and financial sanctions against Russia for fear of triggering a general economic recession, now had political backing to move in this direction. They deployed a devastating mode of a hybrid warfare: the gradual destruction of Russia’s financial system. 

The economic and financial advantages that Putin had accumulated turned out to be Russia’s vulnerabilities. Most of his currency reserves were frozen and his gold cannot be sold. The entire global banking system, including reluctant China, launched an unprecedented crippling blow against Russian finances, thereby ensuring gradual strangulation of not only Russian oligarchs abroad, but also the Russian state. The subsidiaries of the main Russian banks abroad began to fail, one after another. It was another flashback to August 1991. 

The new digital age was in its infancy in the early nineties, and CNN, and perhaps the BBC, were the only global media that helped to mobilise the West against the reactionary coup in Moscow. Now, the entire media is global, with Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok allowing Eastern Europe and much of the West (plus a minority of Russians) to back the Ukrainians in their ‘rage militaire’. A storm of indignation and enmity shamed big corporations, and cultural and sport institutions into severing ties with the Russian economy and society. For the first time, even the purchase of Russian oil became a taboo.  

In August 1991, the coup unravelled within three days. Yet it is easy to forget that many serious observers gave the plotters several years. If Yazov had been more ruthless, the Soviet power would have lumbered on, painfully, for some time. At the time of writing, it is impossible to predict how soon Putin’s gamble will unravel: within weeks, months, or longer. The political demise of his enterprise, however, has already become apparent to the top Russian bureaucracy, economic and financial elites, and perhaps even to some military leaders. Yet everything still depends on the Kremlin ruler’s choices. And he seems to persist in denial of his strategic failure. If Putin digs in his heels, the war could continue, and its calamitous costs for Ukrainian and Russian people could keep rising. 

In the conclusion of my book, I wrote: ‘The economic calamity and social traumas of the Soviet collapse do not explain, even less justify, what happened many years later. What they point to, however, is the possibility of great reversal and historic surprises…’ It is useful, after all, to write history and learn from it. History does not fully repeat itself, but it rhymes, sometimes with appalling resonance. And the main driver of this phenomenon is a personality in power who decides that there is no alternative to folly.

Vladislav Zubok

Vladislav Zubok is Professor of History at the London School of Economics and author of Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union, Yale University Press, 2021.

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