Russian tanks are not widely known as instruments of democracy, but at least one can claim that mantle. Twenty-five years ago this week, Boris Yeltsin, who would later become president of independent Russia, climbed on top of a tank in the center of Moscow to denounce a coup attempt by KGB hardliners against the reformist Soviet government. The security chiefs had locked Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in his Crimean dacha and declared a state of emergency. But the image of Yeltsin atop of the tank calling for a general strike proved that the people of Moscow could resist.
Within three days, the coup collapsed. Its leaders were locked up. One shot himself and his wife. The towering statue of ‘Iron’ Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret services, was torn down, replaced with a monument to Gulag victims in front of KGB headquarters. In a matter of months, the Soviet Union had dissolved into fifteen independent countries.
Behind the scenes, however, there was less change than the falling statues of KGB heroes suggested. True, the secret services were ostensibly put under civilian control. Yet there was no broader purge of the KGB, no real accounting of its actions over seventy years of Soviet rule. Unlike many other post-Communist countries in Eastern Europe, Russia did not throw open the KGB archives, nor was there a serious truth commission that could have exposed the secret services to democratic transparency. Almost everything remained under wraps.
When Boris Yeltsin became president of independent Russia in 1991, he opted to retain the KGB, albeit with a new name. Amid the Soviet collapse, the Kremlin was trying to construct a functional government. Amid a struggle for power, Yeltsin reasoned, best to have the security services on his side.
It was not long before the downsides of this approach became clear. The coup leaders were soon released from prison, thanks to a 1994 amnesty from a sympathetic parliament. They were allowed to conduct a public relations campaign to cleanse their image—and that of the security services they led. On the ten-year anniversary of the coup, its leaders held a press conference under a large banner that read: “We are real patriots!” They denounced Gorbachev for “the destruction of the country,” and alleged that the post-Soviet government was responsible for the loss of “the moral purity of the Russian people.”
One former coup leader blamed Gorbachev and Yeltsin for creating tuberculosis, AIDS, and prostitution. Another insisted that “if we’d only been firmer, stuck to our guns, then everything would have been OK.” An alternative interpretation is that, had they stuck to their guns, there would have been a bloodbath.
At their ten-year anniversary press conference, the coup leaders thought the Russian government was finally beginning to right itself. “The current leadership is making efforts to restore control over the country,” explained Valentin Pavlov, the former Soviet Prime Minister-turned-putschist. “Today they are trying to do what we attempted to do in the Soviet Union in 1991.”
He was referring, of course, to Vladimir Putin, the KGB Lieutenant Colonel who was named president in 1999. Putin himself has tried to distance himself from the coup. “As soon as the coup began, I made up my mind as to which side I’m on. I knew for a fact that I would never do anything as directed by the coup organizers,” Putin has said. The historical record is cloudy, but Putin’s stance at the time appears more ambiguous than he portrays. Key details such as the timing of Putin’s resignation from the KGB remain murky.
What is clear is that Putin makes no apologies for his KGB background. He argues that work as a special agent prepared him for the presidency. And he praises Soviet-era KGB leaders, including Vladimir Kryuchkov, who spearheaded the Soviet coup, as “a very decent man.”
So did the 1991 coup fail? In one sense, yes. Only a minority of Russians want to bring back the Soviet Union, and they are disproportionately elderly. The protestors who chanted “Soviet Union! Soviet Union!” outside the 1994 trial of one coup leader, for example, now seem like historical artifacts. Whatever the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions today, its methods and ideals differ from its Marxist-Leninist predecessor.
But networks formed in the Soviet security services remain powerful in today’s Russia. The president is not the only former secret agent in a position of power. The CEOs of many state owned companies are believed to be former KGB employees. Many provincial governors have also been drawn from the security services. Democratic control of the state—the great goal of the popular forces which defeated the Soviet coup—remains a far-off dream. And Russia’s communists continue to agitate for the resurrection of the statue of ‘Iron’ Felix, patron saint of the KGB, in the center of Moscow.