The combination of “strong opposition, resistance, subversion, and bureaucratic inertia”  were crucial in defeating the Communist party leaders’  attempt to seize power from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, argued Harley Balzer, Associate Professor of Government and Foreign Service, Georgetown University, at a 17 October 2011 Kennan Institute lecture.

Balzer aimed to clarify various misconceptions about the coup, and called attention to “what  is forgotten about the past, and what is still remembered in the present.” Starting more than a decade ago, the speaker explained, different accounts of the August 1991 coup—particularly, accounts of why the coup failed—began to emerge. Some contended that the failure was due to the poor leadership of the conspirators; others blamed the conspirators’ miscalculation of the public opinion in favor of the coup, as well as Gorbachev’s counteractions against his colleagues. According to the speaker, another misconceived memory suggested that only 10,000 people were present at the August 1991 demonstrations in Moscow, while citizens in other regions of the country took no action at all.

The speaker noted that another explanation for varying narratives of the coup is related to information asymmetry. Journalists in Moscow sought to “tell the people” what was going on in the capital, while information about activity in Russian regions remained tightly controlled. The time differences across the country influenced the ability to mobile large groups of people in the regions in a short amount of time. Yet recent scholarship indicates that large number of people in many cities engaged in protests against the coup.  Balzer noted that cities including Volgograd, Vladivostok, Nizhny Novgorod, Kazan, Saratov, and Tomsk had notably-sized demonstrations. Asymmetrical censorship of the media meant that protesters in Moscow and Leningrad did not know that they were supported by tens of thousands throughout the country.

Varying perspectives and experiences during the coup were present on the individual level in Moscow and Leningrad. While  many local government officials supported the Russian government, the KGB and police had divided loyalties. Reports showed that many citizens did not feel comfortable openly siding with either side of the coup out of fear of being associated with the losing party.

The massive public resistance of August 1991 eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union, which Balzer attributed to the movement’s nonviolent character. However, despite the momentous change that resulted from the coup, the events that transpired are not widely discussed in modern memory. Although August 19, 2011 marked the twentieth anniversary of the coup, Balzer noted that neither major media outlets nor the government leadership acknowledged the occasion extensively.

Memory of the coup has been distorted by official histories and regime efforts to downplay ordinary peoples’ role in political change. Balzer argued that restoring the memory of the Russian people’s unique popular resistance to a military coup is important for Russia’s political future.

By Elena Volkava
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute