They did not like the reforms or the way Gorbachev was running the country allowing all the freedoms -- glasnost and perestroika. They presented him with documents signing away his powers as General Secretary. Gorbachev exploded and ordered them to leave. They did, but Gorbachev knew he was in a grave situation, cut off from the world, not telephones, and guarded.
However, the "old guard" had made one huge mistake. They had failed to take into account or arrest the second most powerful man in the country, a man by the name of Boris Yeltsin. He had just been elected as the first President of Russia, and he and Gorbachev were bitter rivals to control the entire USSR. However, not today. By Yeltsin's choice, he joined with Gorbachev in spirit and ideology, rushed to the Russian parliament and declared the supposed coup the act of mad men and threw his support behind Gorbachev.
By now the public grasped what was happening and began gathering in the streets. They had long forgotten their fear of the Communist Party. Yeltsin climbed on top of a tank and declared the coup a failure and that he was personally taking control. It was the beginning of the end of the coup. World leaders joined in support of Yeltsin and Gorbachev. The leaders of the coup were arrested and Gorbachev returned to Moscow.
But the Soviet Union was never the same. The power of the Communist Party was broken.
Within a few months the U.S.S.R. would disappear. Gone. The second most powerful country on the face of the earth -- no more. Since he was officially head of the Communist Party, Gorbachev conceded his authority. On Christmas Day, 1991, he resigned. The next month, the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist and the "Commonwealth of Independent Republics" took its place. When Gorbachev resigned he did so with regrets and great hope:
"...The August coup brought the general crisis to its ultimate limit. The most damaging thing about this crisis is the breakup of the statehood. And today
I am worried by our people's loss of the citizenship of a great country. The consequences may turn out to be very hard for everyone.
I am leaving my post with apprehension, but also with hope, with faith in you, your wisdom and force of spirit. We are the heirs of a great civilization, and its rebirth into a new, modern and dignified life now depends on one and all.
Some mistakes could surely have been avoided, many things could have been done better, but I am convinced that sooner or later our common efforts will bear fruit, our nations will live in a prosperous and democratic society"
Could It Have Been Avoided?
Probably not. The "visible" Soviet strength that the worlds' public saw was evidently hollow and had been headed in that direction for years. What we saw were squadron after squadron of marching, stomping military might, thousands of tanks and rockets, millions of tons of cement and steel. But what we didn't see so much were the factories producing stuff the public wouldn't buy. They needed food. They got TV coverage of military parades and the military might of the Soviet Union. The country was producing goods that were worth less than the cost of the materials to make them.
A black market developed because of the tremendous shortages that had a value close to one-third of the real economy.
Despite Gorbachev's brilliant management and leadership the U.S.S.R. would have struggled, hoping for the best, and it would have failed. It would have miserably disintegrated anyway because it could not keep up. In an age of microchips, computer-operated fighter jets that could shoot down dozens of aircraft without even seeing them, Ronald Reagan's star wars, and so much more, the old Soviet Union could not keep up.
Even if the Berlin Wall had not come tumbling down, the financially cash poor country was overstretched in areas that could not possible pay it back for its investments. Huge, worthless soft currency subsidies from the U.S.S.R. To Comecon, the block of European satellites, Mongolia, Cuba, and Vietnam was the only thing that allowed them to struggle along in existence. In addition, the financing of unpopular, cash-strapped guerilla activities in Africa, Asia and Latin America, Angola and Afghanistan only increased the enormous pressure on the Soviet economy.
The management of industry, controlled by Communist Party political hardliner hacks, whose only value was their belief in everything socialist, squandered resources, developed huge shortages, wasted what talent they did have to work within their middle managers and workers, and set the industrial side of the country into a slow decline.
The country's best farmers, who could turn nutritionless dirt into fields of abundance, were eliminated by the forced nationalization of agriculture and presented with absolutely no motivation or incentive to produce.
As we have mentioned, black markets were about the only way a Soviet citizen could have their daily nutrition needs met. Private business was not only frowned upon; it was illegal. The average Soviet had to become quite creative to supply basic food to their families.
When we, on the outside, saw great successes in the U.S.S.R. early on including its 1930s'
industrialization, the impressive military production during World War II, and its creative and world-leading space flight programs, along with the successful nuclear energy agenda, what we saw was illusion. They all depended upon massive borrowing or even the theft of technology from capitalist countries, as well as the illegal obtaining of technical know-how and industrial products from those same countries.
The 1980s, and Ronald Reagan's dramatic vitriolic diatribes well-staged for special effect, degrading the U.S.S.R. As the evil empire and promising a star wars missile defense, put the U.S.S.R. over the edge. Along with all the other problems, their failure to be able to compete with capitalist technology and skill caused their economy to begin to buckle.
The consumer health industry, infrastructure, transportation, information technology were blossoming all over the world -- except in the Soviet Union. Harm to the environment, common in all countries due to global warming and other weather phenomena, became irreparable catastrophes in a country where such damage could not be stopped by civic action or environmental "tree-huggers" because a police state wouldn't allow it.
The miserable quality of life became apparent even to the average impoverished Soviet citizen, especially with glasnost. Now they knew how incredibly bad off they were. And it affected the level of domestic unrest as we have described before.
Decades before the final collapse, there were predictions that the Soviet Union could not and would not survive. Ronald Reagan said the "freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history." He and others were dismissed at the time as issuing emotional statements that had no basis in fact. But he and others knew more than most of us.
But, why were so few historians able to see the future of the U.S.S.R. As a failure? Was it because it was not inevitable at all? Otherwise, would we not have seen all these predictors we have been discussing here?
But a French sociologist, Emanuel Todd, in 1976 predicted the fall of the Soviet empire. He based his findings on sociological indicators like child mortality, suicide rates, etc. He said that even when statistics were unreliable, trends and patterns could be deduced. He also got some insight through "doubtful" data, such as anecdotal evidence about the weaknesses of central planning (a shipment of only right-footed shoes...), as well as ideas expressed through Soviet citizens' science fiction stories (which were not subjected to censorship and therefore far more illuminating of the average Soviet citizen's thought) (zenker, 2007).
Another successful prophet was Soviet historian and dissident Andrei Amalrik, who in 1970 predicted that the Soviet Union would break up sometime between 1980 and 1985, pointing in particular to the ethnic rivalries and the shortcomings of the legal system. His work was discounted in the West but was widely circulated among dissidents in the Soviet Union (zenker, 2007).
It will be difficult to ever have the real answer to that question. But all the pointers we discussed indicate that, under the same system, Communism, the same results probably would have occurred, eventually, in this specific country under these specific conditions. Could it have survived if the hardliners had succeeded in their coup in August, 1991? Perhaps force could have held it together for awhile. But the failing infrastructure and bad policy would have caught up eventually.
Au, K.-N. (2006, May 9). The causes and consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from Rutgers University: http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/guides/glo-sov.html coldwar.org. (n.d.). The cold war museum: Fall of the Soviet Union. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from coldwar.org: http://www.coldwar.org/articles/90s/fall_of_the_soviet_union.asp
Gorbachev, M. (1991, December 25). Gorbachev speech dissolving the Soviet Union. Retrieved November 19, 2009, from publicpurpose.com: http://www.publicpurpose.com/lib-gorb911225.htm