The Russian press is full this week of reminiscences and analysis on the failed anti Gorbachev coup of 25 years ago. That was when a group of old-guard octogenarians from the previous generation of Soviet military and civilian leadership briefly took power in a desperate attempt to prevent, by force of arms if necessary, the breakup of the USSR. The attempt failed when the Soviet military refused to fire on the crowds and Russian Federation boss Yeltsin took the reins of power. The Soviet republics, particularly in the Baltics, and the Russian Army garrisons stationed in them were waiting with baited breath for the outcome of the events in Moscow. The leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were writing groveling speeches, ready to express their everlasting loyalty to Russia just in case. In front of the Russian parliament building the Russian military blinked and surrender notes were quickly shredded in favor of gloating declarations of independence. The second iteration of the Russian Empire as a world power built on the embers of Peter the Great’s mega-project of the late 1700’s lay in ruins.
The West was quick to establish its narrative of the events: fearless reformer (to many Russians clueless and criminal traitor) Gorbachev was blindsided while on vacation in the Crimea by old-guard reactionaries. Just in the nick of time vodka-infused populist Yeltsin clambered on top of a tank to save the day. The Evil Empire was no more.
A nationalist Russian website presents the same story from the perspective of a Russian parliamentarian Viktor Alksnis. In a wide ranging interview on the topic of the 1991 putsch attempt, Alksnis recounts comments made to him just recently by a high ranking Chinese official. Shaking his head in disbelief even after all these years, the modern-day Mandarin regretfully informed the Russian that on that fateful day Russia has failed to meet its “Tiananmen Square challenge”. How could the same people who fought the Nazis as junior lieutenants and commanded the tank divisions that suppressed the Hungarian and Czech uprisings fail so miserably in the face of two third rate politicos (Gorbachev and Yeltsin), he asked. We in China, when faced with a much more grass-roots uprising never hesitated. Necessary force was used to maintain civil order and the integrity of our revolution. Look at us now, he continued: we are the second and soon to be first world super-power. And you my friends have eggs on your faces, he seemed to be adding.
It is the nature of all Eastern empires such as Russia or China that their strength emanates from the center. In stark contrast to the mercantile Anglo-Saxon empires of England and subsequently America, it is the iron will of the ruler that holds it all together in the East. Weakness of will, whether from Tsar Nikolai II or from Chairman Gorbachev is inevitably fatal. When the center cannot hold, things unravel with lightning speed.
But Russia is not England; it will not be content as England was in the post-war years to look inward and be content with the status of a legacy power with its never to be exercised veto power on the UN Security Council. The Russian Empire as a world power was established by Peter the Great and his successor Catherine II at the same time that the US had its revolutionary war and England emerged as the premiere global empire. It has held this status ever since with only two interruptions: 1917 to 1945 and 1992 to the present day. Vladimir Putin is now quietly taking steps to strengthen the center; “weak” elements are getting weeded out, non-government sponsored corruption terminated, liberalism and globalism suppressed, insufficiently aggressive military leaders replaced. Once that project is complete, Russia will re-establish its historic role as a global superpower whether the West likes it or not.