Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union

Geoffrey Hosking looks at the place of Russia within the Soviet Union, a position fraught with paradoxes that still resonate today.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left one image that most of us remember: the Russian president Boris Yeltsin standing defiantly on top of a tank outside the White House, the Russian parliament building, on August 19th, 1991. The tank had been sent by the so-called ‘Emergency Committee’, which had ‘temporarily’ seized power in USSR in the absence of Soviet President Gorbachev (then on vacation), as part of a plan to arrest Yeltsin and put pressure on the Russian parliament. The Committee’s aim, as they put it in a proclamation to the people, was to ‘overcome the profound and comprehensive crisis, the political, ethnic and civil strife, the chaos and anarchy which threaten the lives and security of citizens of the Soviet Union and the independence of our fatherland.’


Seen on television cameras round the world, Yeltsin condemned the coup as ‘an anti-constitutional act’, an attempt to ‘remove from power the legally elected authorities of the Russian Republic’. He called on ‘the citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists’ and on all officials to ‘unswervingly adhere to the constitutional laws and decrees of the President of Russia’. His outspoken and courageous stand inspired Russians to come in their thousands to camp around the White House and defend it from possible assault. The junta decided not to open fire on such large numbers, and the coup collapsed.


Note the language of both sides. The Emergency Committee’s statement nowhere mentioned the Communist Party, nor did it display any trace of Marxist-Leninist thinking. Yeltsin’s response, for his part, was that of the legitimately elected leader of an established state.


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