by Martin Sixsmith
It has been 25 years since the collapse of the
After nearly a decade of reporting from the
Their template for seizing power seemed to be the ousting of Nikita Khrushchev by the Leonid Brezhnev clique in
When I spoke to Muscovites on the streets, I found some who agreed with the coup leaders, attracted by their promises to revive the economy, end the shortages and re-establish the USSR as a superpower. But there was defiance, too, with civilians haranguing the troops or standing in the way of the tanks.
I watched a detachment of armoured vehicles encircle the Russian Parliament building, belching acrid smoke, churning up the tarmac of the Moskva River embankment. And I witnessed the crucial moment of political theatre when Boris Yeltsin clambered onto the top of a tank to urge the Russian people to unite against the coup.
What had changed since 1964 was that the Russian people were no longer resigned to the ineluctability of a political process played out by shadowy cliques in the Kremlin. Khrushchev's reforms were carried out within the rules of the system, so the system, with unchecked power concentrated in the hands of the Party's ruling elite, could oust him. But Gorbachev's glasnost policy had changed the system: it had encouraged the people to have a say in politics and now they were determined to make their voice heard.
Glasnost was what allowed Boris Yeltsin's Russian Parliament to become the Alamo of democracy. It was the reason that thousands of men and women risked their lives to defend it. I watched them form a human shield around the building and waited with them for the attack to come. But when it came to the reckoning, the hardliners balked at massacring civilians. They ordered the tanks back to barracks, the coup collapsed and its leaders were arrested. Instead of restoring communist power, they had destroyed it. The Party was outlawed and in
I was convinced - and said in my reports - that autocracy was dead in Russia, that centuries of repression would be thrown off and replaced with liberty and democracy. But I was wrong.
For the next decade, Russia tried to turn itself into a western-style market democracy but slid instead into runaway inflation, ethnic violence and chaos. The following years, from 2000 onwards, have seen that process largely reversed. The country is stable and relatively prosperous now, but democracy and freedom once again take second place to the demands of the state.
Back in 1991, I should probably have known better. In the grip of
"Merry Christmas to all Americans across our great country! During these last few months, we have witnessed the historic transformation of a totalitarian dictatorship, the
The message was clear: the United States had wiped out autocracy in Russia, 'American values' had triumphed and
At the urging of his American advisers, President Yeltsin agreed to a programme of 'economic shock therapy'. But when price controls were lifted inflation hit four hundred percent. State spending and services were slashed; sickness and infant mortality rose, along with alcoholism and suicide. People's savings were wiped out.
In late 1992, Yeltsin announced the world's biggest privatisation exercise. To denationalise
In the second act of his presidency, Yeltsin reneged on much of his promised democracy, but still failed to restore order. When Vladimir Putin finally undid the democratic reforms of the 1990s, Russians applauded. They wanted order and didn't mind if Putin suspended civil rights to provide it. Few demanded a return to the Yeltsin era;
For the past twenty years an annual opinion poll has asked the question 'does Russia need to be ruled by an iron fist?' The average of positive responses has been between forty and 45 percent, with an additional twenty to thirty percent agreeing that 'at times Russia needs all power concentrated in one set of hands'. Autocracy has been
It is tempting, of course, to ask if things could be different now. For one thing, Putin and
The immediate signs are not encouraging. Vladimir Putin has achieved many things, but a law governed state is not one of them. The pantomime of his withdrawal from power has been revealed for the subterfuge it was: like Ivan the Terrible withdrawing to the Oprichnina, he was always going to come back.
It is not for nothing that democratic societies have enshrined the inviolability of constitutional and electoral law. It is a free society's best guarantee of security and independence. But Putin has shown contempt for the law. He has sent a clear message to future autocrats and would-be rulers-for-life that authority need not derive from the rule of law. The power of the autocrat is bound by no such constraints.
Martin Sixsmith is a former
"Russia: Twenty-Five Years On"