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Russia Transformed:
Breakthrough to Hope, August 1991

by James H. Billington
Free Press, 202 pages, $19.95

Anyone eager for an inside and in-depth exploration of the New Russian Revolution of August 1991 can thank a watchful Providence that James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress and America’s foremost historian of Russian culture, just happened to be in Moscow on library business when Lenin’s Communist imperium finally imploded. For three days, Billington wove his way back and forth between the meetings he was scheduled to attend and the revolution he was, in a sense, born to cover. The result is a fascinating combination of fast-paced instant history and thoughtful cultural analysis.

The New Russian Revolution, Billington writes, was “one of those great mutations of history that defy traditional categories of explanation.” Which is not to say that those who never grasped the distinctive nature of Soviet totalitarianism haven’t tried to parse the events of August 1991 according to the tired orthodoxies of political “science.” But Billington insists that the revolution only comes into clear focus through a humanistic lens, indeed a moral lens: in the events of August 1991, “Russians unexpectedly found a way to affirm a new politics of hope” to replace the old “politics of fear.”

For all that the Bolsheviks perfected (so to speak) the use of terror and coercion, the politics of fear in Russia has a long and unhappy history. In an analysis of the continuities of Russian culture that offers a gentle challenge to, among others, the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Billington describes traditional Russian self-consciousness as a “negative nationalism derived from the traditional fears that exposed peoples on the steppe felt toward both external invaders and internal betrayal.” The ancient practice of autocracy fed a tradition of fanaticism on the part of the rulers. And this, in turn, generated countercurrents of fanatic resistance: utopian religious dissidents like the apocalyptically oriented “Old Believers” and the (often murderous and anarchistic) revolutionaries of the Russian intelligentsia, from whose ideological womb were eventually born the Bolsheviks.

Could this cyclical pattern, which trapped the Russian people in a vortex of political violence, ever be broken? When the Bolsheviks’ time ran out, would the “catharsis … be a nationalistic one based on purges, external enemies, and internal scapegoats, or a deeper, moral catharsis within individuals involving the rebirth of conscience and the transcending of violence?”

That was the deeper moral-cultural issue settled, for the time being at least, by those three stunning days in August 1991. And the key date, according to Billington, was August 19, the first day of the attempted coup. For it was on that day that what at first seemed to be the overwhelming weight of the coup plotters was countered by three elements: “the image of the leader, a circle of supporters, and the dispatch of messengers.”

The image was that of Boris Yeltsin proclaiming his defiance of the coup from atop a tank outside the White House, the home of the parliament of the Russian Republic. Here, Billington writes, was the “simple icon everyone needed to engage the emotions in a society where words have often been debased and where words alone have never been enough.”

The circle of supporters was the human wall that the democratic resistance formed around the White House. That spontaneous chain of nonviolent physical resistance made it clear that the mere threat of coercion was no longer sufficient to cow the populace. But the human wall did more than protect Yeltsin and those of his people who stood guard within the White House itself. The human wall projected a kind of irresistible moral power: “Like waves rolling outward from a central point, an alternative allegiance seemed to be radiating to the broader society.”

Moral power was happily (and necessarily) reinforced by bargaining, argument, and negotiation: thus the “dispatch of messengers” from within Yeltsin’s enclave to the army and KGB troops with which the coup plotters planned to crush the democratic resistance. Billington’s fine eye for detail is particularly evident here, in his narration of the debates that went on between Yeltsin’s emissaries and two key military units: with the leader of a tank battalion from the Red Army’s elite Tamansky Division, and with members of the KGB’s ruthless “Alpha” anti-terrorist unit, which had been assigned the task of storming the White House. By the end of those discussions, Billington argues, the calculus of coercion had been reversed: “The age of the Russian Rambos was over. The burden of fear had shifted from the populace at large to the KGB.”

Billington is also helpful in clarifying what Peter Jennings, John Chancellor, and the other great panjandrums of telepunditry found inexplicable in the aftermath of the failed coup: namely, Mikhail Gorbachev’s inability to grasp the revolutionary nature of the change that had taken place in his country while the plotters had him under house arrest in the Crimea. In truth, though, there was nothing very puzzling about this. For Gorbachev was never anything other than a reform Communist, “a pure child of [the] party elite,” as Billington describes him, the bright young man who made his mark managing the resort area of Stavropol, “where the overweight, geriatric [party] leadership came to take the waters at the spa.” Prior to his move to Moscow, in other words, Gorbachev was “the Russian equivalent of a chief lifeguard in Palm Springs.” Those American corporate and philanthropic executives now queuing up to fund the new “Gorbachev Foundation” might think about this.

Billington is too sophisticated an historian not to understand the truth of Chou En-Lai’s rejoinder when the Chinese Communist leader was asked, in the 1960s, about the impact of the French Revolution: “It is too early to tell.” But it is not too early, Billington suggests, to identify the three key influences that made it possible for the New Russian Revolution to break the historic and violent cycle of fanaticism and counter-fanaticism that had previously defined the rhythm of Russian political history.

The first influence was the West: particularly Western ideas, and most especially the Western ideal of an open, democratic society. This vision, Billington argues, and not the vision of “a more open, market economy,” is what “brought young Russia to the barricades” in August 1991. Gorbachev had offered the market (or a form of the market) without democracy. And that, as well as a return to the politics of mass coercion, was what the resistance rejected when it defied the coup and supported Yeltsin.

Here, Billington gives considerable credit to Ronald Reagan as the Western leader whose ability to articulate the vision of a law-governed democracy was crucial to the transformation of Russian consciences. “The very qualities that annoyed many of President Reagan’s critics at home—the simplicity of his message and the use of moralistic language (‘evil empire’)—found a certain resonance among Russians, who were beginning to cut loose from the sophisticated rationalizations in which Gorbachev was still trying to wrap his reform Communism.” Billington also stresses the impact of Western information technology, including radio broadcasts and that grail of the communications revolution, the copying machine. (“The eighth entry to the [Russian] Parliament building acquired a kind of reverential status, for that is where the xerox machine stood. It reproduced the edicts and bulletins that the Russian government was continuously issuing,” as a counter to the propaganda spewing forth from the official media controlled by the coup plotters.)

The second key influence on the events of August 1991 was the transformation of politics in the Russian hinterlands. Long a bastion of reactionary Communist orthodoxy, Siberia had undergone dramatic change: by the early 1990s, “Siberia was no longer the place that received exiles from the authoritarian center. It was sending to that center elected radical democrats from a resurgent periphery.” Billington’s description of the historical demographics of this crucial reversal is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which, over time, the coercive powers of a state can gestate the very antibodies that eventually attack, and destroy, the virus of repression.

Then there was religion—the “depth of Rus,” as Billington styles it. Unlike those Western commentators who remained stuck in the analytical tar pits of secularism, Billington was acutely aware of the renaissance of Russian Orthodoxy that was taking place at the popular level while the West focused almost exclusively on the elite processes of glasnost and perestroika. And thus Billington found it altogether fitting, and perhaps even providential, that the New Russian Revolution took place in a period of time “framed by the Feasts of the Transfiguration and the Assumption.”

Due credit is given to Patriarch Alexei II for his “anathema against fraternal bloodletting,” issued at 1:30 a.m. on August 21, just before the anticipated “Alpha” assault on the White House. But Billington leaves open the still-unresolved question of the patriarch’s initial reaction to the coup, and concentrates his attention on the crucial roles played by such modern martyr-confessors as Father Aleksandr Men and Father Gleb Yakunin in the recovery and reconstruction of the national conscience. Here, Billington argues, was born the “realization that overcoming totalitarianism meant breaking with the enslaving passion for revenge that fed into the Communist culture of vengeance and scapegoatism.” Thus the nonviolence of the democratic resistance was neither an accident nor simply a matter of smart tactics. It was a matter of moral conviction.

Billington closes his memoir by citing Václav Havel: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” And it is, of course, indeed too early to tell whether the New Russian Revolution will turn out well. The achievement of Russia Transformed is not in James Billington’s capacity to predict the future. It is in his profound understanding, and eloquent expression, of the meaning of the recent past:

“The violent twentieth century ended as it had begun, with guns in August. But unlike the massive imperial artillery barrages that opened the First World War in August 1914, the Cold War ended in August 1991 with all guns silent. They had been swept up into a carnival of hope at the heart of the last of the empires, and covered with flowers on the Feast of the Transfiguration.”

George Weigel's most recent book, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Photo by Michael Parulava on Unsplash. Image cropped.