The Russian Spring in the Winter of 1991
And winters are as usual - cold and dark.
Twenty-seven ago at 7 pm on December 25, 1991, as the rest of the world celebrated Christmas, Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the world that he was resigning as President of the Soviet Union and formally pronounced the end of the giant communist state forged by VI Lenin. (Christmas is celebrated in Russia on January 7 which is the day as per the Gregorian calendar).
No sooner had Gorbachev finished, the Red Flag came down from the top of the Senate Dome in the Kremlin for the last time. At the same time Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the defence chief, arrived at Gorbachev's office to collect the “chemodanchik” or the Soviet version of the black briefcase, called by the Americans with Strangelovian fondness as the "football". It contained the nuclear codes for the Soviet President to launch all out and unrestrained nuclear war.
This was contrary to the agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In that script Yeltsin was to call on the last Soviet President and receive it from him. So Shaposhnikov improvised and cajoled Gorbachev into letting him sign for it. Thus this symbol of supreme power quietly left Mikhail Gorbachev and went over to Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Federation, who was waiting for them elsewhere in the Kremlin. Nothing symbolized the end of the Soviet Union as this one event.
The end of the Union of the Soviet Socialist States (USSR) was in fact signed three weeks earlier on December 8, in a hunting lodge at Belovezh, deep in a forest in Belarus, behind the back of the USSR President by the four presidents of the biggest Soviet republics -Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Stanislaw Shuskevich of Belarus.
Winter in Russia is quite unique. It is a season of brooding darkness and vodka fumes as the cold envelopes Russia's unique landscape and its mostly untamed vastness. It is also a season of change and defeat for those who seek to stain Russia's honor and to possess it. Napoleon and Hitler being the most recent. Even the October Revolution 1917 was mostly played out in the winter that followed. But the most dramatic winter play was in the events that led to the climactic arrival of a political spring and a new political beginning in the winter of 1991.
Twice that year I visited the USSR. The first trip took me from Moscow to Vladivostok, where I saw how the average Russian outside Moscow lived. I was in a team of Indians invited to a conference called by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to proclaim the thawing of the Cold War. The Indian, US and Vietnam delegations were to be the first foreign civilians to visit the biggest of the Soviet Union’s closed cities. We stayed in Vladivostok’s only hotel for foreigners and lived on a monotonous diet of fish, watery cabbage soup and black bread for all meals on all four days. Providentially the Indian Embassy had provisioned our group with some tinned fruit, condensed milk, instant coffee, breakfast cereal and some good Scotch whiskey. The Americans led by Strobe Talbot were unprepared and we partly repaid the PL 480 debt by sharing our embassy provided rations and victuals with the Americans.
The second time I stayed in a small Moscow apartment belonging to an old Russian widow, who for a small dollar price agreed to part with her state allotted home for a few days. The flat, a few kilometers away from the Indian Embassy at Ulitza Obhuka, was as tiny as they come. The bedroom had enough place for just a single bed. The living room was of the same size and had a sofa cum bed. The kitchen was tiny and bare. The bathroom was not much bigger than a train toilet. Food was not available for love or money but there was a lot of love available for food or money. In the small store that stood outside the Indian embassy the shelves were bare, as were the shelves in Moscow's famous GUM store facing the Kremlin.
I wanted to experience typical Russian life and got plenty of it. The ruble was officially on par with the US dollar, but on the street the dollar fetched a dozen rubles at least. And for a carton of Marlboro cigarettes (then $8 in Delhi’s duty free) Russian cabbies would drive you all over Moscow for as long as one wanted. Such was the plight of the other super power.
After the first visit, I had occasion to tell a few of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao top officials about what I saw in Russia. I told them that we were on the verge of something significant and that events in Russia may lead to a shakeup hitherto unthinkable. At their suggestion I made a second and longer visit to Russia that ended just a couple weeks ahead of the KGB led abortive coup in August 1991.
It only reinforced my views and but the Ministry for External Affairs in New Delhi, and particularly the Indian Ambassador in Russia, were not willing to accept this view.
After my meeting with officials at the PMO following the second visit, the then Indian Ambassador who was on a visit to New Delhi met me for lunch at the India International Center and soundly berated me for peddling unfounded fears to the PM. He said that the USSR was eternal and that the Red Army was the vanguard of the revolution and will ensure the longevity of the Soviet Union. He urged with me not to fill the PM with unfounded inferences and confidently predicted that I will be proved wrong.
In the immediate wake of the failed KGB coup of August 17, the MEA officials did prevail upon the PM to making a mild comment deriding the pace of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. But with the return of a somewhat diminished Gorbachev from his confinement in Foros on the Black Sea, the know-alls in New Delhi were quick to deride the PM for being hasty and uninformed. The day was saved for the Gorbachev by a revolt in the Red Army with Shaposhnikov leading to the rejection of Marshal Yazov's order to arrest Boris Yeltsin. It set off the new arrangements that were to put the USSR into a steep dive. And lead it to the spring in the middle of winter.
A few years ago it seemed that spring was once again coming back to Russia in winter. That December there was a spontaneous gathering at Moscow's Chishty Prudy park agitating against what they said was Vladimir Putin’s rigged election. A huge protest meeting that lit up Moscow followed this and the airwaves beamed it to all of Russia.
It would seem that the more vocal sections of Russia, the very people who benefited most by the stability and economic growth during the dozen Putin years, are now tiring of him. The social networks are searing the ether with their incendiary messages. Whether the United Russia Party rigged the polls on the scale being suggested, the fact is Russia was not united by the thought of four more years of Putin.
But the USA threw Putin a lifeline by supporting the protestors and by doing so rallied the Russian sense of patriotism to shore up Putin’s place in Russian hearts and minds. He has not looked back since. The US led embargo following the Russian annexation of the Crimea has brought Russia and China close after decades of frostiness after the split of 1960 that followed Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin. Putin is now much stronger than before and spring has been coming back each year at the usual time. And winters are as usual - cold and dark.