Over 28 years ago, at 7 pm on December 25, 1991, as the rest of the planet 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 continental state forged by Vladimir I. Lenin. 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 suitcase, called by the Americans with Strangelovian fondness as the “football”, containing the nuclear codes for the Soviet President to launch all-out and unrestrained nuclear war.
This was contrary to the agreement between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In that script, Yeltsin was to call on the Soviet President and receive it from him. So Marshal Shaposhnikov improvised and persuaded Gorbachev to let 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 heralded the end of the Soviet Union as this one event. The end of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was in fact signed three weeks earlier on December 8, at a hunting lodge at Belovezh deep in a forest in Belarus. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belavezhskaya Accords. The three Presidents, Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislaw Shuskevich of Belarus announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of a voluntary Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. This was the original Russian heartland, but even this did not survive the upheaval that followed.
Winter in Russia is quite unique. It is a season of brooding and darkness as the cold envelops Russia’s unique and 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 1917’s October Revolution was mostly played out in the winter that followed. But the most dramatic winter play was 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 Russians outside Moscow lived. We stayed in Vladivostok’s only hotel for foreigners and were plied with a diet of fried fish, watery cabbage soup and black bread for all four days. This was very unlike the grand Hotel Ukraina in Moscow, where the foreigners had a restaurant to themselves well stocked with meats, cheeses, breads and other goodies denied to the average Russian. Providentially the Indian embassy had provisioned our group with some tinned fruit, condensed milk, instant coffee and breakfast cereal.
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. At that time the official rate of the Soviet ruble was still one US dollar, but the shadow exchange rate was 1:14. The flat, a few kilometres 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. The flat was carved out of a single room in a former Czarist-era palatial home. Food was not available for love or money, but there was a lot of love available for food or money. Russians were destitute in their own country. In the small store that stood outside the Indian embassy the shelves were bare. As were the shelves in Moscow’s famous GUM store on Red Square facing the Kremlin.
In late June 1991, I had occasion to tell Jitendra Prasada, political adviser to then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, about what I saw in Russia. I told him that we were on the verge of something significant and that the events in Russia may lead to a shakeup hitherto unthinkable. He arranged for a meeting with Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, minister of state at the PMO. The PM was briefed and a few weeks later, at his 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 external affairs ministry in New Delhi, and particularly the Indian ambassador in Russia, were not willing to accept this view. Ambassador Alfred Gonsalves was unwilling to acknowledge that the Soviet Union was going down. Over lunch at his elegant villa at Vorontsovo Polye (Ulitsa Obukha), he extolled the resilience of the Russian people and the power of the Red Army (he called it the vanguard of the revolution), and said that the Soviet economy will soon recover and it will be Gorbachev who will soon
After I briefed the PMO a second time, the ambassador, who was on a visit to New Delhi, was asked to meet me. He graciously invited me for lunch at the India International Centre, where he berated me for peddling unfounded fears to the PM. He reiterated that the USSR was eternal and the Red Army was the vanguard of the revolution which would ensure the longevity of the Soviet Union. He urged me not to fill the PM with unfounded inferences and confidently predicted that I would soon be proved wrong.
In the immediate wake of the failed KGB coup in August, the PM did make 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 MEA know-alls were quick to deride the PM for being hasty and uninformed. My friend the ambassador gloated. The day was saved by a revolt in the Red Army, with Marshal Shaposhnikov leading the rejection of Marshal Yazov’s order to arrest Boris Yeltsin.
But contrary to expectations, Yeltsin soon became a figurehead for legitimacy over a chaotic system. Yeltsin’s fondness for Kristall vodka saw Russia descend into an oil-dependent profligacy. This saw the emergence of Vladimir Putin from being an obscure aide to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak to the highest offices in the Kremlin and then as Yeltsin’s successor. The promise of Russia becoming a Western-style democracy faded as Mr Putin and his band of siloviki (former security officers) took charge. Russia stabilised and a new hard state emerged. Mr Putin has been in power for 24 years now, and even if his constitution holds up, constitutionally he will have to cede power in 2024.
From the recent events in Russia, such as the September protests on Sakharov Avenue, it would seem that the more vocal sections of Russia, the very people who benefited most by the stability and economic growth during the Putin era, are now tiring of him. Very much like the perfumed class turned out for the Anna Hazare protests in New Delhi. The social networks are searing the ether with their incendiary messages. But will it change Russia?
Those of us who have lived in a democratic society know now that democracy is not always about majority rule by a vote exercised once every four or five years. It is now a constant engagement that requires frequent reaffirmations of faith. The communications age has seen to this. This makes the classes who traditionally eschewed the voting booth queue almost daily players in the ideas and views exchange that has come into being. To compound his problems, Mr Putin’s image has been corroded by overexposure. In this new modern age, personality cults are quickly demolished. Many observers see a new institutional mechanism by which Mr Putin will prevent a descent into chaos once again by creating a structure akin to China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) to guide Russia. Let us not forget that China’s Deng Xiaoping held on to the CMC long after he ceded day-to-day political power. Spring might have to wait for a while.