Thirty years after the Moscow coup, democracy is in a crisis of self-esteem

Rafael Behr

Much has been squandered since 1991, but the biggest threat to democracy today is the global contagion of cynicism

The Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, making his first appearance after the attempted coup in August 1991. ‘A democratic spirit was uncorked in 1991, but not irreversibly.’ The Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, making his first appearance after the attempted coup in August 1991. Photograph: Stephane Bentura/AFP/Getty Images‘A democratic spirit was uncorked in 1991, but not irreversibly.’ The Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, making his first appearance after the attempted coup in August 1991. Photograph: Stephane Bentura/AFP/Getty Images

On 19 August 1991, citizens of the Soviet Union woke up to the news that Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Communist party, was standing down due to ill health. That news was a lie, as many of those citizens had come to expect from their media. Tanks rolling through Moscow told the true story: a coup by politburo hardliners, determined to abort Gorbachev’s experiments in democratisation. They failed. The coup unravelled within two days. Five months later the USSR had ceased to exist.

No one in the west saw it coming, but shock at the unpredicted event yielded to conviction that it had been inevitable. The implosion of a superpower built to fulfil Marxist prophecy should have served as a warning against all claims to know the rules of history and chart its destination. But no. The fashionable idea took hold in western policy that liberal democracy was the ideological terminus.

Thirty years of hindsight have not improved that judgment. A democratic spirit was uncorked in 1991, but not irreversibly. Vladimir Putin has it rebottled. He has described the breakup of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, which should be preposterous even in Russia when world wars contend for that title, but the line resonates with people whose identity and national pride were fused with Soviet geography and institutions.

In The Light That Failed, the best account so far written of western liberalism’s failed transplant to the east, Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes draw a distinction between Communist party dictatorship and the USSR as a national homeland. Most Russians despised the former. The latter’s disintegration caused them chaos, poverty and heartbreak.

Conflation of the two made it hard for outside observers to comprehend the potency of Soviet nostalgia that was Putin’s most effective tool for discrediting democracy and consolidating his power. It also makes it pointless to classify Russia’s current regime in ideological terms bequeathed from a different era. Putinism is not obsessed with racial purity in the typically fascist style. Nor is it a class-based proselytising doctrine like Leninism. It doesn’t present itself as a coherent rival to democracy, except to the extent that it casts itself as more realistic about the power games to which all politics can, in a cynical analysis, be reduced.

The only doctrinal contagion from post-Soviet Russia is caustic anti-idealism – a nihilistic, trolling statecraft that treats arguments about universal rights and the moral superiority of democratic systems as pitiably naive or obscenely hypocritical. That case is easily assembled with reference to unsavoury regimes propped up by the Pentagon, corruption scandals and Washington’s hubristic military interventions.

The election of a showbiz potentate in the form of Donald Trump hardly advertised the judicious function of American democracy. His replacement by Joe Biden asserts the resilience of the constitution, but so far his presidency looks more like a respite from the malady than its remedy. In many European countries, moderate conservatives and social democrats are challenged or even supplanted by xenophobes and nationalists who emulate Putin’s methods and echo his analysis that the EU has ruined itself with mass immigration and degenerate social liberalism.

Today, it is hard to make an evangelical case for western power when the Taliban are reclaiming Kabul 20 years after their expulsion from the city. That humiliation has special resonance for Russians who remember the disastrous Soviet war in Afghanistan and the scenes of ragged withdrawal that rattled the country’s self-esteem as a superpower.

That isn’t a forecast of American decline. History is never so tidily symmetrical. The Soviet system was not predestined to collapse in the way that it did, but nor was it obviously fixable. Some Russian analysts look at the enduring might of the Chinese Communist party as the model of what might have been if the Moscow hardliners had prevailed in 1991. Setting aside the ethics of what that would have entailed (a Red Square massacre to match Tiananmen), the counterfactuals are too complex and China is unlike Russia in too many ways to know whether it could have worked.

In many respects the true successor state to the USSR is Belarus, which stuck with state economic control while Russia “reformed” its economy by means of oligarchic plunder. This week is also the first anniversary of the massive demonstrations in Minsk against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. But he remains in power, oppressing, kidnapping, torturing and murdering his critics. There are many dimensions to the Belarusian tragedy, but one is the accident of timing that saw a desperate bid for political freedom coincide with a phase of defensive introspection in the established democracies that might previously have been more robustly supportive.

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It is true that the west overreached and discredited itself in various post-cold war adventures, trying to export a system of government to inhospitable climates. It is also true that those mistakes have not dimmed the appetite for freedom and prosperity – democracy’s historic dividend – among people who actually live under the opposite conditions. Even Putin is afraid of that appetite one day exceeding his capacity to contain it with propaganda, fear and bribery.

Harried protesters in Belarus and terrified Afghans on the runway at Kabul airport have a pretty good idea of what they are missing, even if too many jaded westerners share the Kremlin view that human rights are a namby-pamby liberal affectation of little substance in a world governed by realpolitik.

Contemplating the prospects for Afghan refugees or Belarusian dissidents it is hard not to feel a terrible moral debilitation; a horror at having cycled back to square one, infused with rage and grief for the squandered decades that began with the west’s ill-judged cold war victory parade.

These questions might not be at the forefront of many British voters’ minds, but they are part of a malaise that afflicts our politics. It is not a crisis of democratic practice. There are no tanks on London streets or stolen elections. It is a crisis of democratic self-esteem, which becomes self-fulfilling. Without confidence that ours is a system worth cherishing, we become more vulnerable to the corrosive claim that it is a sham. That view is seductive because it seems to explain all manner of disappointments, and is paralysing because it obstructs creative thinking about reform and discourages participation. It is also wrong. Our disappointments are relative, and remediable, compared with the plight of those who do not have the luxury of taking democracy for granted.

Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist


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