These blinks give some revolutionary insights into an epoch-making time in Russia’s history. The author presents an oral history of Russia’s transition from Stalinism to capitalism in which she lets people who were there tell their stories. In Secondhand Time (2016), her witnesses tell us what it means to be Russian, then and now. All of them lived through this transitional period, but some did not survive.
On August 19, 1991 something extraordinary occurred in Moscow. A group known as the General Committee on the State Emergency (GKChP) staged a coup while the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was on vacation in Crimea. The coup, however, failed. In response, thousands of Muscovites poured onto the streets to protest, setting up barricades to halt the army tanks commanded by the GKChP.
Soon enough the soldiers sided with the protesters, and the GKChP backed down. Gorbachev had them arrested, including his own vice president. Just days later, on August 24, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This, in effect, dismantled the Communist Party itself. The Soviet era was brought to a close.
But it didn’t all happen in a flash. The dissolution effectively represented the culmination of what was known as perestroika, a period of unprecedented reform in Russia.
Let’s step back a bit. Perestroika had begun around 1985. Gorbachev had triggered reforms, releasing political prisoners as well as loosening restrictions on freedom of the press and speech.
Just imagine: in a vibrant city like Moscow, it must have felt like the clouds were lifting. Banned books were finally published. It seemed like the dawn of a new humane socialism. In this spirit, the atrocities of the Soviet prison camps were also revealed.
But Russia is big, and it certainly wasn’t just made up of Muscovite city slickers. Most people lived in villages and held their Communist values close to heart.
But neither side of the divide, no matter their opinions on perestroika, could have predicted what happened after the coup and the dissolution of the Communist Party.
Instead of evolving into a humane socialism, the country veered headfirst and unprepared into a quite different world: capitalism.