By Paul Goble
Russia is an historically saturated country in which the present and future are almost inevitably discussed in terms of the past. And that makes a Moscow commentary today about “the top five unsuccessful putsches in the history of Russia” especially intriguing.
Many have suggested that the Putin regime can’t be changed from below but only by the actions of those closest to him and that the future of that country will thus be determined not by a revolutionary upsurge on the part of the population but rather by a conspiracy within the elite against the Kremlin leader.
On the Svobodnaya pressa portal today, Moscow commentator Aleksandr Yevdokimov examines what he calls “the most significant putsches in the history of Russia” both to distinguish them from the October 1917 revolution which he insists was not one and to consider why they failed (svpressa.ru/post/article/171813/).
The first such putsch in Yevdokimov’s telling was the revolt of the streltsi in 1698, which failed according to him because those who started it did not have a clear program which would allow them to gain support beyond the narrow confines of the direct participants in the operation.
The second, the Decembrist uprising of 1825, was more than just a fight between the regime and disgruntled officers in Palace Square, he argues. It involved a conflict between two potential tsars, Konstantin and Nikolay. The first supported a more democratic approach for Russia’s future; the second backed authoritarianism and being more ready to act harshly won the day.
The third putsch, the Kornilov rising of August 1917, failed not only because of the overconfidence of its leader General Lavr Kornilov but also because those he was seeking to overthrow, the members of the Provisional Government of Aleksandr Kerensky, were prepared to form an alliance with their opponents on the left, the Bolsheviks. Kerensky armed them, they helped defeat Kornilov, and then they overthrew Kerensky.
The third failed putsch in Yevdokimov’s telling concerned plans by Soviet commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky to replace Stalin and his immediate entourage. As the commentator points out, “before the 20th CPSU Congress few had doubts that it was real, but until about 2000, few believed in its existence.”
In the last 15 years, the idea that Tukhachevsky really did plan to overthrow Stalin has gained support not only because of the writings of historians but also because of a popular television series that laid out the evidence in fictionalized form. Something clearly was afoot, Yevdokimov suggests.
Perhaps the best evidence is that Stalin’s moves against Tukhachevsky became the model 16 years later for Nikita Khrushchev’s actions against Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, whom the other members of the party leadership feared would launch a new purge beginning with themselves.
And the fifth failed putsch, of course, is the failed effort of those who plotted to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991. Those who led promised the Soviet people a better future and the recovery of the country’s pride, but beyond promises, they couldn’t do anything and could not mobilize the party or state on their behalf. Consequently, they failed.
Yevdokimov’s list of failed Russian putsches suggests that any future one would be likely to fail as well. But his commentary also makes clear that those who would hope to carry one out would need to avoid the errors of their predecessors, something that those now in power certainly know as well – and can be counted on to monitor and vigorously suppress.