Paul Josephson, author of Lenin's Laureate: Zhores Alferov's Life in Communist Science, on the August 1991 Soviet coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.
Twenty years ago, on a hot summer day in late August, communist hardliners staged a coup to depose Mikhail Gorbachev. They rejected Gorbachev’s reforms of perestroika that had led to political liberalization if economic uncertainly, and to widespread questioning of communist orthodoxy. Indeed, on August 20, 1991, Gorbachev and leaders of several other Soviet republics were to meet in Moscow to sign a new union treaty that would have decentralized power from the Kremlin. To hardliners, this was an unacceptable step toward the dissolution of the USSR. On August 19, 1991, they placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his summer home in Crimea and sent troops and tanks into Moscow to secure power.
I “watched” the coup from television in the US. The Gorbachev reforms enabled the presence of cable TV, telephone and other media as never before under Soviet power. I had spent a lot of time in the USSR in the late 1980s during perestroika. What heady times! Every week and every day brought a new development in Soviet society, economy and polity. Many intellectuals, even conservative intellectuals, at first embraced fully those reforms. They USSR had stagnated under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership. The economy grew slowly, consumer goods were in short supply, and ideological controls over the cultural sphere led to a gray and colorless daily life.
Such leading scientists as Zhores Alferov embraced the Gorbachev reforms to reinvigorate science and education. I met with Alferov several times in Moscow and could feel his excitement over the future of the reforms. (Physicist Andrei Sakharov also embraced perestroika, but he pushed Gorbachev to go further, to embrace true democracy and willingly permit the rise of other political parties.)
But instead of a rejuvenated USSR, the economy went into free fall, and the hardliners determined to “save” the Soviet Union. Fortunately, their efforts failed. Reformers, including Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, railed the public in the streets and turned the army against the coup plotters who wavered and gave up.
The Soviet Union did break up at the end of 1991, but with it the scientific enterprise lost its financial support and esteemed status. Alferov reaffirmed his communist affiliation in the 1990s to save his beloved science from what he believed were misguided policies of the Russian government.