This week The Record columnist Hal Colebatch continues his special four-part series looking back on the collapse of what once seemed to be a monolithic and global threat to societies everywhere.
By Hal Colebatch
On 7 January, 1991 Soviet paratroopers entered all three Baltic States, which the Soviet Union still counted as part of its own territory.
They were greeted by thousands of ethnic Russians, who broke into the Lithuanian Supreme Council building. In response to a call from the Lithuanian leader, Vitautas Lansbergis, Lithuanians rushed to protect the Parliament.
Gorbachev demanded the full restoration of the Soviet constitution in Lithuania, and on January 11, before there could be any response, Soviet troops began to occupy the airport and other parts of the city, firing on protestors. When about 5000 demonstrators formed a ring around the television station, Soviet troops stormed it, killing 15 and injuring 105.
There was no fig-leaf of an excuse about maintaining law and order. It was Imperialism in convulsions, a brutal effort to re-impose Russian sovereignty.
Whether or not Gorbachev gave these orders is unclear – he and everyone else in authority has since denied giving them.
Anyway, Gorbachev drew back, and it appears to be to his credit that the violence did not go further.
The Baltic States too were freed, and one of the great crimes of the Second World War and the Hitler-Stalin pact was at last rectified.
In the Soviet Union in 1991 the Communists made another desperate attempt to resist the tide of history.
They might have succeeded, at least for a long time. They seized Gorbachev, on holiday in the Crimea, and attempted to seize Moscow by a coup.
It was Yeltsin’s most splendid moment. Whatever mistakes he would make later, here he showed shining heroism and glory. He climbed upon a tank in front of the “White House” of the Russian Parliament and standing there roared defiance at the whole Soviet Union and its decades of tyranny:
“Soldiers, officers and generals! The clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country. They must not be allowed to bring eternal night! I believe in this tragic hour you can make the right choice. The honour and glory of Russian men of arms will not be stained by the blood of the people!” He called for a general strike and for Gorbachev to be freed.
The unarmed crowds waited for the Red Army to attack.
Twenty-four tanks advanced upon the White House, but as they approached its gates their guns swung around and they deployed not to attack Yeltsin’s centre of resistance but to guard it (according to some reports it was an heroic bluff – they had no ammunition).
When other tanks attempted to attack the White House thousands attacked them with their bare hands. The first to die was 28-year-old Illya Krichevsky, shot when he jumped onto a tank to try to reason with the driver. Two Afghan war veterans, Dmitri Komar, 23 and Vladimir Usov, 37, were crushed by the tank as they tried to retrieve Krichevsky’s body.
A Russian orthodox priest standing in the pool of blood where the men had died cried out; “Let us pray that God saves us from these horrors.” Rioting and fighting spread but more and more of the tank crews either joined the Moscow citizens or refused to advance. The Australian poet Bruce Dawe would liken Gorbachev and Yeltsin to the clapper and the bell: “Together we sounded tyranny’s knell.”
All across the crumbling Soviet Empire and its captive nations there were strikes and riots and the coup collapsed.
The tanks and armoured cars pulled out of Moscow and the joyous crowd waved the long-unseen red, white and blue flag of old Russia.
Gorbachev was freed, reinstated as President, and flown back to Moscow, but it was Yeltsin who was master of the situation. The Soviet Union existed in name still, but its “glue,” the Communist Party, had lost all its once-dreaded power and was impotent and dissolving.
The three who had died, Krichevsky, Komar and Usov, received State Funerals at which Gorbachev said: “It is difficult to speak, looking into those young faces and the eyes of their parents, but allow me on my behalf, and for the whole country, for all Russians, to bow low before these young people … We say goodbye to our heroes, our defenders, our saviours. Of course we are not saying goodbye to their names, because their names will be sacred to Russia.”
Outside the Lubyanka, the Moscow headquarters of the KGB, the towering statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Secret Police, who had created the “Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter Revolution and Sabotage,” was torn down, the final push being given by a Red Army soldier.
All round the Soviet Union and its former empire statues of Lenin and other Communist leaders were hurled down, along with the red stars that had dominated the Moscow skyline.
With the failure of the August 1991 coup, hopes of a Communist comeback evaporated.
The Warsaw Pact was dissolved. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev delivered a resignation speech on television. At midnight on December 31, 1991, the Soviet Union ended.
Earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI said bishops of former Communist countries needed to be ardent in their proclamation of the Gospel to overcome the difficulties inherited in those nations.
Was Communism ever a real danger to Australia? Probably not in the sense of a military invasion, at least as long as the British and US fleets were around, though a Communist regime in Indonesia, with or without the mad dictator Sukarno, and/or in other South East Asian States, would have made life very difficult and made taxes to pay for greatly expanded defence forces a great deal higher. Permanent conscription would have been likely. Civil liberties would have been badly compromised.
Gramscian internal subversion of institutions, religious and other organisations, values and social norms might have done great harm and with the inevitable domestic demoralisation perhaps the worst would have happened.
Lenin was right to say everything is connected to everything else. But we were fortunate to have some doughty, if not always recognised or thanked, culture-warriors on the right side. (At least one prominent lay philosophy teacher at a Catholic university has tried to make culture-warrior a term of abuse rather than honour).
BA Santamaria’s largely but not entirely Catholic industrial groups played a key role in expelling Communists from control of many key unions.
The fact that Communism world-wide killed, exclusive of war, about 100 million people, ruined lives in a multiple of that, played a direct part in bringing about the Second World War, whose death-toll is not included in the 100 million, and attempted to extinguish Christianity and a consciousness of God wherever it held sway, is sufficient answer as to whether or not it was worth opposing to the last inch.
Perhaps the most (unintentionally) funny comment I read about this was in a peculiar diatribe by one Max Charlesworth against BA Santamaria in 2000, exulting over the fact that anti-communism was dead: “Certainly Santamaria’s particular theory is as dead as the proverbial dodo.
“The whole raison d’etre of the anti-communist movement has vanished … Santamaria’s attempt to construct a new theory about religion and politics … has failed in practice.”
Well, yes, and I doubt an anti-Hitler movement would attract many recruits today either.
We who lived through the fall of Communism, who saw the rise of great, valiant and steadfast, spritual and political leaders whose lives were preserved by hairs’ breadths (more-or-less literally by hairs’ breadths in the cases of the Pope and the President – they would have died had the bullets that wounded them travelled the most fractionally different courses) may well believe we lived though a divine miracle.
Solzhenitsyn, too, who recovered from a highly malignant and long-untreated cancer, believed that he had been miraculously preserved. The gates of Hell did not prevail.
Of those who brought the fall of Communism about I cannot do better than conclude with John O’Sullivan’s words: “We have very different problems today, but every reason to hope. After all, to adapt Lady Thatcher’s resonant last line of her eulogy for President Reagan: We have an advantage they never had. We have their example.”