MOSCOW — By the end of July 1991, the anger that was directed at Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had entered dangerous territory. Gorbachev and the leaders of the various republics had put the last finishing touches on a new treaty of union, and his conservative opponents viewed it as nothing less than a betrayal of communism and of the Soviet Union.
On July 24, hard-line communists published an appeal to the country’s armed forces, calling on them to save the nation from “humiliation” and “fratricidal war.” Among the signers were the deputy defense minister, Valentin Varennikov, and the deputy interior minister, Boris Gromov, who was a hero of the Afghan war. Their appeal immediately stirred fears of a possible military coup, though the consensus among political commentators in Moscow was that no one would dare to take that step.
The communists were incensed that Gorbachev was endorsing market-oriented reforms and were disgusted by his requests for help to the West.
“A huge, unprecedented disaster has occurred,” they wrote. “The Motherland, the country, our great power — passed down to us for preservation by history, nature and our great ancestors — is dying, falling apart and sinking into darkness and nothingness.”
But could the military stop this descent, even if it was so inclined? Soldiers had violently broken up demonstrations over the past few years in Baku, Tbilisi and Vilnius — but in Moscow? Would Soviet soldiers — conscripts all — actually take aim at the Russian protesters who were sure to pour out into the streets if there was an attempt to depose Gorbachev? No one knew, and the answer wouldn’t become clear until the third week of August.
As it happened, Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, was in Moscow the day the appeal was published. In a speech at a military training center here, he called the Soviet military “oversized” and “wasteful.” Discussing the promised shift away from military production in favor of consumer goods, he said, “You are not moving as rapidly in plant conversion as we had expected.”
If that didn’t stir the conservatives’ ire, a speech by Gorbachev the next day certainly did. Some thought he might have attempted to mollify his detractors at the opening of a session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Instead he went on the attack. He castigated the party’s “ossified dogmas,” praised market economies and criticized the Communists’ attachment to Marxism.
“In the past,” he said, “the party has recognized only Marxism-Leninism as the source of its inspiration, though the tenet was utterly distorted to suit the pragmatic needs of the day, becoming something of a collection of canonical texts.
“Now it has become necessary to include in our arsenal of ideas all the riches of our own and the world’s socialist and democratic thought.”
He said that the ideas of “class struggle” and “dictatorship of the proletariat,” upon which the Soviet Union was founded, had become hopelessly outdated in the last decade of the 20th century.
Gorbachev left no doubt that he planned to push through his new party program.
He was not on solid ground. A poll of Soviet citizens conducted by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press and released just a few days after Gorbachev’s speech, found overwhelming opposition to private ownership of basic industries, and general uneasiness about free-market economics. Russians and Ukrainians were more leery of reform than Lithuanians. In one telling result, only 10 percent of Russians said that newspapers should be in private hands.