Soviet Days Of August

There is a cluster of days, starting with today, in 1991 and before which were fateful for the Soviet Union.

August 23, 1939: Foreign Ministers Vyacheslav Molotov (Soviet Union) and Joachim von Ribbentrop (Germany) signed an agreement not to go to war against each other. It included a secret protocol in which the two countries divided up the territories between them: Finland, Poland, the Baltic States, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Germany invaded Poland in September, and the Soviet Union invaded Finland in November. That was the start of World War II. The Soviet Union took the Baltic states in June 1940, but a year later, Germany invaded them. In 1944, the Soviets returned to drive the Germans out.

August 23, 1989: People in the Baltic states, now republics of the Soviet Union, formed a chain, holding hands from Tallinn to Vilnius to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. At that time, the Soviet Union refused to recognize that the secret protocol to the pact existed. Although the Baltic states were under Soviet rule, most other nations did not recognize this and dealt with Baltic governments in exile. This is the situation now with the Russian occupation of Crimea. Mikhail Gorbachev was First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and there was unrest across the Soviet Union and its satellites. In October, Gorbachev gave the satellite countries (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany) autonomy from Soviet Communist rule.

August 19, 1991: Soviet military personnel stage a coup against Gorbachev. Lithuania had declared independence in March 1990, and several other Soviet republics were moving toward independence. Gorbachev was considering liberalizing the Soviet constitution to allow more freedom to the republics. The coup plotters felt that Gorbachev was betraying the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was weakened, and Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic, strengthened himself politically by standing against the plotters. The coup failed, but it assured the end of the Soviet Union. Over the next several days, Latvia, Estonia, and most of the other republics declared independence. (New York Times, BBC, Association for Diplomatic Studies) Through the next months, other republics declared independence, and finally, on December 25, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved.



Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.

56 replies
  1. 1
    debbie says:

    My Latin teacher was from Latvia. The chill that took over the room when anyone referenced the Soviet Union was palpable!

  2. 2
    Ruckus says:

    The Baltic states reference 1.2 million people stood in that line. Damn that’s dissent. Especially given the people they were dissenting to and about.

  3. 3

    Huh – another anniversary today.

  4. 4
    Suzanne says:

    @debbie: My cousin’s wife is from Lithuania. Similar outlook, though she was a child when Lithuania became independent.

    I was 11 in 1991, but I definitely remember this. What a time. I didn’t understand how important it was until I was older.

  5. 5
    Mary G says:

    Did Putin participate in the coup or was it military only? Returning Russia to pre-Gorbachev status is his goal. The New Yorker has an article by David Remick about how fragile freedom of the press can actually be, using the example of Russia:

    This was three decades ago. It’s nearly impossible to relay now how thrilling that time was, how disorienting it was, and what a challenge all this truth was to millions of people raised in the Soviet system. It’s even harder to imagine having so much of that progress taken away—which is what happened in Russia not long after Vladimir Putin rose to power. To watch Russian television news now is to be thrown back in time; the level of propaganda and the slavish fealty to the Great Leader is familiar to anyone old enough to have lived in the years before Gorbachev.

  6. 6

    […] Cross-posted to Balloon Juice. […]

  7. 7

    @Mary G: Putin was a lowly functionary in East Germany while the coup was going on. The coup plotters were older guys, some with serious alcohol problems, which was part of why they didn’t succeed.

    Putin was furiously burning secret papers. He was probably frightened at what might happen to him as an occupier from a decomposing country. The Baltic states remained mostly peaceful, but the Ceaucescus, the leaders in Romania, were killed.

    He probably sees Gorbachev as a traitor to the Soviet Union, but it’s not clear that the Soviet Union is his model. Possibly Tsarist Russia with nukes.

  8. 8
    Mike in NC says:

    @Mary G:

    the level of propaganda and the slavish fealty to the Great Leader is familiar to anyone old enough to have lived in the years before Gorbachev.

    Sort of like FOX News and its treatment of Trump today.

  9. 9
    zhena gogolia says:

    @Mike in NC:

    And Putin today on any TV station.

  10. 10
    zhena gogolia says:

    @Mike in NC:

    Oops, didn’t read the original quotation.

  11. 11
    debbie says:


    My mother’s father was from Latvia (or so we believed until at the end of her life, she apologetically said it might have been Lithuania). I don’t think anyone on that side of the family was ever inclined to care about politics.

    I also remember a piano teacher from Hungary who, after a year of teaching me piano, very suddenly had to leave for Argentina. Not quite sure what was going on, but the irony of teaching piano to a Jewish girl…

  12. 12
    Chetan Murthy says:


    What a time. I didn’t understand how important it was until I was older.

    I was 26 at the time. And I feel the same way about it. It’s tough to remember, when we see kids being naive and foolish about politics, that we were that way once. Except for historians, it takes decades of slow osmosis to learn enough history to really understand what’s happening around us. And even then, one can’t be sure one really *does* understand.

  13. 13
    Mary G says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Yeah, he’s definitely the only one he thinks should count. No central committees for Vlad! @Mike in NC: Trump’s ideal world when he is Putin here, but I don’t think America will stand for it, or at least I hope so.

  14. 14
    Suzanne says:

    @debbie: My mom had a friend at work who disappeared one day. Turned out the friend’s father was a Nazi war criminal, a commandant at a concentration camp. Here’s a story about it.

  15. 15

    August was important for the subcontinent too. India got its independence on August 15th, the Quit India Movement was launched in August of 1942.

  16. 16
    sdhays says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Except I haven’t read about any moves to install his own offspring as his successor. Maybe that’s on his TODO list?

  17. 17

    Was Putin inevitable. Could the United States have done anything to stop that?

  18. 18
    Another Scott says:

    Herbert Stein’s Law: If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.

    What I took from the “rapid” collapse of the USSR is:

    1) Stein’s Law applies to politics, too.

    2) Ultimately, governments (even repressive ones) depend on the consent of the governed. If enough people want the government to change, it will change or it will end.

    3) Change can happen very, very quickly once it starts.

    Those were amazing times.

    An online friend blames the US and NATO for things not turning out better and for the rise of Putin, and of course there’s no doubt that the US and the EU could have done many things better (especially in hind-sight), but I’ve never found those arguments compelling. Sovereign countries need to be able to join alliances and political groupings of their choosing. NATO expansion could have probably been done differently (imagine Russia joining NATO!), but Eastern European countries had very good reasons for wanting to join and Russia should not have had a veto. (Maybe stringing out the joining process would have made sense.)

    Giving up “spheres of influence” is an important success in world politics and was done for good reasons after 1945. Vlad may not like it, but tough – he has to lump it.


  19. 19

    @debbie: All my non-Russian friends from behind the iron curtain except one, absolutely hated the Soviet Union.

  20. 20

    @sdhays: Apparently Putin has two daughters. He has been very secretive about them. One, IIRC, is married to a Kazakh gazillionaire and seems like she might be the heir apparent, so far as that goes.

    The danger seems to be that he has not prepared any successor. When he dies, there will be a struggle the likes of which Russia hasn’t seen since 1953, Or if someone ambitious manages to escape Putin’s scrutiny (seems unlikely now), it may happen before he dies.

  21. 21
    Chetan Murthy says:

    @schrodingers_cat: There’s two old jokes about the Soviet Union and Communism:

    (1) there were no communists left alive in the Soviet Union after 1921

    (2) An African dictator’s son is college-age. The dictator insists he goes to university in a Warsaw Pact country, rather than in the West. His reasoning: that way, he’ll never become a Communist.

  22. 22
    Jay says:

    @Another Scott:

    If the West had extended the same aid and assistence to Russia, that they extended to the Warsaw Pact nations, things could have turned out different.


  23. 23
    debbie says:


    You know, I think I remember this. It was a much bigger deal in New York than the rest of the country. This especially:

    But Mari Rikken, vice president of the Coalition for Constitutional Justice, a group made up largely of East European emigres and their families, said she was ”deeply disappointed” that Mr. Reagan would ”allow this to happen – that he’s going to begin feeding Baltic patriots to the Soviet bear.”

    ”Linnas,” she asserted, ”is only the first of many.”

  24. 24

    @schrodingers_cat: Putin managed to cozy up to Yeltsin and his family, and Yeltsin designated him his successor. He worked reasonably smoothly with the US for a while, was the first to call George Bush and offer help after 9/11.

    I tend to believe that the influence of one nation over internal events in another is very limited, if both are independent. Russia has a brief against the US, some of which Another Scott mentions. I think the US made some mistakes in the 1990s. Yes, some of us were thinking seriously about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. But Russia didn’t do itself any favors with internal corruption and maximal expectations of its role in an expanded NATO.

  25. 25
    debbie says:


    I think so, especially once Yeltsin took over.

  26. 26
    debbie says:

    @Another Scott:

    I’m no historical scholar, but I think those very same conditions brought down the Czar. I recently read a historical novel about Anastasia and the afterword detailed the absolute viciousness of the Bolsheviks. It was terrifying just to read about.

  27. 27
    Viva BrisVegas says:


    Was Putin inevitable. Could the United States have done anything to stop that?

    You would have needed the West to pay for a new Marshall Plan for Russia which wasn’t going to happen.

    Instead Yeltsin was a drunken buffoon who allowed the crown jewels of the Soviet Union to be stolen by mafiosi in Armani suits.

    The West, especially the US, thought that this was capitalism and just what the Russians needed.

    It turned out to be a kleptocracy which has kept the Russian people in perpetual peonage. Maintained by a new Czar.

    In other words it is now the model for the modern Western economy as far as as our financial overlords are concerned.

  28. 28
    Enhanced Voting Techniques says:

    Speaking of the Soviet Union I am reading Stephen Kotkin’s Staling; Waiting for Hitler and I highly recommend it. It’s Stalin in all his horrible glory and lot of it in Stalins’ own words quite fascinating.

  29. 29
    Chetan Murthy says:

    @schrodingers_cat: Putin was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. And the oligarch system was by that point well-established. It was asked over at LG&M: to what extent was the US (and the West) responsible for the collapse of law and order in Russia? And the consensus seemed to be that sure sure we could have “tried” to help the forces of law and order. But there’s only so much you can do to affect another state, short of suborning their government. And at that point, there were too many people trying to do a smash-and-grab on various pieces of the Russian economy. Just too many. It’s true that Americans (Sachs, Shliefer [spit], and others) were involved and gave ideological cover to the thieves. But if it hadn’t been them, it would have been others: there’s always economics and political scientists for hire (as we see from our own nation’s travails).

    I read someplace that democracy doesn’t often grow directly out of dictatorship. Usually, there’s an interregnum of “rule of law by the dictator” and growth of a middle class, that is both invested in rule of law, and serves as a constituency for democracy to arise from, later. There just wasn’t time for all that to happen in Russia. Maybe it will do so in China. Maybe.

  30. 30
    Jay says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Putin phoned Rice, and while he expressed sorrow, he didn’t offer aid, but instead, offered to “freeze” US/Russian disputes.

    Howard, who was in DC at the time, was the first to offer aid by invoking the ANZAC Pact.

  31. 31
    James E Powell says:


    Was Putin inevitable. Could the United States have done anything to stop that?

    I don’t know that he or anyone else is inevitable, but the ability of the United States to control what people in Russia do is so limited as to be almost non-existent.

  32. 32

    @Enhanced Voting Techniques: Kotkin’s bio of Stalin is magnificent.

  33. 33
    PJ says:

    @Viva BrisVegas: Those mafiosi were more or less enabled by Western bankers and academic advisors (hello, Jeffrey Sachs!) who pushed for immediate privatization of industries and businesses without any concomitant development of securities and business law, or political institutions or NGOs to consider, understand, and explain these changes to the public, who had lived more than 70 years without private enterprise (except for black market, i.e., criminal, activity). The banks and advisors would all be paid handsomely for it, but it was a recipe for screwing everyone but well-connected party members.

  34. 34
  35. 35
    PJ says:

    @James E Powell: The US backed Yeltsin and Putin throughout the 90s, knowing that Yeltsin was an incompetent, drunken, buffoon, and apparently not knowing anything about Putin. The end of the Communist Party created a power vacuum, and existing organizations, namely the KGB and the mafia, were there to take advantage of it. If there had been an equivalent of a Marshall Plan for Warsaw Pact countries, it surely would have ameliorated things and have gone a long way to developing civil institutions, particularly the rule of law. There was no way Clinton was going to get Congress to approve assistance on that level (he didn’t even try to float it), but the thirst from Wall Street to begin the looting was evident at the time. Who cares about the Russians, or the future? We won! We’re No. 1! Suck on that, bitches!

  36. 36
    Chetan Murthy says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: I read _In the Court of the Red Tsar_ by Simon Sebag Montefiore 15yr ago or so, and found it gripping. It’s more of a “social” history of Stalin, rather than of his political acts.

  37. 37
    HinTN says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Tsarist Russia with nukes

    Captures my assessment well.

  38. 38
    Suzanne says:

    @debbie: Yeah, it was a big deal. A few years ago, I helped my mom find more information about the case, because Linnas’ youngest daughter was her friend, and due to circumstances, my mom never knew what happened to her (the family was obviously completely quiet about their past and they lived very low-key lives on Long Island). It is seriously like a Who’s Who in future New York politics, including our dear friend Rudy in the prosecutor’s office.

  39. 39
    Ruckus says:


    The banks and advisors would all be paid handsomely for it, but it was a recipe for screwing everyone but well-connected party members.

    I’m not sure but I believe that I see some similarities within our current US situation…….

  40. 40
    HinTN says:

    @schrodingers_cat: Yeltsin was too weak to have been helped and the “times” were moving too fast for our abilities to respond, so perhaps not.

  41. 41
    Damned at Random says:

    @Chetan Murthy: You might check out The Commissar Vanishes by David King about removing photographic evidence of “undesirables” during the Stalin Years. Real 1984 shit.;_ylt=Awr9DRX2_XlbHmYAJQJXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTEycWM5amxrBGNvbG8DZ3ExBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDQjI5NDRfMQRzZWMDc2M-?p=the+commissar+vanishes+before+after&fr=yset_ff_syc_hp-s

  42. 42

    @PJ: There’s not much Clinton could have done, there was a year between the fall of the Soviet Union and when Clinton took office, the oligarchs had already consolidated their hold on the cash. The time to do what you’re talking about was in early 1992.

  43. 43
    HinTN says:

    @Jay: Mother Russia is very distrustful.

  44. 44


    I also remember a piano teacher from Hungary who, after a year of teaching me piano, very suddenly had to leave for Argentina. Not quite sure what was going on, but the irony of teaching piano to a Jewish girl…

    I had a piano teacher who grew up in Tsarist Russia and lived through the Revolution, he had a few stories about the commissars stopping by to “recover the People’s property” from the wealthy(his family was obviously well off). He fought in the White Russian army as a young man.

  45. 45
    Dan B says:

    Ozark Hillbilly

    OT sorta: My comment ended up in a dead thread.
    Your white flower is an Ornithogalum, either arabicum or saundersiae. This is important to know since they can be weedy primarily by seeding everywhere. Some vaieties are terribly invasive so a little research is important.

    And it’s sorta on topic since some Ornithogalum are native the Caucasus.. I know, stretching it.

  46. 46
    James E Powell says:


    Quite a few unsupported assumptions in there.

  47. 47
    Brachiator says:

    And what is Putin up to, currently? From the Guardian.

    There was a Russian Cossack choir, a horse-drawn carriage and a venue specialising in a Viennese fried chicken. But one thing about the wedding of the Austrian foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, stood out: among the guests was the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

    Television pictures showed Kneissl, 53, who had arrived earlier together with her groom, businessman Wolfgang Meilinger, accepting a bunch of flowers from Putin at the gate. And the two politicians then shared a dance – witnessed by the only photographer granted access to the ceremony.

    Putin’s entourage included the choir, which serenaded the couple and their guests, among them Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People’s party and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache from the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ). The Russian president left a short time afterwards, rushing off to Berlin for wide-ranging bilateral talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel.

  48. 48
    Jay says:


    Unlike the aid programs given to Poland, The Baltics, Hungary, the Czech’s,

    The percapita aid given to the USSR/Russia was tiny, and was designed to create “gangster capitalism”, not good govornance, liberal democracy or a stable economy.

  49. 49
    Jay Noble says:

    While helping the former USSR with a new Marshall plan might have been nice, there was a teensy weensy problem of what was going to happen with all those ICBMs now in the control of God only knew who. From negotiating with 1 country we had to deal with over 10 all with their own agendas/vendettas.

  50. 50

    @Jay Noble: Only four of the new countries had nukes: Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. Kazakhstan and Belarus decided they would be non-nuclear and sent their missiles and bombs back to Russia posthaste. Ukraine did a bit more negotiating, but eventually gave up its nuclear arsenal.

    The nukes were Soviet at all times and controlled from Moscow. The other three countries didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with them, but Ukraine came close.

  51. 51
    patrick II says:


    Exactly right. The “Libertarian Ideal” was tried in Russia and Iraq and utterly failed both times.

  52. 52
    Jay Noble says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Thanks for the correction on the numbers. I thought most but not all of the Republics had some.

  53. 53
    PJ says:

    @James E Powell: Such are counterfactuals – we’ll never know. Imagine post-WWII Europe without the Marshall Plan – Truman certainly did, and it scared the heck out of him. Certainly, many modern day Russians resent the triumphalism that Americans crowed to the heavens at the collapse of the Soviet Union (they still don’t see why Russia and the US should not be equals), and they support Putin because he is working to wipe that smirk off of our idiot faces as we voluntarily lower ourselves to become his equal in kleptocracy.

  54. 54
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Ukraine did a bit more negotiating,

    And got the thoroughly useless Budapest Memorandum.

  55. 55

    @Gin & Tonic: I’m not a black and white person. If they hadn’t gotten the Budapest Memorandum (along with a bunch of money), we wouldn’t be able to call Russia on their aggression.

  56. 56
    J R in WV says:


    I recently read a historical novel about Anastasia and the afterword detailed the absolute viciousness of the Bolsheviks. It was terrifying just to read about.

    I suspect the Bolsheviks were nearly as brutal as the Tsar’s secret police, founded in 1565, but may have used more modern methods of persuasion.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Cross-posted to Balloon Juice. […]

Comments are closed.