At 7 pm on December 25, 1991, as the rest of the world celebrated Christmas, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation as President of the Soviet Union and formally declared the end of the giant communist state forged by Vladimir Lenin in 1922. No sooner had Gorbachev finished his speech than the Red Flag came down from the top of the green dome of the Kremlin Senate for the last time.
Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the defence chief, arrived at Gorbachev’s office to collect the “chemodanchik” – the Soviet version of the black briefcase – containing nuclear codes, to be handed over to the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin.
This was contrary to the agreement between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. According to the original script, Yeltsin was to call on the outgoing Soviet President and receive the chemodanchik that would give him the wherewithal to launch an all-out nuclear war. So, Shaposhnikov had to cajole Gorbachev into letting him sign for it.
This was how supreme power was taken from Mikhail Gorbachev’s hands to be handed over to Yeltsin, who was waiting for it elsewhere in the Kremlin. Nothing symbolised the end of the Soviet Union as well as this one event.
At its height, the Union of the Soviet Socialist States, or USSR, comprised 15 countries, including Belarus, Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Lithuania, with its capital at Moscow, Russia. Once among the most powerful states in the country, USSR officially collapsed on December 26, 1991, but its dissolution had been signed three weeks earlier – on December 8, in a hunting lodge at Belavezha deep in a forest in Belarus, behind the president’s back. The signatories were the leaders of three biggest Soviet republics: Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislaw Shuskevich of Belarus.
Winter in Russia is unique. It is a season of brooding, darkness and vodka fumes as the cold envelopes Russia’s unique landscape and its mostly untamed vastness. It is also a season of change and defeat for those who seek to stain Russia’s honour and to invade it – as Napoleon and Hitler, among others learnt.
Even the October Revolution of 1917, in which the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, establishing a Socialist regime, mostly played out in the winter that followed.
But the most dramatic winter was that of 1991, which led to the arrival of a political spring and a new beginning for Russia.
Out in the cold
Twice that year, I visited the USSR. The first trip, in the first half of 1991, took me from Moscow to Vladivostok in the East, where I saw how the average Russian lived. I was part of a team of Indians invited for a conference called by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to proclaim the thawing of the Cold War. The Indian, US and Vietnam delegations were to be the first foreign civilians to visit the biggest of the Soviet Union’s closed cities. We stayed in Vladivostok’s only hotel for foreigners and lived on a monotonous diet of fish, watery cabbage soup and black bread for all four days.
On my second visit, I stayed in a tiny apartment in Moscow belonging to an old Russian widow who, for a few dollars, agreed to part with her state-allotted home for a few days. The flat, a few km away from the Indian Embassy, was small as they come. The bedroom had just enough place for a single bed. The living room, of the same size, had a sofa-cum-bed. The kitchen was tiny and bare and bathroom not much bigger than a train toilet. Food was not available for love or money, but there was a lot of love available in exchange for food or money. In the small store outside the Indian embassy, the shelves were bare, as were those in Moscow’s famous GUM store facing the Kremlin.
I wanted to experience typical Russian life and that I saw plenty. At the time, the ruble was officially on a par with the US dollar, but on the street, the dollar fetched a dozen rubles at least. And for a carton of Marlboro cigarettes (then $8 in Delhi’s duty free) Russian cabbies would drive you all over Moscow for as long as you wanted. Such was the plight of the other super power.
Writing on the wall
After the first visit, I had occasion to tell a few officials of Narasimha Rao, the Indian prime minister at the time, what I saw in Russia. I told them we were on the verge of something significant and that the events gathering pace in the Soviet Union may lead to a shake-up hitherto unthinkable. It was at their suggestion that I made my second and longer visit to Russia that ended just a couple weeks ahead of the failed coup attempt in August 1991, led by the KGB, the country’s secret-police, intelligence and security service.
This reinforced my views of an impending overhaul, but the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and the Indian Ambassador in Russia, were not unwilling to accept this.
After my meeting with officials at the prime minister’s office following my second visit, the then Indian Ambassador, who was on a visit to New Delhi, met me for lunch at the India International Centre and soundly berated me for peddling unfounded fears to the prime minister. He said that the USSR was eternal and that the Red Army was the vanguard of the revolution and will ensure the longevity of the Soviet Union. He urged with me not to fill the prime minister with unfounded inferences and confidently predicted that I would be proved wrong.
In the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, the Ministry of External Affairs officials did prevail upon the prime minister to make a mild comment – in which he cautioned against rapid reforms of the kind Gorbachev had taken up (to promote autonomy, individual freedom and other democratic principles) which eventually triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But with the return of a somewhat diminished Gorbachev from his summer confinement in Foros on the Black Sea, where he was sent during the coup attempt, the know-alls in New Delhi were quick to deride the prime minister for being hasty and uninformed. Little did they realise that in August, the day had been saved for Gorbachev by a revolt in the Red Army with Shaposhnikov refusing to follow orders to arrest Yeltsin, but these events set off new arrangements that were to put the USSR into a steep dive – and lead it to the spring in the middle of winter.
The long winter
Five years ago, it seemed as though spring was once again coming back to Russia in winter. That December, there was a spontaneous agitations in Moscow against what protesters said was an election that had been rigged in favour of Vladimir Putin, who, then the prime minister, had decided to run for president. A huge protest meeting that lit up Moscow followed and the airwaves beamed it to all of Russia.
Whether the United Russia Party rigged the polls on the scale being suggested, the fact is Russia was not united by the thought of four more years of Putin, who had previously occupied the presidential post from 2000 to 2008.
But the US threw Putin a lifeline by supporting the protesters and by doing so, rallied the Russian sense of patriotism to shore up Putin’s place in the country’s hearts and minds. He has not looked back since. The US-led embargo following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 has brought Russia and China close after decades of frostiness following the Sino-Soviet split of 1960, when the two communist states cut ties over ideological differences. Putin today is much stronger than before and spring has been coming back each year at the usual time. And winters are as usual – cold and dark.