Reflections on ‘Soviet Union’ by James Sterba

Sterba, James P. “Reflections on Recent Events in What Used to be Called the Soviet Union,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 1.2 (Fall 1991)

I was in the Soviet Union in August of 1991 when the military coup occurred. Later I will recount for you some of the experiences I had at the time, but I would also like to put my recent visit to the Soviet Union in the context of the other visits I have made to the Soviet Union going back to 1989 because they have been for me a developing teaching and learning experience. In 1989, I was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Latvia in Riga and my family and I got to witness the development of the independence movements in the Baltic republics and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. At the time, I was looking for topics to lecture on that might be useful to the faculty and students, and I began to notice parallels between the political movements to be found in various Soviet republics and the feminist movement in the United States. First of all, people in the Soviet Union were interested in getting a correct view of their own history, for example, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in 1939 which led to the incorporation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia into the Soviet Union. People in the Soviet Union had just been able to publicly speak about this pact for the first time when we got there. Similarly, feminists in the United States are interested in uncovering the role of women in our history which has certainly not been given much coverage in our history books. Secondly, people in the Soviet Union were interested in giving proper recognition to native writers whose work was previously ignored or suppressed. Similarly, feminists in the United States are seeking to give proper recognition to women writers whose works were previously ignored or devalued because, for example, they focused on aspects of human life that men found uninteresting. Thirdly, people in the Soviet Union were pressing for greater rights, particularly vis-a-vis the central government. Similarly, feminists in the United States are pressing for greater rights for women. Yet surprisingly there was no feminist movement in the Soviet Union.

I argued that this inconsistency undermined the political movements that were underway in the Soviet Union. Later, in arguing this point in the Baltic republics, I used a remark from Prime Minister Prunskiene of Lithuania before she resigned her post. She said, “I am the only woman of rank in the government. And sometimes I look around me and think that the shape of democracy and the process of democracy might be well served if there were more women involved.”

In 1990, I again visited Moscow and Riga. In Riga, I argued that it was important for leaders of the Popular Front Independence Movement to exchange views and reach agreements with ethnic Russians living in Latvia. These Russians, I claimed, needed to be convinced that they would benefit from future economic prosperity and that they would have full civil and political rights. As a strategy for dealing with Moscow, I proposed that local leaders present arguments, if they could, that either independence for the Baltic republics would not lead to independence for the other Soviet republics, or if it would (as it has), this would have beneficial effects overall. I must say that at the time, although there was considerable support among Latvians for including ethnic Russians in their independence movement, few showed any concern for the impact their independence movement would have on the rest of the Soviet Union.

Now this past summer I again planned to visit Riga and Moscow. I had received invitations and had planned to lecture in Riga on the implications of environmental ethics for Baltic independence, and in Moscow on the relevance of feminism. I traveled to Riga by way of Moscow arriving late on August 17. On the 18th, I toured the countryside with my hosts, visiting the ruins of 13th Century castles and enjoying the lush green landscapes. But on awakening on the 19th, the first thing I heard from my hosts was news of the military coup in Moscow. That day I was to have lectured on environmental ethics at the University of Latvia. Later that day when one of my hosts and I walked to the university to officially cancel my lecture (despite its long term importance, in the middle of a military coup, environmental ethics did not seem like a very pressing problem) military helicopters armed with missiles circled overhead, but surprisingly, except for children, people did not seem to pay them much heed. Upon returning to my hosts’ apartment, I was also surprised to find the local TV station broadcasting CNN and simultaneously translating it into Latvian. I was told that since the recent attempted crackdown in January, CNN had been carried for one half an hour every evening without translation, but now with the coup it was being broadcast continuously with translation. At one point, I saw the news conference of the coup leaders covered by CNN in Moscow. Here Russian was being translated into English and the English into Latvian all virtually simultaneously. I was impressed. Around this time, one of my hosts suggested that I should fly home directly rather than through Moscow. She was worried and so was I.

Around 6:30 P.M., the local TV station was occupied. By 7:30 P.M. the international telephone station and headquarters of the Popular Front Independence Movement had been seized. In each case, the number of troops involved was small; fifty occupied the TV station and four Black Berets seized and then abandoned the headquarters of the Popular Front. The international telephone station was near my hosts’ home, and we heard gunfire about the time that it was announced over the radio that the station had been occupied. Nearby, Black Berets shot two people in a radio van, killing one and critically wounding the other who later died as well.

We heard reports that tanks were approaching Riga and that bridges to the city were cut. The leader of the Communist Party in Latvia, who had been previously excluded from power by a coalition of non-Communist parties, claimed that he had formed a committee that would carry out the orders of the committee formed in Moscow. There were also reports from the duly-elected Latvian government leaders saying that all was calm, that there was no need for emergency powers, but that people should surround the parliament building.

In general, in Latvia and in the other Baltic republics, the strategy was not to confront the military, the opposite of what was being done in Moscow and Leningrad. This was because most of those in the military forces in the Baltics were Russian, not Lithuanians, Latvian or Estonian, and so most of them had little sympathy for the local independence movements.

The hopes of most of the people I talked to in Latvia centered on Yeltsin and what he would be able to do in the Russian republic. We were encouraged when we saw Yeltsin speaking from a tank and when we saw demonstrators talking and even fighting with soldiers–all, of course, on CNN. We were specifically encouraged when we heard that a number of tanks and military forces had gone over to Yeltsin and were taking defensive positions around the Russian parliament. Later, from reading reports of these events, I came to the conclusion (even against my inclination) that much of the credit for the failure of the coup has to be given to the Russian army and also to the officers of the KGB who refused orders in the early stages of the coup. This is because it was only later that the people of Moscow took to streets and became a force against the coup. If the military had responded quickly, the people in Moscow and Leningrad would not have had the time to rally their forces, and, as a result, I think that the coup would have been successful, at least for a time. However, there is a further story to tell that ultimately credits the failure of the coup to the actions of individual civilians. It turns out that many military officers in explaining why they refused orders, said they did not want to participate in events like those that had occurred in Lithuania in January of 1991 in which a number of civilians were killed when they nonviolently resisted the military.

To finish my personal saga, I was scheduled to leave Riga by plane the next day at 8:00 A.M. We had heard reports that the bridge that we would have to cross to get to the airport was sometimes cut. So we decided to start for the airport by car at 4:00 A.M. As we approached the bridge, we saw an armored vehicle in the middle of the road with a soldier nearby flagging us down. After checking our papers, however, the soldier let us go. As we crossed the bridge, we heard shots in the direction of the old town, but it was too dark to see anything. Later, as we continued along, a car with local militia in it pulled along side our car, but after staring at us for some time, the car pulled away. At the airport, everything looked normal, and my plane actually departed on time, as did my plane from Moscow to Berlin. Obviously, I felt a certain relief once my plane was in the air heading for Berlin, but I also felt that having shared that day and a night with my friends in Riga, my life was inextricably joined to theirs in ways that are only possible when one lives through such momentous events together.

Let me end by giving a brief overall assessment of the situation in what used to be called the Soviet Union from my current vantage point. Although I have been more pessimistic in the past, my current assessment is basically optimistic. I am optimistic for the future of the republics in what used to be called the Soviet Union and for the Baltic nations in particular. When I first visited Latvia in 1989, people there were hoping that political independence would be achieved in ten years time. When I was in Riga this past August on the 18th, I asked one of my hosts when would the huge Lenin statue that was in the center of Riga come down. This statue was in the middle of what is now called Freedom Street. This street used to be called Lenin Street. Before that it was called Hitler Street. During the period of independence (1919-1940), it was called Freedom Street, and before that it was called Alexander Street after Czar Alexander I of Russia. Pointing to the statue, my host said that many changes would have to take place in Latvia before that statue could come down. The next Sunday on the front page of the International Herald Tribune was a picture of that Lenin statue in Riga, lying on the ground. In the final analysis, it is events like these that make me optimistic about the future of what used to be called the Soviet Union.

University of Notre Dame

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