Saturday, 6 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- The Peasant Leader from the Gang of Eight

His hero Lenin behind him, Vasily says they only stopped  the coup to avoid killing civilians.
Well that's a small improvement on Lenin then.

It was mid morning by the time we had bumped our way to Spaskaya, a village 175km south of Moscow. I’ve been on worse roads, but it always makes watching the sunrise that little bit more difficult. We turned off the main road, and there it was, the ‘Central Administrative Building’. No village hall or local council here. Most old Soviet districts have their pillar saying their name, complete with rusting hammer and sickle, their statue of Lenin, and their central administrative building.

A central administrative building is usually block shaped, concrete with some attempt at stone façade (usually brown), and half empty. We were not disappointed. This one conformed to shape and style, but had sprouted an impressive thatch of ivy which had gone uncut for many years. Inside we passed through the dusty lobby, up a dusty staircase onto a dusty landing. To our left was the only room on the long corridor where we could see activity, to our right, six or seven faded red soviet banners in a cabinet, their metal hammer and sickle clad spear tips still looking ferociously defiant. In some places the USSR has clung on more obstinately than others.

Which is precisely why we were here. I haven’t usually found you can tell an awful lot from a man’s business card. But when Vasily Starodubtsev emerged from his door just to the right of the flags, his card described the man in triumphant terms. It reads-

The Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, The State Duma (fair enough, he is a serving member of parliament)

Committee of Agriculture, Deputy

The Hero of Socialist Work (An impressive achievement, but perhaps better on a CV, and with a spellcheck)

Corresponding member USSR State prize laureate (well done comrade)

Russian Academy of Agriculture Science (fair enough again, he chooses the priorities on his own business card)

To be fair this was the English side of his business card so it would be pretty rich of me not to forgive the grammar. But after a few minutes talking I soon realised the reason for the parade of Soviet achievements. He started by putting up a stout defence of Lenin, saying many people disparaged him, but that he had created a new civilization. I tried to find common ground with this former head of a successful ‘Kolkhoz’ (collective farm), by revealing that my family are farmers back in England. Nods of approval, followed by the words, “he who provides bread, provides truth.” I was starting to feel like a hero of the Soviet Union myself.

Vasily Starodubtsev has rare views for these days and ones getting rarer in Russia. He wants the Soviet Union back. He firmly believes that if the Soviet Union had survived Russia would not have some of the major problems it does today. The huge gap between rich and poor, the declining population and the general weakness he perceives in its world position. He was prepared, as others were on August 18th 1991, to try and launch a coup to make sure the Soviet Union wasn’t broken up. Goodness knows, he might be right and Russia may have been a better place today if they had succeeded. We shall never know.

Mr Starodubtsev was Chairman of the peasants Union of the USSR back in August 1991. He and seven others formed what has become known as the ‘gang of eight’, high ranking figures in the communist party who are widely believed to have imprisoned Mikhail Gorbachev in his Black sea holiday home and tried to take control of the country.

Vasily strenuously denies they ‘imprisoned’ Gorbachev. The story commonly told is that border guards operating for the plotters closed off his compound, called ‘Foros’ after the village it was near. His telephone lines were cut and he was told he must stay there. “No telephone lines were cut!” Insists Starodubtsev, “Gorbachev could have left whenever he wanted, he was just too scared to come back to Moscow.” This is certainly another version of the story. Fellow conspirator Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB is on video admitting they put guards around Foros and cut off the phones. I couldn’t work out why Mr Starodubtsev was so convinced of the righteousness of his version of the story, a version that clashes with the one so widely told, so strikingly. Perhaps he has convinced himself of his own version events. Perhaps he knows the truth but will cover it up until the day he dies. Perhaps, he’s right. He wasn’t at all unsure though, and as sure as his story was his opinions of his opponents.

Everyone that gathered to defend the White House, Russia’s parliament building (yes the U.S. doesn’t have exclusive rights to that name!) was drunk, crazy or had been hired, according to Mr Starodubtsev. The crowds that gathered there on the 19th of August were immense. They wanted democracy, they didn’t believe what they had been told about Gorbachev being ‘ill’, and they wanted to protect their chance of a democratic Russia. Vasily says also that their self appointed leader, the dynamic, rabble rousing, and at this time sober Boris Yeltsin, was also out of control and didn’t give a hoot about the Russian people. In the end Starodubtsev’s view would coincide with the Russian public’s about Yeltsin. But at this moment he was hailed as the defender of democracy.

But Vasily’s harshest criticism was reserved for Gorbachev himself. “ I feel the worst kind of things about him, the worst. He’s a traitor, pure and simple. He always talked, he never actually did anything to help the people.” This was just a fragment of his tirade. In fact, on this Starodubtsev too now has many people on his side. Never mind what world leaders think of Gorbachev. The people he was supposed to serve, the Russian people, largely hate him. They blame him for ruining the Soviet Union and squandering its and Russia’s territory.

But on August 19th, when tanks were on the streets, all the protesters cared about was the supposed deposition of their president. The day before they had switched on their television sets to see Tchaikovsky’s swan lake playing instead of the news. The first statement from the so called ‘State Committee on the State of Emergency’ followed, saying that Gorbachev was ill and that they had taken over the running of the country in this crisis. Few people believed them. Everyone in the press conference who watched Vice President Gennady Yanayev deliver the statement could see his hands shaking. It seemed he didn’t even believe it himself. When then 24 year old journalist Elena Markina stood up and called it a coup, Yanaev’s official words were blown out of the water.

But that didn’t mean the coup was doomed. Not until the night of the 19th August, when three protesters were killed in clashes with troops loyal to the coup, did it really begin to fall apart, says Starodubtsev. The next day, when a group of the plotters tried to convince Gorbachev to resign and to stop his Union treaty which was designed to give more power to the Soviet republics (but which really kicked off the coup because the plotters thought it would destroy the Soviet Union) he flatly refused. They crumbled and that was it. Their moment of destiny had passed. By the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had gone.

Interior minister Pugo shot himself before they arrested him. The rest, including Starodubtsev admitted their guilt in return for light or no punishment. Does Vasily feel guilty at what he did. No he says. But he didn’t want to be responsible for killing innocent civilians (the three that were killed he says, weren’t innocent, again at odds with the commonly acknowledged story).

Vasily is nearly ninety now. He had been the chairman of a successful cooperative farm and had worked hard all his life to try and do the best for it and its members. He still serves Russia as a politician and cares deeply about its future. He is, by all account a decent man and certainly one with strongly held beliefs. As Churchill said, “you have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime on your life.” Vasily has certainly done that. He and his fellow coup members didn’t succeed in preserving the Soviet Union. You could try and tell him that’s because they went about it the wrong way, and that they were on the wrong side of history. But with the self belief or obstinacy of all those who did, or nearly did change history, like Churchill, or Starodubtsev’s own hero Lenin, he wouldn’t listen to you.

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