IN LATE DECEMBER 1991, Masha was on a train with her mother. They were going to spend New Year’s in Poland. Tatiana had been going there for a couple of years: since the stores in Moscow had emptied out completely and tutoring could no longer buy them a semblance of comfort, she had become one of Russia’s first chelnoki—“shuttles,” people who made their living by importing goods in quantities small enough to be carried as personal luggage. Tatiana trafficked in wares that had just last year been exotic but were now consumer goods: feminine pads, erotic magazines, and other intimate items everyone needed and no one had. The journey from Moscow to Warsaw took twenty-one comfortable hours: the train left in the afternoon and arrived the following morning. A few hours after pulling out of Moscow’s Belorussky Station, the train crossed an invisible border.

“Belorussia,” said Tatiana. “Here it is. Yesterday it was still ours. Today, it’s a separate country.”

Masha, who was in second grade, was not sure what this meant.

“Is Poland still ours?” she asked.

“Shush,” snapped Tatiana, and looked at the two Polish women who shared their compartment, to make sure they had not been paying attention.

That discussion was over. On other occasions that year, Tatiana had tried to explain things to her daughter, generally confounding her further each time. In January, she told Masha that they would never again travel to Lithuania, where they had spent the previous August at the Baltic seaside resort of Palanga. Now, she said, “we” had done something terrible there and the people of Lithuania would forever hate Russians. Masha had never really thought of herself as a part of some “we” who were Russians. At the Central Committee preschool the teachers had talked of “us” being “the Soviet people.” The Soviet people had, for example, defeated the German fascists in the Great Patriotic War. Actually, it was difficult to think of another example of something “the Soviet people” had done, but then, the Great Patriotic War was enough—to know who the people were, and who Masha was.

In first grade, Masha’s teacher also talked about the Great Patriotic War and the Soviet people, but added a children’s subset to the category: the first-graders would be joining the Little Octobrists, the Communist Party’s wing for seven-to-ten-year-olds. Over the decades, the Little Octobrists followed the Party’s broadening trajectory: the organization had started out as small and voluntary, drawing politically motivated children, but by the 1960s all primary school children were inducted, wholesale, in first grade.1 The ceremony usually took place in the fall, and from that point on every child wore a Little Octobrist pin on the lapel of his uniform. It was a red metal five-pointed star, with a picture of a toddler-age wavy-haired Vladimir Lenin in gold in the circle in the middle. Once inducted, Little Octobrists would be organized into “little stars”—groups of five, each with its own leader who reported to the class leader, who, in turn, reported to a mentor from within the school’s Young Pioneer organization—the ten-to-fourteen-year-olds’ segment of the Communist Party.

In Masha’s year, the ceremony had to be postponed due to a shortage of Little Octobrist pins, so she spent months in anticipation. All the wide-ruled and large-graph green primary school notebooks had the bylaws of the Little Octobrists printed on the back cover. There were five of them:

Little Octobrists are future Young Pioneers.

Little Octobrists are studious kids. They study hard, love school, and respect their elders.

Little Octobrists are honest and truthful kids.

Little Octobrists are fun-loving kids. They read and they draw, they play and they sing, and they stick together.

Only those who work hard and persist earn the right to be called Little Octobrist.2

While they waited, the children learned the mythology of Communist-leader childhoods. They read Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Stories About Lenin, written in 1940, a few years before Zoshchenko was condemned as an anti-Soviet writer and his short stories for adults were banned. The Lenin stories stayed in the curriculum, however, with the authorship de-emphasized. The stories portrayed Lenin as an extraordinary student and a loyal friend, but the story that made the biggest impression on Masha was the one called “Vase.” In it, little Volodya accidentally breaks a vase while frolicking with his brothers and sisters at their aunt’s house. He then lies about it and suffers pangs of conscience until, two or three months later, he makes a tearful confession to his mother, who then gets him absolved by the aunt. The story, ostensibly based on the recollections of Lenin’s older sister, Anna, adds the apparently fictional detail that the other children had been so busy playing that they had not noticed who broke the vase—this serves to excuse their un-Soviet failure to denounce their little brother to the authorities.3

Masha also learned that another top Bolshevik, Sergei Kirov, was orphaned at an early age and spent part of his childhood in an orphanage. She did not learn that Kirov was assassinated in 1934 and that his death served as the pretext for one of the deadliest waves of Stalinist terror. She learned of a different set of deaths, though. The Bolsheviks—Lenin, Kirov, and others whose names she did not yet know—had killed the czar. There was scant mention of the czar’s name, or of his wife and children, who perished with him. The killing of the czar was presented in a nondramatic, neutral manner, as an event that had been dictated by the laws of history.

Tatiana said this was wrong. Lenin had been no hero. He was bad. Did this mean that the czar was good? No, not really.

In fact, no one in the family shared Masha’s joy when she finally became a Little Octobrist in March 1991. Her grandparents said it was nothing to be proud of. Yes, they affirmed, Lenin was bad. He had instigated something they called the Red Terror. The Chebotarev family did not do the Communist Party. Galina Vasilyevna’s father had been a highly placed Party apparatchik who failed to stand up for his Jewish wife during Stalin’s antisemitic purges of the late 1940s. His had been a fairly typical predicament. Most famously, Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, had seen his Jewish wife arrested. Masha’s grandfather Boris Mikhailovich had his own reasons to dislike the Party, though he never mentioned them directly. He had been drafted into the Red Army in 1945, at the age of eighteen, and shipped directly to the front line, which by then was in Germany. He spent the next six years in Berlin, where he served in what he invariably called “the occupying army.” He deflected any questions about his time in the service with a statement of unparalleled bitterness: “I hate German women and Jews.” If pressed, he would add only that he hated the Jews because they invented Communism.

A dozen years earlier, before Masha was born, Tatiana, then a student, had been told to join the Party. A representative at the university told her that the physics department had been instructed to admit one top student to the Party, and Tatiana was it. At twenty-four, Tatiana was a samizdat-reading Soviet cynic, and joining the Party appeared to her as an opportunistic, morally indifferent option. Her parents surprised her with their principled opposition. “This is not a done thing,” they said. The university’s Party organization would not take no for an answer: it had quotas to fill. Galina Vasilyevna and Boris Mikhailovich started getting phone calls at work: “Why doesn’t your daughter want to join the Party?” The threat was hardly veiled: both Boris Mikhailovich and Galina Vasilyevna were non–Party members working for secret Soviet institutions. Theirs were exceptions of long standing, negotiated thanks to Galina Vasilyevna’s father’s Party status and Boris Mikhailovich’s six-year military service, but they could be revoked. In the end, Tatiana managed to secure her own exception: she had been tutoring a classmate who had entered the department after his military service, as a standing Party member, and with his own exceptions made to the competitive admissions process. The department needed him, he needed Tatiana to continue his studies, and she needed him to make the Party organization leave her alone.

Galina Vasilyevna retired from her space-shuttle job in 1990. Alexander Men, the intellectual priest who had brought her to the Church, was murdered in 1990, but Galina Vasilyevna’s spiritual quest had already taken her away from religion, to the TV, where a hypnotist by the name of Anatoly Kashpirovsky was making frequent appearances. As his live shows demonstrated, he had healing powers, so Galina Vasilyevna, like millions of other Soviet citizens, was holding widemouthed glass jars of tap water up to the television set to obtain a healing charge. Masha’s grandfather also spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the screen, though he had no use for Kashpirovsky. For the first time in his life, he was interested in something other than his work and his bitter feelings about the Great Patriotic War: politics. He loved what he called “the democrats.” This was a relatively small group, no more than 300 out of the 2,249 delegates to the periodic Congresses of People’s Deputies of the USSR. It included, most notably, the dissident physicist Sakharov, along with a number of newly politicized academics and professionals and a few unorthodox Communist Party functionaries. Very little united them, except all were able to get behind Sakharov’s opposition to the primacy of the Communist Party in Soviet politics and affairs of state. After Sakharov died in December 1989, Boris Yeltsin, the head of the Moscow Party organization, became the sole leader of the “democrats.” Boris Mikhailovich loved Yeltsin like he had perhaps never loved anyone. Yeltsin was locked in mortal combat with Gorbachev, who oscillated on reform and would not cede the Communist Party. In 1990, Yeltsin resigned from the Party. Within a year, so did roughly four million other people—more than a fifth of the Party’s total membership.4

In March 1991, the month Masha was inducted into the Little Octobrists, Gorbachev banned street protests in Moscow, in an effort to silence Yeltsin and his supporters. There were tanks in the streets, but the protests went ahead anyway, and Boris Mikhailovich went with hundreds of thousands of others and chanted “Yel-tsin!” In June, with millions of others, Boris Mikhailovich voted to elect Yeltsin president of Russia—no one was quite sure what this meant, considering that Russia was a part of the USSR, but it was an important part of the struggle.

SERYOZHA’S GRANDFATHER, Alexander Nikolaevich, did not want to leave the Communist Party. In the end, the choice was made for him. In a couple of years, he had gone from being one of the most powerful men in the Politburo (which numbered between twelve and fourteen members out of the more than four hundred people on the Central Committee5) to a pariah within the Party.

For over a generation before Gorbachev came to power, Politburo membership had generally been a lifetime appointment. When a member died, he was mechanically replaced by a candidate long held in reserve, often scarcely younger than the departed. Gorbachev started reshuffling the Central Committee’s leadership several times a year, in an uphill battle to bring in fresh blood and shore up his own position at the same time. In his memoirs he notes, for example, that he chose to replace one Politburo member after he started nodding off during meetings—and the tone of the description makes clear this was a familiar symptom.6 When Alexander Nikolaevich first joined the Politburo as a full member in June 1987, Gorbachev put him in charge of ideology. In September of the following year, Gorbachev undertook one of his largest shake-ups of the bureaucracy. He brought in Vladimir Kryuchkov, a top state security officer who came highly recommended by Alexander Nikolaevich. Kryuchkov would now run the KGB. Gorbachev also freed up the post of the Politburo member in charge of foreign affairs—and he decided to move Alexander Nikolaevich into that role.7 Now he had his own handpicked people in the most sensitive posts.

Over the next year and a bit, Alexander Nikolaevich oversaw the rapid disintegration of the Eastern Bloc. Historian Stephen Kotkin has called the Bloc the Soviet Union’s “outer empire,” like the “outer party” in Orwell’s 1984.8 If the Soviet Union, with its fifteen constituent republics, was the inner empire, then the other countries of the Warsaw Pact—Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania—formed the outer empire. The Soviet Union gained dominion over these six countries in the post–Second World War negotiations with the Allied Powers. Initially, the arrangement also included Yugoslavia and Albania, but they wrestled free of Soviet influence in the 1940s and the 1960s, respectively. Each pursued its own leaders’ version of socialism—a freer version of Soviet society in the case of Yugoslavia, and hard-line Stalinism in the case of Albania. Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and, to some extent, Poland attempted to break ranks over the years, but the Soviet Union brutally repressed these efforts—with military action in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and a sort of preemptive imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981. Now Alexander Nikolaevich’s mandate was inaction. He received an unending stream of visitors, representatives of those he called “friends” in his reports—the Communist parties of each of the satellites, who by turn tested the waters, asked for support, guidance, and permission. They were able to secure more permission than anything else.

One after another, the Eastern European states allowed protests, which quickly grew massive, and opened borders and attempted some measure of free elections with the participation of rapidly forming parties that were not Communist. Most places, the ruling party sat down with the opposition in what were called “round tables” and then exited the scene peacefully if not gracefully, leaving the ad hoc groups of former dissidents, academics, student activists, and trade union organizers to sort out the mess of turning a Soviet-style state with a command economy and a one-party system into a functioning democracy. In Romania, where the Party would not budge, a rebellious army seized and executed the Communist dictator and his wife. But the revolutions elsewhere were described by both local and Western press as “velvet.”

The soft luxurious texture of these transformations was guaranteed by the passivity overseen by Alexander Nikolaevich. After regime change in its satellites, the USSR began pulling its military, secret police, and political personnel out of these countries. This was a complicated, expensive, and ill-prepared operation that often added homegrown insult to the moral injury of the personnel being decommissioned in a turnaround no one had bothered to warn them about. A KGB agent who was stationed in the East German city of Dresden would later describe the experience as frightful and humiliating.9 The agent’s name was Vladimir Putin.

In the logic of perestroika, the pullout from Eastern Europe was inevitable: the “outer empire” was costing the Soviet Union too much, and the continued occupation of these countries could not be justified in the new ideology of openness. But Gorbachev, and Alexander Nikolaevich, imagined that the chain reaction would somehow stop at the Soviet border and the “inner empire” would remain intact.

ALEXANDER NIKOLAEVICH had never thought of the USSR as an empire. No one did, not even the Soviet Union’s foes—even when Ronald Reagan called the country “the evil empire,” his emphasis fell solely on “evil,” by which he meant godless.10 Czarist Russia had been an empire, and during the civil war of 1918–1922, the Red Army took on a number of different national-liberation armies that were fighting the center more than they were fighting Bolshevism. Large chunks of the empire broke off and established independent nation-states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine. Of these, only five countries around the Baltic Sea—Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—got to keep their independence while Moscow reconquered the rest. Over the next several years, the Soviet government developed an entirely novel method of managing potentially troublesome regions. Historian Terry Martin has called the resulting system an “affirmative action empire.”

At the basis of the affirmative action empire lay the belief that nationalism was a “masking ideology”—the need for national identity would fall away as class consciousness took hold and a stronger, socialist identity developed. National interests would naturally be superseded by class interests. Until that happened, however, national identities and national interests had to be acknowledged—but only insofar as they did not threaten the unity of the Soviet state. The Bolsheviks created a maze of national republics—starting with four (Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Transcaucasian Republic) and then subdividing them and conquering new territories for a total of eleven. Education and cultural production in the national language were encouraged in the republics. The largest, Russia, was an exception: both the expression and cultivation of a Russian national identity were strongly discouraged. Other ethnic groups living on the territory of the Russian republic were, however, pressed to assert themselves. Indeed, tiny ethnic groups were “discovered” and the number of ethnicities in Soviet Russia kept growing—for a time. In the 1930s the policy was rolled back, whether because of Russians’ resentment, Stalin’s paranoia (he feared subjects who might have connections to members of their ethnic groups living elsewhere in the world), or because the contradictions between the policy and its theoretical underpinnings had become too glaring—or for all these reasons. The practice of fostering national education and culture was scaled down. The Russian ethnicity was officially redeemed, and indeed the leading role of the Russian people began to be emphasized in most propaganda. The official expression of this new approach was “friendship of the peoples.” The affirmative action empire was over. All peoples were equal, but the Russian nation was “first among equals.” The phrase first appeared in a Pravda front-page editorial:

All the peoples [of the USSR], participants in the great socialist construction project, can take pride in the results of their work. All of them from the smallest to the largest are equal Soviet patriots. But the first among equals is the Russian people, the Russian workers, the Russian toilers, whose role in the entire Great Proletarian Revolution, from the first victory to today’s brilliant period of its development, has been exclusively great.11

This was 1936—about a decade before Orwell’s Animal Farm, with its principle that “some animals are more equal than others.”

A campaign of concerted promotion of the Russian language, culture, art, and people began. The language was anointed the greatest of all the languages of the USSR. A 1937 editorial proclaimed: “In the center of the mighty family of peoples of the USSR stands the great Russian people, passionately loved by all the peoples of the USSR, the first among equals.”12 The constitution adopted in 1936 stated that the USSR was a “state union formed on the basis of the voluntary unification of equal Soviet Socialist Republics,” each of which had the right to secede.13

In 1939–1940, in accordance with a pact Stalin signed with Hitler, the Soviet Union annexed some of the territories of the former Russian Empire, including a part of Poland (which was integrated into Ukraine and Belorussia), a chunk of Romania (which became Moldavia), a part of Finland (which eventually became a part of the Russian Republic), and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which became republics within the Soviet Union—with the theoretical right to secession. The constitution adopted in 1977, which Alexander Nikolaevich helped draft, added that the USSR was “multinational” and a federation. At the same time, the constitution gave the central government complete control over policy, including the command economy, and provided no guarantees of representation of the republics in the central government.14 Each of the constituent republics had its own cookie-cutter constitution, which gave it virtually no control over law, policy, or budget, even on paper. Yet every republic was, on paper, a “sovereign state.” The Russian Republic itself was a federation that contained sixteen different “autonomous republics” that were also “states,” plus dozens of other territorial units. None of these, however, had the right to secede from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.15

In the daily experience of the Soviet citizen, living in one or another constituent republic meant little. Quality of life was determined by individual privilege and, to a lesser extent, by proximity to the center. For visitors from other republics, life in the Baltics appeared strikingly different—in large part because these republics were annexed later and retained some of their pre-Soviet infrastructure and culture; fewer people there spoke Russian, while other republics had been subjected to decades of learning the greatest of all languages. All Soviet citizens, however, were aware of their ethnicity, which was never neutral information—it could confer advantages where vestiges of affirmative action remained, or open one up to official discrimination or persecution if one’s ethnic group was currently suspect. Policies and practices regarding different Soviet ethnicities shifted shapes frequently, and one had to be alert to successfully navigate the terrain of the “friendship of the peoples.”

In other words, the Soviet system of managing both the republics and the various ethnic groups who populated them was inherently contradictory. Soviet Russia had once declared itself to be the world’s first multiethnic anti-imperial state, yet its practices were imperial. It was another of the games the Soviet state played, much like the “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” game.


Mikhail Sergeevich,

Some mathematical problems have no solution. They cannot be solved. Mathematics has methods for proving that a problem is unsolvable.

Karabakh is such a problem. It cannot be solved. There is no optimal solution. Any conceivable solution will be unacceptable to one of the two sides.16

Alexander Nikolaevich wrote this note to Gorbachev in January 1988. For months, tension had been building between the republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus concerning Nagorny Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that was part of Azerbaijan. This was the first region in the Soviet Union to cry foul in the nationalism/internationalism game. The impossibility of a solution was obvious: Azerbaijan was never going to cede the territory to Armenia, and Armenia was never again going to be satisfied with Armenians living in Azerbaijan on what it thought of as historic Armenian land. One could, of course, have argued that it did not matter where a Soviet citizen lived, since republics had no real authority. But the fragile balance between symbolism and lived experience, identity and perception, had been shattered.

The Armenians appealed to Moscow for help. Alexander Nikolaevich was shocked by the depth of the conflict. He had always thought of nationalism as a retrograde ideology whose adherents were a priori in the wrong, making their opponents, invariably, right. Now he saw the face of ethnic conflicts the world over: no one was in the right. “It’s time to stop wasting time and effort looking for a solution and, instead, look for a way out of the predicament in which we find ourselves,” he wrote to Gorbachev. Alexander Nikolaevich proposed imposing direct Moscow rule in the region and, in the interests of lowering tensions, reintroducing full censorship in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. He proposed to “abstain completely from using any visual information (televised images, photographs, documentary film footage etc.) other than precleared materials of a positive nature.”17

It did not work. About a month after Alexander Nikolaevich wrote the letter, the Nagorny Karabakh regional council, until then a ceremonial body, resolved to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. Two days later, fighting broke out. The Politburo attempted to intervene by removing the head of the Nagorny Karabakh Party organization. Anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in Azerbaijan. Moscow removed Party bosses of both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Each republic voted to consider Nagorny Karabakh its own. Moscow sided with Azerbaijan. More anti-Armenian pogroms followed. Armenia expelled ethnic Azeris. Gorbachev had the Nagorny Karabakh secessionist movement leaders arrested (they were released six months later). Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet voted to secede from the USSR. Anti-Armenian pogroms broke out in the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, a large, opulent city—one of the world’s first oil capitals, where Azeris, Armenians, Jews, and assorted others had thrived for over a century. Now ninety Armenians were dead and the rest of the Armenians of Baku became refugees. Chess champion Garry Kasparov, a Baku native of Armenian-Jewish descent, chartered a plane to evacuate his family and as many other Armenians as the vessel could fit. Soviet troops entered Baku a week after the pogroms began and killed about 130 people. Armenia voted to secede from the USSR.18 It was now August 1990—two and a half years after Alexander Nikolaevich wrote the letter urging Gorbachev to seek a way out rather than a solution.

The Soviet Union was splitting along all of its seams. Gorbachev, though he may not have followed Alexander Nikolaevich’s recommendations precisely, had been doing nothing but looking for a way out instead of solutions. Organizations that called themselves “popular fronts”—a term coined in Nagorny Karabakh—appeared, one after another, in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as Ukraine and Belorussia. All proclaimed support for perestroika as their goal, but it quickly emerged that their goals did not match Gorbachev’s.19 The Baltic republics, where there was still a living awareness that there had been a life before the Soviets, wanted their independence back. On August 23, 1989, as many as two million people formed a human chain connecting Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn, the capitals of the three republics. If this count is correct, then one in four residents of the region participated in the peaceful protest, called the Baltic Way. The date was the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact that had granted the Baltics to the USSR. These people did not want to secede: they wanted an end to the occupation.

Five days earlier, Alexander Nikolaevich had given perhaps the most difficult interview of his life: he told the Pravda that the pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and the secret protocols that divided Europe, existed. The USSR had denied the existence of the protocol for five decades. Just ten weeks before the fiftieth anniversary of the signing, Alexander Nikolaevich had hastily convened a commission to formulate a new, glasnost-appropriate stance on the pact. He was ill prepared, and he was not even entirely sure, at the start, that the secret protocol existed: the USSR had not preserved an original copy. Still, he felt, it was essential for official Moscow to say something to distance Gorbachev from Stalin, on the one hand, and on the other, to de-escalate tensions with the Baltics.20 The line he took in the Pravda interview was to acknowledge the protocols but not the occupation: Moscow would still claim that the Baltic states had voluntarily joined the empire. The hedge failed. Alexander Nikolaevich dealt a blow to the all-important myth of the infallibility of Soviet action in the Second World War, but from the point of view of the Baltics, his revelation was painfully insufficient. In a few months, Lithuania took a declaratory step toward independence: its Communist Party decided to sever ties with the Soviet Party organization. This was a double blow—to the Soviet Union and to the Party.

ARTICLE 6 of the Constitution of the USSR stated, “The Communist Party of the Soviet Union is the leading and directive force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system.” In other words, it had the monopoly on everything. Two bureaucracies existed—the Party one and the state one—but a single career ladder fed both, and Soviet bosses moved between Party and state jobs, often combining them.

In June 1989, during the first Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR, as the entire country watched, glued to the television, the recently elected Sakharov called for the abolition of Article 6. If the country failed to distribute power, he warned, perestroika would fail.21 What he was proposing sounded impossible even to Sakharov’s allies at the Congress. But in just six months, when the pro-democracy faction formed a movement they called Democratic Russia, they proclaimed the fight against the Communist Party’s monopoly their top goal.22 Sakharov had died a week earlier. Yeltsin became the singular leader of Democratic Russia. He had come up through the Party’s hierarchy, but his views were changing faster than those of any other top-level Communist.

In the spring of 1990, Estonia and Latvia declared null and void all documents that made them a part of the USSR. In June, the Russian Republic, which now had its own parliament—chaired by Yeltsin—voted to assert “state sovereignty,” though no one knew what that might mean. The following month, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party, and this meant that the largest Soviet republic, the first among equals, now had a leader who was not a member of the Party.

Alexander Nikolaevich disliked Yeltsin, his naked populism and his unabashed ambition. Alexander Nikolaevich was committed to reforming the system rather than destroying it, but as perestroika progressed, the distinction proved increasingly fuzzy. Sometimes, reform, as opposed to destruction, looked simply impossible. By late 1989, Alexander Nikolaevich came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union needed to be transformed into a federation, each of whose members would have tangible legislative independence and economic responsibility.23 But he expected patience and trust from the republics. In October 1989, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born former national security adviser and scholar of totalitarianism who had counseled a succession of American presidents, came to Moscow and, among other questions, asked Alexander Nikolaevich what would happen if the Baltics ratcheted up their calls for independence. Alexander Nikolaevich said that this would be the end of perestroika because Gorbachev needed everyone to try to ride things out as a union.24 Brzezinski was unimpressed. He titled his next book The Grand Failure, and in it he condemned not only the Soviet experiment but also Gorbachev’s efforts at reform. He predicted that only Poland and Hungary might have a shot at a peaceful transition and a post-Communist future. For the Soviet Union, he laid out five pessimistic scenarios, two of which involved coups, either by the military or by the KGB, and one, the outright collapse of the regime.25

Alexander Nikolaevich feared the failure of perestroika perhaps more than anything else. He kept lashing out at the Party’s conservatives for holding the process back, and at times it seemed like Gorbachev had stopped listening to him altogether: all he was doing at any given point was looking for a stopgap measure, a way to balance the teetering union at the edge of a precipice. In the summer of 1990, following Russia’s declaration of sovereignty (whatever it meant), the conservative wing pressured Gorbachev to introduce a state of emergency. He went halfway: he abolished the deliberative top government bodies of the USSR in favor of a cabinet and a security council under direct presidential control, but he refused to declare a state of emergency. But in January 1991, without any formal declaration, he allowed his ministers of defense and of the interior and the head of the KGB to try to retake the Baltics. This was exactly two years after the bloodshed in Baku, on a different edge of the empire. This time, nineteen people died: fifteen in Vilnius and four in Riga.26 This was why Masha’s mother told her they would never be welcome in Lithuania again.

Alexander Nikolaevich had known nothing of the planned intervention, and he did not know what to say to journalists who questioned him about the killings in Vilnius. He had not spoken to Gorbachev in days. He was not even sure he had a job any longer. One thing he knew for certain now, though, was that he had changed his mind about the nature of the Union: he decided that “friendship of the peoples” had been, at best, a delusion.27

For a few days after Vilnius, some Soviet citizens assumed and others feared that the conservatives had taken over, perestroika had ended, and the only remaining question was how fast, and how far, reforms would be rolled back. But Gorbachev continued his balancing act, over a precipice that seemed to grow only deeper: both sides were now sure at all times that he was unduly favoring the other. Gorbachev scheduled a referendum on the future of the country. The single question citizens of the USSR were asked to consider: “Do you believe it is necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of sovereign republics with equal rights, where the rights and freedoms of people of all nationalities will be fully guaranteed?” It was not clear what the legal and practical consequences would be, or even what the question meant, since, with the exception of the words “renewed federation,” it said the same thing as the existing Soviet constitution. Really, it was not so much a referendum as an opinion poll, with one poorly designed, overburdened question.

The Central Referendum Commission of the USSR reported that nearly 150 million people, or 80 percent of all eligible voters, took part in the referendum and that they overwhelmingly voted to preserve the Soviet Union: 76.4 percent said yes. Trouble was, all of these voters lived in nine of the fifteen republics. The Baltics and Armenia did not vote at all. In Georgia and Moldavia, the vote took place only in a couple of outlier regions. Kazakhstan offered an edited version of the referendum question, without the word “federation” or any reference to human rights.28 The center no longer wielded sufficient power to compel different republics to coordinate efforts and questions on a referendum. There was little basis for concluding that a majority of citizens of the Soviet Union wanted the same thing, but Gorbachev interpreted the results as a mandate to draft a renewed union treaty. Yeltsin pressed on with the business of state-building in Russia. In late March—just ten days after the referendum—Gorbachev banned demonstrations in Moscow, to prevent a Yeltsin rally. Tanks blocked some of the streets in the center of the city. Demonstrators came out anyway, and no blood was shed. Once again, no one had won: the struggles between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, between the conservatives and the democrats, between the unionists and the pro-independence forces continued, almost ploddingly. On June 12, Yeltsin was overwhelmingly elected president of the Russian Republic. The new union treaty was scheduled to be signed on August 20.

Alexander Nikolaevich was, by turns, terrified, dismayed, and angry. In late April he wrote Gorbachev a letter warning him that conservative forces were gaining the upper hand. The only way forward was to stop Gorbachev’s incessant political zigzagging. If Gorbachev was not going to lead decisive political and economic reform, then Alexander Nikolaevich would try to do it himself. “I must be, I absolutely must be honest before my country, before my people, before my self!” he wrote. “I shall seek dignified ways to fight incipient fascism and the Party’s reactionism, to fight for the democratic transformation of our society. I don’t have that much time left.”29 Alexander Nikolaevich was speaking not so much about the time he personally had left—he was sixty-eight, just eight years older than both Gorbachev and Yeltsin—as about the country, where, he felt, the window of opportunity for change had nearly closed.

Alexander Nikolaevich decided to help form a new political movement, the Movement for Democratic Reform. It had three foundational principles. Politically, it would renounce the vision of the USSR as a unitary state in favor of creating a federation with a clear division of rights and responsibilities between members and the center. Economically, it would set out a clear program of transition to a market system, in which, for the interim period, the state would retain only a third of all property. Most important, it would create a safety net for those who would be hardest-hit by economic reform.30 The difference between a “movement” and a “party” was as confusing as everything else in the USSR. A movement exists to create change while a party strives to govern. But in the new Soviet reality a movement could include several parties. But then, a megaparty—themegaparty—was starting to include different movements. For Alexander Nikolaevich, it was key that he did not need to leave the Communist Party to become one of the leaders of the new movement. He was still hoping that the massive weight of the Party could be tilted in favor of reform. On July 20, 1991, he delivered an inspired speech at the founding congress of his new movement. He spoke of the painful discoveries that he had made, most of them in the six years since perestroika began:

We have fallen two epochs behind. We have missed the postindustrial era and the information era. As a result, our society is deeply ill. Our souls are permanently empty. We have grown to presume everyone guilty at all times, thus creating hundreds of thousands of guards watching over our morality, conscience, purity of world view, compliance with the wishes of the authorities. We have turned truth into a crime. We have robbed nature to within a breath of its life. We have created crime, queues, rudeness, corruption that goes all the way up from a store’s truck unloader to a government minister. We have ostracized intellectualism and fostered a regime of the ignorant. . . .

Today we are living as though in two worlds at once. The old Stalinist world does not want to leave, and it is holding on to everything that can still prop it up. The new world is struggling to stay afloat within the old structures and often begins to act in accordance with their rules. . . .

Over the last seventy years the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has been not a party but an organization of administrative command, integrated into the structures of state as its primary Legislator, Distributor, Controller, and Monopolist on the Truth. . . . None of this is said by way of reproach. These are lessons. Marx never imagined that his analysis of early capitalism would be transformed into an ideological weapon in the struggle for power. Nor is our great people to blame for having followed its trusting nature and its passionate faith in a better life, making it vulnerable to manipulation. It would not be right to direct this criticism at the millions of ordinary Communists who have been dominated by a caste of Party bosses.31

This was war. Party leadership began talking about expelling Alexander Nikolaevich. A top-level member had not been expelled since the Stalin era: this seemed a fate worse than death. Death was another option. Alexander Nikolaevich got word that he might be assassinated. He drafted a letter to be opened in case of his death and then sought out the head of the KGB, his old protégé Kryuchkov, in the Kremlin corridor. “Tell your people that they’ve miscalculated,” he said. “I’ve drafted a letter, and three different outlets will publish it if something happens to me.”32 On August 15, the Party Control Committee—which was precisely what its name suggests, a committee created for the control of Communists and the disciplining of any who strayed—voted to recommend Alexander Nikolaevich’s expulsion.33 Alexander Nikolaevich heard about it on the radio. On August 16, he wrote two letters. The shorter one, marked with his Party membership number—00000051—tendered his resignation.34 The longer one was titled “An open letter to Communists on the danger of revanchism.” Alexander Nikolaevich had been working on it for over three months, but it so happened that he finished it the day the Party expelled him. Two days later, on August 18, he showed the draft to one of the other founders of the Movement for Democratic Reform, Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Alexander Nikolaevich wanted to ensure it was clear and well-argued before sending it out. “Tragedy is possible,” warned the letter, “for changes have affected the interests of the ruling elite.” The letter was never sent.35

ON AUGUST 18, Masha’s mother came to pick her up from her grandparents’ dacha. She said she needed her daughter in Moscow to apply for a new foreign-travel passport for her. Three months earlier, Gorbachev had signed a new law concerning entering and exiting the USSR. The Iron Curtain was being lifted in stages. At the beginning, only a very few people were allowed to travel out of the Soviet Union, and only if they had a compelling reason and a slew of sterling character references from their place of work, their place of residence, and, preferably, the Party too. Foreign-travel passports were kept under lock and key, released only for the duration of the approved trip—no one got to keep his passport around the house. Starting in the mid-1980s, the vetting process gradually relaxed. Now the new law would make it possible for ordinary Russians to obtain five-year travel passports and even, if the law was followed to the letter, release them from the obligation to apply for an exit visa every time they wanted to travel.36 Tatiana, whose business often took her to Poland, had long used her connections to secure a foreign-travel passport with a long-term exit visa, but with the new law, she figured she would get one for her daughter.

On August 19, Tatiana and Masha took the commuter train into the center of Moscow, then the Metro, and then an aboveground tram to their neighborhood. When the tram was passing through a tunnel at Volokolamskoye Roadway, Masha saw two tanks moving in the opposite direction.

“Wow! Cool!” said Masha.

“Fuck,” said Tatiana.

She thought for a moment.

“We have to leave the country,” she said. “We are getting off the tram.” Her plan was to go directly to the passport office and, rather than apply for a new passport for Masha, have her name added to Tatiana’s passport. Then they would go directly to the American embassy, where, rumor had it, anyone could get a visa just for showing up. Then they would leave the country.

The woman at the passport office refused the request and refused a bribe too. Her boss said, “Come back in a week.” It was all over: there was no point in even applying for a passport for Masha. They left.

They could not go home. It had been nearly two years since Tatiana managed to get rid of their flatmate, so the apartment was no longer a communal one; Tatiana and Masha had its two rooms and a kitchen all to themselves, but now Tatiana was being harassed by the reketiry—a new Russian word that meant “racketeers”—a mafia in the making that was trying to ride on the coattails of private enterprise in the making. Most of these guys ran primitive protection rackets, promising to be the krysha—cover—that would shield you from others like them. Lately they had established a permanent post outside Tatiana’s apartment door. She did not want to go there with her child, so they went to Tatiana’s parents’ apartment instead.

In the empty apartment, Tatiana turned on the television. Swan Lake, the ballet, was on. She changed the channel. Swan Lake. This was boring. Masha went outside into the courtyard and played with a boy named Vitalik.

AT SIX AND AT EIGHT THAT MORNING, when the radio and television channels resumed programming after their nightly break, a familiar male voice had come on the air and said, “A decree of the vice-president of the USSR. In light of the inability, for health reasons, of Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev to carry out his duties as president of the USSR . . . the vice-president of the USSR, Yanaev, has taken over the duties of the president of the USSR as of August 19, 1991.” Then the anchor read two addresses to the people of the USSR from people who called themselves “the Soviet leadership.” First came a dry one, announcing a state of emergency effective at four that afternoon. Then came an impassioned one:

Countrymen! Citizens of the USSR!

It is at a critical hour for the fate of the Motherland and our peoples that we address you! A deadly danger is looming over our great Motherland! Reforms initiated by M. S. Gorbachev . . . have hit a dead end. Enthusiasm and hope have given way to distrust, apathy, and despair.

It blamed the reforms for inter-ethnic strife that had killed hundreds and turned half a million into refugees.

Every citizen feels a growing uncertainty about what tomorrow may bring and a deep worry for the future of his children.

It blamed the reforms for the country’s economic crisis.

It is long past time to tell people the truth: failing urgent and decisive steps to stabilize the economy, the very near future will inevitably bring famine and a new wave of impoverishment.

It blamed the reforms for rising crime rates.

The country is sinking into a quagmire of violence and lawlessness.

It promised to restore the pride, safety, and integrity of the USSR—that is, on the eve of the planned signing of the union treaty, to restore the empire to its former self. Read on the air and published in the morning’s newspapers, the address was signed by the State Committee on the State of Emergency in the USSR, which numbered eight people, including Gorbachev’s vice-president, Gennady Yanaev; and the head of the KGB, Kryuchkov; as well as the prime minister and the ministers of defense and the interior—the entire conservative cadre with whom Gorbachev had recently surrounded himself.37 It took ten minutes to read all three documents. After that, Swan Lake came on.

Zhanna was in the countryside outside Gorky with her grandmother. Her parents had gone to Moscow the day before—they had planned only to pass through on their way to vacation on the Black Sea. Now, with nothing but Swan Lake for news, Zhanna’s grandmother was sure that her son was in the thick of whatever was happening in Moscow, and she was worried sick. So was Zhanna.

They were right to be worried. Raisa, Zhanna’s mother, was in front of the White House, the massive high-rise of white concrete that housed the Russian Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin had declared it the headquarters of resistance to the coup, and hundreds of people gathered there. After a bit of consideration, they started building barricades. Zhanna’s father, Boris, was inside the building.

IN SOLIKAMSK, where Lyosha’s mother had been watching politics on television for two years, everyone was now watching the ballet on television. The grown-ups seemed subdued. In the days before Swan Lake, Galina’s coworkers had been coming by the apartment to discuss lesson plans: the school year was starting in less than two weeks and history, it seemed, had changed again, so teaching it had to change too. The same thing had happened the summer before, and the summer before that. Now they were silent. At some point the ballet stopped and a gray picture with six old men wearing suits of different shades of gray appeared. One of them introduced the rest, and each of the men half stood at the sound of his name. Lyosha remembered the name of one of the men in the middle: Yanaev. He said that Gorbachev could no longer work as president and he, Yanaev, was taking over. Lyosha also remembered the word “Foros”—it was the name of the place where Yanaev said Gorbachev was lying ill.38

Then there was a man on a tank, a big man surrounded by many smaller men. He held a piece of paper in his hand, and he said that something was illegal.39 Lyosha asked his mother who it was. “That’s our president,” Galina said.

Then there was an airplane on the TV, against a dark sky, the sound of its engines winding down, and Gorbachev descending the stairs wearing a light casual jacket and smiling. His granddaughter followed, draped in a blanket, and Gorbachev’s wife, Raisa, her arm around the girl. Gorbachev shook hands with several men, and then his face came fully into focus and a voice said, “Mikhail Sergeevich, for three days the country has been living in terrible tension, in awful worry for its president, for its future, for the fate of democracy. . . .”40 Lyosha started crying. He loved Gorbachev so much, and he really had been so worried and so tense ever since he heard that Gorbachev was sick.

Soon it began to seem to Lyosha that all of it had happened in one day—the ballet, the three presidents on TV one after another, then Gorbachev’s granddaughter with the blanket, and the tears. In fact, it had taken three days. On August 18, four men dispatched by the leaders of the coup flew to Gorbachev’s dacha in Foros, in the Crimea, and effectively took Gorbachev hostage. The following morning, television broadcasts began with the state-of-emergency announcement and transitioned to Swan Lake. Yeltsin and his closest supporters took up their post inside the White House and his more distant supporters began to gather around the building while troops entered the city. Around noon Yeltsin climbed atop a tank parked outside the White House and declared the state of emergency illegal—but this would not be shown on television that day or the next. Instead, the gray men held their televised press conference. The people outside the White House, who now numbered in the thousands, built barricades that never could have stopped a tank, and handed out gas masks, falling far short of being able to equip everyone. The following day passed in nervous anticipation outside the White House and negotiations inside: the general who would have to lead the attack on the White House was unwilling to obey that order if it came but was not going to switch sides either. In the early-morning hours of August 21, three young men died trying to stop armored personnel carriers headed in the direction of the White House but still nearly a mile from it. By mid-afternoon six men, including the minister of defense and KGB director Kryuchkov, flew to the Crimea. A couple of hours later three men from among the coup’s opponents followed them. Around two o’clock the following morning Gorbachev’s plane landed in Moscow. Kryuchkov, who flew on the same plane, was immediately taken into custody: the Russian prosecutor general had already ordered the arrest of all the coup organizers. At noon on August 22 a Russian flag—white, blue, and red stripes—was raised over the White House for the first time. That afternoon Gorbachev held a press conference in which he said, “I have come back to a different country.” He said that there had been an attempt to return the country to a totalitarian state and it had failed. At some point, Gorbachev had started using the word “totalitarian” to describe the regime that now seemed, finally, to have toppled. With that out of the way, he said, he would now press ahead with a new union treaty. He had already appointed ministers to replace the rebels in the Soviet government.41

FOR SERYOZHA, who had spent a summer in the castle-like dacha where Gorbachev was held hostage, the failed coup offered an unremarkable spectacle. He knew the girl whom the entire country watched coming out of the airplane draped in a blanket. He was used to seeing his intimates on television. What struck him more was the short conversation his father had with him. Anatoly said that he had spent the three days in front of the White House. He said it with disgust: he had hated feeling helpless, unarmed in the face of tanks.

Seryozha’s grandfather Alexander Nikolaevich had been at the Moscow City Council building, where the local government was organizing its own resistance effort. He had addressed the crowd. “The most frightening thing that could happen, has happened,” he said. “Never before has our land seen days so tragic.”42 But while Gorbachev thanked Yeltsin and his allies for their help in resisting the coup, he had no words of gratitude for Alexander Nikolaevich. He did not see his old ally when he returned to Moscow, and when questioned during his press conference, he reproached Alexander Nikolaevich for having caved in to the hard-liners and resigned from the Party. It seemed there might not be a place for Alexander Nikolaevich in the leadership of this new country to which Gorbachev claimed to have returned.

But what country was this? “Does the Soviet Union still exist?” became the conversation opener of the day, the week, and the autumn. The Soviet Union seemed to exist, but its form was elusive. Yeltsin’s Russian Republic summarily subsumed some of the Union’s governing mechanisms. Yeltsin also plainly strong-armed Gorbachev into canceling some of his first post-coup appointments. Most important, he made Gorbachev appoint an outsider of Yeltsin’s choosing to run the Soviet KGB and then added the dismantling of the agency to the man’s job description.43 On August 23 and August 25, Yeltsin signed decrees that suspended the activities of both the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Russian Republic’s own Communist Party.

On August 27—five days after the coup—Yeltsin appointed Boris Nemtsov, Zhanna’s father, to run the Nizhny Novgorod region. Only three of Russia’s eighty-nine regions had leaders who had been elected, their posts newly created during perestroika: the mayors of Moscow and Leningrad and the president of Tatarstan. The rest of the regions were still run by Party structures, which were now literally, physically being abandoned. Yeltsin began appointing presidential “representatives” to these regions, signing off on dozens of names a day—mostly people he did not know, who had been hurriedly recruited by his staff. Nemtsov was an exception. Yeltsin knew him and liked him, and after spending three days in the besieged White House together, they started playing tennis with each other whenever they could. Nemtsov was thirty-one, and he would now be running Russia’s third-largest city and the surrounding area. This was one of Yeltsin’s more considered appointments.44

The union treaty, meanwhile, was crumbling. Gorbachev continued negotiating, but so did Yeltsin. The Russian president pressured the Soviet one finally to recognize the independence of the Baltic states. Even the republics that had seemed to favor the Union before the coup now declared independence. Gorbachev, however, kept trying to convene meetings on the treaty. But Ukraine, the second-largest republic, now boycotted them. Finally, on December 7, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus convened a meeting at which they devised the formal dissolution of the USSR and invented a consolation prize, a vague entity called the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev was not invited, and was not even the first to know: he was informed by the Belorussian leader only after Yeltsin had called the American president, George H. W. Bush, to notify him. Gorbachev raged to reporters a few days later: “I don’t think our people understand yet that they are losing the country. The country will not exist!”45

Less than two weeks later, on December 25, Gorbachev addressed his countrymen as president for the last time: “In light of what’s happened, with the foundation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I am resigning my post as president of the USSR.”46The Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Masha and her mother were on the train to Poland, valid passports of a nonexistent country in Tatiana’s bag.

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