Dr. Val Farmer
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Fall of communism: Russian psychologists react

December 29, 1991

Of all the events of 1991, none was more compelling than the attempted coup in the Soviet Union and the nearly bloodless counter-coup by the Russian people.

For three days in August, we collectively shuddered, held our breath, and then were amazed at the outcome. Who could have dreamed that something so bad and ominous would have turned out so well?

I was in San Francisco attending, the annual meetings of the American Psychological Association. A press conference was called and several psychologists gave their reactions and perspectives to the coup.

Shared feelings

Three psychologists from the Soviet Union shared their feelings with the press corps.

I listened to their fears, fears for their loved ones back home, fears that the hard-liners would be successful in snuffing out the flame of liberty in their homeland, fears for the anticipation of bloodshed, fears that the giant boot of the state would again crush out the openness and hope that .breatHecl vitality into Russian lives.

They were uniformly pessimistic. They knew their own history. They knew communism. They knew the power of the ruthless men who would stop at nothing to preserve their position and privilege. 

They worried that a straitjacket would again be placed on Soviet society. They were afraid that the people to people contacts between the western world and the peoples of the Soviet Union would stop. 

In the name of democracy

As psychologists familiar with their own people, they didn’t guess that there would be a Russian people willing to put their lives on the line to defend democracy.

Yet they were doing it too. They were giving a press conference with their names and private thoughts going forth with unknown consequences for themselves.

There was bravery right in the room. One couldn’t help but wonder if their denouncements of the coup wouldn’t cause retribution if and when they returned to their homeland.

They also knew that Russian President Boris Yeltsin was the key. He was a man who dared speak up and risk everything for what he believed in. He had taken several unpopular stands, resigned from the communist party, and did not protect his position of privilege.

Here was one leader who wasn’t out for himself, a rarity in Soviet politics. He didn’t play ball with authorities. The people admired Yeltsin. One psychologist said, “In Russia, he is like a God.”

As the events of coup unfolded, the committee of eight who engineered the coup made blunder after blunder.

First, they hadn’t counted on Mikhail Gorbachev standing up to them and refusing to join their plan. More importantly, they failed to move against Yeltsin at the same time they were deposing Gorbachev.

Mobilizing factor

Yelstin stood true to his character. He put his life on the line. He mobilized the Russian people.

He was a symbol and a lightening rod for those who wanted to resist. The people of Moscow shed their fears and passivity and came to his defense.

Having experienced the freedom to speak out and exercise democratic rights, they could not go back to the way it was. They had tasted too much freedom. It would be too painful, too crushing to the human spirit.

Downfall of communism

Who would have believed it? Who would have dared hope? Communism was defanged in its very birthplace.

Having experienced the freedom to speak out and exercise democratic rights, they could not go back. It would be too painful, too crushing to the human spirit.

The dark night of the Russian soul is not yet over. The collapse of communism leaves an economic mess. Jobs are lost. Currency is devalued. The mechanisms of the marketplace are not in place.

The uncertainties of life and deprivation replace the predictable, gray world of communism. This is another price the Soviet people are paying for their freedom.

Collapse from within

I never dreamed that communism would collapse from within. Gorbachev unleashed powers that even he couldn’t control. Men like Andrei Sakharov, Yeltsin and Eduard Shevamadze and others artfully exploited the democratic reforms, and raised their voices in opposition to the wrong and evil around them.

The tanks of communism were stopped first by a few brave men and women standing alone and then by throngs who gathered their courage to join them in confronting the naked power of the gun.

Humanity was dignified when a cowed and intimidated people took heart and defended their fledgling freedoms at the risk of their very lives.

That’s how important freedom is. May we who enjoy it so fully, remember its price.