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Doc Type: 
Historical Study
Billington, James
Full Title: 
Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope
Language Type: 
The Free Press
Pub City: 
New York

Summary by Dana Leigh Geraghty, Harriman Institute, Columbia University

               Billington’s account of the coup centers on his first person perspective as a historian in Moscow at the time the events occurred. Billington devotes one third of his book “Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope” to discussing the events and implications of the August 1991 coup. Billington argues that the putsch was a result of the power in the central military-political machine coalescing in an attempt to reassert authoritarian control and the dominance of the center. Indeed, he argues that the putsch was possible because the authority of Gorbachev’s government disintegrated because it failed to acknowledge awareness of and participation in the bloody conflicts involving the Russian military security forces in Georgia and Lithuania. Billington argues that the struggle for legitimacy had existed all over the USSR between the Leninist machine and the democratic movement figureheaded by Yeltsin. This struggle transformed into the tangible focused struggle for power in Moscow in the form of the putsch. Billington rightly notes that the coup members did not directly allude to communism or socialism in its original documents and decrees to the people because the coup was not about communism or ideology but instead was an attempt to maintain and strengthen the power of the center and the existing political-military complex.

               In addition to writing about the general implications and causes of the coup, Billington provides an intimate look into the minds and actions of Muscovites supporting the barricades and Yeltsin’s opposition during the events. He notes that the active oppositionists were the new businessmen, young people, and the emerging middle class. However, he also notes that some older friends of his in Moscow also went to the barricades in opposition to the coup plotters. He writes, “An older woman librarian quietly explained that they would all be going to the barricades. She said it was particularly important that the Russians of her generation join the young, ‘since we are the ones who for so long remained silent’.” So while Billington provides his own analysis of the events, he also manages to successfully capture the emotions and the tone of the events. He mentions many times that while there was a foreboding feeling present among those united with Yeltsin against the coup plotters, he also notes that there was a very peculiar “carnival” type tone to the actions and events of the oppositionists. This presents an interesting dichotomy present in the actions and tone of the events. While there was a sense of seriousness and foreboding, the events never truly got to the point of mass violence and hysteria and therefore the proceedings were characterized by a carnival appeal.