Written by Vladimir Moss



     The last domino to fall in the anti-communist revolutions of 1989-91 was the most important one, the Soviet Union. The problem was that the USSR was not a mono-ethnic state, but a multinational empire, and its transition out of communism was bound to be exceptionally complex and problematic. And the most difficult part of the problem was the nature of the future relationship between the two largest components of the empire, Russia and Ukraine, which together constituted its core and contained 70% of its population in a ration of roughly three-to-one.

     From 1988 the Soviet republics began to declare their independence from the centre, beginning with the Transcaucasian and Baltic republics. Gorbachev was willing to give them a lot, - their own parliaments, their own communist parties, etc. - but not complete independence, which would enable local legislation to override Soviet legislation. When it became clear that no satisfactory compromise between the centre and the republics could be attained, and that Gorbachev, unlike Milošević, was not prepared to use force to preserve the old Union, it peacefully died, going out, not with a bang (fortunately), but with a whimper.

     The leading catalyst of the Union’s dissolution was Boris Yeltsin, a party apparatchik from Sverdlovsk who fell out with Gorbachev, and then took advantage of the possibility of political life outside the Party provided by Gorbachev himself to carve out a place for himself as the leader of the liberal opposition to him. In March, 1989 Muscovites elected him as their deputy in the Congress of People’s Deputies, and a year later Sverdlovsk sent him to the parliament of the Russian Federation, where he became speaker. In July, 1990 in a public speech before the Russian parliament Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party and called for a full multi-party democracy. Russia’s laws were now declared by the parliament to take precedence over the Union’s. And in the autumn the Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov told the Politburo that his orders were not being followed.[1]

     Gorbachev now found himself having to manoeuvre between the hard-line communists, on the one hand, who wanted to preserve the Soviet order, and Yeltsin, who wanted to destroy it and championed independence for the republics, on the other. By the middle of 1991 Yeltsin was President of Russia, as opposed to the Soviet Union, and as his power and popularity increased by virtue of his pro-Russian and anti-Soviet stance, so did Gorbachev’s decline. Paradoxically, the American President George Bush, who arrived in Moscow at the end of July, 1991, favoured Gorbachev the communist over Yeltsin the anti-communist. His reasons were twofold. First, because he had just signed the START treaty with the Soviets, and feared that a breakup of the Union could destroy the gains of that treaty and lead to nuclear proliferation. And secondly, because he feared the break-up of the Union could lead to bloody civil war – hence his address to the Ukrainian parliament a little later, when he advised Ukrainians to stay in the Union.

     However, writes Serhii Plokhy, “Boris Yeltsin shared Gorbachev’s stand on Ukraine. Both believed that the second-largest Soviet republic could not be allowed to go its own way. If Gorbachev, in his conversations with Bush, raised the possibility of civil strife and even war involving Ukraine and other Soviet republics, Yeltsin was calmer but no less determined. ‘Ukraine must not leave the Soviet Union,’ he told the American president during their meeting in Yeltsin’s Kremlin office. Without Ukraine, Yeltsin argued, the Soviet Union would be dominated by the non-Slavic republics. His ‘attachment’ to Ukraine reflected the attitude of the Russian population in general. According to a poll sponsored by the United States Information Agency in February and March 1991, only 22 percent were opposed.”[2]

     On August 19, the day before a treaty determining the new relationship between the centre and the republics was due to be signed, a KGB-led plot attempted a coup against Gorbachev while he was on holiday in the Crimea. The coup failed, but the main beneficiary of the failure was not Gorbachev, but Yeltsin, who with thousands of Muscovites courageously held out in the Russian parliament building (the “White House”) until the nerve of the plotters cracked. Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but Yeltsin publicly (on State television) and humiliatingly showed that he was now the boss by forcing him to sign a series of decrees that effectively destroyed the power of the Soviet Union.

     Thus Gorbachev was forced to confirm Yeltsin’s decree on Russian economic sovereignty, whereby, “as of January 1, 1992, all enterprises on Russian territory would be transferred to the jurisdiction and operational control of the Russian Federation. The Russian president also decreed measures to created a Russian customs service, form Russian gold reserves, and subject the exploitation of natural resources to licensing and taxation by Russian authorities. It was a ploy designed to make Gorbachev approve a decree that he would not otherwise have countenanced, as it undermined the economic foundations of the Union…

     “That was not all. A separate decree signed by Yeltsin on August 22, the day on which Gorbachev resumed his functions as president of the USSR, banned the publication of Pravda and other newspapers that had supported the coup. Yeltsin clearly overstepped his jurisdiction by firing the general director of the all-Union information agency TASS and establishing Russian government control over Communist Party media outlets on Russian territory. These measures went far beyond the rights ascribed to the Russian Federation by the draft union treaty [agreed between Gorbachev and Yeltsin earlier that month] that had been derailed by the coup. They left no doubt that as far as Russia was concerned, the treaty was dead. But Yeltsin was not content with taking more sovereign rights for Russia. Having saved Gorbachev from the plotters, he was subjecting the Soviet president to a new captivity. Gorbachev’s aide Vadim Medvedev referred to Yeltsin’s actions in the first days after the coup as a countercoup…”[3]

     But the coup de grâce was still to come. On August 22, as crowds tore down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky outside the KGB’s headquarters on Lubianka Square, and milled round the headquarters of the Communist Party headquarters on Old Square, while desperate communist officials tried to shred compromising papers (the machine was jammed by a hairpin!), in the Russian parliament deputies were bombarding Gorbachev “with questions about his own complicity in the coup and demanded that the Communist Party, his real power base, be declared a criminal organization. Gorbachev went on the defensive. ‘This is just another way of carrying on a crusade or religious war at the present time,’ he told the deputies. ‘Socialism, as I understand it, is a type of conviction which people have and we are not the only ones who have it but it exists in other countries, not only today but at other times.’

     “Then came a question about the ownership of all-Union property on the territory of the Russian Federation and the decree on Russia’s economic sovereignty signed by Yeltsin. ‘You today said that you would sign a decree confirming all my decrees signed during that period,’ said Yeltsin, referring to the measures he had signed during the coup.

     “Gorbachev knew he was in trouble. ‘I do not think you have tried to put me in a trap by bringing me here,’ he responded. Gorbachev went on to say that he would sign a decree confirming all Yeltsin’s decrees of the coup period except the one dealing with all-Union property. ‘I will issue such a decree after signing the [union] treaty,’ he said to Yeltsin. This was not merely a delaying tactic. Gorbachev was trying to keep Yeltsin on the hook: signature on the union treaty first, property second.

     “The Russian president did not like what he heard. His ruse of backdating the decree had failed, but he had a trump card in hand and knew how to use it against Gorbachev. ‘And now, on a lighter note,’ declared Yeltsin in front of the cameras, ‘shall we now sign a decree suspending the activities of the Russian Communist Party?’ Yeltsin used the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to himself. Gorbachev was stunned. All party organizations in Russia were suddently on the chopping block. Without them, his already dwindling powers would be reduced to almost nothing. After realizing what was going on, he asked his ‘ally’, ‘What are you doing?... I… haven’t we… I haven’t read this.’

     “The Russian president took his time signing the decree temporarily banning Communist Party activity on Russian territory. When Gorbachev told him he could not ban the party, Yeltsin responded that he was only suspending its activities. Welcoming the decree with applause and chants of approval, the Russian deputies went on with their interrogation of the trapped Soviet president. Gorbachev found it hard to recover from Yeltsin’s blow. ‘At that encounter,’ he remembered later, ‘Yeltsin was gloating with sadistic pleasure.’…”[4]

     That is true; and it makes us wonder whether this coup de grâce was not in fact a coup du diable. But if this was a diabolic coup – more accurately, counter-coup – there is no question that the coup it overthrew was even more diabolic, nor that Gorbachev, while formally the victim of the coup, had made it possible insofar as the leading plotters – Kriuchkov, Yazov, Yanaev – were all his men, his appointees. The result, in any case, was the destruction of the greatest enemy, the Soviet Union, the most evil state in the history of mankind to that point, which formally ceased to exist on December 25, 1991, when the red flag was hauled down from over the Kremlin; which only proved the truth of the Lord’s words: “Every kingdom that is divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house that is divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then wlll his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12.25-26).


     The coup and counter-coup took place on the Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration, when Christ demonstrated the power of His Divinity before his three chosen disciples, Moses and Elijah. This was to remind all those with eyes to see that the fall of the Soviet Union – so unexpected by all except a very few, who included none of the leading politicians – was the work of God, not man. “Not by horses and chariots”, still less by tanks or nuclear weapons, was the Cold War brought to an end, but by the right Hand of the Most High…

     However, while the Soviet Union and the Communist Party appeared to have been destroyed, there was one part of the Communist apparatus that survived the coup and even extended its influence – the Sovietized Moscow Patriarchate. The survival of this “second administration” of the Red Beast boded ill for the future. It reminds us that while the fall of the Soviet Union was an all-important political event, it was not a religious event; and that without true faith and repentance for the sins of the Soviet past even the most outwardly successful counter-revolution remained a house built on sand.

    This is clearly seen in the actions of the leader of the MP at that time, Patriarch Alexis (Ridiger) – Agent “Drozdov”, as he was known in the KGB… In June, 1990, the Hierarchical Council of the MP elected Metropolitan Alexis as the new patriarch. This was the man whom the Furov report of 1970 had called the most pro-Soviet of all the bishops, a KGB agent since 1958 who had been prepared to spy to the KGB even on his own patriarch, and who, when he was Metropolitan of Tallinn, said: “In the Soviet Union, citizens are never arrested for their religious or ideological convictions”.[5] On being elected, he immediately, on July 4/17, 1990, the day of the martyrdom of Tsar Nicholas II, announced that he was praying for the preservation of the communist party!

    Of course, after that gaffe, being a clever man, “Patriarch” Alexis quickly recovered his balance, his sense of which way the wind was blowing; and there was no further overt support of the communists. True, he did attach his signature, in December, 1990, to a letter by 53 well-known political, academic and literary figures who urged Gorbachev to take urgent measures to deal with the state of crisis in the country, speaking of “… the destructive dictatorship of people who are shameless in their striving to take ownership of territory, resources, the intellectual wealth and labour forces of the country whose name is the USSR”.[6] But the patriarch quickly disavowed his signature; and a few weeks later, after the deaths in Vilnius by Soviet troops, he declared that the killings were “a great political mistake – in church language a sin”. Then, in May, he publicly disagreed with a prominent member of the hardline Soiuz bloc, who had said that the resources of the army and the clergy should be drawn on extensively to save the people and the homeland. In Alexis’ view, these words could be perceived as a statement of preparedness to use the Church for political purposes. The patriarch recalled his words of the previous autumn: the Church and the Faith should not be used as a truncheon.[7] By June, the patriarch had completed his remarkable transformation from dyed-in-the-wool communist to enthusiastic democrat, saying to Yeltsin: “May God help you win the election”.  

     Still more striking was his apparent rejection of “Sergianism” - the submission of the Church to militant atheism preached by the first Soviet patriarch, Sergius Stragorodsky – in an interview with Izvestia on June 6: “This year has freed us from the state’s supervision. Now we have the moral right to say that the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergius has disappeared into the past and no longer guides us… The metropolitan cooperated with criminal usurpers. This was his tragedy…. Today we can say that falsehood is interspersed in his Declaration, which stated as its goal ‘placing the Church in a proper relationship with the Soviet government’. But this relationship – and in the Declaration it is clearly defined as being the submission of the Church to the interests of governmental politics – is exactly that which is incorrect from the point of view of the Church… Of the people, then, to whom these compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty that were permitted by the Church leadership in those days, have caused pain – of these people, not only before God, but also before them, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers.”[8]

     And yet, in an another interview given to Komsomolskaia Pravda only two months earlier, he had said: “The most important thing for the Church is to preserve itself for the people, so that they should be able to have access to the Chalice of Christ, to the Chalice of Communion… There is a rule when a Christian has to take on himself a sin in order to avoid a greater sin… There are situations in which a person, a Christian must sacrifice his personal purity, his personal perfection, so as to defend something greater… Thus in relation to Metropolitan Sergius and his successors in the leadership of the Church under Soviet power, they had to tell lies, they had to say that everything was normal with us. And yet the Church was being persecuted. Declarations of political loyalty were being made. The fullness of Christian life, charity, almsgiving, the Reigning icon of the Mother of God were also renounced. Compromises were made.”

     In other words, Sergianism, though sinful, was justified. It may have “disappeared into the past”, but if similar circumstances arise again, the “sacrifice” of personal purity can and should be made again!…[9]

     The patriarch showed that the poison of Sergianism was in him still during the attempted coup of August, 1991. When the Russian vice-president, Alexander Rutskoy, approached him on the morning of the 19th, the patriarch pleaded “illness” and refused to see him. When he eventually did issue a declaration – on the evening of the 20th, and again in the early hours of the 21st – the impression made was, in Fr. Gleb Yakunin’s words, “rather weak”.[10] He called on all sides to avoid bloodshed, but did not specifically condemn the plotters.

     As Jane Ellis comments: “Though Patriarch Alexis II issued statements during the coup, they were bland and unspecific, and he was widely thought to have waited to see which way the wind was blowing before committing himself to issuing them. It was rather the priests in the White House – the Russian Parliament building – itself, such as the veteran campaigner for religious freedom, Fr. Gleb Yakunin, as well as the Christians among those manning the barricades outside, who helped to overthrow the Communist Party, the KGB and the Soviet system.”[11]

     It was not until Wednesday morning that the patriarch sent his representative, Deacon Andrew Kurayev, to the Russian parliament building, by which time several dissident priests were already established there. And it was two priests of the anti-sergianist Russian Church Abroad who celebrated the first supplicatory service to the New Martyrs of Russia on the balcony of the White House. Not to be outdone, the patriarchate immediately responded with its own prayer service, and at some time during the same day the patriarch anathematized all those who had taken part in organizing the coup. By these actions the patriarch appeared to have secured his position vis-à-vis Yeltsin’s government, and on August 27, Yeltsin attended a memorial service in the Dormition cathedral of the Kremlin, at which the patriarch hailed the failure of the coup, saying that “the wrath of God falls upon the children of disobedience”.[12]

     So in the space of thirteen months, the patriarch had passed from a pro-communist, anti-democratic stance to an anti-communist, pro-democratic stance. This “flexibility” should have surprised nobody; for the essence of sergianism, the root heresy of the Moscow Patriarchate, is adaptation to the world, and to whatever the world believes and praises. In view of this, it is not surprising that the successful counter-revolution against Communism that took place under Yeltsin in 1991 quickly ran into severe difficulties in the later 1990s. Not being nourished and supported by true religious feeling, it withered and died in the midst of rampant corruption, bloodshed and the disillusion of the people. And so on New Year’s Day, 2000 the “empire of evil” staged a triumphant comeback in the person of KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin…


September 23 / October 5, 2016.


[1] Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire. The Final Days of the Soviet Union, London: Oneworld Publications, 2015, p. 37.

[2] Plokhy, op. cit., p. 49.

[3] Plokhy, op. cit., p. 137.

[4] Plokhy, op. cit., pp. 143-44.

[5]Keston News Service, 94, March 21, 1980 p. 1.

[6]Keston News Service, 369, February 21, 1991, p. 6.

[7]Letter in Literaturnaia Rossia  (Literary Russia), June 14, 1991; Oxana Antic, "Patriarch Aleksii II: A Political Portrait", Report on the USSR, vol. 3, 45, November 8, 1991, p. 17.

[8]“Patriarch Alexis II: I take on myself responsibility for all that happened”, Izvestia, 137, June 10, 1991; Bishop Gregory Grabbe, "Dogmatizatsia Sergianstva" (The Dogmatization of Sergianism), Pravoslavnaia Rus' (Orthodox Russia), 17 (1446), September 1/14, 1991, p. 5.

[9]Grabbe, "Dogmatizatsia Sergianstva", op. cit., p. 5.

[10]Hieromonk Tikhon (Kozushin), personal communication; Natalia Babisyan, "Sviashchenniki na barrikadakh" (Priests on the Barricades), Khristianskie Novosti (Christian News), 38, August 22, 1991, p. 21.

[11]Ellis, "The Russian Church: hopes and fears", Church Times, September 13, 1991. During the 1993 attack on parliament he showed a similar indecisiveness. “He promised to excommunicate the first person to fire a shot, but when shooting… thundered around the ‘White House’, he forgot about his promise.” (Eugene Sokolov, “Tovarisch Drozdov – Vor Hevronskij” (Comrade Drozdov – the Thief of Hebron), Russkoe Novoe Slovo (New Russian Word), 18 July, 1997)

[12]He said that the Church had not supported the coup (although there is clear evidence that Metropolitans Philaret of Kiev and Pitirim of Volokolamsk supported it), but had "taken the side of law and liberty" (Report on the USSR, vol. 3, 36, September 6, 1991, p. 82).

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