It happened today - August 18, 2015
Here’s something you don’t want on your resume: On August 18 1991 Communist Party hardliners launched one of history’s most inept coups against Mikhail Gorbachev. What were they thinking?
The coup had no popular legitimacy, many of its leaders were evidently drunk, their claim that Gorbachev was ill was preposterous and, in an event all-too-rare in Russian history, the populace rallied to defenders of constitutional government including many in uniform who refused to carry out orders from the brass to crush resistance.
As too often in Russian history, it ended badly for almost everyone. Gorbachev continued to loosen the iron grip of Communism (remember, he was in power because he was Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), letting the Baltic States go and ultimately dissolving the Communist Party and resigning in December.
Boris Yeltsin, hero of the hour for standing up to the coup and rallying the public, became 1st president of the post-Bolshevik Russian Federation. But he proved unable to govern, turned increasingly to authoritarian methods without success, and the sinister Vladimir Putin took over as the populace collapsed back into apathy and worse. And the coup leaders were disgraced and jailed or, in one case, committed suicide.
Looking back, what strikes me as remarkable is that the coup leaders actually believed they could succeed. It shows how people can get so accustomed to a particular way of doing things that as it collapses in on them, options start vanishing, the walls close in, they cannot see anything but the usual system working in the usual way.
Insulated from public opinion and honest advice (Yeltsin tried to resign from the Politburo in 1987 over issues including obsequiousness to Gorbachev and was not allowed to, but was fired in 1988), they had no idea what was going on and no realistic awareness of the infamous “correlation of forces” meant to guide the chilly calculations of the true Marxist-Leninist.
These men were not giants, of course. They were classic late-Soviet-era dismal worn gargoyles with, in P.J. O’Rourke’s classic phrase, “steel teeth and cardboard suits”. But it’s one thing to be cruel and unimaginative and quite another to be clueless and launch a coup attempt whose only possible outcome can be to depose yourselves. And yet the complacent tunnel vision they displayed is all too common when those in power begin to lose their grip on a situation and don’t even know it.
Arguably it’s true of Vladimir Putin as well. But it’s certainly not confined to Russia. It happens to governments, businesses and other organizations throughout the world.
Just make sure it’s not happening to you.