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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Reinventing The Past

Washington, 20 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Czech novelist Milan Kundera once remarked that people make revolutions not to change the future but to change the past.

His insight springs to mind as various participants and observers continue to revise their versions of the August 1991 Russian coup on the fifth anniversary of that event.

In an interview with RFE/RL this weekend, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev provides what must be his fifth or sixth version of those events, a number that rivals the versions of 1917 put out by the leader of the Provisional Government, Aleksandr Kerenskiy.

Most of Gorbachev's earlier versions had centered on the idea that the plotters acted to prevent the signing on August 20 of a new union treaty, an accord that would have decentralized power to those republics willing to sign it.

Most Russian and Western observers have generally accepted that interpretation, differing only on just how implicated Gorbachev himself may have been in the events leading up to or even the organization of the coup itself.

Now, however, Gorbachev has offered a new version. In his interview, he suggests that the plotters moved because they had taped one of his conversations and knew that he planned both to remove a number of military and security service officials and to transform the Communist Party at a congress he planned for the end of 1991.

This latest emendation may be just as true as his earlier version. Indeed, it does not necessarily contradict it although it remains unclear just why Gorbachev waited so long to put out this account.

There is, of course, one obvious explanation for this pattern. Gorbachev's words now appear to reflect, as the comments of memoirists often do, both the mood of the audience for which they are written and a continuing desire to take revenge on those who defeated their authors.

Given the Russian army's failure in Chechnya, anti-military and anti-security service attitudes have increased among the Russian people. By condemning now the defense ministry and KGB leadership in 1991, Gorbachev is beyond doubt playing to the crowd.

But even if he is telling the truth, his words have the effect of trivializing the events of August 1991, of implying that the coup leaders acted only to keep their jobs.

And his suggestion now that in 1991 he was talking with Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbayev about the plans that he had for the future of the U.S.S.R. and the Communist Party also has a contemporary target: Gorbachev's old nemesis, Boris Yeltsin.

By noting that he was discussing the future with Nazarbayev rather than Yeltsin, Gorbachev is not so subtly highlighting his anger that Yeltsin and not Gorbachev was the hero of August 1991 and his continuing dislike for the Russian president himself.

Unlike his swipes at the Russian security elite, Gorbachev's petty criticism of the Russian president probably will not win the former Soviet leader any additional support beyond the less than one percent he garnered in the first round of this year's presidential vote.

Obviously, Gorbachev's latest alteration of the historical record will have to be squared with the memories of others and the available documents.

But it is a remarkable indication of how little has really changed at the top of Russian politics that much of August 1991 still is sufficiently undefined that Gorbachev can continue his process of historical revision.

At the end of his interview, Gorbachev notes that everyone "lost" in August 1991. His latest effort to revise the past virtually guarantees that historians -- Russian as well as Western -- may be among that group as well.