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The Ghosts Of August


Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addresses the Supreme Soviet on August 27, 1991, following a failed coup attempt that hastened the demise of the U.S.S.R.

August is Russia's sleepy month -- except, of course, when it isn't.

It's supposed to be a month for dachas, vacations, and slow news cycles. But it's also been a month of coups, invasions, disasters, and financial meltdowns.

So much so, that it's become something of an annual ritual -- and annual cliche -- to talk about "Russia's August Curse."

Every year, almost as if on cue, we tend to recall all the tumultuous events of Augusts past -- events such as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the financial meltdown of 1998, the Kursk submarine disaster of 2000, and many others -- and brace for what might be coming.

But at a deeper level, August isn't just a month of dramatic, tumultuous, and often tragic events.It has also often been a month of political watersheds -- a month when old eras die and new ones are born.

"Every August, Russians wait for history, and they are rarely disappointed," journalist and commentator Julia Ioffe wrote in The New Yorker back in 2011.

Twenty-six Augusts ago in 1991, of course, the Soviet era ended when a failed hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev ended more than seven decades of communist rule and led to the breakup of the Soviet Union.

And just seven years after that milestone, in August 1998, the backlash began in earnest.

On August 17, 1998, the Russian government defaulted on its debt, devalued the ruble and set off a massive financial crisis.

In addition to wiping out the savings of ordinary Russians, the financial meltdown also sparked a political crisis, crippled Boris Yeltsin's presidency, and spelled the beginning of the end of Russia's clumsy, fleeting, halting, and tentative post-Soviet experiment with Western-style liberal democracy.

The Advent Of Putin

And it was one August later, when the age of Vladimir Putin would begin -- born out of the death agony of the Yeltsin era.

In fact, August 1999 may have been Russia's most dramatic -- and consequential -- August of all.

Russia still was reeling from an economic crisis. Prosecutors were investigating Yeltsin's cronies -- and even members of his immediate family -- for graft.

The air was thick with intrigue. Kremlin clans were at each other's throats. Regional leaders, led by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, were in open political rebellion against the Kremlin.

And on August 7, Chechen militant commander Shamil Basayev invaded neighboring Daghestan, reigniting conflict in the North Caucasus.

Russia looked like it was falling apart -- quite literally.

Such was the atmosphere when Yeltsin went on television on the morning of August 9, 1999, to tell the country that he was firing his government -- for the third time in less than a year.

Yeltsin replaced his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, with Putin, then head of the Federal Security Service. The president then shocked Russians -- and much of the world -- by anointing the then-obscure former KGB officer as his chosen heir.

The Putin era formally commenced when he was confirmed as prime minister by the State Duma a week later on August 16.

And the rest, as they say, is history. If August 1998 marked the beginning of the end of Russia's liberal experiment, August 1999 heralded its complete demise.

After a series of mysterious and suspicious bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow and other cities terrified the country and killed more than 300 people the following month, Putin launched the second Chechen war.

And he easily won election as president following Yeltsin's surprise New Year's Eve resignation.

Ever since it didn't matter if Putin was the prime minister or the president, power resided with him.

Slowly but surely, power became personalized. Institutions were steadily eroded and replaced by the cult of Putin the leader.

Such was the legacy of August 1999. A child born during that dramatic month would now be entering adulthood and would know no other leader but Putin.

The Guns Of August

August has also proven to be a watershed month in foreign affairs.

It was in August 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and signaled to the world that it was ready to play hardball with its post-Soviet neighbors.

Russia's invasion of Georgia followed months of tension between Moscow and Tbilisi and weeks of low-intensity conflict in breakaway South Ossetia, where pro-Moscow separatists began shelling Georgian villages in early August.

The war in Georgia established a template that would later be used in Ukraine, in which local pro-Moscow proxies stoke tensions and Russia then intervenes to "protect" ethnic Russians or Russian speakers.

Likewise, allegations in the Russian state media that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was guilty of "genocide" in South Ossetia foreshadowed the later information war against Ukraine's pro-Western leaders, in which the authorities in Kyiv were branded as "fascists."

So, in many ways, Russia's current foreign policy -- at least with regard to its neighbors -- was born in August 2008.

And in this sense, it is reminiscent of another foreign policy doctrine that was born four decades earlier -- also in August.

Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to crush the Prague Spring liberalization, Moscow announced the so-called "Brezhnev Doctrine" -- in which the Kremlin effectively claimed the right to intervene militarily in its Eastern European satellites if "forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism."

Every August, of course, does not produce history-making events -- or even dramatic events -- in Russia.

This August -- at least so far -- has been relatively quiet.

But this also has the feeling of a calm before the storm.

Russia is entering a potentially volatile political season with Putin all but certain to seek a fourth term in elections in March, amid rising discontent over corruption and falling living standards.

Moscow's war in eastern Ukraine simmers on with periodic and sinister hints that it could escalate at any time.

And tensions with the West remain high as Russia prepares to hold the Zapad 2017 joint military exercises with Belarus -- the largest war games since the end of the Cold War -- near NATO's borders in September.

And, of course, August only half over.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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