Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:28 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:28 | SYDNEY

Watching the Soviet coup from Brisbane


Rory Medcalf


19 August 2011 16:48

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the military coup that was meant to preserve the Soviet Union but instead ensured its demise. Gorbachev's recollections make for fascinating reading, but for me these events had an oddly personal meaning beyond their geopolitical significance.

That was the week I first seriously thought of a career in foreign and security policy, and I can in large part thank the inspired way in which my then teacher, Bill Tow, turned a lecture on the Cold War into an impromptu policy workshop on the unfolding events in Moscow.

The news of Gorbachev's arrest had just broken. Along with my fellow political science students at the University of Queensland, I dutifully turned up for our weekly strategic studies lecture with a recently-arrived American academic who seemed to have novel notions of relating our study to the real world. 

This was an unsettling experience for those of us more accustomed to hermetic recitations of academic theories, unsoiled by human agency and day-to-day events. Until that point I was frankly beginning to wonder why I'd quit the modest thrills of small-town journalism for the dusty rites of studying political science.

For the next two hours, normal business was suspended. Instead, we found ourselves thinking aloud about the motives and strategic implications of the epochal events unfurling on the other side of the world. Like any kind of intelligence assessment, it was hard work.

I can't say all of Bill's predictions rang true – whose from that era did? – but I left that lecture theatre convinced that the study of international relations mattered, and that history depends as much on political choice, accidents of timing and errors of judgment as it does on crude measures of military power and strategic weight.