1991 Soviet coup 25th anniversary met with hostility, indifference in Russia

August 22, 2016 GMT

MOSCOW Russian pro-democracy activists gathered this weekend in central Moscow to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the defeat of a coup attempt by communist hard-liners enraged at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms.

But the anniversary of the failed coup, and the tribute to the three young protesters who died preventing it, was met by hostility from the authorities and widespread indifference or even ignorance by ordinary Russians.

“We are gathered here today to remember those who died defending democracy 25 years ago,” Lev Ponomaryov, a Soviet-era dissident and human rights activist, told a crowd of several hundred people Saturday evening as riot police looked on. “These young men died for our hopes.”

The Aug. 19-21, 1991, coup was thwarted by hundreds of thousands of protesters who filled the streets of Moscow to prevent tanks from rolling on parliament. Among their number was Boris Yeltsin, the charismatic politician who would later become independent Russia’s first president. After three days of high tensions, the coup plotters, who were holding Mr. Gorbachev prisoner in Crimea, lost their nerve and backed down. The three men who were killed during the coup attempt Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov were posthumously made national heroes for their “bravery in the defense of democracy.”

The abortive coup accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet Union: By the end of the year, it was no more.

“For the first time in this century, God has smiled on Russia,” well-known literary critic Yury Karyakin declared at the time.

But a quarter-century on, the euphoria has been replaced by a deep-rooted cynicism. The democratic reforms introduced by Yeltsin have been rolled back, and the powers of the security services have undergone a dramatic revival under President Vladimir Putin, the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for almost 17 years. A number of Mr. Putin’s former KGB colleagues have been appointed to top government posts, while Kremlin critics have been imprisoned or even killed.

“When Yeltsin resigned, he told Putin to take care of Russia,” Alexander Usonov, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, said at Saturday’s memorial event. “Instead, he has destroyed it.”

Pro-democracy activists were shocked last week when Moscow City Hall denied them permission to hold the annual memorial event. They vowed to risk arrest to attend.

“It will be a disgrace, if people are hauled off to police trucks for trying to lay wreaths at the site where heroes lost their lives,” wrote Mr. Ponomaryov, the Soviet-era dissident.

He said this was the first time the memorial ceremony had been banned since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Shortly before the event, authorities backtracked and allowed activists to gather. But City Hall refused to allow a separate event Monday in honor of the protesters who defended the Russian parliament.

“Putin is the heir of those KGB-linked officials that planned the coup,” Mikhail Schneider, a politician with the Solidarnost opposition movement, told The Washington Times. “The anniversary of the defeat of the coup is not a holiday for him.”

Mr. Schneider also pointed out that no official government representative had attended the memorial ceremony since Mr. Putin first came to power in 2000.

State media’s coverage of the anniversary of the coup focused largely on the reminiscences of former KGB officers. “Could the Soviet Union have been saved?” read the headline of an article on the website of the state-run Rossiya 24 television channel.

The memorial event was briefly disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, a virulently anti-Western priest. Archpriest Chaplin, a former spokesman for the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, outraged Kremlin critics when he declared this month that there is “nothing wrong” with authorities killing their political opponents.

“Some people need to be and should be killed,” Archpriest Chaplin told a Russian radio station.

Organizers said the archpriest’s presence at Saturday’s ceremony was a “provocation” by the authorities.

The August 1991 coup attempt may have captivated a watching world, but the memory of the tumultuous event has faded in the memories of millions of Russians. In a public opinion survey published Wednesday by the independent Levada Center pollster, just 50 percent of Russians were able to give a correct answer to the question, “What happened on 19-21 August 1991?” Another 48 percent were unable to even hazard a guess, while 2 percent of respondents answered incorrectly.

For some Russians, it was hard to see what the defeat of the 1991 coup had ultimately achieved.

“Just imagine, if the coup had succeeded, there would be no freedom of speech in Russia, no development of the economy, and no way to change our leaders,” one Russian social media user wrote in a sarcastic online post.

Also in the Levada Center poll, a mere 8 percent of Russians said the defeat of the coup was a victory for democracy, while more said they approved of the actions of the coup plotters than condemned them (15 percent to 13 percent). Just 16 percent of respondents said they would participate in protests to prevent another coup.

“People had great hopes after the defeat of the coup,” said Mr. Schneider, the opposition politician. “But they became very disappointed, very quickly. They thought we would soon live like people do in the United States, England and France. They soon realized that wasn’t going to happen.”