This week marked the 22nd anniversary of the August 1991 Soviet state coup known as the putsch. It was a milestone event in Russia’s most recent history. It marked the victory of democratic forces over Soviet opponents who attempted to restore power on August 19, 1991. It may seem strange, but most Russians are absolutely indifferent to what happened 22 years ago. Only 10 percent of the population considers victory over the Soviet-era Communists as a triumph of democracy.
On August 19, 1991, members of the self-proclaimed State Emergency Committee (GKCHP) staged an unsuccessful coup attempt. A group of leaders from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), the Soviet government, the army and the State Security Committee (KGB) tried to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the father of Soviet “perestroika” (restructuring), from power, prevent the collapse of the USSR and return to the previous pre-perestroika policy.
The State Emergency Committee comprised Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Oleg Baklanov, the first deputy chairman of the Defense Council, Vasily Starodubtsev, the head of the Peasant Union, and Alexander Tizyakov, the president of the Association of State-owned Enterprises and Industrial Facilities. Although the State Emergency Committee did not have any formal leader, Soviet Vice-President Gennady Yanayev was considered to head the putsch.
On the night from August 20 to 21, an operation to seize the Russian parliament building could have taken place. If carried out, it could have caused human casualties. However, the State Emergency Committee members did not issue such an order to the troops under their control. The defenders of the parliament building moved together several trolley-buses and blocked the way to the military. Three civilian defenders of parliament or the House of the Soviets died in clashes. They were posthumously awarded the titles of Heroes of the Soviet Union. The troops who did not receive any order to storm parliament started leaving Moscow. Some putsch members flew to Mikhail Gorbachev’s Crimean residence in Foros but he refused to receive them.
Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22, 1991. Members of the State Emergency Committee were arrested and spent two years in prison. They were released on amnesty in 1994. The putsch members did not find any broad support among the country’s population. The authority of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was totally undermined by the putsch. At the same time, Boris Yeltsin, who was then the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), and his supporters consolidated their positions.
The Soviet Union ceased to exist late in December 1991, just months after the failed coup attempt. Sovereign national states emerged on its territory.
Today, Russians have dim recollections of the euphoria that embraced the country after the victory of democratic forces in Moscow and the failure of the communist putsch on August 19, 1991. Over the past twenty years, the events of those days have sunk into oblivion and disappointment.
Today, most Russians believe that the events that led to the collapse of the USSR were nothing but power struggle in the country’s top leadership. Only 13 percent consider the 1991 putsch suppression as a triumph of democracy.
An opinion poll carried out by the Levada Center on July 18-22 this year shows that 39 percent of Russians consider the events of August 19-22, 1991 as an episode in power struggle in the country’s top echelons; 33 percent describe it as a tragic event, which had pernicious consequences for the country and its people; 13 percent think that it was the victory of a democratic revolution, which put an end to the CPSU rule; 15 percent of respondents hesitated to give any answer. Interestingly, but polls held in previous years had shown approximately the same results. The only exception is that young people tend to know less and less about those events. During the latest poll, 80 percent of young people under 24 could not formulate their attitude to the 1991 August putsch.
Officials and executives (24 percent) are the hottest advocates of the August 1991 events, who consider them to be a victory of democracy over the CPSU. Positive attitudes towards 1991 events in the rest of society are recorded as follows: public servants (17 percent), men in general (12 percent), Russians aged 40-55 (14 percent), people with higher education (15 percent) and people with a high consumer status.
Only a fourth of Russians (25 percent) compared to one third (33 percent) five years ago believe that the country started developing in the right way after the coup attempt. At the same time, the number of those who think the opposite has increased from 40 percent to 44 percent.
Most of those who think that the country has been developing in the wrong direction include pensioners (55 percent), public servants (52 percent), Russians in general (52 percent) and people with low consumer status (78 percent).
The 1991 events are gradually sinking into oblivion and are being erased from human memory, the Vedomosti daily quotes Alexey Grazhdankin, the deputy general director of the Levada Center as saying.
Young people failed to formulate their attitude to the August putsch while representatives of the older generation tend to look at those events through the prism of their present-day position, the sociologist said. Rudolf Pikhoya, the Doctor of Historical Sciences who headed the Russian State Archive Service in 1993-1996, believes that a generation change is the main reason behind the loss of interest in the events that happened 22 years ago.
“Young and even middle-aged people cannot imagine the state of the Soviet economy in the 1980s and 1990s,” Pikhoya said in an interview with Itar-Tass.
“A consumer society has formed in Russia, and many people simply do not know what it means when goods are absent from the shelves. In the early 1990s, I drove around Moscow hunting for a loaf of bread for my family,” Pikhoya remembered.
The second reason for Russians’ negative attitude to the 1991 events is a myth which has been stubbornly imposed on the Russian public that the USSR was an island of affluence and prosperity.
“The Soviet Union was never a land of plenty. Inter-ethnic problems were hushed up. Trips abroad were accompanied by procedures that humiliated human dignity. The myth of a fair Soviet Union brings to naught the achievements which Russia has made over the past 20 years thanks to the victory of democratic forces in August 1991,” Pikhoya said.
The expert noted that active involvement of ordinary people in politics had started after the August of 1991.
“The legislature was the main opponent to executive power bodies. A reverse process is under way now: the role of elections is diminishing,” he said.
However, Pikhoya believes that time for giving true assessment of the 1991 events in the former USSR is yet to come.
First published in ITAR-TASS.
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