15 Years On, Coup Is a Dim Memory

MTThe view of Tverskaya Ulitsa at Pushkin Square on Thursday, top. A crowd and a tank at the same spot Aug. 19, 1991.
Fifteen years ago Saturday, tens of thousands of people rallied in Moscow to defend democracy and resist a hard-line coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. Today, most would have stayed at home.

The marked change in attitude toward an event that sped up the disintegration of the Soviet Union appears to be due to disillusionment, nostalgia and a lot of apathy.

President Vladimir Putin, who in his 2005 state-of-the-nation address called the Soviet collapse the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, and the government have no special plans for the Aug. 19-21 anniversary. The only commemorations will be staged by the Communists and the Union of Right Forces.

"People, being more interested in recent events, no longer consider the August 1991 coup an important political event," said Alexei Grazhdankin, a senior sociologist with the Levada Center, an independent polling agency.

A Levada poll released Thursday indicated that only 12 percent of today's Russians would support Boris Yeltsin in resisting the communist hard-liners, a group of a dozen men who called themselves the State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP. Slightly more, 13 percent, would support the GKChP attempt to seize power from Soviet President Gorbachev by placing him under house arrest and sending hundreds of armed vehicles to occupy the streets of Moscow on Aug. 19.

An overwhelming 52 percent, however, said they would not take sides. Twenty-three percent were undecided. No margin of error was given for the national poll of 1,600 people.

Surveys conducted in recent years by another leading pollster, the state-run VTsIOM, indicated a similar lack of interest in the coup attempt.

"All the recent surveys on this subject have shown that most Russians tend to view the coup as an episode in the fight for power among the country's leadership," VTsIOM head Valery Fyodorov said.

VTsiOM decided not to conduct a poll ahead of the 15th anniversary due to the lack of interest.

The coup attempt failed amid huge street protests on Aug. 21, 1991. Also crucial were the defection of a company of tanks to the coup opponents, led by newly elected President Yeltsin, and the deaths of three men who attempted to stop an armored vehicle on the night of Aug. 20. Public outrage over the deaths fed the collapse of the coup.

Fifteen years later, only the Communists and liberals are gearing up to remember the anniversary.

The Communists will hold a rally outside the former Lenin Museum, now part of the State Historical Museum, on Saturday.

On Sunday, supporters of the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, will march to the intersection of the Garden Ring and Novy Arbat, where the three men were killed, for a memorial rally and a laying of flowers.

On Tuesday, some 600 SPS supporters are expected to march from Gorbaty Most to the Garden Ring holding a 25-meter Russian flag to commemorate the Supreme Soviet's decision after the failed coup to replace the Soviet flag with the imperial white, red and blue tricolor. Aug. 22 is Flag Day, a holiday ordered by Yeltsin to mark the end to the coup.

A presidential spokesman said he was not aware of any official events involving the participation of Putin, who is on a working vacation in Sochi, to commemorate the anniversary.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Children playing on a tank near the Kremlin on Aug. 19, 1991. The Kremlin has no plans for the 15th anniversary.
"With this anniversary, the Kremlin has found itself in an ambivalent situation: On the one hand, it is certainly not their victory and not a big day for them," SPS leader Nikita Belykh said by telephone.

"On the other hand, the Kremlin obviously cannot ignore the date, and needs put on a good face with the West by showing it is committed to democratic values," he said.

The liberals have long accused Putin of backtracking on democracy.

Sergei Mitrokhin, the deputy head of Yabloko who was working in the Moscow city legislature 15 years ago, likened the mass protests to Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004.

"The August 1991 events were a victory of spontaneous democracy, similar to the Orange revolution in Ukraine," he said. This is what the Kremlin fears the most, so there is nothing for them to celebrate."

Mitrokhin recalled that at the time of the coup attempt, he was in the building of the Mossoviet, now the Mayor's Office on Tverskaya Ulitsa, calling regional administrations and urging them to resist the GKChP.

Even though Mitrokhin and other Yabloko leaders stood by Yeltsin at the time, the party does not intend to commemorate the event, Mitrokhin said.

One of the coup plotters, Valentin Varennikov, had no apologies this week. "Gorbachev's policy of betrayal led the Soviet Union to the brink of catastrophe, and the leadership's opposition to that policy was the right thing to do. There was no other way," said Varennikov, who is a State Duma deputy with Rodina, Interfax reported.

In 1991, Varennikov was the commander of the ground troops and a deputy defense minister. After the coup failed, he was arrested with six other GKChP members. Yeltsin granted him amnesty in 1994, and he never went on trial.

Gorbachev will not mark the anniversary, and he is vacationing abroad until Aug. 27, his spokesman Ruslan Palazhchenko said. Gorbachev participated in commemorations for the 10th anniversary.

A half dozen people interviewed on the street Thursday said they only dimly recalled the coup. "All I remember of the coup was that it took place the last year I was an Oktyabryonok," said Yulia Novikova, a student. "I'm glad it was defeated because it signaled the last moments of communism."

Oktyabryata was a club for first and second graders.

Nikolai Fonyatin, a middle-aged driver, expressed regret over the violence. "It was a black day for the people," he said. "But who were the people? Still nobody really knows, I suppose."

Vadim Nikitin contributed to this report.