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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Full Victory Not Won in August 1991

The lackluster plans for celebrating the fifth anniversary of the August 1991 attempted coup suggest that Russians no longer value the victory that was won in front of the White House.


Perhaps it would be truer to say that they now better realize how much more remains to be won.


The collapse of the 1991 coup did indeed signal a major victory over some of the darkest forces in the old Soviet Union. Above all, it was a crucial defeat for greater Russian imperialists who sought to maintain the Soviet Union by force, perpetuating Stalin's "prison of nations." After the coup's failure, the Soviet break-up was inevitable.


At the time, the August events appeared to be a decisive blow for economic reform and a free and liberal society. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB, was toppled from its place on Lyubyanka Square, and President Boris Yeltsin started forming his first radical reform government.


But the experience of the past five years has shown that August 1991 was in fact only a small tactical victory in a battle over Russia's historical identity.


As early as the first anniversary of the coup in 1992, some of the euphoria had faded as the economy drifted under the influence of a government still deeply divided over its economic goals. Then-prime minister Yegor Gaidar had already lost his nerve over his policy of shock therapy in the face of stiff opposition from a deeply entrenched industrial elite.


By the second anniversary in 1993, Russia was too deeply mired in a bitter dispute between the president and the Supreme Soviet to have time to celebrate.


It turned out that Yeltsin won a decisive victory in this battle in October 1993 by blowing up the White House, the seat of the Supreme Soviet, which two years before he had risked his life to defend.


But that bloody episode tainted the myth of the "defenders of the White House," giving it a sickening ambiguity. Defeating the Supreme Soviet removed a roadblock on the way to economic reform, but it also showed the new regime's contempt for human life and the rule of law. As a result, the anniversary of 1994 was a sad affair. The war in Chechnya further overshadowed celebrations next year.


This time around, Russians must realize that they have won only partial victories on many of the issues that made them take to the streets in August 1991. The presidential elections marked a move closer to electoral democracy, but Russia remains far away from a true civil society. The old tyrannies of the army, the Kremlin bureaucracy and the Soviet command system are mounting a strong rearguard action.