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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

10 Years Later, No One Is Cheering

Ten years ago the Communist coup ended in defeat. The coup plotters proved to be a pathetic bunch, and three days after they had declared a state of emergency, the Soviet regime was gone and nobody in the whole of the U.S.S.R. stood up to defend it. Out of this crisis the new democratic Russia emerged, and before the end of 1991 the Soviet Union had collapsed. The victorious Boris Yeltsin moved to push the Communist Party out of power and to reduce the authority of the KGB.

Today this victory appears to be highly ambiguous to the Russian people. In a July poll, only 10 percent (to which I belong) regarded it as a democratic revolution that had put an end to Communist power. Twenty-five percent look back at August 1991 as a tragic event whose aftermath was disastrous for the country.

Most Russians do not think much about those past events or see them as historically significant. The majority (43 percent) believe that what happened 10 years ago was but an episode in the power struggle in the higher echelons. Almost a quarter of Russians polled (22 percent) had no opinion as to what those events were about. Asked whether their lives would be any different if the the coup plotters had seized and kept power, more than 50 percent said it would be the same, or had no idea.

This assessment of the historical effect of August 1991 is in sharp contrast to the personal recollections of those who were there, who spent sleepless nights on the barricades. If you ask a group of Moscow friends, "Where were you in those days? What did you do?" you'll most likely get highly emotional personal accounts that haven't gotten any less excited over the past 10 years. Interrupting each other, people will tell you in tiniest detail how they first learned about the coup, how they rushed from a Moscow home, a countryside dacha or a vacation to the White House, the seat of the Supreme Soviet, where resistance was forming under Yeltsin.

To be there was an incredible experience unparalleled in modern Russian history: People were brought together by a common political cause, each driven by an understanding of his or her public duty. They overcame their fears and gathered to defend their government and their country against the dark forces seeking to drag them back to the oppressive Communist past. Workers and intellectuals were building barricades together, and the sudden sense of freedom was intoxicating.

Some of the episodes of those improbable days were almost too symbolic: Yeltsin atop a tank, or the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, about to be toppled, its head in a noose, the iron statue of the bloody butcher hanging over the triumphant crowd.

And yet even most of those who rushed to the White House in 1991 and lived through the August Revolution would today deny that those events made a difference. More often than not they are ashamed of their unequivocal enthusiasm 10 years ago and their naive faith that the democracy they stood for would make Russia a better place.

The ardor of defending political friends against political foes promptly gave way to passivity, inaction and distrust of politics and politicians. It did not help, of course, that the new democratic rulers quickly became corrupt, that economic hardships were great and the loss of social status deeply frustrating.

But it is not just in Russia that economic reforms and dramatic social change have been hard on people. Other Eastern European countries have lived through it. In Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic, though, people knew whom to blame. Their enemy was an alien force, the Soviet Communist oppressor. Liberation from the outside enemy imbued those nations with energy and helped them overcome post-Communist hardships. Likewise, people in the Baltic states knew their enemy: It was the Russians, who invaded their territories and annexed them to the Soviet Communist empire.

In Russia there was nobody to blame. There was no identifiable enemy outside or inside. In the course of seven decades of Soviet rule, Communists were enmeshed in the very texture of social life. They had long ago stopped being an alien force. They were found among the victims of terror as often as among the executioners. And by 1991 they were as common among the new democrats as the non-Communists were. Gorbachev was a member of the same Communist elite as was his adversary Yeltsin. But so were the coup plotters, who hated them both and sought to destroy them.

Those who plotted the Communist coup in August 1991 briefly appeared to be the real enemy, because they attempted to reverse the democratic change. Yet, this bunch of middle-aged or older men with shaking hands was not even terrifying. They evoked contempt rather than fear. They were arrested and kept in prison for a few months and then released. Today the nation has all but forgotten them.

In the fall of 1992 a trial of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was held by the new Russian government. Not unexpectedly, it failed to prove that the Party was responsible for the tragic history of the Soviet Union.

Just as the Russian people find nothing to condemn, there is nothing for them to celebrate either. Old Soviet holidays have been abandoned, but there is not a single event in the post-Communist Russian history that is nationally recognized as a holiday deserving celebration.

The horrors of Stalin's regime, the atrocities of the KGB, life in permanent oppression and fear have not become part of the national image of the Soviet past. True, they are no longer kept secret; all these things are described in school textbooks. But sites of mass graves of Stalin's victims, with precious few exceptions, have not been turned into memorial sites. Russia has readopted its old Soviet national anthem. The governor of the Volgograd region has announced that he will undertake to restore the old name of his region's capital: Stalingrad. The number of former KGB men in government offices is steadily growing. Russians are mostly indifferent or mildly approving.

Ten years after the end of the Communist regime Russia has not come to terms with its past. In fact, it is much more indifferent to its past today than it was 10 years ago.

Masha Lipman, a Russian journalist, writes a monthly column for The Washington Post, where this comment first appeared.