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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Fireworks for 10th Anniversary

If you ask Georgy Grishko, then the 100 or so people who came to the White House on Sunday to celebrate the failure of the 1991 coup were a lot. "I've been coming here every year since the coup," said Grishko, 45. "This is one of the biggest crowds I've seen."

But for a celebration of events that had brought tens of thousands out to defend democracy and had led to the demise of Communist rule, it was low-key. Most people chose to spend the sunny day at their dachas, and most prominent politicians chose to stay silent.

From noon when the rally started until into the evening, often no more than 50 people at a time gathered on the small cobblestone bridge in front of the White House to meet friends from the days of the coup and exchange news of the past years.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
Outnumbered by the police and the journalists, they sipped their beers while listening to a medley of speakers who warned of the new dangers to Russian democracy, reminisced about the past or recited sentimental poetry. They also observed a minute of silence for three men killed while trying to stop one of the many armored vehicles sent into the city on Aug. 19,1991.

Had the crowd been older, the rally would have looked much like the meetings of World War II veterans every May 9 in city parks. There was even an accordionist playing old, familiar folk songs.

But unlike World War II, the events of August 1991 have split Russians. In a public opinion poll conducted recently by the VTsIOM agency, 28 percent said they supported Boris Yeltsin, 13 percent said they supported the hard-line Communist coup and 31 percent said they supported neither.

One of the veteran White House defenders to appear Sunday was Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok, who at the time was a deputy in the Russian Supreme Soviet. He shared with journalists his memories of those three days in August 1991, which he said he spent both inside the parliament building with Yeltsin and outside helping build the barricades.

But Pochinok insisted he came "not as minister, but as a participant in the events."

The organizers of the rally called for Aug. 19 to be recognized as an official state holiday in addition to Aug. 22 — the day of the final defeat of the coup, which is now celebrated as Flag Day.

State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, another defender of the White House, criticized President Vladimir Putin for not appearing at the rally. Putin, a product of the KGB whose chief Vladimir Kryuchkov masterminded the coup, went on vacation a few days ago and has remained conspicuously silent about the 1991 events.

Yeltsin, whose health has deteriorated in recent years, also was silent on the anniversary of the day that he made history by standing on a tank and defying the leaders of the coup.

Yushenkov — a former army officer, considered a "radical democrat" by his Duma colleagues — said the Kremlin's silence was "no surprise" to him. "The regime in power now is the restoration of the coup," he told the people gathered at the White House.

This is what the coup plotters have been busy telling people. In interviews in the weeks ahead of the anniversary, they have been praising Putin's policies and saying they only wanted to do in 1991 what Putin is doing now — prevent the country from falling apart.

Svetlana Baranova, a still young-looking 60-year-old, said she has little sentiment for the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Yes, we may have lost the Soviet Union, but we regained our true Russian roots instead," she said, smiling. "Had somebody told me 20 years ago that Leningrad would be St. Petersburg again and that I would be able to hear the church bells in Moscow, I wouldn't have believed him."

Baranova bares no ill feelings toward Putin for staying quiet, and neither does Grishko. "I understand why he chose to go on vacation now," he said. "He is trying to reconcile all parts of our society, to bridge the gaps and end the wars between the 'democrats' and the 'communists.' And he is right to do so."

Grishko has other grievances — he finds Putin too stern, too focused and inflexible. "But he is basically a patriot, like me or anybody else here," he said.

On Sunday, Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to Vympel, a special unit in the Federal Security Service, a KGB successor, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary Sunday.

Boris Beskov, who headed the KGB unit at the time of the 1991 coup, told NTV on Sunday that the special forces "would not have shot at the people had such a command been given."

According to Interfax, the Kremlin is planning to participate in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary, albeit without Putin, who will continue his vacation in Karelia until Thursday. A wreath in his name will be laid Monday on the graves of the three men killed during the demonstrations, and members of his staff will participate in an official flag-raising ceremony Wednesday.

In another rally Sunday, on Pushkin Square, political showman and Duma Deputy Vladimir Zhirinovsky expressed his regrets over the failure of the coup 10 years ago. Had it succeeded, "we would still be living in a unified country with 300 million people, and the world would still respect and fear us," Interfax quoted him as saying.

But not all is lost, he told a handful of followers. There will be a new coup attempt "in 2003 or a bit later" and some 10,000 to 20,000 "so-called democrats will be executed, but millions of Russians will be saved."