|We Wondered, Would the Window Close?|
|Wednesday, 31 August 2011 18:38|
We Wondered, Would the Window Close? 4.5 out of 5 based on 2 votes.
Russians reflect on the 20th anniversary of the failed coup that ended the Soviet Union.
Like many Russian children in August 1991, Natalia Moshkina experienced the drama of the failed coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev with her family, watching shocked expressions and trying to overhear anxious whispers.
She was a 14-year-old living at the dacha, or summer house. The radio was on. "They were playing Swan Lake, and then there was a news bulletin. They said that [Soviet Leader] Mikhail Gorbachev had been taken ill and the country was being run by the State of Emergency Committee. They were showing Swan Lake on television and nobody knew what was going on."
Olga Popova, 30, was in Kiev. She recalls an intense heat and a feeling of diffuse anxiety: "I was 10 at the time. I was at a summer camp outside Kiev with my grandmother. When Ukraine decided to become an independent state, my intellectually minded parents, who had voted against independence, got drunker than they ever had before--or have since."
Twenty years ago this month, in the days between Aug. 19-21, Communist hardliners attempted to topple Gorbachev and halt his reform program, known as perestroika. They had emptied the Moscow prisons, anticipating their success. But the attempted putsch failed as hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Muscovites rallied around Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic, who famously stood on a tank outside the White House, the seat of the Russian government. Gorbachev, who had been placed under house arrest in the Crimea, returned to Moscow after Yeltsin's successful stand, but he was fatally weakened as a leader, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union began almost immediately.
Vera Grant remembers digging for potatoes at her grandparents' dacha near Moscow, and the adults intently listening to the radio, even as they were in the fields. "The tension was thick," said Grant, a 26-year-old concert promoter.
"The thing I most remember is fear," said Svetlana Prudnikova, who was a teacher in her 40s when the coup occurred. "We were afraid that the window that had opened would close forever." But soon after the coup, Prudnikova and her friends found that "it was also a very active and promising time. Everything felt very real - and so energetic."
Two decades after the founding of a new state, one that began with great hopes for democracy and prosperity, Russians are deeply ambivalent about what has been achieved in the intervening years and the current trajectory of their country. Now, that colors their view of what happened in 1991, and whether it is worth celebrating.
"I was a naval medic with the Northern Fleet at a naval base near Murmansk," said 51-year-old Irina Potapova. "When Yeltsin came to power, there was hope that things would change. I have no nostalgia because those were hard times. ...You might say that the last 20 years brought nothing good to ordinary people."
A mere 8 percent of Russians look back on the events of August 1991, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, as a democratic revolution, according to the Moscow-based Levada Center, an independent pollster and research organization. Thirty-six percent of Russians, echoing the sentiment of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, describe the fall of the Soviet Union as a tragedy. Forty-three percent dismissed what others see as a seminal moment in Russian history - the failure of the August coup - as nothing more than a power struggle among bureaucrats.
"It was the illusion of freedom and the illusion of change," said Philipp Bochkov, a 25-year-old art director. "In this country there will always be a zero after the equal sign," he said. Bochkov recalled that his family crawled around their Moscow apartment during the coup because it was near the White House, and his neighborhood was alive with rumors that snipers were perched on the rooftops, randomly targeting people.
"Today, no one fights for anything, but rather everyone is just always 'against' something," Grant said. "The main point is that things do not become like they once were."
Moshkina, who is now a 34-year-old advertising executive in Moscow, recalls a sense of jubilation in the crowds when her grandmother and mother took her to the White House for a rally after it was clear the coup had failed.
"There was a sense of excitement, democracy, of social foment," Moshkina said. But as she looks back, Moshkina says she does so with a sense of despondency. "I have a feeling that the country missed a great opportunity," she said. "As for me personally, I have become more pragmatic and more cynical."
According to Boris Dubin, head of the Social and Political Studies Department at the Levada Center, "Most Russians now see the 1990s in a negative light, associating this decade with economic collapse, chaos, cultural degradation ...while a miniscule number of the most socially active talk about receiving basic freedoms."
He also noted that public hostility toward the 1990s has been stoked by the Russian media, which consistently describes the decade as a period of unremitting chaos. "People became increasingly more disillusioned," he said.
But Dubin also notes that "democratic rhetoric has seeped into people's pores" and the idea that democracy is a good thing has persisted as the principal legacy of the collapse of communism. Russians continue to aspire to the promises of 20 years ago, even if they are unsure how or if this can be achieved.
Irina Potapova, a 51-year-old masseuse who lives on the outskirts of Moscow, said she believes that Russians still need to develop a civic awareness. Too often, she said, public service is seen as a cash-cow, not a calling. "In politics, corruption should be rooted out," she said.
Ilya Poliveev is a stylist who once studied philology. He also experienced the coup through his parents' eyes. He said he wants to see an end to corruption. "I hope someday there will not be the extremes of today. I have the dream that we will one day be allowed to speak our mind without fear or repercussions."
Popova would also like to see people re-engage with politics instead of retreating into their private lives. "We have a lot of intellectuals who understand everything, but what beats me is why they kowtow to the authorities," she said. "Everybody keeps mum. I would like all these clever people to wake up."