Russia opts for low-key 25th birthday

Vladimir Putin

On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 2014, more than a million people celebrated in the streets of the German capital. Chancellor Angela Merkel marked the day with a grand speech and the media obsessed over a historic milestone that was accompanied by a flurry of exhibitions and events.

But in Russia there was barely any evidence on Friday of the country remembering the August coup, the events 25 years ago that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

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Overnight on August 19 1991, a group of hardline members of the Soviet leadership, together with elements of the security services, tried to seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. The putsch attempt faltered within two days, and ended up triggering an even faster disintegration of the country.

In the course of the coup attempt, large numbers of young people thronged the so-called White House, home to a Russian government headed by Boris Yeltsin, and stopped the tanks called to the streets by the putschists. Although Mr Gorbachev survived the coup, the events boosted Mr Yeltsin’s political career.

“Certainly we achieved something significant back then: We freed ourselves from an extremely reactionary regime, one that was out of touch with the people and that was trying to turn the clock back, and all that was achieved almost without bloodshed,” said Anatoly Melnik, a 47-year-old consultant who spent a night outside the White House at the time of the coup as a young student. “But there are not many people who remember it as a big moment now.”

On Friday, small groups of people who had participated in the street rallies back then visited a memorial in central Moscow to the three people who died in the coup. Emilia Slabunova and Vladimir Ryzhkov, candidates for the liberal Yabloko party in the upcoming parliamentary elections, laid flowers at the memorial.

The media is running low-key features that recount the events of August 1991 but with little debate or commentary.

While the opening of the Iron Curtain and, liberation from Soviet dominance and the advent of democracy are remembered as momentous events in most of central and eastern Europe, Russia has always viewed the 1991 events differently.

Some recall them as the people shaking off a repressive system. But many resent the west’s interpretation of the Soviet Union’s collapse as its victory in the Cold War. Russia, therefore, never commemorated the coup in a big way.

This year, the Moscow government initially rejected an application for a street rally celebrating the failure of the coup — the first ever such ban, blasted as a “disgrace” by Lev Ponomarev, a Soviet-era dissident. On Friday, the mayor’s office approved two small-scale street events with the number of participants capped at 100 on Saturday and Monday.

On Sunday, a group called Protectors of the White House is organising an event to commemorate the ‘victory of the people over the emergency committee’.

But that narrative is shared by few Russians today. According to a poll published this week by Levada Centre, Russia’s only independent pollster, only 50 per cent of respondents accurately remember the events around the coup.

And for many of those, its meaning has turned into something linked to loss, chaos and weakness — features generally associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decade following it with its tumultuous politics and multiple economic crises.

President Vladimir Putin himself has called the USSR’s breakdown the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

As Mr Putin has increasingly rallied support through nationalist and anti-western slogans, liberals who still identify with the ideals of western democracy have been marginalised and targeted as enemies.

The country’s political leadership was thus conspicuously absent from any commemoration on Friday. Mr Putin decided to fly to Crimea instead in a demonstration of strength as Moscow is locked in an escalating spiral of tension with Ukraine, from which it annexed the Black Sea peninsula in early 2014.

“The events of 18-21 August 1991 became a kind of ‘inconvenient’ episode for the majority of the population. And the more the liberals tried to remind society about this date, the more society tried to forget them,” political scientist Dmitry Evstafiev wrote in a column for Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin daily. “It’s not that the Russians ‘don’t remember’ about August 1991. We remember everything. We just want to forget August 1991.”

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