Within three days the coup was over — defeated by defiant citizens, determined officials led by Boris Yeltsin, and what seems to have been a generous dose of incompetence on the part of the plotters.
NOTE TO READERS: The Week In Russia will take a two-week hiatus. The next edition will appear on September 10.
In August 1991, the collapse of an attempted coup by hard-liners bent on reversing reforms hastened the breakup of the Soviet Union, which was gone by the end of the year — replaced by 15 independent states. In Russia, how far back will Vladimir Putin turn the clock?
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
A Coup Collapses
The attempted coup that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union was unexpected: The news that President Mikhail Gorbachev was ill and that a group of hard-liners was claiming to be in charge took hundreds of millions of people in the U.S.S.R. by surprise on the morning of August 19, 1991.
I was one of them: I had no inkling of the momentous events that were unfolding as I walked out of my rented Moscow apartment and boarded a rickety red bus bound for the center, where I was working at the Moscow bureau of a U.S. newspaper.
Within three days the coup was over — defeated by defiant citizens, determined officials led by recently elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and what seems to have been a generous dose of incompetence on the part of the plotters seeking to snuff out Gorbachev’s reforms and stop the unraveling of the seven-decade experiment that was the Soviet Union.
And unraveling it was, coming apart at the seams and at its heart under pressure from a diverse range of factors including low world oil prices and the resultant dire economic troubles, the desire for sovereignty among millions in the 15 republics, and the tantalizing taste of freedom provided by Gorbachev’s reforms.
The rights and freedoms that were nascent at the time — such as the freedom of assembly, association, and the right to free elections — are the same ones that critics accuse Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, of curtailing assiduously over 22 years as president or prime minister of Russia.
The taste for free assembly was in evidence, along with the growing intolerance for oppression that was a key ingredient in the collapse of both the coup and the country itself, at the biggest protest I have ever seen in person, eight months before the plotters claimed power — and a week after Soviet troops killed 14 people in a bid to end the independence movement in Lithuania.
On January 21, 1991, a huge crowd of people packed Moscow’s Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin, to "denounce the bloodshed in Lithuania and President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s increasingly hard line," as The New York Times put it in its report that day.
Multiple media reports put the number of protesters at about 100,000. But when I climbed up onto the wall of the Hotel Moskva or some other high ground to get a better look, it seemed to me like a lot more — a sea of people thronging the large expanse at the center of a country that had less than five months to live.
In any case, such a sight seems out of the question today.
Poison And Protest
Putin’s government has used a mix of on-paper restrictions and on-the-street violence to narrow the scope for protests, both planned and spontaneous. Using a permit system that opponents say is unconstitutional, the authorities have increasingly sought to curb opposition rallies and, when permitting them in Moscow, confine them to locations further from the Kremlin.
And in the wake of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s return to Russia in January following treatment in Germany for a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning that occurred in Siberia exactly a year ago, on August 20, 2020, security forces cracked down violently on protests over his arrest and imprisonment.
Since 2004, the last year of Putin’s first presidential term, the Russian state has "eroded the right to freedom of peaceful assembly by using increasingly restrictive laws, and heavy-handed police tactics and criminal prosecutions to silence peaceful dissent," Amnesty International said in a report released this month.
"Russian authorities have been curtailing the right to freedom of assembly with incredible persistence and inventiveness for years," said AI Russian researcher Oleg Kozlovsky, and "peaceful street protest has come to be seen as a crime by state officials."
In 1991, elections held the promise of change. Yeltsin’s election as president of the still-Soviet republic of Russia, in June 1991, came two years after unprecedented balloting for the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in the spring of 1989 — the first elections in which Soviet voters really had a choice.
During Putin’s time in power, critics say, the freedom of choice has faded for Russian voters, washed away by increasingly intense efforts by the Kremlin to keep authentic opponents out of elections as public support for the dominant United Russia party, never very strong, also decreases.
Dovetailing with the clampdown on demonstrations this year, the authorities have further narrowed the field ahead of elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, that are one month away.
Allies of Navalny and many others have been barred from running, formally or effectively. This week, Golos, an independent monitoring group that has been instrumental in documenting evidence and allegations of fraud in previous elections, was labeled a "foreign agent" — leaving its ability to report on the Duma vote and regional elections in doubt.
‘No Chance At All’
For some in a generation that held out hope for the best in the final years of the Soviet Union’s existence, as the country loosened its grip on its people, opened up, and then fell apart, Russia three decades later is a bitter disappointment.
When the attempted coup began, it was "scary — the fear that they might win," Olga Romanova, who was 24 at the time and is now a leading prisoners’ rights activist, said of the hard-liners in an interview with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America.
Within hours, however, she knew "that we had won and that our generation would never be chased back. And ahead of us, without a doubt, was an absolutely bright and beautiful future," Romanova said. But as the years passed and Yeltsin’s promise was tarnished by the shelling of parliament in 1993 and the "huge propaganda campaign" that preceded his reelection in 1996, that future faded — and Putin’s ascent was the "logical" consequence.
"When was it clear that we’d lost the country? It was clear to me when Putin came to power. In 1999-2000 it was clear that it was all over — but nobody expected it to be over to such a degree. I thought Putin would have one, maybe two terms and then something would change, there would still be a chance," Romanova told Current Time. "Now it’s clear that there’s no chance at all."
Journalist Leonid Ragozin sounded a more optimistic note in an article published by Al-Jazeera on August 15, despite describing the Kremlin as "resorting to terror against its opponents."
Thirty years after the failed coup, "Russia finds itself at the end of a historical cycle which began when its people rose up against a morally and economically bankrupt regime," Ragozin wrote.
With the "unprecedented wave of repression unleashed by the Kremlin in the run-up to the parliamentary election," he wrote, "Putin’s government betrays its fear of a maturing society that is increasingly hostile to the Kremlin."
Russia at this moment is "quite the opposite of a hopeless case," Ragozin contended. "It has entered a volatile period because society has outgrown the regime…and now wants change."