It was a unique moment in Russian history, when people, on their own initiative, organized to take political action, guided by a strong conviction of what was right for their country. Just a few years after the failed coup, less than ten per cent of Russians chose to see those events as a democratic revolution that put an end to Communist Party rule. That perception has not changed.
According to a Levada Center poll, taken in August of this year, only eight per cent share this view. Thirty-five per cent say that it was just another episode in the struggle for power among the top leadership, while thirty per cent think that it was a tragedy that had deleterious effects on the state and the people. Today almost half of Russians say that they don’t know or don’t remember what happened in August of 1991.
The failed coup accelerated the secessionist movements in other constituent republics, first and foremost in the Baltics, but also in Georgia, Armenia, and Moldova. In a referendum in December, 1991, the people of Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence. By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Under the leadership of Yeltsin, who had just smashed the seventy-year-old Communist regime, the new Russia faced the task of building a democratic system, a market economy, and a Russian statehood to replace the Soviet one. The collapse of the Soviet Union may not have been regarded as a tragic event at the time, but, for Russians, seeing the country’s territory shrink and its might diminish was hardly a reason for rejoicing. The fact that the U.S.S.R. fell apart was unexpected and confusing. Those who rose to defend freedom in August, 1991, wanted to get rid of the Communist regime, not to destroy the Soviet Union. To people in Eastern European countries and many in the Baltic states, the Soviet Union may have been a foreign occupier and its collapse a liberation, but to Russians it was still their country, and the sense of liberation was missing. “Free from whom?” was a question that had no answer.
In the second half of 1992, Yeltsin’s government organized a trial of the Communist Party, but the Russian people, preoccupied with economic hardship, showed no interest in learning more about the crimes committed by the regime, and the trial proved meaningless.
To Putin, 1991 was the year when the Soviet state that he had served as a K.G.B. officer first failed him and then ceased to exist. From very early in his tenure, he sought to end overt political clashes and calm public passions. To a nation sick of turmoil and hardship, he offered centralized control and, thanks to the rising price of oil, a better life style. He made it clear that politics was not the people’s business and that independent political activism was undesirable, and the people readily complied. He tapped into the sentiments of the majority, which felt let down by democratic ideas and were increasingly angry with the West, whose models Russia sought to emulate only to find that the West took advantage of Russia’s weakness by enlarging NATO and bombing the former Yugoslavia over Russia’s protests.
Putin reached out to the broad public and mostly ignored those still professing liberal and Westernizing ideas, a constituency that has long been marginalized and unpopular. In late 2011, however, it looked as if he might have miscalculated: more modernized urban Russians staged mass protests against rigged parliamentary elections and his return to the Presidency. As in August, 1991, the protesters had a sense of moral righteousness, but, without a universally recognized leader, their political purpose remained vague. They were less idealistic than those who rose in 1991, less determined, and less serious about their cause. After a few months, the protests were suppressed.
It was only after those protests, and especially after annexing Crimea, that Putin turned to the language of ideas. Today he speaks constantly about state nationalism and Russia’s greatness, and he enjoys the approval of more than eighty per cent of Russians. The fact that, twenty-five years ago, a people’s movement changed the course of history is something that he would rather erase from national memory.