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Russia: Anniversary Of Failed Coup Contains Many Ironies (Part 2)

  • Kathleen Moore

The 1991 coup fizzled after just three days, but the event had lasting consequences for the decade that followed. Some historians argue that the attempt by eight ministers to seize power was simply the last gasp of an already dead Soviet state. Others remember the coup as the most important -- and thrilling -- event in recent Russian history, albeit one whose long-term promise appears to be fading. RFE/RL correspondent Kathleen Knox looks at the bittersweet legacy of those three days.

Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 20 August 1991, Russian journalist Yevgeniya Albats was sitting in the offices of the "Moskovskie Novosti" ("Moscow News") newspaper, faxing reports on the events unfolding in Moscow to other newspapers around the world.

The day before, the group of hard-line conspirators -- including Vice President Gennady Yanayev and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov -- had formed a state emergency committee in a bid to seize power and also had attempted to shut down all independent newspapers. In a telephone interview with RFE/RL, Albats describes the scene:

"The three of us reporters were sitting in the newspaper office and writing leaflets and sending information to newspapers around the globe. We were stunned that we were allowed to do this. It was still the Soviet Union and international faxes worked. People from the United States were able to reach us. No soldiers or KGB guys came into the 'Moskovskie Novosti' office, even though we were calling the offices of all coup leaders. During this night, it became clear that something went wrong for those who tried to conduct the coup."

By the next evening, the coup had failed, faced down by an opposition centered around Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian republic. The fate of the Soviet Union had been sealed. Within months, Communist Party rule had ended, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, and Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned as the last Soviet leader.

For Albats, those three days in August were, in her words, the best of her life:

"That was a great time, when we had a lot of hopes, and I believe we had all the reasons to expect the country to turn into a normal, civilized, lawful, democratic country."

What followed instead was disillusionment for many. Economic reforms swept away personal savings, and powerful business tycoons -- known as the "oligarchs" -- bought up large chunks of industry and exerted influence over government policy.

Albats says that some in Russia today believe the current administration of President Vladimir Putin is a kind of vindication of the failed coup:

"Many of those who came to power now, [Putin's] colleagues from the KGB, see the current situation as their victory. They openly say in conversation that they got back into power, that they have gained back what they lost 10 years ago."

This is certainly the spin that the surviving -- and amnestied -- plotters are giving on the event 10 years later. At a news conference last month, co-conspirator and former Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov said that Putin's administration is carrying on the work the plotters tried to start 10 years ago -- that is, restore control over the country. Putin hosted one of the plotters -- his former boss at the KGB, Kryuchkov -- at the Kremlin for his inauguration in May last year.

Archie Brown is professor of politics at Oxford University in Great Britain and the author of several books on Russian politics. Brown agrees that the goal of the 1991 plotters still finds some sympathizers within Russia's current leadership:

"I'm sure there are a number of people there now who sympathized with the putschists of 1991. Putin has invited Kryuchkov to the Kremlin. Putin's position is that these people's hearts were in the right place, and he sympathized with their aim of trying to maintain the union, but that they went about it the wrong way."

If Putin -- the chosen successor of Yeltsin, who faced down the coup conspirators -- really is the true heir to the plotters, it would be just one of many ironies of the failed putsch.

Brown says it is also ironic that the conspirators accused Soviet leader Gorbachev of indecisiveness, when it was clear from their first disastrous public appearance that they lacked direction and did not know exactly what to do.

Another irony is that, in the end, the putsch attempt achieved the opposite of what its organizers had aimed to do. The failed putsch accelerated the demise of the Soviet Union that they had hoped to maintain.

Andrei Ryabov is a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. He says the current Russian administration and a large section of the Russian establishment has a split attitude now about the coup:

"Of course, they understand that without the events of August 1991, the victory of the new political order in Russia, the creation of a market economy, would be pushed back for a long time, at the very least. So they recognize the positive influence of these events. But on the other hand, for many of them it represents the collapse of the state, and right now this idea is being put forward by a large section of the political elite. From this point of view, this weakening of the state as an institution can't really command sympathy with these people, so the attitude is a dual one."

Ryabov expects Putin to highlight both the good and bad consequences of the failed putsch if he makes an appearance marking the anniversary:

"On the one hand, he will undoubtedly recognize the great significance of these events for the development of Russia along the path of democracy and a market economy. But on the other hand, he'll probably say a certain anarchy arose then as a result of the wrong choice of economic reforms, and that this has had a negative impact on the economy in the last 10 years, on social relations, and on the weakening of the state, and that he, as the new president, is now working to rid the country of these negative effects."

The ambivalent nature of the Russian administration's attitude toward the failed coup is matched by the feelings of many ordinary Russians. If no one is in a celebratory mood during the anniversary this weekend, it won't be much of a surprise, Brown says. After all, the Soviet Union disintegrated a few months after the coup, and many Russians still regret that.

Journalist Yevgeniya Albats says she'll not be doing anything special to mark the occasion, just writing as usual and watching the anniversary coverage on television -- partly to see what Putin has to say, if anything, about the events of August 1991.