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Russia: Coup's Legacy Tastes Bittersweet (Part 3)

  • Francesca Mereu

Ten years after the attempted putsch that changed their lives forever, some Muscovites look back at the Soviet Union with nostalgia, downplaying its shortages and limitations. But others say they have found a new and better life in post-Soviet Russia, and have no regrets about the changes brought about by the failed coup. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports.

Moscow, 16 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- During the three days of the coup attempt in August 1991, thousands of Muscovites crowded the streets surrounding the White House, preparing for a face-off against tanks and automatic weapons. Many people, yearning for an end to Soviet repression, were ready to defend democracy with their own hands.

But 10 years later, many wonder whether Russia has lived up to the promise of those three historic days. The country is still struggling to forge a genuine democracy. Economic reforms sent much of the population plunging into poverty. Crime, corruption, and political scandals have become widespread. A decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Russians say they are happy with the changes. But not everyone is convinced that life has changed for the better:

Young woman: "My life now isn't bad."

Man: "I think [everything] now is fine [compared to the Soviet time]. If you have a job and you know how to work, you can live [well]."

Man: "I lived most of my life in Soviet times. I would still be working [if the Soviet Union had not collapsed]. As far as personal feelings are concerned, [of course] we felt happy when we got more freedom. But if we could only go back to what we had, [it would be better]."

The Russian public opinion center VTsIOM recently conducted a poll on how Russians view the events of August 1991. Yuri Levada, the center's director, told RFE/RL that poll results indicate that nearly 25 percent of Russians remember the August coup as a tragic event that had disastrous consequences for the country and its people.

Some 43 percent see the events as simply a power struggle between government leaders, whose consequences -- positive or negative -- for the country were of secondary importance.

But according to Levada, only 10 percent of the Russians included in the poll remember the failed coup in a purely positive way -- as a democratic revolution that succeeded in toppling communist rule.

Levada says this 10 percent represents those Russians who have been able to adjust to life in the "new Russia." He adds that those who continue to view the putsch as a tragic event are traditionally older Russians who suffered the most in the economic chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union:

"Most of them are old or communist-oriented people who see the August events through a kind of prism. First, they see the collapse of the Soviet Union. Second, [they see] the destruction of the [Soviet] political and economic system that followed. And they also see all the troubles that resulted -- the crises and cataclysmic events, the political plots and the economic problems of 1992, 1993, 1994, and the years that followed."

Leonid Sedov, a researcher with VTsIOM -- which has conducted similar polls every year since the coup -- says that in the years directly following the events, only 6 percent of Russians said their lives would have been better if the coup plotters had succeeded. Now, he says, that figure has grown to 20 percent.

This jump of 14 percentage points, he says, is a result of the difficulty many people have had adjusting to Russia's erratic market reforms. Nearly half of all Russians, he adds, still say their lives were best during the rule of Leonid Brezhnev.

Vasily Starodubtsev, a member of the so-called "gang of eight" coup plotters, recently told Reuters that they would have "democratized the country calmly, without material losses, without the looting of the state." Sedov notes that many Russians seem to believe this is true:

"This 14-point difference means that people have not gotten anything from the market reforms. They think that it would be better if life was like [it used to be] in Soviet times. [People think that] the coup plotters could have helped [return Russia to that time]. More than 50 percent of people think that the Brezhnev era was the best time in our country, and at the time of the putsch, the coup plotters promised to return that time. So it isn't so strange that, today, 20 percent of Russians think life would be better if the coup plotters had succeeded."

If the coup hadn't failed, would Russians' lives be better or worse? In interviews with RFE/RL, some Muscovites said they are enjoying their new freedoms. Others, however, said such freedoms have come at too great a price:

Old woman: "Now people have more rights, more freedom."

Man: "I think that people would have been dead by now [if communism had continued]."

Young man: "[My life would be] worse, of course. I don't like communists. I'm for freedom."

Young man: "[My life would be] better. I agree with the [goal of the coup plotters]."

Man: "As far as I'm concerned, I think my life would be better [if the coup had succeeded.] I'm used to the Soviet times; I knew where to get a piece of bread, I knew how to find a job. Now, for me, things are worse. I'm not happy [with] the kind of capitalism that we have. Not at all. I would like things to be free, I would like things to be good for my child. But what we have now is disgusting."

This week, the communist newspaper "Sovietskaya Rossiya" published an open letter from 43 citizens asking President Vladimir Putin to put a stop to the country's liberal reforms. The letter accuses former President Boris Yeltsin -- who successfully led the resistance against the coup -- of destroying the Soviet Union and creating "a bizarre hybrid instead of a thriving democratic society."