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Soviet-Era Dissidents Decry Moscow's Rejection Of A 1991 Putsch Commemoration

A rally in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during the attempted coup.
A rally in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, during the attempted coup.

MOSCOW -- Former Soviet dissidents are crying foul after being denied permission to commemorate the failed August 1991 coup that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, declaring Moscow city officials' decision a victory for the putsch plotters 25 years later.

City authorities won't allow the annual rally on August 20, which is intended to honor the thousands of demonstrators who outside the Russian parliament stood down a hard-line Communist coup attempt against reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. (The defiant crowd was led by Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Soviet Union's Russian republic.)

The organizers also sought permission to hold a ceremony at a central Moscow intersection near a memorial to the three men killed during the standoff, which ultimately led to the birth of post-Soviet Russia.

The Moscow authorities on August 16 proposed that the activists instead hold their ceremony in a park across town in the northeast of the capital, and the rally in a square with no link to the tumultuous events. They cited far-reaching roadwork in the capital and traffic concerns.

The 25th anniversary has taken on additional significance as Russian President Vladimir Putin -- who once denounced the Soviet collapse as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” -- has been accused of pursuing an increasingly authoritarian and nationalist course in his third term in the Kremlin.

The organizers protest that they have held such commemorations annually for the last 24 years, and have always been granted permission. They say the nearby roadwork has already been completed.

“Of course we aren’t going to lay wreaths in Sokolniki [park] instead of at the place where they died,” prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov wrote on his blog. “Just as we aren’t going to raise the flag in an unknown place.”

Ponomaryov described the August 1991 events as a rare, true victory for civil society.

“Shortly after this the nomenklatura again closed up… then the authorities again occupied themselves with suffocating all of the only just appearing democratic freedoms and the unleashing of aggressive wars, the most important of which…is the war against Russia’s own civil society. They prefer to forget the events of August 1991.”

Raising The Flag

An organizer, Mikhail Shneider, said he and Ponomaryov would contest the decision in a written response to City Hall and appeal to the prosecutor’s office on August 19.

Their planned ceremonies include raising a flag on August 22 -- a nod to the birth of the Russian tricolor and its replacement of the red Soviet flag. They said the authorities did not counterpropose any site where they would be able to raise the flag.

Writing on Twitter, Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy radio station, called on Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to reverse the decision.

Some, like Sasha Sotnik, an opposition-minded blogger, even suggested they would disregard the Moscow city authorities and attempt to gather as planned. Sotnik condemned City Hall's decision as a final victory 25 years later for the 1991 hard-liners known as the GKChP, short for the State Committee for Emergency Situations.

In Focus: How The Soviet Union Fell

The GKChP was an eight-man body -- dubbed the Gang of Eight -- which attempted to overthrow Gorbachev in August 1991, turn back the clock on his perestroika reforms, and prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Seven of the men were jailed and one committed suicide.

“The GKChP has won,” Sotnik wrote on Facebook. “Revanche crept along, and it has happened. It’s necessary to go anyway. I personally will come,” he wrote on Facebook.

Andrei Ryklin, an editor at Yezhednevny Zhurnal, suggested that the decision was a watershed moment in Russia. “This refusal seems to me historic.... The masks are off.... The authorities have literally directly recognized that they are the heirs and continuers of the GKChP,” Ryklin wrote on Facebook.

Vasily Maksimov, a Russian Twitter user who describes himself as a photojournalist, wrote:

“In a few days it will be 25 years since the GKChP rebellion, the tanks on the streets of Moscow, and inevitable defeat of sovok” -- derogatory slang for the Soviet Union.
PS Alas, in [Russia] the toad survived.”

Another Twitter user wrote: “Denied conducting a ceremony in honor of the anniversary of the victory over the GKChP in August 1991.
It’s clear why: the GKChP is in power.”

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