Russia marks 25th years since failed Soviet coup

Communists waving Marxist pamphlets and Twitter storms praising the Soviet Union are probably not what the thousands of Russians who rallied in 1991 against a coup by anti-democracy hardliners expected to see 25 years later.

And yet as Russia marks the symbolic anniversary of the August 1991 putsch this week, pro-Kremlin media have concentrated on nostalgia for the Soviet regime, while the authorities have barred a rally by those who manned the barricades.

On August 19, 1991, a group of security chiefs and Communist bosses who opposed Mikhail Gorbachev’s decentralising reforms declared themselves in charge, ushering in three days of turbulence.

Calling themselves the State Committee for the State of the Emergency, they said Gorbachev had stepped aside for “health reasons” and sent tanks rolling into the centre of Moscow.

But crowds flocked to the White House parliament building to defend Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian republic of the USSR, who was then seen as a symbol of reform and democracy.

For the last 24 years the people who were on the barricades have held a day of remembrance for the abortive coup that was a starting point for the new democratic Russia.

This year, Moscow city hall has for the first time refused permission to hold a rally outside the White House, citing complaints about noise from local residents.

“For 25 years we have been doing exactly the same thing every year,” said Mikhail Shneider, the event’s organiser. “There’s never been a time when they completely denied us.”

During the putsch, Shneider was one of the activists calling Muscovites to the barricades around the parliament building, distributing flyers and convincing metro drivers to make an announcement to passengers.

“Our rallies were numerous at first,” Shneider said, but after Vladimir Putin came to power as prime minister in 1999, they started to decrease.

Putin famously called the breakup of the Soviet Union a great catastrophe.

This week, while barring Shneider’s rally, city authorities sanctioned a Communist demonstration and former Soviet officials were shown on state TV voicing nostalgia for the repressive regime.

Yeltsin’s former vice-president Alexander Rutskoi who supported him on the barricades though they later fell out now claimed the putschists had the right idea in 1991.

“The only mistake by the State Committee for the State of the Emergency was to send troops to Moscow,” he said at a news conference organised by state-owned domestic news agency Rossiya Segodnya on Thursday.

Meanwhile at state-owned TASS news agency, Communist party chief Gennady Zyuganov gloomily said he wished the coup had succeeded and put the country back on track toward Communism.

Even online, a Twitter hashtag #OsuzhdayuRazvalSSSR (I condemn the breakup of the USSR) was shared widely earlier this week, though it was not clear how many of those posting were paid pro-Kremlin trolls.

A survey by Levada independent pollster published this week showed that fewer Russians condemn the putschists, while the number of those supporting their actions was slightly up.

The aborted coup lasted just three days. Its end was seen as the final nail in the USSR’s coffin, followed by euphoric speeches and the dismantling of the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky, seen as a symbol of the KGB’s dominance over Soviet society.

But that euphoria was short-lived and today, as Russia plunges deeper into a protracted recession, “the Soviet past beckons with its certainty and predictability”, wrote Vedomosti daily columnist Andrei Sinitsyn.

Dzerzhinsky’s statue is still gone from its former spot outside the security service headquarters and now stands in a park, but in a sign of the times, this summer restorers erased the protest graffiti on its pedestal that demonstrators painted in 1991.

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