Published December 09, 2015
Russia quietly marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the attempted coup that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with only about 100 people gathering Friday evening at the spot where tens of thousands of protesters rallied in 1991.
Neither the Russian president nor prime minister mentioned the coup anniversary in their public appearances on Friday, reflecting the deep ambivalence of many Russians about the events that plunged them into both anxiety and exhilaration.
The coup attempt was initiated by a coterie of Communist hard-liners who placed Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation home, fearing that his pending agreement to allow wide sovereignty for Soviet republics would lead to the USSR's disintegration.
But wide public opposition quickly weakened the putsch, notably the tens of thousands who gathered around the Russian government headquarters where Russian President Boris Yeltsin famously defied the coup while standing atop a tank.
The coup collapsed three days later and Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but his power and credibility were fatally dissipated. The republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were allowed to split off from the Soviet Union within weeks, and the entire USSR was signed out of existence in December.
The collapse led to severe economic hardships for tens of millions and to a long period of political chaos and the rise of politically powerful tycoons who became known as oligarchs.
Many Russians who defended Yeltsin in 1991 now say they would not have done so if they had known what would happen to the country under his leadership.
But those who turned out for Friday evening's rally are among the people who still remember those days as a proud moment in Russia's history.
"We did the right thing," said Lyudmila Skryabina, who was traveling through Moscow on her way back to her home in St. Petersburg on Aug. 19, 1991, and decided to stay. "After glasnost, after all we had learned about our past, I simply didn't want to go back to what we had."
She recalled spending three nights sleeping on a tank under an umbrella and feeling sorry for the young soldiers who had come in the tanks on the coup plotters' orders.
Oleg Varlamov, at the time a 25-year-old lieutenant from a military research center, also had joined the "live circle" around the government building to fend off a possible attack.
"I was there to defend myself, my motherland," said Varlamov, who went on to earn a Ph.D. on artificial intelligence. "But my motherland does not equate with the state."
National television channels planned to run documentaries about the period late at night. In a peculiar reminder of Soviet television practice, the channel Kultura is to broadcast a performance of the ballet Swan Lake -- the same performance that state TV showed even as columns of tanks ground through Moscow's streets two decades ago.
Some politicians took note of the anniversary Friday.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the party A Just Russia, visited the cemetery where three men who died while defending the Russian government building are buried, praising "all those who believed in the necessity of freedom for Russia."
Lower parliament house speaker Boris Gryzlov, in a comment reminiscent of the Marxist belief in the inevitability of historical progress, said the coup plotters were doomed from the start because "they tried to change the course of history."
Both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and his successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, held routine official meetings Friday, avoiding any reference to the anniversary.
Russia has seen a rollback on post-Soviet freedoms under Putin's eight-year presidential tenure, and liberals' hopes for a change under Medvedev have failed to materialize. Opposition groups have remained sidelined, police move quickly to disperse any protest and the government has maintained stiff controls over nationwide television stations.