The first shock of the communist coup was verbal. The plotters’ televised address to the Soviet people, read by an announcer at dawn on Aug. 19, 1991, was a nauseatingly familiar combination of stale generalities and stilted phrases. After a few years of the free and informal expression introduced by the Gorbachev perestroika, the return of this unmistakably Soviet language made me shudder in despair: A verbal communist revanche presaged a resumption of political constraints and oppression.
At that moment a communist comeback was a loathsome prospect to many in Russia; popular resistance to the coup took shape a couple of hours after the plotters’ address. This was amazing evidence of political faith and idealism: People believed in democracy against oppression, they believed in Boris Yeltsin and — most amazing of all — they believed in themselves. Never in Russian history was “we the people” so meaningful and so peaceful.
Today, the ubiquitous cynicism toward politics and lack of interest in political activity make the sentiments of 20 years ago seem impossible. And yet it would be wrong to say that the end of communism had no implications for Russian life.
Three days after the 1991 plotters attempted a reversal of perestroika, their coup failed: No one was willing to rally around them. The people triumphed, and the air was filled with the inebriating sense of victory.
The putsch was doomed because the communist regime had exhausted its legitimacy. The bureaucratese of the plotters’ address was missing key elements: It did not evoke Lenin, and the word “communist” was not used once. Seen today, the address reads like a losers’ manifesto: The plotters could no longer draw on the ideology that had kept the Soviet system together. Without the ideology, what did a bunch of communist functionaries have to offer a nation that was fed up with their rule and looking for a better future?
But if victory over the moribund system was quick and easy, the bliss of conquering the ideological enemy was short-lived. The anti-communist pledges and allegiance to “Western values” such as freedom and democracy failed to bring about the yearned-for change. To be fair, expectations were somewhat vague; they generally came down to a better, “normal” life, “like in the West.” There was no sense among the people of just how crippling the communist legacy had been or that verbal condemnation would not be enough to get over it — that it would take people’s commitment and cohesion. Sacrifice was certainly not part of anyone’s thinking.
This was how the inebriation of victory quickly gave way to disappointment and frustration. Instead of faith in good ideas over bad ones, cynicism set in; sentiments like “we the people” were overcome by fragmentation, distrust and a sense that “nothing depends on us.” Interest in participation through political parties, elections and institutions of public accountability waned, as did the belief that politics could be a vehicle toward making people’s lives better.