Russia, once almost a democracy

MOSCOW — Twenty years ago Friday, communist hard-liners staged a coup here, sending tanks rumbling to the Russian White House in an effort to preserve the Soviet Union. Instead they touched off a powerful expression of democracy.

Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president in Russia’s thousand years, galvanized the resistance when he climbed atop one of the tanks and called on citizens to defend the freedoms he had promised to deliver. They mounted the barricades, unarmed, willing to risk their lives for democracy. The coup leaders lost their nerve. A few months later, the Soviet Union was dead.

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Looking back at the fall of the Soviet Union
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Looking back at the fall of the Soviet Union

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All these years later, so is democracy.

Today, Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian government in that same White House, a bulky 20-story skyscraper on the edge of the Moscow River. Occasional demonstrations in favor of democracy are small and largely ignored, except by the police.

Those who defended the White House thought they had changed the course of history, that in standing up so assertively the people had shaken off their Soviet subservience to the state and that the state would begin to serve the people. But today, elections are not fair, courts are not independent, political opposition is not tolerated and the reformers are widely blamed for what has gone wrong.

“The difference is this,” says Georgy Satarov, president of the INDEM Foundation and a former Yeltsin aide. “Then, people had hope. Now, they are disappointed and frustrated.”

Yeltsin’s voters wanted him to take them in a new direction, says Satarov, but the operative word was take. “We saw the old train was taking us in the wrong direction,” he says, “but we thought all we had to do was change the conductor and we would have comfortable seats and good food. Democracy would take us where we wanted to go, not our own effort. Sometimes you have to get off and push.”

Today, Russia works on bribes, and Putin’s opponents call his United Russia party the party of crooks and thieves. People can say whatever they want to one another, unlike in Soviet times when they feared the secret police knocking in the middle of the night, but television is controlled and any opposition is publicly invisible.

“They cannot let people on television who will say Putin is a thief,” says Igor Klyamkin, a scholar and vice president of the Liberal Mission Foundation.

Many Russians despair about their country, its prospects and their own, but they say little and do less.

Not Satarov, who has made his life’s work researching and writing about that corruption.

“During the last 300 years, there has never been such an inefficient government,” he says. “The state is disappearing because those who have the job description of working for the state have much more important things to do. The problem is, the more they steal, the more they fear losing power.”

In 1991, there were leaders who could inspire people to act, he says. “Now, there are none, and anything can happen.”

Only a tiny percentage of the population takes part in civil society, about 1.5 or 2 percent, at the level of statistical error.

“Now, we can speak as much as we want,” says Sergei V. Kanayev, head of the Moscow office of the Russian Federation of Car Owners, “but they don’t listen. It’s useless and very sad.”

People feel powerless. “Nothing depends on us,” they say in Russian.

“Ordinary people do not believe in anything, and they don’t trust anyone,” Kanayev says. “The entire society is silent and passive.”

No ‘symbols of change’

For years, the independent polling and analytical organization called the Levada Center has been studying Russian political and social behavior, watching disillusionment with democracy set in.

“At the end of the 1980s, anything to do with the Soviet system was reviled,” says Boris Dubin, Levada’s director of sociopolitical studies. “Then people lost everything in the economic upheaval of 1992 and 1993. They lost all of their savings. They were threatened with unemployment. There was a bigger gap between the more successful and the less successful, and this was very painful for anyone brought up in Soviet times.”

Instead of blaming the legacy of the unsustainable Soviet economy for their suffering, Russians blamed the reformers. Democracy began to acquire a dubious reputation.

Long-entrenched interests proved more difficult to subdue than coup plotters. The old legislature, still sympathetic to the bloated industries sustained on a rich diet of state subsidies, opposed many reforms and refused to disband. Yeltsin turned his own tanks on them as they holed up in the White House in 1993, traumatizing the nation. Later he made what he would describe as his biggest mistake, sending tanks into separatist Chechnya at the end of 1994.

“Yeltsin lost the support of most people,” Dubin says. “There was a question of whether he could win the next election in 1996, and he dropped democratic tools step by step, drawing closer to the power structures.”

By the end of the 1990s, many were feeling nostalgic for Soviet times. “They wanted a young strong leader who could create order,” Dubin says. “So most were ready for Putin, and they did not think they should be frightened because he was a man of the power structure [the former KGB].”

Putin used state-controlled television to relentlessly send the message that life was better and Russia stronger under him than it was in the 1990s, a time of national humiliation. When he restored the old Soviet anthem, people hummed right along.

He dispensed object lessons, as in the case of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who financed political opposition to Putin and in 2003 was arrested on fraud charges. His jail term was recently extended to 2016. A few weeks ago, Khodorkovsky’s business partner, Platon Lebedev, was denied parole because he had lost a pair of prison pants. In June, a liberal political party was refused the registration that would have allowed it to participate in the Duma elections in December.

“There are no leaders who can become symbols of change,” Dubin says. “I don’t see any change for 15 to 20 years.”

Of course, today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union, says Grigori Golosov, a St. Petersburg political scientist. “But at the same time, it is an authoritarian regime that violates human and basic rights.”

The next presidential election is in March, and Putin has not declared who will run — the decision is considered his.

“Of course, it’s our problem, and others can’t solve it,” Klyamkin says. “But if this regime is successful and Russia continues under the current system, it will be a threat to others. Even now it has visions of empire.”

Changing with Putin

Sergei Filatov, who recently turned 75, sadly ponders the question of how it has come to this, sitting in his office on the Avenue of the Cosmonauts, staring off into the distance, as if fixing his mind’s eye on Aug. 19, 1991, when he rushed to the barricades in Moscow.

“Putin’s election,” he answers. “Russia is turning into a state that exists for the bureaucracy, and in many ways a closed state. And it started with Putin’s election.”

Yeltsin, inaugurated as president of the Russian Federation in July 1991, became president of an independent Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved at the end of the year. He resigned in weakness and ill health at the end of 1999, clearing the way for Putin’s election. Putin has run Russia ever since, for eight years as president and since 2008 as prime minister, with Dmitry Medvedev as president.

The future had looked so different in 1991, and Filatov’s voice grows strong and urgent as he describes the way Russians rose against the three-day coup.

Mikhail Gorbachev, president of the Soviet Union, was trying to save the communist state with a policy of more openness and freedom when die-hard Soviet officials who thought it was all going too far imprisoned him in his vacation home and declared themselves in charge.

Everyone knew a coup was underway that Monday morning when normal broadcasting was suspended and Russians turned on their televisions and saw the ballet “Swan Lake,” the kind of calming fare Soviet authorities trotted out in times of crisis. “They danced and danced and danced,” Filatov said.

Filatov, who runs the nonprofit Foundation for Social, Economic and Intellectual Programs, would go on to become an important Yeltsin-era official and an architect of democracy. He still savors the moment that the three-day coup ended on Aug. 21, 1991.

“We raised the Russian flag over the White House, and there was huge euphoria,” he says. Alexander Yakovlev, who had devised Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost, “had the briefest but strongest comment. He said, ‘You are all very happy over your victory, but others will come and seize your victory.’ And that’s what happened.”

‘No basis for a state’

One day this summer in St. Petersburg, Oleg Basilashvili, a much-loved actor, sat brooding over the past, chain-smoking in his prewar apartment, a bay window at one end of the parlor and a baby grand at the other.

Basilashvili had spoken at Yeltsin’s inauguration, summoning forth the magnificent Russian past, the land of Peter the Great, Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and heralding the new, free life that lay ahead.

Today, there is no clear idea of where the authorities want to take the country, he says, no idea of what kind of Russia is being built on the ruins of the Soviet Union, only a sense that they are trying to destroy whatever happened in the 1990s.

“That’s no basis for a state,” he says in his actor’s rich baritone voice.

Russians have forgotten much about that time when choices seemed so simple and hope lay ahead, untarnished.

“If, 25 years ago, someone had told me I could buy any book or even a computer without restrictions,” says Dmitri Oreshkin, a political analyst, “that I could work or not work without going to jail for not working, that I would be able to write whatever I want, that I could travel wherever I want, I would have been very happy. And I probably wouldn’t have believed it possible.

“Now, 25 years later, I don’t think I have enough.”

 
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