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.”