MOSCOW — Russians watching Washington lurch through President Trump’s first months in office have generally vacillated between morbid fascination at the sight of America in disarray and dismay over what it all portends for Russia. But among a small group of once-influential men in Moscow on Thursday, there was a flicker of something resembling envy.
They were supporters of the late Boris Yeltsin, and they had met to recall the August 1991 days when the Russian leader defied a coup attempt by Communist Party officials who wanted to oust or at least thwart Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and reverse his liberalizing reforms. Inspired by Yeltsin’s call, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other major Soviet cities, forcing the plotters to abandon their putsch.
A peaceful revolution had defeated the totalitarian state, and the way was clear for democracy in an independent Russia, led by Yeltsin, the country’s first democratically elected president. Or so they thought in 1991.
Now, Russia has a president who has whittled away most independent civil institutions and signed into law ever-greater restrictions on freedom of political expression, backed by the “siloviki,” current and past representatives of the defense and state security forces, who control some of the country’s most powerful enterprises.
Long out of power, long bereft of significant popular support, Russia’s old-guard democracy advocates are left to wonder, as Yeltsins’s former chief of administration, Sergei Filatov, put it, “why the victory of the people turned into a defeat.”
By comparison, Washington’s convulsions, to them, look like little more than a blip.
“In democratic countries, there is an ability to overcome Trumpization because you have established institutions,” said Lev Ponamaryov, a former Russian and Soviet legislator and a representative of a broad pro-democracy movement that once had a healthy presence in parliament but no longer holds a single seat.
Andrei Nechayev, who served as the economics minister in Yeltsin’s “young reformers” government, which introduced “shock therapy” to the Russian economy in 1992, observed that economic stability has a lot more to do with it. In its final years, the Soviet Union’s planned economy was on the verge of collapse; the state-run distribution system was increasingly ineffective at getting goods to people, and the state monopoly on all production and trade crushed any incentive for efficiency.
“If not for the economic collapse of the 1980s, I don’t think there would have been huge crowds” on the streets in 1991, he said.
Russians remember the 1980s, but they also remember the turbulence of the early 1990s, when that shock therapy hit home, leaving factories at a standstill, workers unpaid and even basic goods in short supply. They remember the gangster capitalism of the mid-1990s and the crash of the ruble in 1998, which wiped out savings overnight.
A survey last year by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organization, found that most Russians still regret the December 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R., even as a generation that doesn’t know what it was like reaches adulthood. In the same survey, only 15 percent of Russians said they had a positive attitude about the Soviet collapse. Among those who don’t would be Gorbachev, who describes the Soviet breakup as Yeltsin’s coup against him, and Putin, who famously said in 2005 that the breakup of the U.S.S.R. was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
That quote has often been misinterpreted to mean that Putin wanted the country to go back to being the Soviet Union, given what has happened to Russian civil society since. In fact, Putin was laying out the basis of what Nechayev calls his “social contract” with Russians, essentially offering freedom to earn, spend, travel and live where they like in exchange for not rocking the ship of state.
That worked better when oil prices were booming than it has in Russia’s recent downturn as a result of the drop in oil prices and the imposition of sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its proxy war in eastern Ukraine. A poll reported by the Tass news agency this week showed that the economy, even as it nudges its way toward growth, is Russians’ primary worry.
Putin is also marking an anniversary this week — 18 years since he became Yeltsin’s prime minister, a path that led him to the Kremlin a few months later. His popularity rating has not dipped below 80 percent since 2014, although Nechayev pointed out that “in Russia, when someone asks on the phone if you support the president, not everyone is going to say, ‘Well, not really.’ ”
Putin’s strength is that he is seen to hold the siloviki and liberal-minded reformers in his government in check, although lately the siloviki have been on the offensive. A hint of that is playing out in the bribery trial of Alexei Ulyukayev, Russia’s former top economics official and the first national minister to be arrested while in office since Joseph Stalin’s security chief, Lavrenti Beria, was detained in the Kremlin in 1953 after the Soviet dictator’s death.
Ulyukayev says the charges were fabricated and blames state oil chief Igor Sechin, the apparent leader of the siloviki. Sechin has denied the accusation, but a poll of Russians taken after Ulyukayev’s arrest last year found that 54 percent saw the case as a battle of competing ruling clans.
Alexander Osovtsov, another former Russian legislator and member of the old Democratic Russia movement, said the complexion of Russia’s leadership today is no surprise. The August 1991 coup leaders were defeated, he said, because most of the state security elite were against them.
“The people we call our enemies now were on our side,” Osovtsov said. “The KGB part of the winning alliance became the dominant one in Russian society. The elites who were in power never let go of the reins.”