MOSCOW – This isn’t the Russia that Dmitry Komar died for. His mother Lyubov is sure of that. It was 20 years ago, on the night of Aug. 20, 1991, that Komar and two other young men were killed in an underpass during the attempted Soviet coup. They were the only casualties of those three days of drama that put the U.S.S.R. on its course to dissolution.

They were hailed as heroes of democracy at the time. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev attended their joint funeral, held just days after the hardline communist putsch had failed. The killing of those three men—Komar was run over by a tank, and possibly shot, in a stand-off under a highway bridge—may well have hastened the failure of the coup, as its plotters lost their nerve.

Today Lyubov Komar, who is 63, refers to “the so-called struggle for freedom and independence.” She lives, she says, in a country defined by corruption, banditry, lawlessness and criminality. The only bright spot, as she sees it, is the leadership of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who at least isn’t a hypocrite like the “democrats” who preceded him. But Russian culture has nonetheless become a culture of indifference and self-centeredness, she says. Dmitry grew up expecting something better.

He had served in the Soviet army for two years in Afghanistan. His father, a major, had been forced to retire after taking the blame for the unexpected landing on Red Square of a small plane flown by a German pilot, Mathias Rust, in 1987. By 1991, when he was 22, Dmitry Komar was working in a furniture factory.

On Aug. 19 he had been unmoved by the first reports of the coup, and of the resistance to it led by Boris Yeltsin. But then the Russian vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, appealed to former paratroopers like Komar to assemble at the 1905 Street metro station. Komar had huge respect for Rutskoi, who had been a well-known pilot in Afghanistan, so he turned out.

A convoy of Soviet tanks holds its position near Moscow's central airfield less than two miles from the Kremlin on Aug. 20, 1991. (BORIS YURCHENKO/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Aug. 20 was a cool and damp day. Thousands were camped around the Russian White House, where Yeltsin and Rutskoi were making their stand. Smoke from dozens of campfires lay heavily in the air. The first tanks to confront Yeltsin, on the 19th, had turned around and faced outward, in protection, but no one knew whether more might come to try to bring him down.

In the evening tanks were spotted maneuvering nearby, on the Garden Ring Road. Komar joined a large group of young men that went to block them. There was a fracas. His mother believes he actually got into one of the tanks, before being thrown out and then run over.

The next day, the 21st, the coup collapsed and hundreds of thousands began to celebrate. Lyubov Komar got a call:

“Your son’s at the morgue.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“What do you think he’s doing? He’s lying on the floor. He’s dead.”

Six months later, after the U.S.S.R. had ceased to exist, she received a diploma from Gorbachev announcing that her son was a Hero of the Soviet Union.