Simon Shuster, writing for Time magazine’s website:
Alexander Smirnov has never gotten over the euphoria of August 1991. He was a college student in Leningrad at the time, lanky and pale with Coke-bottle glasses, and on the morning of Aug. 20, 1991, he walked out onto the central square of the city to find a sea of people taking part in one of the largest demonstrations Russia had ever seen. The day before, a military coup had begun.
The heads of the KGB, the army and police, along with a few other obdurate communists, had seized control of the Soviet Union from President Mikhail Gorbachev, and ordered tanks into Moscow to impose a state of emergency. In response, hundreds of thousands of people went onto the streets across the empire to stop the return of the bad old days of the Communist state. “We were prepared to lay down in front of the tanks,” Smirnov says. And in Moscow a few of them did. Only three days after the military junta began, the civil resistance defeated it. On Aug. 22, the coup leaders were arrested, and the Soviet Union never recovered. Four months later, on Christmas Day, it was dissolved.
Smirnov’s first instinct after the demonstrations was to document what had happened. The history student began collecting artifacts — handwritten posters, banners, spoons and pots that people had used while manning the barricades in Moscow and Leningrad. He cataloged and preserved all of them, believing that the events of August 1991 would be celebrated as one of the proudest moments in Russia’s history. Over the next twenty years, he traveled the country collecting the jackets and gas masks people had worn while facing down the tanks, and the pictures they had taken of the protests. And on Aug. 19, the 20th anniversary of those events, the collection was put on display at the State Museum of Russian Political History in St. Petersburg. It was a total flop. “A few school teachers brought their history classes, and we saw some of the old demonstrators come in to reminisce,” Smirnov tells TIME. “But people were asking us, Why is the space so small? Why is there nobody here?”
The answer is that nobody cares, least of all the government. Twenty years on, there is no official celebration in Russia of the events that made it an independent country. Whereas most of the other ex-Soviet republics mark Independence Day each year with parades and political speeches, the Russian government has not graced the anniversary with so much as a commemorative stamp. Neither of the country’s leaders, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev, made any public mention of the anniversary this year, while a senior official from Putin’s political party, Sergei Neverov, said there should be no commemorations, in case they spark a repeat of the 1991 protests. “Today we are trying to unite civil society and not allow a repeat of such events, where there are barricades and attempts to take some kind of action,” Neverov explained to reporters.
Russia’s bureaucracy obeyed. The only state-funded exhibit in Russia to mark the August coup was Smirnov’s collection of spoons and gas masks, and it was crammed into a dingy space about the size of a studio apartment. One of its main attractions, a series of anti-Communist posters drawn up during the demonstrations in 1991, had to be shipped in from a museum in Los Angeles: They are no longer available in Russia. Then on Sunday, in what must have been the biggest insult to the anniversary, the defense ministry refused to send an honor guard to lay wreaths at the tomb of three young protesters who were killed during the demonstrations.
In some sense, the snub is understandable. For the Kremlin and many of its subjects, the fall of Communism meant the loss of empire, and the chaos that followed robbed millions of Russians of their livelihoods. The hopes that inspired people to demonstrate against the Communist coup have also been disappointed. Although citizens won the right to travel after the Soviet collapse, no genuine democracy has taken shape in Russia, and elements of the old regime have slowly been creeping back. Even Boris Yeltsin, who led the demonstrations in August 1991 and then took over as Russia’s president when they succeeded, quickly began to weaken the legislature and re-assert Kremlin control. His successor Putin, who watched the Soviet Union collapse as a KGB officer stationed in Germany, has hurried this process along.
“So it should be clear why the authorities ignore this holiday,” says Lev Ponomaryov, one of Russia’s leading human-rights defenders. “The main force behind the military junta in 1991 was the KGB, and the people in power are graduates of this very system. Why should they celebrate what was for them a defeat?” Indeed, in one of his most quoted remarks, Putin once called the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century.”
Many Russians now seem to agree. In a survey released last week by the Levada Center, only 10% of respondents said the collapse of the Communist putsch was a victory for the forces of democracy, and almost half said the events set the country on the wrong path. Perhaps even more disturbing, the majority of Russians do not remember much about what happened. A separate survey conducted by the state-run pollster VTsIOM found that up 72% of respondents could not name any of the political figures who took part in the Communist putsch. Hardly a quarter believed that Yeltsin, the leader of the resistance, had fought against it.
“We seem to be living in a memory void… a period where parts of history are simply blacked out,” says Gennady Burbulis, who was Yeltsin’s secretary of state after the Soviet Union dissolved. One of the great mistakes of Putin’s political party “is to act as though the people’s consciousness should not be stimulated, and should on the contrary be sedated,” Burbulis says. “We have no culture of national memory.”
As a consequence, the events of August 1991 have been taken up in recent years by Russia’s opposition, which has made them the center of its democratic narrative. On Monday evening, Ponomaryov, the human rights activist, led a march to Moscow’s Pushkin Square, where a makeshift stage flew a banner with the words: “Twenty Years Since the Peaceful Democratic Revolution.” But the enormous crowds that had taken part in that revolution were nowhere to be seen. About 300 people showed up, most of them elderly intellectuals surrounded by a cordon of riot police. By sundown they had peacefully dispersed.
Smirnov, the historian, was meanwhile finishing another day at his exhibit, which was still attracting only what he called “the dregs of the intelligentsia.” These were same people, he says, who had taken part in the demonstrations in 1991 and had stood in lines in the late 1980s to attend exhibits on Soviet history. At the time, Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, had just allowed the country’s first honest look at its past, and historical museums had begun staging exhibits on the Gulag prison camps and the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. “Hordes of people stood in line for hours to get in,” Smirnov says. “They were exhilarated. They felt themselves emerging from a state of ignorance about their past.” But whether by choice or by design, that is where many have now returned.