Russians Spit on their Own Fellow Citizens, History

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.

2 responses to “Russians Spit on their Own Fellow Citizens, History

  1. Independence paradoxes

    Andrei Illarionov explains why 20 years of national independence in Russia and Ukraine are accompanied by political degradation

    By Alla DUBROVYK, The Day


    You are known as an exponent of what is currently a highly officially disliked theory of the Russian Federation’s collapse in the near future. Is there an alternative?

    “The value of a theory is determined not by its popularity but by how it conforms to reality. On March 17, 1991, the theory of the Soviet Union’s inevitable collapse didn’t seem very popular, but then reality proved the ‘popular theory’ wrong.

    “Our country [i.e., Russia] is experiencing the third phase of destruction of what is left of a body politic previously known as the Russian empire; later, as the USSR, and finally as the Russian Federation. Our ancestors witnessed Phase One in 1916-19, followed by the communist version of the Reconquista (1919-mid-1980s). Then came Phase Two, a period that peaked in 1988-91, followed by yet another Reconquista, launched by the [Kremlin] imperial rulers in 1992-94. It is still underway. Preparations for Phase Three — the fall of the Russian empire — started getting made simultaneously. This process is historically substantiated and doesn’t depend on the will or mood of any given politician in Russia. Here is the price to be paid for this imperial phantom by peoples within and without Russia.”

    Lilia Shevtsova, a noted Russian political analyst, visited The Day and said that Ukraine is like litmus paper for Russia, so it can determine whether it has survived the complexities of statehood. She said Ukraine is Russia’s chance of getting democratic. What do you think? Does Russia stand a chance of ridding itself of the imperial complex and becoming yet another democracy?

    “Lilia Shevtsova has a point there. Ukraine is an important indicator that can show whether or not Russia has got rid of its imperial complex. There are also two other as important indicators: Belarus and Georgia. These three countries are close to Russia in terms of geography, culture, and mentality. For some part of Russian society, afflicted with the imperial syndrome, getting Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia under control (whatever it takes: finance, economy, politics, a secret alliance between the heads of state, you name it) is number one on their imperial supremacy agenda.

    “However, keeping Belarus, Ukraine, and Georgia independent is important for these countries and for Russia. It is only by rejecting the imperial ambitions, doing so indeed, not on paper, will Russia stand a chance becoming yet another modern democracy. For as long as Russia keeps trying to revive its imperial status — in the Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia — it will stand no such chance.”


    Do you think that the Customs Union is indicative of Russia’s imperial complex? Or maybe it is a rational decision made in order to make progress in the foreign trade domain?

    “My answer is yes and no. The Customs Union idea sounds great, a natural means of economic integration between countries with varying economies. It largely reflects the process experienced by Western Europe over the past 60 years. However, what matters is not the form but content of the process, its objectives — including those kept away from the public eye. One can have an idea about them judging by the persons who have actually initiated this process. Their statements shed light on this process. The Customs Union was initiated by Russian politicians, people who didn’t bother to conceal their imperial ambitions, who actually voiced them and felt proud about it. Small wonder that the CU idea, originally a peaceful economic concept, should turn into another Reconquista.”

    Should Ukraine be wary of Russia’s aggressive attitude to its foreign economic integration? You were Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s economic policy advisor, so you must remember his ultimatum-like statement to the effect that Ukraine would be barred access to the Customs Union, should it join the EU free trade area.

    “Threats, blackmail — these are surely means one ought to discard to reach the end. Integration is something you do of your own free will. When they start forcing you into some or other union, be it Soviet, customs, one of independent [post-Soviet] states, it means you should step aside and run away.

    “The European Union is strong simply because no one has ever forced anyone to join it. In fact, there is a membership waiting list. A number of countries have spent years doing their homework to meet the EU rigid admission requirements.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s