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Russia: Bloggers Remember 20th Anniversary of August Coup

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Russia, Governance, History, Politics, War & Conflict, RuNet Echo

On August 19, 2011, Russians commemorate 20 years since the “August Putsch,” (August Coup) [1] a failed coup d'etat conducted by a number of KGB officers and military units who were opposed to Gorbachev's reform program and decentralisation of power to the Soviet republics. Citizens took to the streets to defend the White House, the then-residence of the Supreme Soviet [2] of the Russian Federation, against the coup.

The Russian blogosphere – divided as usual – has been discussing the 20th anniversary of the Coup, an event which has numerous contesting interpretations. Will bloggers succeed in transferring the hope for democracy and freedom felt by the defenders of the government to the younger generation?

Boris Yeltsin, in front of the White House, Moscow, 19 August 1991. Photo: ITAR-TASS, Wikipedia [3]

Boris Yeltsin, in front of the White House, Moscow, 19 August 1991. Photo: ITAR-TASS, Wikipedia

Betrayal or democratic victory?

Detailed diaries of the Coup period have been shared online by oleg_kozyrev [4] [ru], yustas [5] [ru] (Sergey Yushenkov, whose father actively defended the White House), babushkinskaya [6] [ru], hasid [7] [ru], Adele Kalinichenko [8] [ru] at ej.ru, and others.

Mikhail Gorbachov, former president of the USSR, gave a detailed interview at Echo.msk.ru [9] [ru].

Boris Akunin, a famous writer, recollected [10] [ru]:

Это один из самых важных моментов в моей жизни. Впервые, в тридцатипятилетнем возрасте, я понял, что живу дома, что это моя страна.
[…]
Августовские события 1991 года – единственное, за что наше поколение может себя уважать.
Больше, увы, пока хвастать нечем.

This was one of the most important moments in my life. For the first time, when I was 35, I understood that's my home, that's my country.
[…]
The August events of 1991 – they are the only thing our generation can be respectful of.
So far, alas, there's nothing [else] to be proud of.

At the same time, there were also those who supported [11] [ru] the conspirators:

21 августа мне стало ясно, что мою страну захватили враги, в Кремле измена и надо уходить в партизаны. […] казалось, кроме нас троих измену в Кремле и вражескую оккупацию Родины никто не заметил.

On August 21 [the end of the Coup and the victory of pro-democracy forces] it became clear to me, that my country was conquered by the enemies, there's a betrayal in the Kremlin, and I should go guerrilla. […] It seemed, that except the three of us, no one had noticed the betrayal in the Kremlin and the enemy occupation of our Motherland.

Despite supporting the idea of the Coup, conservative user ros_sea_ru wrote [12] [ru] he was proud to be with the people against the KGB, even the people ‘were wrong at that time.’

Blogger Hasid, wrote [7] [ru] that 1991 was probably the only time, when Russia had a national idea:

Россия должна стать частью европейского пространства (не только в географическом, но и культурном, правовом и т.д. смыслах). […] В 1991 году эта идея была, её большинство вслух не могло сформулировать из-за многовековой атрофии голосовых связок, но внутри она жила. Что вот сейчас откроют границы, люстрируют вохру и туземных служителей колониальной фактории. Независимый суд, многопартийная система, ну и прочий базовый набор добродетелей белых людей.

[the idea was that] Russia should be the part of the European space (not only in terms of geography, but also culture, law, and other spheres). […] In 1991 there was this idea, but the majority couldn't formulate it due to many centuries of our vocal ligament atrophy, but inside this idea was alive. The idea that now the borders will be opened, the military guards and all officials of our colonial factory will be lustrated. Independent court system, multi-party system, and the following basic set of all proper virtues of ‘the white people.’

Generation gap – Important threat for the blogosphere

Russian bloggers from different political clusters of the blogosphere reflect on the August 1991 events almost every year, comparing the dramatic events with the contemporary political situation (see Global Voices reports from 2006 [13] and 2007 [14]).

The reflections and recollections change from year to year, as does the overall discourse on the event. A survey [15] [ru], conducted by the Levada Center since 1994, indicates that the perception of the Coup has significantly changed from a ‘routine power struggle episode’ (the dominant interpretation in the 1990s) to a historical point ‘that had dramatic consequences for the country and its people’ (see illustration below).

Reactions to August Coup in Russia, 1994-2011. Source: Levada.ru, Illustration: Alexey Sidorenko [16]

Reactions to August Coup in Russia, 1994-2011. Source: Levada.ru, Illustration: Alexey Sidorenko

At the same time, it is only the educated and more professional minority (7-10 percent of the population) that supports the ‘democratic’ version of the event; interestingly, this percentage was not that different in the 1990s – before the Internet was widely introduced.

The interpretation of the August Coup is also age-dependent. While for those bloggers who personally remember the events (and some of them were among the actual defenders of the White House), the failure of the coup was something to be proud of, it is likely that younger bloggers completely miss its historical importance.

Oleg Kozyrev mocked [17] [ru] the contemporary ‘mythical’ narrative of the August Coup actively pushed by propagandists, like Nikolay Starikov, one of the main ideologists of the pro-Kremlin ‘Nashi’ youth movement (see his interpretation here [18] [ru]):

Заботящиеся о стране патриоты из КГБ хотели спасти ее от развала. […] Именно поэтому в Москву ввели войска […]Но тут вмешались США. Они наняли Ельцина погубить СССР. […]Ельцин окружил Белый дом людьми, которых все три дня путча он постоянно обманывал.А потому путч как-то закончился и Ельцин захватил власть.Демократы тут же все разворовали и страна, буквально купавшаяся в роскоши до 1991 года вмиг опустела и обнищала.

KGB patriots that cared about the country wanted to save it from collapse. […] This is why they brought military forces to Moscow […] But then the United States intervened. They hired Yeltsin to destroy the USSR. […] Yeltsin surrounded the White House with the people whom he constantly fooled. And this is why the coup somehow ended and Yeltsin took the power. The democrats had immediately stolen everything and the country that was leading a life of luxury [e.g. see some pics of the 1991 situation here [19]] in a moment became empty and poor.

Whatever discourse dominates online, some of the conspirators’ ideas from 1991 are evident in 2011, as Andrey Malgin sadly noted [20] [ru]:

Из Постановления № 1 Государственного комитета по чрезвычайному положению в СССР (19 августа 1991 г.):
4. Приостановить деятельность политических партий, общественных организаций и массовых движений.
[…]
8. Установить контроль над средствами массовой информации…

From the Decree No.1 of Government Committee of the Extraordinary Situation (GKChP) in USSR (August 19, 1991):
4. Stop the activity of political parties, civil society organizations, and mass movements.
[…]
8. Take control over the mass media…