August 1991.

Was the suppression of the coup against Gorbachev a victory for democracy? Twenty years after the events of August 1991, many Russians’ views of these events have changed considerably. The Levada group which conducts polling in Russia on the issue recorded that one quarter of the population saw the suppression of the coup as a national tragedy in August 1991. Fast-forward twenty years later and 39% view the fall of the USSR as a national tragedy. On August 19th 1991, while Gorbachev was vacationing in the Crimean, the State Committee of the State of Emergency was formed consisting of, “Vice President of the USSR Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Deputy chairman of the Defense Council Oleg Baklanov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, the chairman of the State Security Committee Vladimir Kryuchkov and other statesmen.” These men were charged with the preservation of the Soviet Union and failed in doing so. With current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin calling the fall of the Soviet Union one of the greatest tragedies of the 21st century, his propaganda to that end would seem to have had some effect on the opinions of the Russian population with regard to the events of August 1991. Boris Yeltsin actively defied this group and declared its activities illegal. Slowly, Soviet bureaucratic functions were transferred to Russia and the Soviet state ceased to exist as a functioning government. The groups of the populace that view these events as a national tragedy are as follows: “pensioners (53%), housewives (44%), clerks (41%), women in general (41%), Russians over 55 (50%), with education lower than secondary (42%), low consumer status (44%) and by rural residents (45%).” While the West tends to view these events as the beginning of Russian democracy, I’m sure this time is not fondly remembered by most Russians. What ensued was a decade of chaos under Yeltsin and recovery under Putin but with somewhat stricter measures and what some have called a rule by a selected plutocracy. Indeed, Russian industries were divvied up and state concerns fell largely into private hands, spawning the now infamous Russian oligarch. With the proposed merger with Belarus, Putin’s foreign policy aims and domestic agenda do seem somewhat in the old Soviet vein but a return to communism is, of course, not in the cards. The polling reveals that, in the eyes of the Russian public, there is a very large gray area when it comes to considerations of the events of August 1991. Indeed, most likely if the US could transport itself back to the period of the 13 states, we would find an equally divided populace over whether the overthrow King George III was a positive development. Of course, now this is not a terribly challenged facet of history, but that it was not always so reminds us that history is less a linear narrative and more an amalgamation of the events at the time through the lens of the victorious side.