Twenty-six years ago people in Russia came out to defend democracy and their dreams of justice. Today it seems they’re trying to forget that.
The events of August 1991 concluded a turbulent and emotional period of perestroika, opening the door to a new, unknown period of development for the country and, in many ways, for the world around it, changing the alignment of power on the international arena and introducing fundamentally new forces and people. Contemporary Russian history, according to most analysts, began a bit before the formal disappearance of the USSR from the political map in December 1991. It was formed definitively during three days, August 19–22, when the state of emergency declared by a group of Gorbachev’s ideological opponents in the Soviet regime and the arrest of Gorbachev, who was then vacationing in Foros in Crimea, elicited a wave of civil disobedience that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Moscow and other major cities prepared to defend Russia’s young democracy and their dream of freedom and justice.
For the last 26 years, people have considered those days in different ways. The intonations changed—from the enthusiastic and heroic in the years right afterward to the calm and tired, with notes of disillusionment, in the early 2000s. Many of the dreams did not come to pass, the long-awaited market did not bring prosperity, but instead high drama and economic collapse, from which we never fully recovered, and the power of law and justice remained an unattainable ideal, the oligarchs and the officials and bureaucrats who replaced them turned mass media into their own tools of influence, and the two conflicts in Chechnya left a deep scar.
The sociological surveys taken on the 20th anniversary (2011) found that many of the participants in the defense of the White House (the building of the Russian Federation government in Moscow) responded that they were not sure if they would have defended it knowing what would happen in the country later.
In 2016, on the 25th anniversary, the heroic intonations were totally gone. Moreover, many popular television newsreaders on national channels said that perhaps the putsch leaders had been right and the liberal leaders wrong, or simply deceived by their Western partners. A few years ago such statements were made only by marginal figures whose appearance on national television had been arranged. Over the last year, there are many more such voices. Liberalism and liberals over the last few years are depicted negatively in Russian propaganda, juxtaposed with ostensible exemplars of real patriotism, who defend statehood and order.