In Defeating the August 1991 Coup, Russians Won—and Then Lost—Democracy

In Defeating the August 1991 Coup, Russians Won—and Then Lost—Democracy

In Defeating the August 1991 Coup, Russians Won—and Then Lost—Democracy

Will young people continue fighting for freedom?


Moscow, Russia—I will never forget the evening after the August coup in Moscow. The people around the White House, who spent three days in the “living ring” of defenders of the young Russian democracy, were beautiful. Never since have I seen so many soulful people together. They were very different people, students, aspiring entrepreneurs, workers, nurses, professors, Muscovites and those who came from other regions of the country. Most of them were young. They realized that history and their lives depended not only on the leaders, the military, and officials—but also on themselves. This was the most important outcome of those days’ events. People had changed. They did not agree that someone else would decide how they should live. And they definitely did not want to return to what they had seen before Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika—the control of society by the Communist party and the special services, the inability to speak freely and implement their life plans, isolation from the world, fear reminiscent of Stalin’s repressions. People wanted to go forward, they wanted to become free citizens of a modern free country.

Those three days changed the vector of Russian history.

Of course, none of us really understood what democracy was at that time, since generations of Soviet people did not have the experience. I didn’t understand that we have to fight for freedom every day—excellent laws and even parliamentary decisions are not enough. I did not suspect that under capitalism, which then seemed to many an ideal prospect, freedom must also be fought for, albeit in other ways. It seemed then that the victory over totalitarianism was final and irrevocable, that we would happily build a new life. For this naïveté, many have paid a very high price.

In the following years, the Russian media wrote about August 1991 in different ways. At first, everyone loudly admired the courage of the defenders (although they increasingly wrote that the new oligarchs and bureaucrats associated with them took advantage of the victory). Then the voices of coup’s supporters began to appear more and more in the press. Even later, official newsmakers began to express if not critical assessments, then at last doubt that the events of 1991 had a positive significance for the country. Some participants in the events began to say that if they had known what would happen later, they would not have gone to defend the White House in 1991. And today, on national TV channels, supporters of the coup are distinguished guests, while liberal experts talk about revanchism.

They say that what is happening in the country is a rollback not only to the years of the Brezhnev stagnation, but also to the terrible practices of the Stalinist period, that fear has settled in society again.

“They want to use fear to create in Russia an alternative to a human rights state,” founder of the Yabloko Party Grigory Yablinsky said recently in an interview for an independent YouTube channel. Yabloko is the only party in Russia criticizing what we must legally call the “special military operation in Ukraine.” Soon after the war began, extreme restrictions were imposed on civil society, independent media, and free discussion. More than 500 NGOs, media, as well as journalists and artists have been included on the list of “foreign agents.” Many independent media projects have been closed, and international cooperation has become risky. Many of the principal achievements of August 1991 and Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost have been rolled back.

A lot has been said and written about why the democratic project did not take place in Russia. Alas, many important texts and books were not read by the majority of people—either 20 years ago, or 10, or yesterday. Undoubtedly, they will someday be read. And the experience of the last decades of modern history will be studied in detail and comprehended. Let’s not forget, this is the experience of joint Russian-American history. In the August days of 1991, my American friends stood with my Russian friends on the barricades at the White House in Moscow. They, even during the years of Soviet stagnation, together with Soviet scientists and writers, built fragile bridges of cooperation, paving the way for “people’s diplomacy” and professional dialogue. In 1991, together we defended our common future, free from hatred and senseless military confrontation, based on cooperation and joint successes. Many of those with whom we stood shoulder to shoulder at that time are no longer alive. The names of many have not been mentioned in the press for a long time.

This does not mean that this unique experience, the heroic experience of personal and professional idealism, is forgotten and does not matter in the modern “post-truth world” and is not important for the “native digital” generation.

A few days ago, I moderated a discussion of young people in the Yabloko Party offices. The symposium was about the meaning of freedom of speech, about their personal opinion about why freedom is important and what they could do to sustain and support it. The event was part of work on a new documentary in memory of the legendary investigative journalist and member of Parliament from the Yabloko Party, Yuri Shchekochikhin. (He was my husband.) July 2023 marked the 20th anniversary of his still-controversial death. We decided to dedicate the film not to the past but to the future—about which Yuri wrote a lot and which he tried to hasten with his articles and investigations. He believed that it was the young who would continue the struggle for freedom, be able to resist wars and violence. One of his latest ideas was to bring together the children of warring fathers so that they finally put an end to aggression and wars. To be honest, we were not sure that these idealistic plans would be of interest to today’s twentysomethings.

The discussion amazed us. Young teachers, IT specialists, entrepreneurs, lawyers, students and postgraduates not only knew the history, legislation, and trends of the world economy. They understood and were close to the ideals of Shchekochikhin, Yavlinsky, and other defenders of democracy in August 1991.

But they were, of course, much more knowledgeable about the practice of democracy in the world than we were in 1991. “I want to live in Russia, and I am ready to take responsibility for what will happen here,” one of the participants of our meeting said, succinctly summing up the general mood. All members of the group believed that young people should participate more actively in political life and talk to all segments of society, and they considered education to be the most important condition for success.

Candidates from the Yabloko Party for the upcoming municipal elections in September are running under the slogan “For Peace and Freedom.” There are many young people among them. Of the 462 candidates that took part in the last elections in 12 regions, fewer than 50 won. Yet Yabloko continues to work in Russian politics in order to defend and promote the positions supported by millions of Russians—and to represent a European social democratic alternative to the current dead-end course.

Young people in Russia, according to the results of the analysis of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, assess events in the country and in the world in a completely different way than their elders. They feel like citizens of the world and do not want to live in isolation. They live in a huge digital space; they have been born in a market economy, albeit an imperfect one, so they are less consumed with making money. They want to live in a free country.

There is hope that they will complete what my generation, my peers, who stood in the living ring of defenders of the newborn Russian democracy, were unable to achieve.

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