Russians remember losses in failed 1991 coup

MOSCOW Fri Aug 19, 2011 8:15am EDT

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev applaud during the Extraordinary meeting of the Supreme Soviet of Russian Federation in Moscow in this August 23, 1991 file photo. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/Files

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev applaud during the Extraordinary meeting of the Supreme Soviet of Russian Federation in Moscow in this August 23, 1991 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Alexander Natruskin/Files

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MOSCOW Aug 19 (Reuters) - Twenty years after a failed coup hastened the end of the Soviet Union, many Russians look back with regret and cynicism, underscoring the ambivalence many feel for the new Russia and their uncertainty about the future.

"I remember the tanks rolling toward the center of the city, the disorder," said Mikhail Shchilev, 59, steps away from the Kremlin walls.

"I still don't understand why it happened, twenty years have passed and the only thing that changed is that now there is unemployment, poorly educated children and homelessness," he said, repeating complaints common from Russians with fond memories of the Soviet Union's social welfare system.

The hardline putsch intended to halt president Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms paved the way for the collapse of the communist party, the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of the present-day Russian state.

The abiding image of the three days is of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, standing atop a tank outside of the parliament building to challenge the coup plotters.

But 20 years later, 39 percent of Russians believe the coup and its aftermath were "tragic events that had disastrous consequences for the country and its people," a survey from independent polling agency Levada showed this week.

Society became deeply polarized over the Soviet collapse in the chaos that followed in 1990s, when shock economic reforms wiped out people's savings and organized crime and unemployment skyrocketed.

Despite an oil-fueled economic resurgence during the 2000-2008 presidency of Vladimir Putin, now prime minister, a sense of long-term stability is elusive and many Russians complain of rising prices and inadequate social services.

Ahead of a presidential poll next March in which the main question is whether Putin will return to the Kremlin or endorse his protege Dmitry Medvedev for a new term, only 10 percent of the 1,600 surveyed said the coup that led to the end of Communist rule was a "victory for democracy."

More than a third of those polled said the August 1991 drama was nothing but a struggle for power among elites.

"They say they brought us democracy. Well good job, lads," student Alexei Zakharshenko, 17, said with a note of bitter sarcasm. "The future, I don't know, maybe it will get better."

"RUINED A GREAT COUNTRY"

With Gorbachev under house arrest in a Crimean summer dacha, coup figurehead Gennady Yanayev, the Soviet vice-president, appealed to the country on television on August 19, saying action was needed to prevent the Soviet Union's disintegration.

The putsch itself lasted just three days, and its collapse helped bring a swift end to the empire it sought to save.

The coup's leaders, including KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, were arrested. Its failure led to gridlock and eventual breakdown of numerous Soviet institutions.

Days later, with a penstroke, Gorbachev confiscated all the assets of the communist party that had run the country for seven decades. Four months later, the red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time.

"I agree with all those who think Gorbachev is a traitor and Yeltsin an alcoholic. They were people who ruined a great country," said a man who gave only his first name, Alexander, and said he was serving in the armed forces during the coup.

Few newspapers Friday dwelt on the twentieth anniversary of the coup, with one top tabloid focusing on shark attacks on its front page and another on corruption.

A top state-owned Russian channel advertised a documentary to be run at 10:45 p.m. Friday night.

Yulia, a government worker who declined to give her last name, was one Russian with no plans to watch it.

"For me things worked out well, but many are unhappy," she said. "Some people thought the coup was a good thing but many thought it was bad. We can agree that we don't need to commemorate it."

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