Russia's Struggling Democracy

Marking the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the USSR

As Muammar Gaddafi's rule crumbles in Libya, the anniversary of another revolution is passing by almost unnoticed. In August 1991, a cabal of Kremlin hardliners moved against Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms they saw as weakening state power and giving too much autonomy to the Soviet Union's constituent republics. Gorbachev was detained on a Crimean vacation and officially declared to be taking a health-related leave of absence, with an eight-man State of Emergency Committee taking the reins of power. After three tense days that saw tanks in Moscow's streets and a deadly clash between Soviet troops and pro-democracy protesters, the coup failed, and the fallout helped hasten the end of the communist regime and the Soviet empire.

The defeat of the coup was seen as a stirring victory of freedom over tyranny. The magnitude of this triumph became clear on Aug. 24, when television audiences worldwide watched the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in front of KGB headquarters being taken down to cheers and applause from a massive, jubilant crowd.

The coup leaders were vague about their specific goals, even professing support for "genuine" democratic reforms. But actions, such as a swift ban on all of Moscow's non-communist press and a shutdown of the capital's only independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, spoke louder than words. Some anti-communist Russians, writer Benedikt Sarnov recalls on the website, were in the grip of despair; older people who had survived the Stalinist terror feared another long, dark night. Others, especially younger people, were hopeful that they were witnessing the death throes of the Soviet regime.

But optimism was not enough: There was active resistance, organized by the leadership of the Russian Federation and its president, Boris Yeltsin. Tens of thousands of Muscovites came out to defend the Russian government headquarters, Moscow's own "White House." A Soviet army tank battalion declared allegiance to the Russian government, and a sympathetic broadcasting executive managed to air, on the evening news, the now-famous footage of Yeltsin addressing a crowd from atop a tank.

People built barricades out of toppled trolley-buses and street-cleaning machines to keep pro-coup troops from reaching the White House. In the early morning hours of Aug. 21, three young men were killed in a crowd of protesters trying to block the path of armored vehicles. Two divisions sent to storm the White House failed to move; finally, the troops were ordered out of Moscow, and the nightmare was over. Gorbachev returned, the fallen protesters were honored as heroes, and the Dzerzhinsky statue was toppled.

That was then. Now, what used to be the people's victory is celebrated only by a handful of marginalized activists from the democratic opposition—in a country where "democratic" has become a dirty word.

The aftermath of the USSR's collapse is a sobering, and always-needed, reminder that the joy of revolution is often short-lived. For Russia and most other former Soviet republics, the 1990s were years of turmoil. Yeltsin had a sincere commitment to freedom; but, dogged by charges of drunkenness and ethical problems, he proved far less impressive as a head of state than a heroic leader of insurrection. Economic reforms foundered, partly due to bad policies and rampant corruption and partly because there was no good way out of the mess communism had left behind. Impoverished and cast adrift, millions longed for a leader's "firm hand" and took solace in nationalist dreams of glory.

Into this void stepped Vladimir Putin, a career KGB officer who openly lamented the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a "geopolitical tragedy" and quickly moved to restore authoritarian order, curbing press freedom and bringing to heel powerful business tycoons. Living standards rose, partly due to high oil prices and partly, many argue, because the much-maligned market reforms of the 1990s finally bore fruit. Where Yeltsin's approval rating barely existed by the end of his second term, Putin's soared to 80 percent and higher.

Today, independent polls show, just one in 10 Russians sees the events of August 1991 as a victory for democracy. Nearly 40 percent regard them as a tragedy with disastrous consequences—up from 25 percent 10 years ago, amid far worse hardships. It seems likely that these opinions are influenced not only by conditions in the country but by officially encouraged, state-media-promoted Soviet nostalgia.

Was it all in vain, then? In his article, Sarnov remembers a conversation with a man of about 40 who stood next to him at a protest rally outside the Russian White House. Sarnov asked if he was frightened: "If THEY win, you know what they'll do to us all." The man replied that he knew that—"but, if THEY win, I don't want to be alive." Sarnov now wonders if that man is alive: "And if he is, what is he thinking and feeling today, when we see that THEY have won after all?"

Yet other liberal Russian commentators are less pessimistic. They point out that, ugly and often vicious though it may be, modern-day Russian authoritarianism cannot compare to Soviet totalitarianism with its iron grip on virtually every facet of society. Another contributor, firebrand activist Valeria Novodvorskaya, writes that "the post-August world is a different world: A world without the Berlin Wall, the USSR, or the Warsaw Pact," a world of open borders; a world where the thugs in power would rather buy luxury cars than tanks and would rather steal than kill. It is a world where elections are a farce but freedom of dissent exists at a level unimaginable to Soviet citizens a quarter-century ago.

Twenty years ago, what some saw as Soviet communism's comeback turned out to be its last gasp. Perhaps, then, what's happening in Russia today is not the death of a free society but its long and agonizing birth. Perhaps history's jury on the August revolution is still out. In the end, that's for the Russian people to decide.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

Cathy Young is Columnist and Contributing Editor, Reason magazine