Ten years on, Russians see no glory in Yeltsin's victory

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The Independent Online

Yury Kagarlitsky awoke to the rumble of tanks in the street below his window on that morning 10 years ago. "Standing on the barricades to fight for freedom was the most significant moment of my life," he says.

The 35-year-old linguistics teacher didn't bother attending the anniversary reunion at Russia's riverside parliament building yesterday, known as the White House. Like most of those who risked their lives to give birth to a new Russia, he is exhausted with politics and sickened with the way things have turned out.

"I am quite disillusioned today. There is a bitter taste in my mouth when I think about the last 10 years," he says.

Official silence and public indifference marked the passing of what Russian democrats call "our equivalent of the storming of the Bastille".

More divided than ever, Russians appear to see no glory in the defeat of the August Coup and many wish the memory would just go away. Barely 100 mostly elderly people showed up at the White House to wave tricolour Russian flags and chant a few half-hearted democratic slogans.

Yet 10 years ago thousands swarmed to the White House to defend their fledgling democracy and their elected president, Boris Yeltsin, against tanks and troops sent by a gang of power-grasping Kremlin hawks. The 60 hours of subsequent turmoil changed the world and led to the demise of the Soviet Union.

The coup plotters placed the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest on 18 August 1991 and announced themselves to a shocked world the next morning.

Fifty thousand people built barricades and linked arms around the White House when tanks approached. Troops switched sides. A defiant Mr Yeltsin mounted a tank and pledged to end Communism. "I was euphoric," recalled Mr Kagarlitsky.

Within three days the hardline coup collapsed, Mr Gorbachev was freed and Mr Yeltsin began gathering the reins of power in his independent Russian administration. By the year's end Mr Gorbachev had resigned and the Soviet Union passed into history.

But many Russians now say the citizen defenders of the White House were merely pawns in a grand struggle between two wings of the Russian élite, neither of which had any intention of introducing full democracy or working to better the lives of typical people.

A poll conducted this month by the independent Russian Centre for Public Opinion found that only 10 per cent of Russians described the defeat of the coup plotters as a "democratic revolution", while 43 per cent regarded it as "a power struggle".

Surveys over the past several years have consistently shown that about four out of five Russians regret the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Svetlana Vinogradova, now a 70-year-old pensioner, had 3,000 roubles in her savings account in early 1992. She was hoping to build a country house, or dacha, with the money.

But within a year hyperinflation had reduced her life savings to about the price of a bag of groceries. It was the first of several economic disasters to crush the hopes of typical Russians, culminating in the financial crash and banking collapse of 1998.

"Yeltsin promised the democrats would protect common people, but instead we were robbed, humiliated and robbed again by those same democrats," she says.

Not surprisingly, the fortunes of the 1991 coup plotters have flourished. Several have even made successful post-Soviet careers as politicians.

"When you see the catastrophe that has befallen Russia in the last 10 years, can there be any doubt we were attempting to do the right thing?" asks one of the coup plotters, Vassily Starodubtsev, who recently won a landslide re-election as governor of the central Russian region of Tula. "We would have introduced evolutionary reforms, without disasters and looting of the country."

Galina Ostrovskaya, a pensioner aged 57, said there was little to celebrate. "When the coup collapsed 10 years ago I had a feeling of total liberation.

"I hoped for a life of dignity, individual freedom and economic prosperity," she says.

"People do have some freedoms today, but there is no dignity in this kind of life. And I don't believe we'll ever see prosperity."