Unfaithful first love leaves Russians all mixed up

Four years after the defeat of the Communist coup, Steve Crawshaw in Moscow tries to find hope for a fragile democracy
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The Independent Online
Outside what was, until 1917, the exclusive English Club, near Pushkin Square in central Moscow, stands a burnt-out orange trolleybus. It looks like a forgotten piece of junk. And, in a sense, it is. It represents a key moment in Russia's recent history. In Moscow, almost nobody cares.

Four years ago today, the Soviet coup - which put tanks on the streets of Moscow in a doomed attempt to say "no thanks" to history - collapsed.

The trolleybus, in front of Moscow's 70-year-old Museum of the Revolution, played a crucial cameo role in that collapse. It blocked the path of armoured troop carriers which tried to reach the Russian parliament building in the early hours of 21 August 1991. The failure of the assault led to the failure of the coup itself, just a few hours later. In short, a historic bus.

Briefly, Russians felt proud of what they had achieved during those August days. But that optimism soon vanished as Russia was enveloped in gloom. esentment, fear and apathy set the tone.

Things have only got worse in the meantime. As the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets noted this weekend: "August 1991 was like a first love, which seems as though it will last all our lives. We swore loyalty to democracy, we were proud of ourselves and of the fact that for the first time we had made our own choice. But that pride went away, like first love. Our chosen one turned out not to be as it had seemed in the first flush of emotion."

President Boris Yeltsin, meanwhile - unpredictable, but in favour of reform four years ago - now seems to have little to offer his country, except as a least-worst bulwark against the Communists or the far right.

The president who sent Russians to kill and be killed in a disastrous war is increasingly incoherent, too. When Mr Yeltsin spoke to Russian journalists in the Kremlin last week, the irreverent NTV channel broadcast his comments about Chechnya which included a slurred series of "sort- ofs", "you-knows" and "so-to-speaks". An Russian friend said: "I felt that I was watching Brezhnev, all over again."

The idea that a leader of the new Russia might resemble the most doolally of all the geriatric Soviet Communist leaders seems alarming, to put it mildly. But, if Russia is lucky, it may be that its prospects can no longer be torpedoed by the bizarre behaviour of its leader.

Before the coup, it was possible to say: "It is clear that a violent clampdown can provide only the most short-term of solutions," but that "the Russian revolution will never have the sweet simplicity of the Prague revolution in November 1989." The impending collapse of the Communist system, I suggested then, would be both exciting and terrifying. "Terrifying because - especially ... in Russia itself - there is little concept of what a democracy or market economy might really mean."

The essentials have not changed. For many Russians, the market equals poverty and theft; democracy means anarchy and fraud. All the old sense of security has vanished. That is true throughout Eastern Europe - but in Russia, where millions genuinely believed.

But that resentment is not yet the end of the story. Younger generations are beginning to envisage new opportunities; economic changes are continuing.

Buying, selling, cutting deals: everybody is doing it now, not least because a state salary is rarely enough. These days, it is not Russians' lack of entrepreneurial skills that seems most alarming, but their sharkishness. Perhaps, the middle way between the old passivity and the new sharkishness is chaos. Perhaps, though, this could merely be a stormy prologue to a kind of normality, at last. The end of a first love does not have to mean an emotional crisis that lasts for ever.