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Why half of Russians regret the 1991 August Coup

After the August Coup that dissolved the Soviet Union and secured democratic reforms, many Russians saw limitless possibilities. Twenty years later, many are disillusioned.

By Correspondent / August 22, 2011

Local students carry a Russian state flag as they mark Flag day and the anniversary of the 1991 August coup in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on Monday, Aug. 22.

Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

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Moscow

"We woke up in a different country."

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That's how many Russians still remember the morning after the defeat of an attempted coup by Soviet hardliners, which unfolded from Aug. 19 to 21, 1991. On that day the realization began to sink in that the sweeping democratic changes of five years of perestroika reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev had been secured and a world of dizzying new possibilities awaited the country.

"We had a lot of hopes, and we believed that everything was going to be totally different very soon," says Alexei Makarkin, who was one of a few thousand Muscovites who rushed to defend the White House, home of the freely elected Russian parliament, on the day the coup broke out.

"There was so much idealism then. We thought that, having crushed the coup, we could go on to change every aspect of our life for the better," says Mr. Makarkin, who is today deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies, an independent Moscow think tank.

But disillusionment set in quickly, and popular regrets over the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union have remained surprisingly constant over the 20 years since the end of the coup. A poll released last week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that just 27 percent of Russians now believe the country chose the right path of development in the wake of the coup. Forty-nine percent said Russia went in the wrong direction.

Post-Soviet economic hurricane

One reason for the lingering anger may be memories of the economic hurricane that swept over the country as President Boris Yeltsin, who became sole leader of Russia after Mr. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, launched the country into a "shock therapy" program designed to rapidly erase the centrally planned Soviet economy and jump start a market system.

Prices on all but a few staple products were freed on Jan. 1, 1992, and the resulting tidal wave of hyperinflation wiped out peoples' savings and put the exciting, mainly imported new products flooding into Russian shops out of the reach of the majority. Even successful new businesses didn't look like positive examples, due to widespread criminal methods and reliance on criminal gangs to protect property and propel the business forward in Russia's wild new marketplace.

One of the many bitter jokes that proliferated during that first dreadful post-Soviet winter had one Russian asking another: What has Mr. Yeltsin accomplished in one year that our former Soviet leaders couldn't manage to do in 70? The answer: He's made Communism look good.

"In Soviet times there was a certain stability and predictability to life which vanished almost overnight," says Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center who worked as a parliamentary aide in the first years after the collapse of the USSR. "When this revolution happened it brought very radical changes in society and created a lost generation of people who couldn't adapt to the new possibilities."

Even today, he says, "the people who can count themselves as winners are still relatively few. Polls show that just about 10 percent of Russians look back on the outcome of the coup as a great victory, something to celebrate. But there are still too many who feel they lost out, that the right to be taken care of by the state was snatched away from them, and this accounts for the large numbers who still take a negative view of how things turned out."

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