Jaded hope: Russia 10 years later

A decade after the Soviet collapse, weary Russians look again to an old-style strong hand.

Before dawn, radios crackled out the news that a coup was under way. Tanks rolled into Moscow to back the cabal of Communist hardliners who had seized power.

Ten years ago this weekend, the world watched on knife edge as the future of the Soviet Union - the seemingly invincible superpower and police state - unfolded in three dramatic days. A putsch against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of liberalization threatened the old guard from the Politburo to the KGB, evoked popular protest from Russians restless for democratic change. People rallied. The coup failed. Four months later, as republics began to break away, the USSR fell apart.

Democracy - or at least a budding Russian version - was born.

But the road since then has been full of painful detours, failed experiments, and fading hopes.

Recent polls show that 4 out of 5 Russians wish the Soviet Union still existed. Weary of chaos, many are rallying behind a leader cut out of the old mold: President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, pledges to restore Russian pride and bring order.

According to recent polls, at the end of June, 72 percent of Russians approved of Putin's work, a rise of 1 percent from the previous month. The number of those disapproving remained the same, at 22 per cent.

Mr. Putin faces daunting challenges: from convincing Western investors that he is serious about reform, to raising living standards for his exhausted people, and stopping a military decline that has decimated Russia's former strength.

In a look back at a decade of dramatic change, seven Russians recall those critical hours in August 1991 and reflect on their lives since then.

From the realm of secrets

When tanks began grinding into Moscow, there was little surprise at the KGB.

"Of course, we all knew a coup was coming," says Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB Lieutenant Colonel who has since become one of the strongest critics of the agency and its successor, the FSB. "But never in our lives had such an event taken place."

The signs, in fact, were hard to miss - if you were on the inside. New drills had been ordered to learn to "attack civilians in crowds," says Mr. Preobrazhensky. Water cannons were set up for a time around intelligence headquarters, in case protesters tried to storm the building.

Despite the increasing erosion of Big Brother's grip across Soviet society, which Gorbachev had loosened with "perestroika," in the KGB there were "endless ideological checks."

Though little known at the time, there were deep ideological divisions within the KGB. Some 60 percent of the officers were hardliners who supported the coup, estimates Preobrazhensky, whose father was a KGB Vice Chief Commander. Up to one-third had pro-democracy sentiments, and were aware of the changing public mood against them and the state.

For these, it was important to get out of the KGB before the hardliners took over. "We were almost sure the coup would be successful," the agent recalls. "We knew the character of the Russian people was very passive, very obedient to power." Russian tradition meant that purges were likely to follow, starting from within the KGB's own ranks.

Preobrazhensky was "set free," as he describes it, just weeks before the coup.

What few in the KGB realized was the depth of public anger at the communist organs of state power, or that Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Federation, would make such a dramatic plea for support.

The indelible image from that tense period was of the tall Yeltsin, who climbed aboard a tank in front of the White House, Russia's parliament building, and declared:

"Soldiers, officers and guards, the clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country. They must not be allowed to bring eternal night!"

After the USSR collapsed, the KGB stagnated for a period, renamed itself, and now is staging a comeback, exemplified by the rise to the presidency of Putin, a former KGB chief.

Today Russia is going backward "very, very fast," Preobrazhensky warns, ticking off an array of civil rights that are under threat, from media freedom to the war in Chechnya. The FSB is leading the charge.

"They very quickly recovered their strategic mission of finding enemies," he says. "They are spoiling relations with the West, and the sharpest part of the ax is aimed at the US."

Middle class dreams

Anton Chekhonin was 16 at the time of the coup. He felt compelled to get to the front line to support Yeltsin - an impulse that frightened his parents.

"They were rather conservative, and belong to an older generation," recalls the young business analyst, who today is part of a tiny nascent Russian middle class. "They tried to stop me, and said it was dangerous. But they brought me up to make my own choices, so I went."

Where Mr. Chekhonin's parents failed, though, Soviet police succeeded. Coming from his home in a Moscow suburb, he was stopped at a checkpoint and prevented from getting to the White House. Almost as soon as it had begun, the coup was over.

"It was such a shock that something positive was happening in this country," he says, dressed smartly in a tie, a mobile phone on his belt.

Still, deprived of a firsthand taste of political change, Chekhonin resolved to embrace Yeltsin's economic reforms and politics - and to act, if ever again the chance arose. In October 1993 it did, when Yeltsin split with opponents in parliament, and used tanks to shell the White House - the very spot where the 1991 coup was defeated.

"There was a war there, and a lot of wounded," Chekhonin recalls. "I tried to help them, to get them emergency aid, but after two hours a bullet found me."

The shot injured his leg but not his resolve, nor his desire to see democracy take root in Russia. Now, he is among the tiny fraction of Russians categorized as belonging to that traditional anchor of democracy, the middle class, defined as those making an average of $6,000 a year.

As an analyst for a large Russia telecommunications firm, Chekhonin travels across the country and earns about $18,000 per year. Putin's 13 percent flat rate tax - a key element of economic reform of punishing income taxes - makes him breathe easier.

Chekhonin's parents still can't believe that, at 26, he owns his own car. "They are impressed," he says. "It is something they can't afford."

Chekhonin is measured in his assessment of progress. "I do not see decline in Russia, but I also don't see points of growth," he says. Yeltsin's headlong economic reforms proved to be too strong a shock treatment, and left too many state assets in the hands of unscrupulous oligarchs, who pillaged them.

Chekhonin is grateful for his success. "Most Russians haven't had the possibility to use their freedom - only a small part of them," he says. "I have been lucky."

From the pulpit

The first time Vasily Ryakhovsky went to prison, in 1950, the 10-year sentence was for "wrong religious thinking" while serving in the military, and for "slandering the Soviet regime."

Since then, few family histories have paralleled so closely the Soviet crushing of religion, its flourishing in the aftermath of Gorbachev's reforms and the August coup, and then Russia's apparent slide back toward intolerance today, albeit intolerance of a different sort.

"The Komsomol [Communist Youth League] members said, 'We live well, because we don't believe in God,' " Mr. Ryakhovsky remembers. "But because of my lack of wisdom, I gave them examples of the opposite."

In 1961, Ryakhovsky, a factory worker who doubled as the pastor of an underground Pente-costal church - was sentenced again to three years in prison for proselytizing.

In 1972, the sentence was less severe: a fine of 20 percent of his wages for one year.

Later, in a dramatic challenge to Soviet control, fellow believers - seven Pentecostalists known as the "Siberian Seven" - holed up in the American Embassy for five years to escape religious persecution.

Not until 1989, Ryakhovsky says, did he feel the "first springs of religious freedom."

That year, Gorbachev called a meeting of all denominations in the Soviet Union. By late 1990, a new religious freedom law was passed.

The collapse of the coup gave them hope that those gains - after 70 years of enforced atheism - would only grow.

"From the state and the KGB, there was only hatred for my entire family. We would never want that to come back," says Ryakhovsky's son Sergey, one of 10 children who today is a bishop of the evangelical Pentecostal Church in Russia, which counts up to 1 million members.

The result was that until the mid-1990s, there was "total freedom that totally shook up my country, because communist ideology was like an evil spirit," he says. Missionaries of all stripes flocked to Russia; the Russian Orthodox Church was also trying to revive itself.

"Ten years ago, we had good relations with Orthodox priests, because everybody had been persecuted," Sergey says. "Those priests and my father were in the same prison."

But Russia's Orthodox Church rebuilt, grew and drew closer to Russia's ruling elite, as it had been before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It has also spoken out loudly against proselytizing faiths that it says are seeking to convert Orthodox believers.

Official restrictions on non-Orthodox groups have hardened, and include a new registration procedure this year that has excluded some. Violence has also occurred: In one incident, a Pentecostal pastor was severely beaten; in another, a Baptist church was burned.

"We can now say the situation for religious freedom in Russia is very serious," says another Ryakhovsky son, Vladimir, a lawyer who specializes in religious rights issues. He has some 60 cases pending.

Vladimir says that local officials are not ready for democracy. "They understand freedom of thought and democracy only for themselves, and don't see it as an obligation to respect religious beliefs of another."

Officials often ask for blessings from local Orthodox clergy for events in their community. Many federal organs, from the tax police to the strategic rocket forces, have been granted their own Orthodox patron saint by the church.

"We can't say everything is so bad," Vladimir adds. "At least we can fight in the courts to defend ourselves."

From the front pages

Few newspapers can boast the impact of just two of their editions on history as can Obschaya Gazeta. It was born in the heat of the coup, when 11 editors from the country's most democratic-leaning newspapers joined forces after coup leaders ordered them to close.

"[We] wanted to strike against the lawlessness of the emergency committee, by violating the order," says Yuri Solomonov, the deputy editor of the paper today.

In what must be one of the fastest bureaucratic processes in Soviet history, the paper was granted approval to publish within 30 minutes by the pro-Yeltsin press minister, even as the uncertainty of the first day of the coup raged.

On Aug. 21, under the headline "The Hour of Destiny," Obshaya Gazeta became the first local news organ to print Yeltsin's key address to the nation. News-hungry readers mobbed press vendors to get one of 300,000 copies.

"Publishing Yeltsin's words told people that there was a political force opposed to the coup leaders," Mr. Solomonov says. "It gave other editors a sense of courage, and everyone started publishing critical things after the third day. Only two issues were needed for the democrats to win."

While the newspaper was then defunct for three years, its initial boldness fostered a lively new era of Russian journalism that replaced mind-numbing propaganda of the Soviet past.

"We reached a new stage of freedom of speech," Solomonov says. "We learned so much about society, and we listened, and gained influence and respect."

The heady feeling of creating a new society, with a freeflowing marketplace of ideas and a government responsible to the people soon faded, however.

"It was the misfortune of the winners," says Yegor Yakovlev, chief editor of the paper and one of its founders, who has a portrait above his desk of the celebrated Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. "They stopped taking into account society's opinion. So the hopes for reform did not materialize."

Solomonov says the failure was "connected with the refusal of Yeltsin to use his power to see through the ideals he put forward on the tank."

Over time, corruption in journalism has grown along with corruption in business and public life, as papers were bought or sponsored by oligarchs or political parties, and battled each other for advertising revenues. Some publications barely get by from election to election, when money is lavished by politicians for favorable coverage.

"Certainly, it has been a betrayal," Solomonov says. "But how to get out of it, nobody knows."

On top of that, Putin has largely muzzled what was considered to be the free press in Russia, critics say, through methods that include indirect means of calling in financial debts or shuffling of shares to oust critical journalists. The most dramatic example was the silencing of the independent television station NTV earlier this year.

"I don't subscribe to the view that freedom of speech is fully exterminated, and our conversation is proof that it is not true," says Mr. Yakovlev. "But the collapse of the journalistic community has been happening for years.

"It was not difficult for me to get together 11 chief editors" during the coup, he says. Then, editors were vying to see who could be more brave in their criticism.

But today, Yakovlev says, "I don't think I would be able to summon them up now, if something similar took place."

Russia at a glance

Population: 146.2 million. Russia's population has been declining by about 1 million a year since 1992.

Life expectancy at birth: 66.

Infant mortality rate: 16 per 1,000 live births.

GDP: $184.6 billion in 1999, down 45 percent since 1991.

GNP per capita (1999): $2,250.

Poverty line: In 1999, about 40 percent lived below the poverty line of $51 a month.

Inflation rate (consumer prices) 86 percent (1999 est.).

Unemployment rate: 11.5 percent (1998 est.).

Capital flight stands at $20 billion (583 billion rubles) a year.

Defense spending: has declined by an estimated 80 to 85 percent from 1991 to 1999 ($56 billion).

Alcohol consumption: Russians drink some 16 quarts of pure alcohol per person per year, the highest in the world.

Sources: CIA World Factbook 2000, World Bank report (Aug. 2000), Wall Street Journal (June 2001) and Center for Defense Information.

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