"We woke up in a different country."
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."
During the decade of the 1990s Russia lost nearly 50 percent of its Soviet-era gross domestic product, and the few profitable sectors of the old Soviet economy were sold off in murky auctions to a handful of Kremlin-connected insiders who became known as "oligarchs". The country endured repeated economic shocks culminating in a 1998 financial crash that wiped out hundreds of banks, along with peoples' savings, and left the rouble with barely a fifth of its former buying power.
But widespread cynicism among Russians about democracy isn't, perhaps, to be explained solely by economic pain. After two years of squabbling with Russia's legally elected parliament over the division of power, Yeltsin ordered the body to be dissolved in late 1993. When deputies refused and holed up in the White House – much as Yeltsin had done to defeat the hardline coup two years earlier – Yeltsin sent troops and tanks to storm the building, leaving scores dead and the White House in flames.
"After the 1991 coup Yeltsin had an unbelievable fund of trust from the people, but he managed to squander it in a very short period of time," says Alexander Krasnov, former chairman of Moscow's Krasnopresnensky District Council, and a staunch supporter of Yeltsin in 1991. "By 1993 I was so disgusted and fed up that I supported the parliament in their confrontation with the Kremlin. Now my attitude about 1991 is that, in defending Yeltsin and the White House in hopes that he stood for the things we did, we were all bitterly deceived."
After dispersing the parliament, Yeltsin re-wrote Russia's Constitution to vest the lion's share of power in the Kremlin and reduce the new legislature, the Duma, to little more than ornamental status. His successor, Vladimir Putin, was able to use that Constitution to restore many aspects of an authoritarian regime without changing a single word.
Life under Putin
The past decade under president and now prime minister Putin has seen a remarkable stabilizing of the economy, and improving living standards for most Russians. Mr. Putin tamed the "oligarchs" and drove them from politics, nationalized oil and gas companies, and paid off the country's huge Yeltsin-era foreign debts. But he also muzzled the media, curbed civil society, and undermined democratic elections.
It's perhaps the ultimate irony that the man shunted aside after the failed coup 20 years ago, Gorbachev, chose the anniversary last week to lash out at Putin for accomplishing some of the goals the coup plotters had aimed for.
"Putin and his team are for stability, but stability kills development and results in stagnation," Gorbachev said in an interview with the BBC on Friday. "The electoral system we had was nothing remarkable but they have literally castrated it."
Still, many experts argue that today's Russia is a vastly changed place from the Soviet Union that slipped into history's dustbin in the wake of the August Coup.
"Regardless of all the ambivalent outcomes, I believe we managed to save Russian democracy," by defending the White House against the coup plotters back in 1991, says Mr. Makarkin.
"A lot of things followed from that, which have not been taken away. It may sound banal, but people today can travel freely abroad, read whatever they want, listen to the music they like, hold property, and enjoy a lot of things that would have been banned in the USSR," he says. "People today just don't understand that it all might have been otherwise."