Putin’s Finest Hour a Distant Memory as Hopes for Democracy are Dimmed in St. Petersburg

Graham Stack for Russia Profile

For someone who loves to display a good memory for facts and figures, Russian President Vladimir Putin suffers from severe amnesia regarding one decisive episode in the history of his country: the putsch attempt of 1991. The residents of St. Petersburg who took part in resisting the putsch remember those days more accurately than Putin.

Putin himself now jogs their memory for all the wrong reasons. For the first time since the Soviet era, there is an almost complete lack of political alternatives to the current administration, and the government does all it can to maintain the status quo by controlling TV and “managing” democracy. Putin’s cricket score popularity ratings and the economy’s snowballing growth also help.

Every revolution has its Thermidor

Alexander Rahr mentions in his Putin biography “The German in the Kremlin” that, on the first day of the putsch, the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s boss Anatoly Sobchak was at Boris Yeltsin’s dacha in Moscow. The KGB had orders to arrest Sobchak immediately upon his return at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport, but “To their great surprise, when they arrived, they found the plane guarded by armed police units. Putin had returned from vacation and learning of Sobchak’s pending arrest, decided to defend him by all means possible, thus openly turning against his former employers.” According to Rahr, Putin arrived at the airport in person, put Sobchak in his car and drove him at breakneck speed into town, where crucial talks were held with the head of the city’s KGB and military. The negotiations resulted in the law-enforcement agencies agreeing not to intervene.

Alexander Sungurov, human rights activist and senior lecturer at the St. Petersburg branch of the Higher School of Economics, was a democratic deputy in the Leningrad Soviet at that time.

“Perhaps the most important thing in St. Petersburg,” he remembered, “was the stance of the head of police, who refused to follow orders from Moscow to disperse demonstrators. In addition, Petersburg was the only city where even the Communist Party showed some opposition to the putsch, demanding that Gorbachev be released and shown on TV so that people could see he was alive.”

Sungurov continued to work as a deputy of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly throughout the 1990s. “I remember Putin well, of course. He was a perfectly normal aide to Sobchak. He was someone we often spoke with. He’s basically a conformist, loyal to the team of which he is a member. When he was on Sobchak’s team, he was loyal to Sobchak.”

At present, Sungurov is a member of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights under the chairmanship of Ella Panfilova. “You have to understand that every revolution is followed by a downturn, every revolution has its Thermidor. That’s just a law of physics. The question is just how far it goes. The only real alternative to Putin was General Alexander Lebed, and if he had become president, things would have been a whole lot worse. So Putin taking charge of the country in the authoritarian phase following the revolution is far from the worst thing that could have happened.”

Sungurov is upbeat about the newly-elected president Dmitry Medvedev. “The main thing is to learn from mistakes and to get ready for the next democratic wave, which I believe will be coming very quickly. For the first time in a century, at least since Vladimir Lenin, the new president will be someone whose parents have a higher humanitarian education. Medvedev doesn’t belong to the KGB Corporation.”

“If Putin had stayed president it would have been like in Central Asian republics,” he added. “But he had the courage to say enough’s enough. The fact that he hasn’t completely gone, but is staying as prime minister, is also understandable. Putin himself said that he is staying ‘because I know what my friends the siloviki are planning for the country if I leave completely.’ Putin can control the siloviki and Medvedev can’t.”

“The real revolution in Russia took place when independent deputies were elected in 1990,” Sungurov concluded. “What happened during the putsch in 1991 was the equivalent of the colored revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. We’ve been through all that already. We’re waiting for the next stage now.”

What I fought for I still have

Lev Apostolov, 34, now a logistics manager in the book trade, was a student in 1991 and one of the youngest to join the official defense of the Leningrad government during the Putsch.

“I went straight to Nevsky Prospekt and joined in a demonstration against the Putsch. The next day I went back and joined the official defenders of city hall. It seems funny now, but it wasn’t funny then. There were six of us in the brigade – my school friend Jan, another student, a butcher, a burglar (by his own admission). There were groups of martial arts enthusiasts and a lot of Afghan veterans.”

“We were assigned to patrol the Bolshaya Morskaya Street and to build a barricade right beside a cinema called Barrikada. So we piled up trash cans,” said Apostolov. “We were given arm bands and told not to jump on tanks if they appeared. That whole night was very tense, full of rumors. In the morning came the announcement that the putsch had failed, and they played Bob Marley on the speakers. I remember that the democrats in city hall behaved with great dignity and calm. Sobchak gave a splendid speech – fascism will not pass things of that sort.”

“Yeltsin was a hero at that time. Without any publicity at all, the democrats could gather thousands and thousands of people. Now look at the Dissenters’ March. They advertise on the radio, on Ekho Moskvy. And still no one goes. Everyone was politicized back then. Perestroika was a great time. Of course, there were huge hopes, many of which were never fulfilled, but I don’t regret anything. What I was defending then was my right to travel, to hear the music I want to, to read the books and watch the films I want to. And these rights I still have.”

With regard to the status quo, Apostolov said, “The biggest problem with Putin is that, if they are tightening the screws now, when there’s no reason to, what on earth are they going to do when the price of oil falls, when the problems start? I can’t understand why they want to turn people into idiots with this farce of an election. I took my bulletin with me from the voting booth.”

Fed up with being afraid

The day after Dmitry Medvedev took 70 percent of the vote despite his candidacy having been announced just two months previously, around 1000 members of St. Petersburg’s liberal opposition forces gathered to hold a Dissenters’ March, showing that not everyone had forgotten what democracy is about. March 3 is also the anniversary date of the overthrow of the Romanov monarchy and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy in 1917. But among those marching, memories of 1991 were more important than those of 1917.

Anatoly Sergeev, 62, who calls himself a “simple worker,” reminisced about how different it was all back then. “I went to St. Isaak’s Square and joined a brigade of official defenders. We had no weapons. We built barricades. In contrast to today, there were no police trying to stop us. At night we then sat on the rooftops by the square drinking tea. There was fear in the air. But in the end nothing happened.”

“It was a great mistake to let the Soviet Union collapse,” Sergeev argued. “They should have kept the Union – there was a majority in favor of it at the referendum. No one had permission to break up the USSR. The individual republics creating their own central banks out of the Soviet state bank drove the last nail into the coffin. I still like Gorbachev, but he should have been tougher. Sobchak was a thief; the only good thing he did was to rename Leningrad Petersburg. And he acted bravely during the Putsch.”

Turning to contemporary politics, Anatoly pulls no punches. “Putin’s just a puppet, other people are pulling the strings. He has done a lot, but not for me. How can you live on a pension? I have a bad heart and need medicine. I had to pay for my daughter to study somehow. And prices keep rising.”

Despite straitened circumstances, Anatoly is proud of having resisted the putsch. “I don’t regret taking part at all. I didn’t even think twice back then. It’s simply that at some stage you get fed up with being afraid. Why don’t they give us proper elections today? I would have voted for Ivanov, the defense minister, if he had stood. He’s a strong figure. Why did they not let him stand? Why did it have to be Medvedev?”

A child of the revolution

Lena, 46, a school librarian and another participant in the March 3 Dissenters’ March in St. Petersburg, said that she had supported the resistance to the putsch with all her heart. The only reason she did not join herself was having her first child.

“Of course, it was all terribly frightening, the putsch I mean,” Lena remembered. “But I saw the people who were involved before and after. Their faces were alive, that’s all I can say. Their eyes were bright. Look around you now at the faces here. People are awake. Look at the faces of the police. Completely dead.”

“That’s why I came here,” she said. “Of course I know it’s no use, that no one will pay attention. But I come here to feel myself a person, to feel myself honest. These elections were not honest.”

Asked if her daughter knows about the Putsch, Lena answered: “Of course, she’s aware of it all. Much more than the other kids her age are. She’s not here today, but I know she’s on our side. Her time will come.”

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