Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians Increasingly Ignorant of and Indifferent to August1991 Putsch

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 19 – While most commentators have used this 18th anniversary of the August 1991 failed putsch to praise or condemn one or another of the sides involved, ever more Russians are ignorant of and indifferent to an event that precipitated the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
In a commentary in today’s “Gazeta,” Sergey Shelin points out that by the tenth anniversary of the failed coup attempt, some 61 percent of Russians were unable to name any of the members of the group that led the coup, and only 16 percent were able to correctly name even a single GKChP member (
The level of ignorance about this event, the Moscow commentator suggests, is almost certainly greater now. But an even more potentially disturbing trend is that fewer and fewer Russians express sympathy for one or the other sides. In 1995, four years after the event, a bare majority – 51 percent – said that they supported one or the other.
But even then, 41 percent “said that they did not sympathize with the one or the other or already did not remember which one was which.” By 2003, Shelin says, “the fraction of those who reported about their August sympathies had fallen to 33 percent” of all Russians, while “those who either were for neither one or were but had forgotten had risen to 42 percent.”
A similar trend can be observed, the “Gazeta” commentator adds, with regard to the question as to whether it would have been better or worse for the country if the GKChP had succeeded. In 2001, 49 percent said they found it difficult to answer this question, but in 2006, that number had risen to 58 percent and among the young to 67 percent.
Meanwhile, Aleksandra Samarina, in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” sought to explain why the number of Russians who believe that the failure of the coup was a tragedy is becoming larger and the triumph of Boris Yeltsin a good thing is becoming smaller with each passing year (
The Moscow journalist suggests that one of the reasons that Russians increasingly feel that way is that their expectations in 1991 that there could be “a rapid victory over evil” have been disappointed, a view that Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center supported when he observed that people project on the past their more recent difficulties.
Malashenko says that this tendency has been compounded both by the increasing number of people who were either born after 1991 or were too young to remember the August coup, let alone the Soviet system earlier, and by official propaganda critical of Yeltsin and increasingly positive about the USSR.
“Gazeta” commentator Shelin sums up this issue with the following observations:
The “naïve cynicism” which many Russians display about 1991, he suggested, represents “the rejection of all experience and a willingness to humbly subordinate oneself to any improvisations of the bosses.”
As a result, he says, Russians have not learned any lessons from August 1991 and thus have become increasingly indifferent about it, a pattern that both reflects and reinforces an unfortunate historical tradition among them, one which has made Russia “a country with an unpredictable past.”
But while many Russians like to say that, Shelin notes, few “explain why” this is the case. But the reason is very much on display when one considers how Russians respond to the August coup only 18 years after the fact. “If even the most recent past is so easily and willingly forgotten, it necessarily will become unpredictable.”
“History,” the Moscow commentator continues, “consists in the extraction of lessons from past experience,” a process that helps deal with more recent challenges. But “if people do not remember the experience and do not extract the lessons, history goes in a circle, again and gain repeating itself.”
“Francis Fukuyama predicted ‘the end of history’ and then became a figure of fun in America when it turned out that history did not end,” Shelin says. But his words still resonate in Russia because having so quickly forgotten the past, Russians can see that despite their expectations in August 1991, history for them “did not even begin.”

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