Twenty years after Soviet fall, some look back longingly

Gennady Veretelny was shot and wounded when he stepped forward unarmed 20 years ago to help stop a column of armoured vehicles in central Moscow, one of the few casualties of the last, failed attempt to preserve the Soviet Union.

It was a moment when Russians, largely cowed and passive subjects of Soviet rule for 74 years, massed in the streets to support the future President, Boris N. Yeltsin, demanding democratic change.

The writer Vasily Aksyonov captured the enthusiasm of many at the time when he called the 60-hour standoff “probably the most glorious nights in the history of Russian civilization.”

But almost 15 years after the standoff, the man who now rules Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, called the fall of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Recent opinion polls as the anniversary of the standoff approaches this Saturday, August 20, come closer to the view of Mr. Putin than of Mr. Aksyonov. Few people said they viewed the events of 1991 as a victory for democracy.


“At that time in Russia, behind the Iron Curtain, we had only heard of democracy,” said Mr. Veretelny, 54, who was at the time supporting himself as a driver. “We really believed the magical, beautiful word democracy. But a lot of things turned out not exactly the way we expected. We began to ask ourselves what we spilled our blood for.”

In the decade that followed, chaotic social and economic changes as well as lurching attempts at reform gave democracy a bad name. Many people welcomed the stability that Mr. Putin brought, even at the cost of some democratic freedoms.

Mr. Veretelny is just one voice among 140 million Russians, and while his disillusionment is widely shared, many people appear to accept Mr. Putin's limits on political competition, civil society and the news media. An election that is set for early next year is unlikely to change the course of the country.

Mr. Veretelny was speaking a week before the anniversary at the home of Lyubov Komar, the mother of a young veteran of the Russian war in Afghanistan, Dmitry Komar, who was one of three men killed during the final night of the standoff. Mr. Veretelny was wounded when he tried to retrieve the body of Mr. Komar, which he said hung on an armoured vehicle as it roared forward and back trying to dislodge a trolley bus that had been moved to block its path.

“I saw the guy hanging off the armoured car,” he said. “I put out my hands to help and I was hit in the shoulder. I thought someone would come take the body off, but it drove back and forth until the body fell on the asphalt.”

The armoured cars and tanks pulled back soon afterward, marking the end of a coup that had tried to hold back the tide of change. On December 25, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev stepped down, bringing an end to the Soviet Union.

Since then, Mr. Veretelny has worked as an electrician, a police inspector and now as a small-business man on the fringes of Russia's economy. Until recently, his wife had a high-paying job as manager of a business, but she was laid off during the economic downturn. She said the couple lived comfortably.

Mrs. Komar, who works as a helper at a health club, still builds her life around the memory of her son. She echoes the view of Mr. Veretelny, saying, “If my son could have seen where the country was going, he wouldn't have been at the barricades.”

Sitting in her apartment, surrounded by photographs that trace his growth from a boy to a soldier, she said she had given up on the political process.

“I haven't been to vote for 10 years,” she said. “They'll do fine without me. They choose whoever they want, so why vote?” Like many Russians, she grew to despise Mr. Yeltsin for what she saw as his weak leadership, and she is now part of a large majority of Russians supporting Mr. Putin. But what she would really like, she said, is to turn back the clock.

‘Comfortable in the U.S.S.R.'

“I felt more comfortable in the U.S.S.R.,” she said. “You always had a piece of bread. You always had work. Yes, sure, you can go overseas now, but you have to have money for that and you have to go into debt. Now, if you don't have money you can't do anything.”

A recent poll by the Levada Center, a respected polling agency, found that 20 per cent of Russians share her wish for a return of the Soviet Union, a number that has bobbed up and down between 16 per cent and 27 per cent over the past eight years.

Among those in favour of the Soviet Union, not surprisingly, is Mr. Gorbachev, who had tried to reform and preserve the Soviet Union but was thwarted by the coup and then by Mr. Yeltsin and the momentum of events.

“Some say over and over that the Soviet Union's collapse was inevitable,” he said at a news conference on August 17. “But I keep saying that the Soviet Union could have been preserved.”

Addressing journalists, he said: “You criticise Gorbachev: weak, Jell-O, more or less in those terms. But what if that Jell-O wasn't in that position at that time, who the hell knows what might have happened to us.”

According to the polling agency, those who wish to return to the Soviet past are mostly members of the vestiges of the Communist party, elderly people, and people who live in small towns and villages.

The poll was conducted in person in July with 1,600 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Other responses suggest that Russians do want democracy, but democracy of a particular sort, with a powerful central government, something closer to what the country has today than some, like Mr. Veretelny, had envisioned. More than half the respondents, 53 per cent, said they placed a higher value on “order” than on human rights.

“We had so much hope, so much faith, so much inspiration for the future,” said Mr. Veretelny's wife, Svetlana. “There was such a feeling of freedom and hope. We were all so happy seeing change ahead.”

But now, according to the polling agency, only 10 per cent of respondents view those days as a victory for democracy. It said the number of people who called the events a tragedy had grown to 39 per cent, from 25 per cent at the anniversary 10 years ago.

“It is what it is,” said Mr. Veretelny, who has slipped from hope into passivity. “We just have to figure that this is what we ended up with.” — © New York Times News Service

Recommended for you