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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Coup and countercoup

On August 19, Moscow marks 20 years since the failed putsch by a group of Stalinist hardliners, who were seeking to stave off the end of the Soviet Union and crack down on ordinary people who were seeking democracy and an end to the one-party system.

But many Russians today have very mixed feelings about the events of August 1991.

The hopes of those times ­ that a better country would emerge without mass shortages, with freedom of thought, speech and movement, and with genuine democracy ­ have been partially met, but at a certain cost.

It has not been a straight line, but many of the changes that followed the failed putsch ­ through the 1990s in particular ­ were a nightmare for ordinary Russians.

By 1998, the country's economy had shrunk by almost half. Unemployment had soared, and unpaid wages meant mass deprivation for millions of people. The mortality rate soared, and life expectancy fell.

Today, the economy is in much better shape ­ but the scars of the past 20 years remain. The country was divided 20 years ago into the official elite, who had more of what was available, and the rest of the population, who had the basics (but not more). Now the business and official elite are rich beyond their wildest dreams, while most ordinary Russians have more consumer goods and opportunities than before ­ but many are still stuck in relative poverty.

And society has lost in other ways, too. Criminality, corruption and dog-eat-dog business practices have persisted beyond the Wild West 1990s, and the traditions of solidarity (however distorted after 60 years of Stalinist-style government) have weakened to the point where individualism is prized above collective responsibility for the poor and more vulnerable in society.

Today's Russia still pays lip service to Soviet-era notions of a welfare state and social protection, but the reality is that 20 years after the August putsch, the rights and freedoms that were won came at the expense of other rights and freedoms that were lost.

And as the Levada poll found, most ordinary Russians are still undecided about whether those events were a step forward for the country, or a step back.


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