Roll in Moscow
Reaction Soviet-born analysts discuss the political upheaval in
their home country. (8/19/91)
Ten years ago this week, the course of history changed for the country we now know as Russia. When all was said and done, seven decades of Communist rule came to a close and the country began a new future as a democratic society.
Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Federation, became world famous when he stood atop a military tank to protest an August 19, 1991 coup attempt by various members of the Soviet government who disliked Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's move toward more democratic policies. The coup was soon crushed, but the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist by the end of 1991.
Since 1991, the 146 million people in Russia have witnessed incredible political and economic changes. But what has changed? Are the people of the former Soviet Union better off?
Communism vs. Capitalism
Up until the end of 1991, the Soviet Union organized its economy and way of life under the Communist theory of economics. Communism is a form of organizing a society that is very different than how people are organized in the United States.
People in America and many other democratic countries were very mistrusting of the Communist way of life. U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire" in the 1980s.
To many Americans, the Soviet Union represented a threat to our freedoms and liberties. The United States and the Soviet Union were bitter rivals for most of the 20th century and each country disliked and feared the other. At one time, a small misstep might have sent the two into nuclear war.
Life in communist countries was much different than it was for those in the United States. The Soviet government, for example, controlled all business and product distribution, giving out food and jobs to its people so they could live.
Individuals were not allowed to travel without permission, nor could they protest or talk freely against the government for fear of being arrested by the KGB, the secret police force.
While the government provided necessary items like food and clothes, people in the Soviet Union still had problems. Often there wasn't enough food to go around. People stood in long food lines for hours just to get a loaf of bread.
Many of the people who grew up in this environment believed that all goods and services should be provided by the central government. This idea is very different than the capitalist, free-market theory of economics where private people can own businesses and the prices change according to supply and demand.
In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the last General Secretary of the Soviet Union. He realized the Soviet system wasn't as strong as it used to be and strong reforms were needed.
He began to overhaul the economy and political structures and also to work more closely with countries like the United States.
Change in the air
Gorbachev's concept of "Perestroika" (openness) brought freedoms previously unheard of to people living in the Soviet Union. By the time Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day in 1991, the entire focus of the government had changed.
Politically, the reforms meant that the Soviet Union and the U.S. were no longer competing for world power.
Under Gorbachev, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, democratic governments overturned Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Germany was reunited, the Warsaw Pact withered away, and the Cold War came to an abrupt end.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev enacted economic reforms meant to encourage more people to start businesses and make money for themselves instead of depending on the state.
Looking back at 1991, Gorbachev said the reforms "gave people political and economic freedoms, as well as freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. We ended the Cold War, making a turnover in the entire world history."
However, several high-level government officials were displeased with Gorbachev's actions. The reforms had removed the old structure but a new one failed to take its place. Crime rates soared and people began to get restless for the old, familiar ways of doing things.
Gorbachev was vacationing hundreds of miles away from Moscow and planned to return to sign a treaty transferring more powers to the Soviet Union's 15 republics when hard-liners demanded Gorbachev give up power on Aug. 18, 1991. When he refused, he was placed under house arrest.
The group staged a coup in Moscow in an attempt to take back the government, saying that Gorbachev's perestroika policies represented a "mortal danger" to the homeland. They decided to take over the Russian "White House" -- the administrative headquarters of the Russian Republic of the USSR.
The coup plotters were hoping to gather public support, but that support never came. As tanks rolled into Moscow, Yeltsin drove to the Russian White House and issued a call to resist.
People came from all over and built barricades and slept in tents to form human shields between the tanks and government buildings. By the second day, nearly 150,000 people turned out against the coup. Russia's White House was never stormed, and by the third day, the coup collapsed.
As 1991 progressed, each of the 15 Soviet states declared independence and the hammer and sickle flag was lowered for the last time on December 31, 1991. The Soviet Union was no more.
Since the Coup
Boris Yeltsin was elected President of Russia in early 1992 and almost immediately, Russia sank into a dismal financial crisis. Yeltsin spent several years trying to save the Russian economy but the value of the ruble (Russia's currency) continued to fall.
Yeltsin tried reforming various aspects of the government, but nothing seemed to work. His massive reforms made many Russians uneasy as much of the country's wealth and power remained in control of a few people.
Eventually, Yeltsin tried firing his prime minister, his cabinet, and his entire government, leading to a failed impeachment vote against him in 1999. He later chose Vladimir Putin to be his prime minister.
Finally, after several bouts with illness, Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999. Putin assumed the presidency that day, and in March 2000 was elected to his own term as Russia's leader.
Putin has taken a very different approach to governing the Russian people. He did not try to enact many reforms his first year in office. In a speech he gave on April 3, Putin said the era of huge leaps and reversals "is over."
He said, "it is time to understand that prolonged and hard work lies ahead. Our main problems are far too deep to be solved at one stroke."
Putin described some of Russia's remaining problems: corrupt officials and judges, low standards of living, a weak economy, a bad business climate, and a population that still doesn't trust the government.
Many economic experts say Russia still needs time to adjust to its freedoms. Countries like the United States have had 200 years to work on capitalism and democracy, and Russians need time to fix corruption and get the country back on its feet.
A happy anniversary?
Despite the positive outlook for the future many had in 1991, the 2001 anniversary passed with barely any notice. Only a few hundred people turned out in Moscow to remember the events that brought them to where they are today.
President Putin made no public comment about the coup; neither did Boris Yeltsin.
A poll released in July said only 10 percent regarded it as a democratic revolution that ended Communist power. Twenty-five percent look back at August 1991 as a tragic event whose aftermath was disastrous for the country.
More than half said their lives would have been the same if the coup plotters had succeeded in taking power.
Ten years after the coup attempt, people in Russia do have things they never had before. People can elect their leaders, practice freedom of religion, buy TVs and VCRs and almost anything they want from the West, as well as switch jobs when necessary. Travel in and out of the country is easier, and some say their quality of life has improved.
For others, though, not much has changed at all. Most rural communities haven't felt the effects of the economic reforms and live just the same as they did before the coup. Jobs are low-paying and food comes mostly from backyard gardens instead of grocery stores. Luxury items, if available, are much too expensive.
The Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei summed up the Russian transition this way: "The euphoria that seized the residents of the new countries ten years ago has long gone. Independence turned out a much heavier burden than we thought."
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