LIVE UPDATES: ISIS has taken responsibility for the attack on a traffic police in the Moscow suburb of Balashikha on August 17.
Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
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– Russian Elections Round-Up: Parnas List Accepted; Party of Pensioners Forced to Remove Candidates
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Translation: August 19, 1991, 25 years ago, the August putsch occurred, an event determining the fate of the Soviet Union.
The State Committee on the State of Emergency — GKChP, an acronym that was a bit of a mouthful even for Russians — as they called themselves were unhappy that Gorbachev planned a new Soviet Union treaty that they feared would lead to the breakup of the USRR. (The Soviet Union broke up anyway, four months later.)
Some members of the GKChP flew to Foros in Crimea where Gorbachev was vacationing and placed him under house arrest when he refused to go along with their plans.
From the outset, the GKChP members appeared nervous and bumbling, and a meme from that era was the trembling hands of its chairman, Gennady Yanayev, vice president of the Soviet Union as he read statements on TV.
Within three days, the coup had begun to unravel as some military and police refused to follow orders to disperse the growing number of demonstrators. Then-speaker of parliament Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank declaring a victory for Russia — as distinct from the Soviet Union — and the coup was defeated. Soon the other Soviet republics declared their independence from the Russian-dominated USSR.
Two years later, however, Yeltsin faced many of the same antagonists and wound up ordering tanks to fire at the White House, as the Russian parliament building was known. While Russia’s first president prevailed, within seven years facing increasing divisions and economic disasters, he installed Vladimir Putin as his replacement. Putin then began reversing the liberal reforms of the Yeltsin era that brought freedom of the media, travel, and business and has steadily created a ruthless authoritarian regime since then, launching a second Chechen war, the invasions of Georgia and Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, as well as the bombing of Syria.
Among the belodomovtsi or White House defenders opposed to Yeltsin back in 1993 were some who 23 years later went on to lead the Russian-backed separatist movement in the Donbass, notably Aleksandr Boroday, at one time the prime minister of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
Today, August 19 in Moscow on the Borodinsky Bridge, a group of three demonstrators unfurled a banner that said “NEVER IN USSR. Remember 08.22.1991” and set off colored smoke bombs, TV Rain reported.
They are from the youth wing of Democratic Choice, a party that is not running in the current elections. Evidently they escaped arrest.
In St. Petersburg, five demonstrators who convened to commemorate the defeat of the August coup were arrested and held at the police precinct for some hours before being released, OVD-Info, the police monitoring group reported. Among them was Igor Andreyev, a 75-year-old activist known as “Stepanych”.
These scattered protests illustrate that at least some people are willing to make a statement on the 25th anniversary of the defeated coup, and likely many older people remember the events.
But as a number of man-in-the-street interviews made by Russian and international media indicate, most young people don’t remember the coup or its defeat at all, and don’t appear to have studied the subject in school.
Gazeta.ru made a documentary film devoted to the 25th anniversary, and also created a historical “live blog” of the events. They also reviewed five other films tied to the anniversary.
At the start of their documentary, with a sound track of “Swan Lake” — the music that played on Soviet state TV instead of news during the days of the coup — Gazeta reporters ask young people on the street if they know what “GKChP” stands for. None of them do, although 25 years ago, many Soviet citizens had memorized the acronym.
The film has interviews with some of the Party and military members who took part in the coup or defeat of the coup, with some new details emerging about the events, still disputed.
Aleksandr Rutskoy, a military officer and Afghan veteran who had served as Yeltsin’s vice president, claims in the film that the idea for the GKChP in fact belonged to Gorbachev himself who organized it in March of 1991. Vyacheslav Generalov, deputy director of the KGB’s 9th Directorate said he drove Gorbachev to the government dacha in the Crimea on August 4. When some of the coup-plotters came to him with a statement to sign on August 18, Gorbachev said he was ill with radicular pain and could barely move and was unable to participate in the emergency committee or sign the paper. But according to Generalov, he shook all their hands, saying, “The hell with you, do what you want.”
Generalov also claimed that one of Gorbachev’s bodyguards brought him a shopping list with orders for vodka and wine to buy, although in his memoir later, Gorbachev said he had to live off only the provisions that were in the cottage when he had arrived, because they were cut off from the outside world.
The KGB officer also said that even before the coup, the KGB had received intelligence that a large quantity of weapons including grenade launchers and machine-guns had been brought to the basement of the White House, indicating that Yeltsin and his supporters were expecting a fight. Generalov said they had reported the arms accumulation to Gorbachev, but he dismissed it as KGB fabrications.
Given that there weren’t independent reports of such arms at the time, other than the pistols issued to members of parliament for personal safety usually kept in safes, they may well have been fabrications.
Slon.ru has a photo essay of the days of the coup with some photos not seen before. In particular, they show the commemoration at the time of three young men killed in an underground tunnel when tanks at first began an offensive.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service Radio Svoboda conducted interviews of young men and women on the street, and found that all but a few did not know what the coup or the GKChP were.
One woman one recalled how her parents were upset that tanks were coming to the center of town and they had to leave. Another young woman could also only recall something about tanks, and then apparently Yeltsin came to power.
Some young men said they hadn’t studied the coup in school — yet. A young woman said “they bombed the White House — although that happened in 1993, not 1991. “Perestroika, perevorot,” she concluded philosophically — “Reform, revolution” — as if these two always go together — and often they do in Russian history. “It all ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she concluded.
Others couldn’t recall anything at all. The young man who came closest to recalling these fateful events in Russian history said “it was a kind of mini-civil war.”
The media has given saturation coverage to the anniversary, even if poorly remembered by the younger generations, but a good deal of it is not positive.
RT, the Kremlin’s main propaganda outlet in the West, gave a more or less accurate account of the historical event, but focused on condemning the coup-plotters for bringing about the exact opposite of what they sought — the Soviet Union’s demise.
RT also thought to feature Gorbachev not commenting on his historic role defeating Communist hardliners and starting the break-up of the USSR, but condemning the West for hypocrisy, and gave more attention to clips of this interview today.
President Vladimir Putin himself views the collapse of the USSR as one of the greatest disasters in history. While young people’s minds are devoid of the historical facts because it is not part of school curriculum, the government is making efforts to remove the physical facts as well.
The picture is of automatic machines dispensing fizzy water to one glass, which everyone drank out of by turns.
Late this afternoon, some groups of people had gathered by the White House and were having heated political discussions, Gradus TV reported, and a few were standing in solo pickets. Police vans came to the scene but no arrests have been reported.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Kommersant reported that on August 17, Mikhail Balakin, one of three traffic police on duty at a post on Shchelkovskoye Highway near the turn-off for the town of Balashikha, noticed that some bearded men were standing about 50 meters away from him. He approached them and asked what they were doing, and then asked to see their IDs. Then according to another traffic policeman at the post, one of the bearded men then took an axe out of his bag and struck the first policeman.
A report by the online news outlet 360 said a source gave the policemen’s names as “Sergei B., Konstantin Z., and Stanislav K.,” but later Russian media provided their full names.
When police later examined the bodies of the two Chechens shot, they found a receipt in the pants pocket of one of the them. This turned out to be a receipt for axes, which were purchased 20 minutes previously in Balashikha, at a camping and athletic equipment store on Sverdlova Street. From there, the two Chechens had gone along the Balashikha Highway until it crossed Shchelkovskoye Highway, the location of the traffic police post.
The store surveillance tape obtained by 360 shows the two Chechens clearly buying axes. One man in a red jacket stares right into the camera, and even removes his hood and looks at the camera some more before purchasing an axe.
At first, police thought perhaps the Chechens were working at construction nearby in some private home, and perhaps had been sent to the store to buy the axes.
Now law-enforcers believe the Chechens had left their packs in the woods and came out on the road with the axes, intending to attack the post and seize the policemen’s weapons. They believe they deliberately drew attention the policeman’s attention to themselves, hoping to deal with him quickly.
360 believes that the Chechens didn’t realize until it was too late that there were three, and not two policemen at the post.
ISIS released a video allegedly of the two attackers in Balashikha, calling for more violence. The men in the video are wearing red and blue jackets, respectively, just as the men in the store surveillance video.
The question is why they needed to steal the policemen’s weapons, asks Kommersant. According to one hypothesis being investigated by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Chechens were part of an underground armed group.
Stories like these occur nearly every other week in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Cherkassia, and less often in Chechnya. Police announce a “KTO” — a counter-terrorism operation — lock down neighborhoods, and go in and shoot militants who usually refuse to come out of buildings with their hands up. Sometimes women and children are allowed to leave the homes first. Police in convoys or at checkpoints have been knifed, shot or bombed this year.
Increasingly, ISIS has taken responsibility for these attacks. In recent years, the Kremlin has estimated the number of fighters from Russia in ISIS as 2,700.
Last November, Oleg Syromolot, deputy minister for counter-terrorism, said 2,179 Russian citizens had joined ISIS, and 160 of them had been killed in the war. Then in March, President Vladimir Putin said “2,000” fighters from Russia in ISIS had been killed, including 17 field commanders. FSB officials and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov said they were not allowing any of the fighters remaining back into Russia. But it is not known how many remain in Syria and Iraq and how many have returned.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick