By RICHARD BOUDREAUX
MOSCOW – They died in an epic struggle against Soviet rule and were proclaimed heroic martyrs of a free Russia. Huge crowds glimpsed the three coffins, draped in the emerging nation’s tricolor flag and honored by its new anthem.
“Our defenders, our saviors,” the breakaway leader, Boris Yeltsin, told the mourners that day in August 1991. “From now on, their names are sacred.”
Russia’s Forgotten Martyrs
Today, Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov are all but forgotten – obscured by deep disillusionment with the political and economic chaos that for many Russians defined Mr. Yeltsin’s attempt at democratic rule in the 1990s. Russia’s current leaders, who have reimposed a large dose of authoritarian control, speak nothing of the three men and little about the event that consumed them – a last-gasp Communist coup, 20 years ago this weekend, to salvage rigid Soviet rule.
That leaves their relatives and a few hundred stalwarts each year to commemorate the electrifying days when the three men helped turn back the Soviet tanks and change history’s course.
The coup launched on Aug. 19, 1991, collapsed two days later after a defiant Mr. Yeltsin, the democratically elected president of the Soviet Russian Republic, rallied tens of thousands of peaceful resisters to erect barricades near his Moscow headquarters and thwart an armed takeover. Over the next four months, as Russia and other republics seceded, the Soviet Union fell apart.
Germany two years ago celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with dignitaries from all over Europe and a ceremonial toppling of giant dominos representing Communism’s demise across Eastern Europe. Other former Soviet republics officially mark anniversaries of their independence as a matter of pride.
Not so in Russia.
“Russians seem to have nearly forgotten
one of the most glorious pages in their history,” says Konstantin Eggert, a Russian journalist who covered and rooted for the August ’91 resistance. “It’s the indifference that baffles me.”
A poll last month by Russia’s Levada Center offers a sobering explanation: 49% of Russians believe the country has taken the wrong direction since 1991, compared to 27% who believe the opposite. Thirty-nine percent say the botched coup by Soviet hardliners that enabled Mr. Yeltsin’s dominance over an independent Russia was “a tragic event with disastrous consequences,” and 35% dismiss it as part of an ongoing power struggle.
Just 10% consider it a democratic victory over Soviet Communist rule.
In that minority are many who regret what Boris Nemtsov, a resistance leader and later a deputy prime minister, calls “our naive, romantic belief” in 1991 that Western-style prosperity would automatically take root.
As Mr. Yeltsin’s troubles mounted, turnouts for the anniversary of the three men’s deaths dwindled. Commemorative stamps bearing their images fell into disuse as runaway inflation ravaged the seven-kopeck face value. A Defender of Free Russia medal instituted by the Kremlin in their honor hasn’t been awarded since 2001; resistance-veterans’ groups say they simply stopped sending nominations.
Even among those who spent sleepless nights on Mr. Yeltsin’s barricades, few today can name all three men.
Dmitry Komar, a 22-year-old mechanic, learned of the coup on the radio. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s top military and secret police officials, concluding that his reforms would destroy the union, detained Mr.