Memories of the coup in August 1991 that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union are starting to fade from living memory, a poll by independent pollster the Levada Center has found. If there were another coup today only 16% of Russians would take to the streets to protect democracy.
Half the Russians polled said that they could not say what happened on August 19-21, 1991, when then Politburo chief Mikhail Gorbachev was confined to his dacha and tanks appeared on the streets of Moscow in the abortive coup attempt, according to Levada Center. Communist power quickly folded, with the now historic scenes of Boris Yeltsin speaking to the crowds on top of a tank outside the White House. Yeltsin went on to become Russia’s president and formally dissolved the Soviet Union in December the same year.
The number of Russians that see the coup as a “tragic event” has fallen over the last year from 41% in 2015 to 30% in July, Levada found. Sentiment has been lifted on a tide of nationalism stoked by President Vladimir Putin's annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and a short but highly successful military campaign in Syria that has gone a long way to undoing the humiliation most Russians used to feel from the loss of the country’s superpower status following the 1991 events.
About a third (35% now and 32% a year ago) believe the coup was "just a power struggle in the top leadership of the country", and 8% believe it was "a victory of a democratic revolution, that put an end to the Communist Party". Another quarter (27%) said it was “hard to say.”
Russians who thought the August putsch led to negative consequences made up just over a third (35%) against 16% that said the outcome of the coup was positive for the country. However, half of the respondents (50%) believed the coup caused the country difficulties.
Views over the motivations of the “emergency committee” which briefly seized power are even more confused, with 15% saying they did the right thing, against 13% that said their actions were wrong and another 39% saying they "did not have time to understand the situation”. The remaining 33% had no opinion.
According to a fifth (22%) of Russians, the members of the emergency committee were simply trying to strengthen their own positions of power. Another 18% of respondents believe the committee was trying to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union, which they saw threatened by Gorbachev’s reforms; others said they were trying to help the Communist Party retain power (12%); or they were trying to restore order in the country (8%); and another 13% believe that the members of the Emergency Committee had no clear programme. The remaining 28% had no opinion. The coup quickly collapsed as the leading protagonists failed to get the army or the people on side.
Respondents were split on whether Russia has improved since then. Two fifths (40%) say that since August 1991 the country has gone in the wrong direction, but this is down from 47% that said the same in 2015. Another third (33%) say the country has gone in the right direction, up from 27% a year ago. Those with no opinion make up the remaining 28%.
If there were another coup today and the people were called on to come to the streets to protect democracy in Russia only 16% said they would answer the call, another 44% would stay at home and 41% could not decide.