The aftermath was stunning. Two decades later I still get chills remembering the post-coup image of Muscovites by the tens of thousands, hailing Yeltsin and chanting proudly the name of their country—not the Soviet Union, though it still technically existed, but “RO-SEE-A, RO-SEE-A.” Seldom have I seen an event unfold in such stark black and white terms; seldom have the white hats won such a joyous victory.
This spring, when I talked with my students about social media’s role in the Arab uprisings, I noted that twenty years earlier Boris Yeltsin’s supporters had used what was then the latest technology—the fax machine—to build resistance, just as Facebook and Twitter were used this year.
Analogies between then and now, lessons learned from 1991, predicted outcomes for the new 2011 revolutions—these all seemed worthy topics for an event tied to that beloved journalistic device of revisiting great historic moments on key anniversaries.
But flaws emerged as soon as I began reaching out to friends and colleagues about how to shape such an event. Which coup do you mean, asked one: the 1991 putsch when Boris Yeltsin was a hero, or the 1993 one when he ordered artillery fired on Russian government offices held by the Parliament he had dissolved? Hmmm. Hard to highlight heroism without also examining the deeply flawed leader that Yeltsin became after the Soviet collapse.
Others said: Interesting idea. But make sure you bring in a big name to get attention. The names Malkina and Medvedev clearly were not what they had in mind. Indeed, the Big Name they suggested was Mikhail Gorbachev. But he was not the hero of 1991, and despite the West’s continued praise for him, opinions on Gorbachev at home range from indifference to hostility.
Then there was the troublesome issue of the press itself. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, the failed 1991 coup also was the beginning of the end of the journalistic spring fostered by Gorbachev’s glasnost and nurtured by dozens of journalists—mostly young, but some veterans of the Soviet system—whose reporting was often investigative, eloquent and innovative. Glasnost-era programs like Vzglyad and Before and After Midnight were consistently better than almost any TV news programming in America today. And print media provided nearly daily journalistic coups, uncovering dark secrets of the Soviet past and exposing malfeasance in the politics and policy of the day.
The collapse of communism at the end of 1991 meant the Communist Party no longer lavishly subsidized media, which party bosses had used so effectively since Lenin’s day to control information and opinion. But corruption followed, in the form of journalists writing fawning articles for pay. Some major media barons used the press to promote their own views, providing the lesson that capitalist owners are not above media manipulation.
By the time Vladimir Putin came to power, almost a decade after the 1991 coup attempt, the media had so discredited themselves that the public raised little protest when Putin rolled back much of their hard-won freedoms. Those who continue to practice hard-hitting journalism today run the risk of assault or even murder; the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia ninth on its impunity list, a roll of countries where those who murder journalists seldom get punished.
“So much happened after that,” sighed a Russian friend who entered journalism just after the 1991 failed coup attempt. “There was one shining moment for journalism. What happened later was a really long story,” he said. “And the ending is not a happy ending yet.”
Okay, but did that really mean that, twenty years later, that brief shining moment didn’t deserve a special celebration? If we considered what happened then, and what has happened since, wouldn’t there be some important lessons from Russia 1991 that are worth examining in light of the Arab uprisings?
Sure, said my Russian journalist friend. “First you are high on that feeling of being liberated. And then harsh reality sets in. Then some people start thinking that maybe things were better before.”