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Forgetting the Gorbachev Coup

In blogging terms, this is ancient history (published yesterday), but the always-sharp Julia Ioffe has a great breakdown in the New Yorker of why the 20th anniversary of the 1991 Soviet coup against Gorbachev which led to the unraveling of the USSR has become a complicated memory for many Russians.

If you are a Russian under twenty years old, Putin has been your leader for over half of your life. When a man like that rules your country and its media and its textbooks for most of the time you’ve been alive, you’re bound not to know much about the event that was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him.

And so it is. According to a state-owned pollster, if you are a Russian between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, fifty-five per cent of you will draw an utter blank when asked to evaluate the significance of August 19, 1991. Seven per cent of you will say that Gorbachev was one of those who defended Russia from the putsch, which isn’t quite true, but it doesn’t really matter since sixty-eight per cent won’t be able to name a single name, which makes saying “Gorbachev” not half bad.

And if you’re an older Russian, say, thirty-five and up, you’ll be pretty evenly split among three camps: the ones who see August, 1991, as a tragedy; the ones who see it as “just another struggle for power among the higher echelons of the state”; and the ones who can say nothing at all. Which, if you’ve lived through twenty Augusts in the new Russia, is not half bad either.