Dmitry Trenin: Building a Republic 20 Years After the Putsch

Dmitry Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. His most recent book, Post-Imperium: A Eurasian Story, was published this summer.

Chinese leader Zhou Enlai may have been correct when he told U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972 that it was too early to determine the impact of the French Revolution, but 20 years is usually enough to assess the importance of most historical events. It is also sufficiently close to remember what actually happened and to feel the elapsed period. Yet three days in August 1991 that changed the course of world history are still a cause of confusion and contestation in the former Soviet Union.

For most in Europe and the United States, 1991 takes a back seat to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This clearly demonstrates that what mattered to the West, then and now, was the reunification of Europe and of Germany within it. The fate of the Soviet Union itself was not an issue in the Cold War. The sudden collapse of the Soviet empire had to be managed and made permanent, but anything beyond that was deemed too difficult — and, frankly, unnecessary.

For non-Russians, August 1991 was a prologue to the end of the Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the coup in Moscow, most Soviet republics, from Ukraine to Uzbekistan, proclaimed their independence. The unthinkable became inevitable. Nations that had issued their proclamations earlier, such as in the Baltic states or the Caucasus republics, could now enjoy independence. In Russia itself, the duality of power was broken, and Boris Yeltsin triumphed over Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. More important, the Communist ideology and the Communist Party were dethroned for good.

This is the principal meaning of August 1991. It marks the watershed between Soviet Russia and the present-day Russian Federation. Unlike its Communist predecessor, today’s Russia is essentially free. Russians enjoy most civil rights. They are free to speak out, to practice the religions they choose, to leave their country and return home. They can own property, engage in business, and keep their money in the currency and place of their choice.

This freedom has important caveats...

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