MOSCOW — Several dozen Russians gathered on Friday for a protest reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of a coup attempt which heralded the demise of the Soviet Union, a holiday ignored in official circles because of its revolutionary, anti-establishment nature.
On Aug. 19, 1991, eight hard-line Communist leaders seized power from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring him ill. In fact, Gorbachev was under arrest. Thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against the coup and the clout of the powerful security services.
The defeat of the coup several days later set in motion the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and is widely regarded as a triumph of democracy and civil liberties in Russia.
Those who opposed the coup 25 years ago gathered on a rainy Friday evening outside the Russian White House — a massive government building where Boris Yeltsin, at the time the president of the Russian constituent republic within the Soviet Union, famously climbed atop a tank to defy the coup in possibly the most cinematic moment of the August resistance.
Several dozen, mostly elderly or middle-aged people mingled outside the White House, some of them carried Russian flags and photographs of the 1991 protests.
Lyudmila Skryabina, a nanny from St. Petersburg, said she takes a vacation every year to come to Moscow for this reunion.
Skryabina said she is proud that she had stood at the makeshift barricades at the same spot 25 years ago but is disappointed in today's political regime, economic hardships and what she calls the cynicism of the government — "this flag-waving patriotism as if things are so great right now."
Earlier this week, Moscow city hall refused to give protesters permission to march from the White House to the tunnel where three protesters were killed 25 years ago, the only victims of the otherwise bloodless coup. Most of the August 1991 celebrations, lectures and exhibitions this weekend were organized by the grass-roots movement and a foundation established to honor the legacy of Yeltsin, who died in 2007.
Unlike the lavish state-sponsored celebrations of Victory Day, which marks the Soviet army's victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, the government largely ignores the day which is largely regarded as the birthday of a new Russia.
Skryabina said that during Yeltsin's presidency, from 1991 to 1999, there was always a government presence and wreaths at the cemetery where the three protesters killed in the coup are buried. "Now every time I come here I call my friends and ask: 'Are they going to allow us at all?'''.
The government has in recent years tightened its grip on public gatherings, and several dozen people were sent to prison for minor offenses at an opposition rally the day before Putin's inauguration in May 2012.
Many Russians who opposed the coup have grown disillusioned with democracy, which they have come to associate with the hardships of the initial years of the dismantling of the Soviet state and a transition to the market economy. The August 1991 events are rarely discussed and remembered in the media, leaving a younger generation largely ignorant of what happened 25 years ago.
A survey by the authoritative Levada pollster released earlier this month showed that only 50 percent of Russians could identify what happened on Aug. 19, 1991.
At that time, President Vladimir Putin was an ally of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, a fierce coup opponent, but Putin's KGB past keeps him from honoring this landmark event, analysts say.
Both Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev were visiting Crimea, which was annexed from Ukraine in 2014, and did not come to lay the flowers at the monument of the three killed protesters in Moscow.
"Aug. 19-21 could have been become a symbol of a new Russian state," Pavel Aptekar said in an opinion piece in the respected Vedomosti daily on Friday. "The three August days of 1991 remind the establishment that people could disobey their orders and hold the government accountable. In the past 25 years the government has transformed into one that is appalled by the very possibility."
The otherwise Kremlin-friendly Moskovsky Komsomolets daily published an opinion piece on Friday titled "25 years since the loss of freedom" and illustrated by a cartoon showing a hand with a KGB emblem wrestling a Russian flag away from a group of people.
"August 1991 brought about a stunning wave of enthusiasm, you felt there was no mountain high enough," Alexander Minkin wrote. "Those who had power and a unique historical opportunity drop in their lap turned out to be unworthy: they stole and drank the country away, the country and its future. And this still goes on."
Mark Galperin, 48, was a rare person at the reunion outside the White House who was not there in 1991. He carried a placard that read: "Let's repeat August 1991."
"I was a student but I was apolitical, but right now I'd like to revive what was here in August. We need a democratic revolution again," he said.