Back in the U.S.S.R.? After 20 Years, Many Russians Wish They Were

Sergei Veretelny was shot and wounded when he stepped forward unarmed 20 years ago to help stop a column of armored vehicles in central Moscow, one of the few casualties of the last, failed attempt to preserve the Soviet Union.

It was a moment when Russians, largely cowed and passive subjects of Soviet rule for 74 years, massed in the streets to support the future president, Boris Yeltsin, demanding democratic change.

The writer Vasily Aksyonov captured the enthusiasm of many at the time when he called the 60-hour standoff “probably the most glorious nights in the history of Russian civilization.”

But almost 15 years later, the man who now rules Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, called the fall of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

Recent opinion polls as the anniversary approaches this Saturday come closer to the view of Mr. Putin than of Mr. Aksyonov. Few people said they viewed the events of 1991 as a victory for democracy.

“At that time in Russia, behind the iron curtain, we had only heard of democracy,” said Mr. Veretelny, 54, who was at the time supporting himself as a driver. “We really believed the magical, beautiful word democracy. But a lot of things turned out not exactly the way we expected. We began to ask ourselves what we spilled our blood for.”

In the decade that followed, chaotic social and economic changes and lurching attempts at reform gave democracy a bad name. Many people welcomed the stability Mr. Putin brought, even at the cost of some democratic freedoms.

Mr. Veretelny is just one voice among 140 million Russians, and while his disillusionment is widely shared, many people appear to accept Mr. Putin’s limits on political competition, civil society and the news media. An election that is set for early next year is unlikely to change the course of the country.

Mr. Veretelny was speaking a week before the anniversary at the home of Lyubov Komar, the mother of a young verteran of the Russian war in Afghanistan, Dmitry Komar, who was one of three men killed during the final night.

Mr. Veretelny was wounded when he tried to retrieve the body of Mr. Komar, which he said hung on an armored vehicle as it roared forward and back trying to dislodge a trolleybus that had been moved to block its path.

“I saw the guy hanging off the armored car,” he said. “I put out my hands to help and I was hit in the shoulder. I thought someone would come take the body off, but it drove back and forth until the body fell on the asphalt.”

The armored cars and tanks pulled back soon afterwards, marking the end of a coup that had attempted to hold back the tide of change. On Dec. 25, then-President Mikhail S. Gorbachev stepped down, bringing a formal end to the Soviet Union.

Since then, Mr. Veretelny has worked as an electrician, a police inspector and now as a small businessman on the fringes of Russia’s economy. Until recently, his wife, Svetlana, had a high-paying job as manager of a business and she said the couple lives comfortably.

Mrs. Komar, who works as a helper at a health club, still builds her life around the memory of her son and she echoes the view of Mr. Veretelny, saying, “If my son could have seen where the country was going he wouldn’t have been at the barricades.”

Sitting surrounded in her apartment by photographs that trace his growth from a boy to a soldier, she said she had given up on the political process.

“I haven’t been to vote for 10 years,” she said. “They’ll do fine without me. They choose whoever they want, so why vote?”

Like many Russians, she grew to despise Mr. Yeltsin for what she saw as his weak leadership, and is now part of a large majority of the Russian people in supporting Mr. Putin. But what she would really like, she said, is to turn back the clock.

“I felt more comfortable in the U.S.S.R.,” she said. “You always had a piece of bread. You always had work. Yes, sure, you can go overseas now, but you have to have money for that and you have to go into debt. Now, if you don’t have money you can’t do anything.”

A recent poll by the Levada Center, a respected polling agency, found that 20 percent of Russians share her wish for a return of the Soviet Union, a number that has bobbed up and down between 16 percent and 27 percent over the past eight years.

Among these, not surprisingly, was Mr. Gorbachev, who had tried to reform and preserve the U.S.S.R. but was thwarted by the coup and then by Mr. Yeltsin and the momentum of events.

“Some say over and over that the Soviet Union’s collapse was inevitable,” he told a news conference Wednesday. “But I keep saying that the Soviet Union could have been preserved.”

Addressing journalists, he said: “You criticize Gorbachev: weak, Jell-O, more or less in those terms. But what if that Jell-O wasn’t in that position at that time, who the hell knows what might have happened to us.”

According to the polling agency, those who wish to return to the Soviet past were mostly members of the vestiges of the Communist party, elderly people and people who live in small towns and villages.

The poll was conducted in person over five days in July with 1,600 people, with a margin of error of 3.4 percent.

Other responses suggested that Russians do want democracy, but democracy of a particular sort, with a powerful central government, something closer to what the country has today than some, like Mr. Veretelny, had envisioned. More than half the respondents, 53 percent, said they placed a higher value on “order” than on human rights.

“We had so much hope, so much faith, so much inspiration for the future,” said Mr. Veretelny’s wife, Svetlana. “There was such a feeling of freedom and hope. We were all so happy seeing change ahead.”

But now, according to the polling agency, only 10 percent of respondents view those days as a victory for democracy. It said the number of people who called the events a tragedy had grown to 39 percent, from 25 percent at the last anniversary 10 years ago.

“It is what it is,” said Mr. Veretelny, who has slipped from hope into passivity. “We just have to figure that this is what we ended up with.”

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