Thursday, September 2, 2021

August 1991 Only First of Three Attempts by Chekists to Restore Dictatorship, Ponomaryov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 2 – Vladimir Ponomaryov says the chekists made three attempts to restore a totalitarian dictatorship. The first two, in August 1991 and in October 1993, failed, but the third, set in train by Boris Yeltsin’s decision to appoint KGB veteran Vladimir Putin as his successor has succeeded beyond almost anyone’s hopes or fears.

            Ponomaryov, who turns 80 today, has been involved in the human rights struggle for nearly 40 years, helping to organize Memorial in the late 1980s but now listed as “a foreign agent” by the Putin regime, is in a position to see this broader pattern, which he presents in his memoirs.

            Today, both to honor the activist on his birthday and to call attention to his insights about the course of Russia over the last 30 years, Novaya Gazeta has published three excerpts from his book, Three-Quarters of a Life, which fit these three attacks on democracy into a common matrix (

            “It is obvious to me,” Ponomaryev writes, “that the putsch was the first attempt of the chekists to return the country to totalitarianism.” They failed because the population rose against them and “decided the fate of the country and possibly experienced the best instants of their life. There as a real breakthrough to freedom and great hopes.

            “And there was also the enormous moral force of peaceful resistance. People came out into the streets to defend the newly born Russian democracy no ‘on orders from the Russian authorities,’ [as officials now claim] but out of their own conviction,” the senior human rights activist continues.

            The clash between Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Supreme Soviet in October 1993 was “the second attempt to use force to turn back the course of history and stop the development of democracy in Russia.” That tragedy could have been avoided had Yeltsin acted earlier and explained things to the people, but he preferred to use the clash to build his own power.

            In this situation, the people had no choice to side with Yeltsin but only as the lesser evil not as an ally in the struggle for democracy. And that set the stage for “the third attack of the chekists on democracy in Russia” – Yeltsin’s selection of a KGB officer to be his successor, something that gave the chekists the victory that the people had earlier denied them.

            Ponomaryov says it was clear to him “from the very beginning” what was going to happen, but many were deceived by Putin’s words in his first months in office, words that suggested he was going to cooperate with the democrats despite his security service background and inclinations.

            Putin “did not yet have experience of the leadership of the country. He felt his dependence on the liberals who pushed him forward and tried to correspond to their expectations.” At that time, he said all the right words. But soon, those declarations proved to be fake.

            “I am certain,” the human rights activist says, that Putin didn’t become someone else over the course of the last two decades. He didn’t change. What changed was not him but “the liberals who were in his entourage. He very quickly understood that he could rule them and that they would either have to leave and become part of the opposition or adapt.”

            Only a handful became opposition figures; “the majority adapted.” And it was that which gave the chekists a victory on their third attempt.


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