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In 1991, Soviet Citizens Saw Swans On The TV... And Knew It Meant Turmoil

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today marks 30 years since dramatic political events in Russia - the failed coup in 1991 that brought the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. But as Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, attitudes towards that time are changing.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: On August 19, 1991, as tanks and troops rolled into Moscow, Soviet state television presented a different picture - Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF PYTOR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SWAN LAKE")

MAYNES: Soviet citizens knew this was not good.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

MAYNES: Soviet leaders had also aired the piece while they selected a new leader following the death of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...Then for his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, and then his successor, Yuri Andropov.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Andrey Milov, then a university student in Moscow, remembers thinking someone must have died.

ANDREY MILOV: In about 15 or 20 minutes or so, they started to explain what was going on. They said they took the power. And none of them was elected.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Communist hardliners had launched a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, arresting Gorbachev while on vacation in a last-ditch attempt to turn back the clock on democratic reforms, only they made one crucial mistake. They failed to wrest Gorbachev's democratic rival, Boris Yeltsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Soon, Yeltsin made his way to the Russian White House in the center of Moscow and famously climbed aboard a tank and issued a decree urging Soviets to resist and fight for their freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)

MAYNES: Thousands rushed to join him, erecting barricades outside the building in a dramatic three-day standoff with the army. Three protesters died that first night, but the order for the army to storm the barricades never came. By August 21, the coup plotters relented and Gorbachev was freed. Yeltsin, and seemingly democracy, had won.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING, MUSIC)

MAYNES: As crowds gathered to celebrate outside the KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square, soon came the decision by Moscow City Council to remove a statue of Iron Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB. Within four months, the Soviet Union was gone with him. Those dramatic events once signaled the birth of a new democratic Russia, but views have changed in the ensuing decades. A new poll by the independent Levada Center finds a record 43% of Russians now view Yeltsin's victory in 1991 a disaster. A mere 10% see the events as a win for democratic values.

ANDREI KOLESNIKOV: Primarily, this is all about a lack of understanding of your own history, the meaning of one of the most important and significant events in Russian history.

MAYNES: Andrei Kolesnikov is with the Moscow Carnegie Center. He argues many Russians are now nostalgic for the Soviet Union.

KOLESNIKOV: It's all about imperialism primarily and imperialistic thinking.

MAYNES: Yeltsin's successor, President Vladimir Putin, has, over 20 years in power, reclaimed territories in neighboring Ukraine and parts of Georgia. But his critics say Putin has yet to groom a successor or build democratic institutions to determine who might succeed him in the Kremlin one day, meaning whatever Russians' opinion of the failed coup of 1991, there's always the risk that Tchaikovsky's swans may dance again.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PYTOR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY'S "SWAN LAKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.