I have recently discovered that very few people among Russians and even fewer among foreigners residing in Moscow know about Russian Flag Day. Even fewer remember what lead to the establishment of this official holiday (although not a day off). It was established in 1994 to commemorate the defeat of the August 1991 anti-Gorbachev and anti-Yeltsin coup and the event which became one of the most solemn and at the same time promising moments of those days.
Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov were killed by stray bullets or crushed to their deaths by armored personnel carriers that were maneuvering on the Garden Ring. Dmitry, Ilya and Vladimir were among those who tried to prevent the armor from advancing on the White House – the seat of the Russian Federation authorities and main center of opposition to the coup plotters. It turned out later that the officers and men did not have any direct order, but in that tumultuous night of August 21, this was not at all evident. That same day the putsch collapsed. On August 22, Muscovites came out in the tens if not hundreds of thousands to honor the memory of three young men. That was when a huge Russian white-blue-red tricolor was unfurled over the crowd and brought to the White House where president Boris Yeltsin officially proclaimed it the new state flag of the Russian Federation, at that time still a part of the Soviet Union. Two days later, on August 24, the three men were buried with honors while Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded them golden stars of Heroes of the Soviet Union.
However, when out of curiosity I “googled” their names, phrases that came out most frequently, at least in Russian, usually contained questions like: “Who are those people?” or “Do these names say something to you?” There was more or less the same result with the search for “Russian Flag Day.”
Russians seem to have nearly completely forgotten one of the most glorious pages in their history. Most public opinion polls over the last decade or even more show that once asked about events of August 1991, nearly 50 percent of them say that it was just an “episode” in the “struggle for power at the top,” which, essentially, doesn't concern them.
Interestingly enough, I would have understood if those events elicited more hatred and despair: the collapse of the Soviet empire was by no means a painless exercise for many, although much smoother than it could have been otherwise. It's the indifference that baffles me. My guess is as good as the pollsters' data. This is the result of cynicism and disillusionment that permeates the Russian society today and which was and still is assiduously promoted by the state-controlled TV as a way of keeping people's minds off politics altogether. “Nothing is ever done because of ideas or ideals, everything that is ever done is done out of greed or some other form of personal interest” - this is the pervasive attitude that remains in the Russian society, across all boundaries, including age and class distinctions, ethnicity and educational level.
None of us who witnessed and participated in the events of that August, will ever agree with this cynical assessment. For me, then a rookie reporter of a Moscow city paper, as for countless others, this was the time of hope and idealism, of limitless horizons and an acute sense of history being made in front of you; and sometimes by yourself. American scholar Leon Aron summed it up very succinctly: “It was the … intellectual and moral quest for self-respect and pride that, beginning with a merciless moral scrutiny of the country's past and present, within a few short years hollowed out the mighty Soviet state, deprived it of legitimacy, and turned it into a burned-out shell that crumbled in August 1991. The tale of this intellectual and moral journey is an absolutely central story of the 20th century's last great revolution”.
In a certain way, in 1991 Russia reconnected to its pre-Soviet history. In a certain other it became a completely new country. Never before it proclaimed democracy as its constitutional foundation, existed in such borders and had such demographic composition. For the first time in 300 years Russia ceased to be an empire and started building a modern nation state, trying to recoup a century of missed opportunities. The process still goes on and will probably take quite a while.
There seems to be a growing acceptance of the idea that this nearly forgotten great anniversary could be a source of inspiration and pride, an event to look back as a turning moment when Russia started on its way of becoming a free country. It seems that President Dmitry Medvedev holds pretty much the same view. He constantly returns to 1991 as a milestone of Russian history, starting from his New Year address on December 31, 2010, until his Financial Times interview in June, in which he promised to reveal his future plans in what he called a “special format.”
They say that appealing to the glories doesn’t do a Russian politician any good. I am not sure. A growing number of Russians are rejecting the cynicism of the past decades looking for a new meaning of what it means to be a Russian citizen. These people are the future of the country, if it has any.
Nothing could or would be more special and moving for the Russian head of state than to go to the Moscow Vagankovo Cemetery on the coming August 22nd and bow in memory of the three young men who died for the cause of Russian freedom. Mr. Medvedev could do it irrespectively of whether he plans to run for president or not.
This would have been a good point for Russia to start reclaiming an important part of its historical heritage, and the most dignified, optimistic and forward looking as well.
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” (J. Lennon)
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.