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Watch a talk given by Olga Starovoitova on 19th of 2011 in the Museum of Political History of Russia (St. Petersburg), which is staging the exhibit August 1991. 20th anniversary of coup attempt in the USSR. A conference brought together about 50 representatives of the democratic public. During the conference participants mainly remembered the events of August 19-21, 1991, drew parallels with today, and speculated that the experience of social upheaval in 1991 still can recur in the future. The current government of St. Petersburg did not take part in the event.
On Friday last week when Russia marked twenty years after the events of August 19-21, 1991 just few newspapers dwelt on the failed 1991 coup by the ГКЧП State Emergency Committee (or the 'junta' as it was quickly called), which attempted to remove perestroika leader Mikhail Gorbachev from power and prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union. The channel Kultura was to broadcast a performance of the ballet Swan Lake as if to emulate the spirit of Soviet television. Those who had lived through the August coup in the former Soviet Union remember that during the coup, all television stations in Russia broadcast Swan Lake rather than the usual programs, which for a Soviet viewer was a clue that something unsettling happened.
Russia quietly marked the 20th anniversary of the Soviet coup. This can be partially explained by the fact that since Russia’s current leaders show respect to the Soviet era while still emphasize liberal modernization, those who regret and those who commemorate the coup of 1991 are expected to be modest. Indeed, society became deeply polarized over the Soviet collapse. While Gorbachev had received a great prominence through his political initiatives and has been praised for not forcefully resisting the demise of the Soviet Union, his opponents have blamed the economic policy of his government that brought the country close to disaster. The putsch itself lasted just three days, but it played a major part in accelerating of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed in 1990s, when shock economic reforms wiped out people's savings and organized crime and unemployment skyrocketed. 20 years later, 39 percent of Russians believe the coup and its aftermath were "tragic events that had disastrous consequences for the country and its people," a survey from independent polling agency Levada showed last week.
Watching black and white footage of those days Soviet TV reports and listening to Olga Starovoitova's personal memories feels like stepping back in time. Recounting numerous details, some less known, she gave an unbaised assesment of the events of two decades ago. She said that her sister Galina Starovoitova in those days was in London, where she managed to get a meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and arrange a telephone conversation between her and Boris Yeltsin. On the first day of the coup, when nobody knew the coup would fail, coup leaders claimed health problems that supposedly afflicted Gorbachev meant that he was no longer capable of carrying on the duties of the President of the USSR. Thatcher had been asked to help with an independent review of the assessment process.
It should be noted that Galina Starovoitova's name has become an epitome for political courage and integrity. An ethnologistt, Starovoitova gained respect for her long-standing support for Armenia - then fighting for self-rule in the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and the Soviet Union's national minorities whose rights she fiercely defended alongside human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. She served as a presidential aide on national matters, however, Yeltsin dismissed her in 1992, following a conflict in the North Caucasus, when she criticized the Kremlin's support for the Ossetians against the Ingush. Until her murder in 1998 Starovoitova denounced Yeltsin's military campaign in breakaway Chechnya. Starovoitova, who was fifty-two years old, was shot dead by two masked gunmen while she climbed the stairs in her St. Petersburg apartment. A leader of the reformist Democratic Russia party, she was probably killed because she openly denounced nationalism of some Duma’s members and allegedly possessed compromising information about the financial dealings of various political leaders.