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Sunday, 19 August, 2001, 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK
Russia marks coup's 10th anniversary
Boris Yeltsin during the coup attempt
Boris Yeltsin (left) judged the popular mood perfectly
People in Russia have begun marking the 10th anniversary of the failed coup attempt which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.

About 100, mostly elderly, pro-democracy militants gathered at Moscow's White House where much of the drama, which began on 19 August 1991, was played out.


Nothing has changed... we still have to fight for democracy and press freedom

50-year-old Lev Shamayev

The three-day coup by hard-line communists in Moscow tried to halt Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reform plans.

President Vladimir Putin is currently on holiday and has so far remained silent on the anniversary and what it means for post-Soviet Russia.

And the BBC's Stephen Dalziel in Moscow says it is clear that most Muscovites too have decided that the idea of enjoying the sunshine or weekend trips to the county is easily more important than meetings to remember the coup.

The only government official to appear in public at the White House - Labour minister Alexander Pochinok - was immediately surrounded by those present asking about their pensions.

Decisive moment

The day of the coup was to lead to dramatic changes for people's lives throughout the 15 republics of the USSR.

Mikhail Gorbachev giving a news conference ahead of coup anniversary
Gorbachev dismisses the coup leaders at self-interested opportunists
Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian Federation, whose tank-top protest at the White House became the defining image of the coup, soon eclipsed Mr Gorbachev as the country's most powerful leader.

Most of those gathered at the White House on Sunday were supportive of Mr Yeltsin, although he went on to become a figure of derision for many Russians.

A different kind of rally is expected to be held in Pushkin Square - to honour the coup's leaders. Granted amnesties in 1994 after brief jail terms, they have returned to public life.

Where are the coup leaders now?
Gennady Yanayev
Pension fund consultant
Dmitry Yazov
Adviser to arms exporter
Vladimir Kryuchkov
Wrote his memoirs
Valentin Pavlov
Became a banker
Boris Pugo
Committed suicide after coup failed
The leaders included Gennady Yanayev, then Vice-President of the USSR, the then Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov, Interior Minster Boris Pugo and the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov.

Mr Gorbachev, who had been about to sign an agreement giving the Soviet republics more autonomy, was held under house arrest while the world was told he was ill.

Mr Yanayev defended the coup in an interview on NTV, saying: "Our country was in total crisis... This agreement would have meant the legal dissolution of a great state - that is why we struck".

Mr Gorbachev has dismissed the plotters as adventurists acting out of "self-interest, nothing more".

"The party nomenklatura failed the test of democracy" and did not accept reforms that meant the end of their privileges, he said at a news conference before the anniversary.

Misjudgement

The coup leaders completely misjudged the popular mood, especially among younger people keen for continued change.

Mr Yeltsin, standing on a tank sent to silence resistance, judged that mood perfectly.

After three days of uncertainty, the coup collapsed in farce. Its leaders raced down to the Crimea to try to make their peace with Mr Gorbachev.

But when he returned to Moscow, the Soviet leader failed to appreciate how much had changed.

Condoleezza Rice, a Russia expert and now White House national security adviser, said: "It was rather sad actually to see Gorbachev come back, almost seemingly unaware of what had happened.

"By the time of the end of the coup, Boris Yeltsin was the political authority in Russia and it was only a matter of time until Gorbachev had to step aside".

It took four months, but the events of August 1991 led directly to the collapse of the USSR.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Stephen Dalziel in Moscow
"Most Russians are saying there's nothing to celebrate"
See also:

18 Aug 01 | Talking Point
Was it better in Soviet days?
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Russia
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