Twenty years ago, on Aug. 18, conservative Soviet officials, who feared that a draft new Union Treaty among the Soviet republics would break up the Soviet Union, confined President Mikhail Gorbachev and his family, who were on vacation, to his dacha in Foros in the Crimea.

The next day, eight Communist Party Politburo and Soviet government officials, with KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov playing the central role, declared the establishment of the Committee of the State Emergency.

They announced that Mr. Gorbachev was ill and unable to act as Soviet president. Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin denounced the Gang of Eight’s actions, calling them a coup d’etat. The image of his speech atop the turret of a tank at the time became famous.

The putsch collapsed Aug. 21. But this did not help Mr. Gorbachev, who was pushing perestroika of the Soviet Union. Instead, the weakening of the Soviet system accelerated and the Soviet Union collapsed toward the end of 1991. The collapse was not due to democratic movements from the bottom up, but to self-disintegration as the regime weakened through the loss of satellite states to revolutions there. It was also gasping under the weight of huge military spending and economic ruin.

Levada Center, a Russian independent social research organization, said Aug. 16 that only 10 percent of those polled regard the failed coup attempt as a victory for democracy and that 35 percent regard it as just a power struggle.

This could reflect public sentiment that Russians are not enjoying the fruits of representative government and are far removed from democracy. In such a situation, the people and their leaders support the dream of restoring Russia as a great and powerful country, which would satisfy their nationalistic ego.

A recent remark by Mr. Gennady Burbulis, a close ally of the late Yeltsin and a former secretary of state of the Russian Federation, is thought-provoking. He said that United Russia, a ruling party that holds an absolute majority in the State Duma, is about to repeat the mistake of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which he said at one time was an organization that pursued ideals but changed into one that devoured state wealth as it failed to understand its position and role in Russian society.

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