Muscovites gathered Saturday night to recognize three virtually unknown men whose deaths 20 years ago changed the direction of world history.
In life, they stood unarmed, facing Soviet tanks that were clanking through a Moscow underpass to attack the democratically elected government of Boris Yeltsin. In death, they catalyzed a massive popular protest that broke the back of a military coup by communist hardliners.
On Saturday, standing above the underpass and a red smear of modern cars stretching into the Moscow night, Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin makes the sign of the cross:
He hails the three Moscow men for their role in helping to end nightmarish decades of communist control.
Rabbi Zinovii Levovich Kogan, recites the Kaddish , the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning for the three men.
The failed coup attempt backfired on the plotters. Within four months, the Soviet Union was formally and peacefully dissolved.
Rabbi Kogan says that the men’s sacrifice spared the Soviet Union from a blood civil war that could have cost millions of lives.
He says the men may be little known now. But eventually, people in the 15 nations that emerged from the Soviet Union will appreciate their actions.
Agreement came from Lyubova Komar, mother of one of the men, Dmitry Komar. He was a 22-year-old mechanic when he was caught under the treads of a tank and crushed to death.
Carrying a bouquet of red roses, she says in an interview with VOA that Russia will probably only appreciate her son’s sacrifice on the 50th anniversary of his death. Now, she doubts that history books write more than three words about the event.
The small gathering of 75 people Saturday seems a world away from the events of 20 years ago, when as many as half a million Muscovites turned out to block the coup.
Twenty years ago, a few weeks after the failed coup, I drove past the site. It was a typical communist tableau, an intersection bounded by shabby state stores and dingy government institutes.
Today, the small stone memorial is framed by a French health food restaurant and a South Korean luxury hotel, where the rooftop bar sells champagne at $80 a glass.
As drivers of luxury cars honked their horns at the inconvenience of a street closing, Gennady Nikolaevich Veretilnii, says Russia has taken the wrong path.
He says Russia is now run by “a dictatorship of the oligarchs.” Fingering his right shoulder where a Soviet tank commander shot him during the coup attempt, he says he now wonders if democracy will ever come to Russia.
Standing nearby is Sergei Filatov, a former defense aide to the late President Boris Yeltsin. During the coup attempt, he sent to teams to local garrisons to persuade commanders not to attack.
Now the president of a socio economic research institute here, he agrees, that Russia is going through an authoritarian phase.
But he also says that Russia’s leadership will discover that democracy is the only way forward for the nation.
With most of the crowd over 50 years of age, many people gathered for the 20th anniversary felt comfortable taking the long view when talking about Russian history.