If it happened once, do not think it cannot happen again. The shocking images of angry mobs jumping over barricades, pushing police and storming the U.S. capitol last week, outraged much of the world. Surprisingly, these chaotic images looked remarkably similar to scenes I had filmed in Soviet Russia during the 1991 coup when hardline conservatives sought to to overthrow Russia’s first democratically elected government. That coup also failed, as well as the next one, in Moscow in 1993. The multi-day drama led to the historic dissolution of the Soviet Union and victory for Russia’s budding democracy. But the violence did not end.
In the past week, once again, throngs of Russians have taken to the streets in more than 100 cities across Russia, courageously demanding political change and the release of jailed opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny. Current protests are larger than any since 2017. The ever-present violence, economic stagnation and suppression of a free press can be expected to continue to insight future demonstrations.
Americans should take note of how quickly and unexpectedly Russian violence spread throughout Russia. In the 1990’s, The insurrection had blindsided the Russian people, its budding democratic leaders, American Russia-experts, and much of the Western world. Similarly, the assault on the U.S. capitol with its accompanying delirium and chaos moved so fast that in the early stages, CNN, FOX and other media outlets were left clueless.
In 1990’s, while filming my PBS television documentary, “Russia for Sale: The Rough Road to Capitalism,” I had embedded myself inside Russian fascist and anti-semitic organizations that were virulently opposed to democracy and private ownership. As fluent Russian speaker with the accent of someone from the former Soviet Baltic republics, I could hide my American nationality. I saw from the inside how divisive forces can tear a nation apart. with violence and poisonous rhetoric.
As fluent Russian speaker with the accent of someone from the former Soviet Baltic republics, I could hide my American nationality. I saw from the inside how divisive forces can tear a nation apart. with violence and poisonous rhetoric.
Today in the United States, amidst deep division, distrust and disinformation, we should not be so surprised at what happened on January 6 in Washington, or by how quickly the violence unfolded. The capitol attack was even more sinister for the fact that many of the horn-headed, face-painted, Q-ANON perpetrators were in many way average Americans –neighbors, store owners, teachers and veterans in all our communities–people who nobody had thought would be capable of stabbing a policeman with the butt of a flagpole. As I watched in real-time on my computer screen, I recognized that the capitol insurgents were more than just an angry mob. I had an awful gut-wrenching and familiar feeling in the pit of my stomach–a feeling of democracy unraveling in my own country.
Not surprisingly, Russian news (propaganda) outlets were happy to see us reliving a piece of their past, ebulliently reporting on America’s failure. Russia’s official news agency, TASS put out a statement declaring the end of democracy in America.
“We draw attention to the fact that the electoral system in the United States is archaic, it does not meet modern democratic standards.”
Konstantin Kosachev, the head of Russia’s Foreign Affairs Committee in the Russian Federation Council posted on Facebook,
“The celebration of democracy is over. America no longer forges that path, and consequently has lost its right to define it. Much less force it on others.”
The assault on the citadel of democracy has left many Americans feeling vulnerable and questioning the strength and sustainability of our own political system. They are right to worry. For quite some time, the social fabric in our country has been breaking down. To a great extent this can be attributed to national divisiveness and a refusal to compromise; a landscape that resembles Russia, leading up to Putin’s coming to power.
A significant difference between Russia of the 1990s and Washington of 2021 is that the American attackers felt no need to worry about taking over TV stations to broadcast their message. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and the like, social media is the new ingredient that today has greatly enhanced the capabilities of destructive forces, far beyond the dreams of the Russian coup’s leaders. Social media is actually more dangerous than television because of the anonymity it offers and the venom that is so easily spews with limited culpability.
Within eight years of the last Russian coup, conservative forces inside the government had managed to expel democrats from Russia’s most important state-owned and independent media institutions. Putin’s dominance over media ultimately enabled him to secure his power and curtailed any hope for democracy in Russia, until recent days.
Perhaps this attack on our nation’s governing body will become the necessary wakeup call for Americans to become less complacent about relying on democracy’s system of checks and balances to alone safeguard our political system.
It would be naive to draw linear parallels between what happened in Russia thirty years ago and the attack on the U.S. capitol last week. But it would also be naive to simply assume that America’s system of checks and balances and unregulated freedom of speech will guarantee our constitutional freedoms. The stakes are high and strong measures are needed to strengthen and preserve our democracy. Those who incited the coup, most notably President Trump, need to be held fully accountable, as well as those who irresponsibly fanned the flames on American media.
And what every American should know is that just because one coup is thwarted, it does not mean the coast is clear.