Putin’s Poisons

Russia is a country of symbols. Major political shifts here are always accompanied by a change of outward trappings, as a graphic demonstration of a rupture with the old. In March 1917, as the Russian throne stood empty after the abdication of the last Czar, the crowned double-headed eagles — the symbols of the fallen empire — were being toppled all over the country: thrown down from the façades of government buildings, bridges, theaters, department stores, and spectacularly from the rostrum in the State Duma’s hemicycle in Petrograd. The new currency printed by the provisional government featured the eagle without the crowns or the scepter — a rare collector’s item as it only lasted a few months, until the eagle was eliminated altogether when the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup d’état later that year. Trying desperately to cling to power as the country — and the world — was changing around them, a new generation of Communist leaders attempted another coup d’état in August 1991. It seemed bound to succeed — after all, the leaders of the coup, who tried to stem a democratic tide provoked both by the half-hearted reforms of the 1980s and by the deteriorating woes of the socialist economy, held all the levers of power. The self-proclaimed “emergency committee” included the USSR’s vice president, prime minister, ministers of the interior and defense, and the chairman of the KGB — the top brass of the regime which had control of the party and state machinery, the propaganda apparatus, and all branches of the security forces, from the regular army to the secret police. And they had tanks, which they sent to occupy downtown Moscow. What they failed to account for was a changed Russian society: people who had tasted a sampling of freedom, however imperfect, were

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