Saturday, 13 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- Lyubov Komar- Grief and democracy

Lyubov Komary, with some of her pictures behind her, including the black and white photo of her son Dima.

As we enter Lyubov’s flat she comes to greet us with smiling informality and launches straight away into chatting. Incense is hanging in the air and a cat scurries about from room to room. One room has a large cabinet all across one wall stacked with books of all kinds. In the main room, on two tables are laid out photos from August 1991. Larger prints are propped up against the wall too. Most show Lyubov’s son, Dmitry.

Dmitry seemed from the photos to have been a happy boy. Later the photos changed to ones of a handsome young soldier, who served over two years in Afghanistan. Then comes the drama of the coup attempt of August 18th-21st 1991. But Dima (a diminutive form of Dmitry) isn’t in these photos.

When it became clear on the 19th of August that some members of the communist party were trying to sideline Gorbachev and take power (the reason for all the tanks and police on the streets) Dmitry had told his mother that he was going to stay with a friend in Moscow. In actual fact he had answered the call of Aleksandr Rutskoi, an anti-coup politician and close ally of Boris Yeltsin (at this time) who hailed all former Afghan veterans to come and defend the white house (the site of the Russian Supreme Soviet, basically the national parliament and by this point a symbol of the democracy crowds of people had gathered to protect). Even though she didn’t know what he was doing, Lyubov says she knew something was happening. “I felt uneasy and there was a ringing in my ears.” Then, on August the 21st, just as the turning point came and the coup began to collapse, the ringing in her ears suddenly stopped. “I knew he was dead, “ says Lyubov. Soon after came the phone call she was dreading.

Also in the flat was another man and friend of Lyubov’s, Gennady Veritilny. He had been near the white house and had seen exactly what had happened. We asked him outside later. “He was on top of a pro-coup armoured personnel carrier, trying to open the hatch to pull the crew out. He was shot but not killed. His body fell in front of the armoured car but it carried on and ran him over, killing him.”

Dmitry was one of three people killed during the coup attempt. The other two were shot. Thousands flooded to their funeral on the 24th of August 1991. At the centre of it was Lyubov. “I was like a zombie for three years afterwards, “ she says, “my other son and daughter had to help me not to commit suicide.”

Now Lyubov can put Dmitry’s sacrifice into context, but she doesn’t come to a very happy conclusion. “At the time he was defending democracy. The coup plotters were simply power crazed.” However, when I asked if she thought Dmitry’s death had been in vain or not, she replied, “Now with all the corruption in Russia and the people we have in power, that’s not the Russia all those people fought for and my son died for.” Lyubov also thinks the coup plotters from the ‘Gang of Eight’ as it was called, were let off. “The putschists (‘putsch’ is another word for coup) aren’t in prison nowadays, they have high positions, money and power again. So in the end, they won.”

Dimtry Komar did help stop armoured personnel carriers gathering into position for an attack on the white house. That may have helped save the white house, and Russia’s fledgling democracy. Given his perspective at the time, few would say that Dmitry died in vain. It’s what’s happened to Russia’s democracy since, darkly ironic seeing as fear of a chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union was one of the coup plotters' main motivations, that has, in Lyubov’s mind, inexcusably cheapened the sacrifices made back on that fateful night in August 1991.

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