As I write now, in the still, dark hours of early Monday morning a week after the coup, there has been little time for reflection. History caught us off guard, it speeded up to a degree difficult to imagine if you haven’t lived through it. Everyone has a story to tell. What follows is but one fragment of the enormous epic now being written by the citizens of Russia.
Monday, August 19. The call came at 7:20 in the morning. For millions of Muscovites, as for myself, everything before that moment now seems to have taken place in another life. A military coup. State of Emergency. Gorbachev “ill” in an unknown location the day before the new Union Treaty was to have been signed. Announcement of the formation of the so-called GKChP, or Emergency Committee, and their statements on the radio. Nothing on TV but the ominously familiar faded photographs of Moscow tourist sites. At nine the television repeated the radio declaration of GKChP committee members on Central Television, without any commentary. The signing of the new Union Treaty canceled. All but a few official newspapers, like Pravda, closed. All political parties banned. All meetings and demonstrations categorically forbidden.
Friends began to call with news and rumors. Tanks in the city. Radio Moscow closed by the KGB. Yeltsin’s in Arkhangelsk. Yeltsin’s in Moscow. Gorbachev has disappeared. Gorbachev has killed himself. He’s been shot. He’s in the Crimea. He’s in Moscow. Everyone was in shock, it was important just to hear one’s friends’ voices. I was supposed to start working at Mosfilm, and a car came to pick me up. It wasn’t clear what the situation in the city was. When at about 11:30 or so we turned onto the Sadovoye Ring Road, just a block from my place, it became much clearer. Just behind us a line of five or six large tanks were heading up the road in the direction of the Russian Parliament, Yeltsin’s “White House.”
I spent the next few hours at Mosfilm, reading about the Great Terror of the 1930s for a project connected with Andrei Konchalovsky’s new film about the life of Stalin’s movie projectionist. In the circumstances the text seemed surreal. In the hallways people were unusually quiet, but they would suddenly burst into the room with news or expressions of horror and indignation.
Depression had begun to set in and everyone was numb—on the surface, except for the presence of tanks, the city that morning had appeared to be carrying on business as usual. Will there really be no resistance? Friends called back and forth from all over the city, checking for news or just to keep track of everyone’s whereabouts. Despite the fear, no one was censoring their telephone conversations. “Are the people going to take this?” I kept hearing. The questions buzzed in the air all day, and when they weren’t spoken they could …