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 be seen in people’s eyes.
Like many others, I made arrangements to spend the night with friends; being alone was unthinkable. I got a ride back into the center of the city around seven that evening and got my first close-up look at the tanks. This particular group had closed the Kalinin Bridge leading from Kutuzovsky Prospekt over the river to the center, the bridge nearest the White House, and were turning traffic back. It was surprising to see, and in a strange way this was perhaps the first encouraging sign, that people were milling around and talking to the soldiers. Children were climbing on the tanks.
That first night passed in traditional Russian fashion, about eight of us crowded around a kitchen table, talking and listening to news reports on the “Voices,” as Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and the BBC Russian Services are called here. There was a nostalgia to the scene, a sense of déjà vu, whose irony escaped no one I know. We haven’t listened to the Voices in so long, everyone said. They weren’t interesting anymore and seemed beside the point. A good thing they haven’t gone out of business. A good thing we didn’t get rid of our short-wave radios. We were acutely aware that this scene was being repeated at hundreds of thousands of other kitchen tables in Moscow. This sense of time gone backward, a rerun from the Brezhnev years of “stagnation,” encapsulated the fragility of glasnost, the relative nature of the gains of the last six years: “they” still control the airwaves; “they” can cut us off whenever “they” please.
The mood was one of manic tension, as each hour brought new announcements. Yeltsin issued a decree declaring the junta illegal and subordinating all government functions to the president of Russia. He called for a nationwide strike and defense of the White House. We watched the press conference of the “Gang of Eight” on the official news program Vremya at 9:00 PM, and were struck by Yanayev’s trembling hands and constant sniffling. Like the children on the tanks, those hands too seemed a good sign. By the next day they were a national joke. Other signs came later in the evening. Ten tanks of the Taman division had retreated from the White House and returned to defend it: The army might splinter. The miners were preparing to go on strike. A demonstration was called for the next day at noon in front of the White House. As I went to sleep at about three in the morning, I kept imagining I could hear the rumble of tank treads. The next night it wouldn’t be my imagination.
Tuesday, August 20. At 10:30 the next morning we set out for the demonstration at the White House. Photocopied announcements of the demonstration were pasted outside the entrance to the Kursk Station Metro. As we got off at my stop, Smolenskaya, on the Ring Road near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our spirits lifted when we saw we had lots of company. The road itself, which further north runs by the American embassy, is one of Moscow’s major thoroughfares—and it was completely blocked by trolleys and buses. The workers had joined in. At the bridge where Kalinin Prospekt, another major avenue which leads from the river inward toward Manezh and Red squares, we passed over the first line of barricades, which had begun going up Monday. More buses and trolleys blocked the bridge leading to Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the Ukraine Hotel, and further barricades had been erected inside them. The tanks reported loyal to Yeltsin were indeed there, with children clambering all over them and flowers stuck in their gun barrels. The soldiers, some Russian, some of other nationalities, were obviously the object of intense popular affection. The crowd was friendly; people were unusually polite and considerate. I realized this was probably the first time I’d felt at ease in a Soviet crowd. The face of the city was being transformed in many ways.
The meeting got underway on time. There were dozens of speakers: various deputies (RSFSR and USSR) addressed the crowd, announcements of support were made, the priest Yakunin spoke. There were chants of RO SSI YA! RO SSI YA! (Russia! Russia!) Down with the Communist Party! Yeltsin Yeltsin! Shame Shame! Down with the Junta! There were frequent references to Pinochet, and how “we won’t let that happen here.” The air crackled with anger during those days, as people asked over and over again: What do they take us for? They’re treating us like swine. They think they can just shut us up again, cut us off from the world and from each other. But here, at the first mass demonstration, there was at least a feeling, which was to grow as the days passed, that Russia had taken a stand, perhaps for the first time in its history. An unaccustomed sense of national pride seemed to be awakening as people looked around, a bit surprised to see resistance to the junta everywhere. No matter what happens, I heard time and time again, at least we didn’t just give in.
More and more people arrived. I ran into a number of artists I know and spotted other familiar faces in the crowd. There were lulls where I thought that the deputies leading the meeting might lose the crowd, which wanted to hear from people it knew, above all, from Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin. Gorbachev was hardly mentioned. Yevtushenko spoke and read a poem written for the occasion; Svyatoslav Fedorov, the famous eye surgeon spoke, as did the well-known comic Khazanov, who joked about the junta’s shaky hands, and Elena Bonner. An American named Mark Kennedy addressed the meeting in good Russian, and assured it of the support of the American people. He was greeted with huge cheers. All of this was taking place just behind the residence of the American embassy, the best view being from the roof of the bug-ridden new building, on whose still unoccupied windows the words “God Bless America” have been written for the last couple of years. Yeltsin spoke very briefly after three o’clock, and the crowd perked up. Shevardnadze received nearly as warm a greeting as Yeltsin—no one had forgotten his warnings of dictatorship when he resigned last fall.
Later that afternoon I took the metro home; outside the 1905 Station a crowd had gathered to read Yeltsin’s decrees and the informal news sheets that were pasted up outside the entrance. I changed trains twice, at the two stations closest to the White House, Kievskaya and the (appropriately named) Barrikadnaya, and the same announcements, “underground” photocopy issues of banned newspapers, were pasted up inside the stations (a surprising image, since there are no graffiti and no ads in the Moscow subway, and pasting something on the wall is sacrilege. Under other circumstances anyone caught doing so would have immediately been stopped by subway personnel or indignant passengers.) The latest news bulletins, dated by the hour, had been scribbled by hand: Yeltsin was calling everyone to a vigil at the White House that night. Judging by what I saw in the subway, thousands upon thousands were heading toward the Russian Parliament. Huge crowds of people were pouring out of the stations, and at Barrikadnaya a man with a megaphone strode briskly up and down the platform, urgently announcing that an attack was expected at 8:00 PM, and repeating the call to defend the White House. A woman heading for the exit entreated the small trickle of people going the other way to turn around: “People,” she cried, “turn around, you’re needed to defend the Parliament.”
Tuesday night proved the hardest of all. We listened to Radio Russia, which had now resumed broadcasting (as did the banned Moscow Echo station), with amateur equipment, directly from the White House. I didn’t have a short-wave radio. At 9:10 they announced that by “illegal decree,” the junta had ordered a curfew as of 11 o’clock. I turned on the official TV news, Vremya, in time to hear the same news repeated in the very different language of the official announcer. According to Radio Russia, over 50,000 people had gathered around the White House, and an attack by the army was expected at ten that evening. The countdown had begun. All “real men” were asked to proceed before curfew to the White House; women and children were asked to stay home.
It was rumored that special troops were being sent into Moscow to enforce the curfew; then the rumor spread that the curfew was mainly directed against soldiers in army training schools, whom Yeltsin had called in to defend the Parliament buildings. Most of them lived outside the city. If there was a curfew, they wouldn’t be able to arrive that night. Radio Russia gave regular reports of troop movements visible from the Parliament roof, as well as information coming in over the few telephones that were working. A hot line was set up for people to report troop movements in their neighborhoods and to let them know where the station could be heard; at my place I could not hear Moscow Echo at all, and Radio Russia would fade in and out. The jamming waves were hard at work. At a certain point there was a great hubbub, and then they informed us that they’d been told to turn out all the lights. They were broadcasting from the “tower” on top of the White House and it was feared that they were easy targets for snipers reported to have been spotted across the river in the Ukraine Hotel. They continued broadcasting in complete darkness.
The attack was now expected for midnight or later. After a quick supper we headed out for the White House at around ten. We parked as close as we could get and walked along the dark, muddy sidewalks of the embankment road toward the brightly lit square surrounding the Parliament. On the embankment near Smolenskaya a gaping pit had been dug about twelve to fifteen feet deep, and only a narrow sidewalk left intact for pedestrians. On the other side of that pit, however, we passed several tanks; not “our tanks,” we noted immediately, upon seeing the blank, scared faces of the young soldiers, who tried not to look at the people talking to them, persuading them to go over to Yeltsin.
(Only on Sunday evening did we find out what was behind the constantly changing estimates of when the GKChP would storm the White House. In an interview after the 8:00 evening program, Vesti, Yeltsin revealed that documents had been uncovered detailing the original plans for storming the building at six on Tuesday night, complete with lists of which Russian government official to be arrested or killed on sight. But according to Yeltsin, the attack was to be entrusted to the elite “Alpha” group of the KGB, a special division formed to fight terrorism. To the utter surprise of the junta, said Yeltsin, this group to a man refused to carry out orders, even though they were threatened.)
Heavy equipment had been brought in and the fortifications were much more serious than they had been earlier; heavy cement blocks (reportedly “borrowed” from the usual barricades in front of the American embassy) were being lifted into place, many more buses were in evidence blocking the bridges. More anti-junta graffiti had appeared, notably khunta na khuy (roughly, “Fuck the Junta”), in huge letters on a section of cement pipe (one of the few “obscene” slogans I’ve seen in the last week, surprisingly, since the word “junta”—the same in Russian as in English—lends itself to many plays on words). People were working hard, fortifying the barricades and readying themselves for the unknown; a nearby bakery in a side street had been turned into a first-aid station, manned by doctors and volunteers and stocked with neat piles of bandages, and other equipment bought with the collections begun at the meeting that morning for “The Fund for the Defense of the Parliament.” They were also giving out improvised plastic ponchos for those who were spending the night—it had been raining on and off, at times quite hard, all day long. Not far from the bakery a line of ambulances stood ready. (I later learned that many new Russian businesses immediately rallied around and gave millions of rubles in cash, equipment, and food for the defense of the Russian Parliament.)
Despite the awareness of real danger, and an almost uncanny sense of being present at the making of history, there was a festive feeling in the air, something between the atmosphere of Woodstock and the anti-Vietnam rallies of the Sixties. Little tents and makeshift shelters had been set up everywhere, fires were burning; many teen-agers and young men and women, some with guitars, were sitting on the barricades and singing; scruffy lines of new recruits for “Defenders of Russia” brigades were forming and marching off importantly. On the embankment side a platform had been set up and a rock group was about to start performing. At least until eleven, when we left to go home, people seemed alert but relaxed. They were among friends.
Back at home we returned to our radio vigil. Reports were confusing: a column of tanks had been spotted heading toward the White House, only to disappear five minutes later. Other tanks were supposedly seen leaving Moscow (when exactly wasn’t clear at the time) flying the Russian national tricolor flag. The storming of the White House had begun, an armored personnel carrier was on fire near the Parliament. The phone rang every five minutes. A friend called from Mayakovsky Square to say that she could see tanks blocking the road and waving away cars. Then we ourselves heard, even felt, the dull roar and vibration of heavy vehicles on the Ring Road, a block from my apartment; it sounded as if they were heading up toward the trolleys blocking the way to the White House.
A few minutes later, or perhaps it was longer, I heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. My friend said, no, it must be a car backfiring. Perhaps another fifteen minutes passed, or maybe it was two or three. I heard them again, and again we thought we heard the rumble of tanks. From the window I could see the Stalinist battlements of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Smolenskaya Square. Acrid smoke filled the air and a dense cloud spread around the building. We thought it was a vehicle on fire near the White House and couldn’t understand why the smoke was so thick when we were so far away. The jamming had become so effective that we could no longer receive Radio Russia. The next day I realized that the smoke was from the barricade of trolleys on the Ring Road and an armored personnel carrier, set afire by Molotov cocktails. We had heard the tanks and the shots that killed three young men.
At around four we decided to try to get a little sleep, if sleep were at all possible. At 5:30 the doorbell rang. It was a friend who lived far out in the southwest section of town, ten or twelve kilometers from the center. He’d driven to the White House at four AM; the city was utterly empty, except for a few tanks; he saw no soldiers and no one stopped him, despite the curfew.
Getting to Mosfilm the next morning, usually fifteen minutes by car, took an hour and a half. Traffic was at a near standstill. We were turned back at the American embassy where several tanks were stationed. On the bridge crossing the river from Komsomolsky Prospekt (the long way around) I counted thirty-two armored vehicles, with caterpillar treads, in a row; a dozen or so convoy trucks were parked on an access road just behind them. Their motors were running, but they were facing away from the city. What did this mean? Were they leaving already, as some reports had said? Or were they getting ready to turn around?
A friend who works at Ogonek called to say that the weekly had been officially closed by orders from above—they wouldn’t make their deadline. At Mosfilm, photocopies of an “underground” issue of Moscow News, one of the banned publications, was pasted on the corridor walls and was being avidly read. A meeting of all independent journalists had been called for that day at the Literary Gazette, also banned, where tanks had been standing for some time. A consortium of anti-Putsch journalists (the great majority) rallied together to put out Obshchaia Gazeta, the Common, or Group Newspaper.
Comical poems (chastushky) and jokes were repeated:
I woke up at half past one
Misha Gorbachev was gone
There you have it, what d’you know,
The Junta’s gone and stole the show.
We’re told that order’s now as- sured us,
But the Junta’s hands can’t rest;
They’re a little Pinochetist
And just slightly Husseinesque.
I went home by trolley and subway. The tanks were no longer standing at Kiev Station, though I did see a number of army vehicles. Leaving Smolenskaya station, I saw crowds around the trolley blockade, and that was when I finally realized what we had heard the night before. The burnt, smashed hulls of the trolleys were already laden with flowers. People had left icons, fruits, bread, chocolate, cigarettes, poems, and messages of thanks in the places where people had died. No one knew exactly how many. Some said three, others argued that there were more victims. “That’s what they always say,” one middle-aged man said angrily to the group gathered around him. “What about Afghanistan—even Shevardnadze told us it was 14,000 dead, and then it turns out it’s over 30,000.”
In another group an argument broke out over whether buckets of gasoline had been poured on the trolleys and the armored personnel carrier, or whether the “Defenders” had tossed Molotov cocktails. A young man, nineteen or twenty at most, an eyewitness who had been describing events in detail, answered calmly and seriously: “Well, I didn’t see the others, I can only answer for my trolley,” gesturing toward the blackened shell behind him, “and I poured the gasoline into a bottle.”
People continued to stream in. They brought flowers, read poems, and squatted near the offerings, scribbling their own notes on whatever scraps of paper were handy. I noticed one small piece of paper torn from a little ringed note pad. The ink was smeared from the rain, but the writing was clearly Chinese. I don’t know what it said, but at the bottom, in Russian, were the words “CHINA. From a participant of TienAnMen, June 1989.”
By early evening things looked better, but it was still far from clear that the battle was over. As I was leaving Mosfilm at around six an announcement came over the radio from the Central Television and Radio, calling the ex-Putsch (their expression) anti constitutional, and explaining under what strict control the correspondents of Central TV had worked in the last days. This attempt at self-justification ex post facto was greeted with snorts of derision by everyone in the office. The day before Mosfilm had issued a denunciation of the junta. Crossing their fingers and knocking on wood, people offered each other the first, tentative, congratulations. I arrived home at around seven to find that television was no longer under GKChp control. Yeltsin was addressing the nation. A session of the Russian Parliament had been held on live television that afternoon and was being repeated. A group of deputies was flying south to Gorbachev. No one seemed to know exactly where he was.
The danger wasn’t past yet, Yeltsin and many others warned. The defensive vigil at the White House should continue. We drove over there at about eight and walked around for a while. We were offered a copy of Izvestia; the issue had closed that morning, and despite the junta the editorial staff had taken over their own printing press and published real news. When we asked how much the paper cost, we got a big smile in return, and the answer: “What do you mean? It’s free, of course.”
At about midnight some of us drove back over to the White House. Almost everyone I know spent Tuesday and Wednesday going and coming from the White House. The center of Russia had shifted from its ancient seat on Red Square to the large, graceful fortress on the Moscow River. The mood at midnight was grim, with rumors of another attack. A special detachment of the KGB was said to be moving toward the Parliament. There was more aggressiveness and macho posturing among the crowd than the previous night, and decidedly more liquor had been consumed. The crowd was smaller, but still, tens of thousands of people surrounded the building. We walked home along the Ring Road, which was dotted with small bonfires and groups of intense, sometimes unpleasant men. These were not the youths and concerned citizens we had seen yesterday.
But the tanks were no longer standing in front of the US embassy. Back at the radio, no longer jammed, it turned out that Yeltsin had announced a victory demonstration for the next day. Gorbachev was reported to be flying back to Moscow.
Thursday, August 22. Since the phone call on Monday morning, it has seemed to many of us here in Moscow that we’ve been living in a dream, that what we’re seeing is some kind of strange film strip, where events exist in distinctly defined frames of stopped time, in vivid images that can never be forgotten. And yet these images seemed to be running at fast forward.
If anything, this feeling has only increased since the victory demonstration at the White House on Thursday. In the morning Gorbachev was shown on television, returning before dawn. He looked exhausted and angry. Most members of the Putsch have been arrested and are undergoing interrogation; Pugo is reported to have committed suicide and his wife was critically wounded. Tens of thousands went from the victory demonstration to Manezh Square; the mood there, as at the White House earlier, seemed triumphant and euphoric, but it was already turning angry, vengeful. It was also quite anti-Gorbachev. A mock election was held and the vast majority of the people in the square “voted” to kick Gorbachev out of office as soon as his vacation was over. Many of the declarations made from the speakers’ podium had a decidedly chauvinist bent, with talk of “Great Rus,” and “our motherland Russia” at every turn, as they had at times on Tuesday at the White House.
From Manezh I walked through throngs of people up to Lubyanka Square, home of KGB headquarters, where we had heard something was going on. We arrived just as a group of young men were throwing a slender cable around the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of what is now called the KGB, in an amateurish attempt to pull it down by muscle power. The crowd, thousands strong, laughed and clapped. “Let’s have an auction and sell him to the Americans,” said a man standing near us. “No thanks,” we replied, sparking the interest of the people next to us, who took us to be reporters and spoke with admiration at how hard foreign journalists had been working the last few days.
Eventually a lithe young man hoisted himself up to a sitting position on the statue’s head, and tightened a noose around its neck. (No mean feat, and much to the horror of the huge crowd, which was afraid he would fall—the statue on its pedestal must be fifty feet high, if not more.) As a line of men pulled on the cables, one of them snapped. It was clear they needed serious equipment. People kept shouting, “Don’t let Dzerzhinsky take any more victims.”
Graffiti covered all the KGB buildings surrounding the square and the pedestal of the statue itself: Down with the KGB! Butchers! Murderers! Down with the KPSS! (CPSU with SS written in Roman letters, to refer to the Gestapo.) A white swastika had been painted over the dark gray memorial plaque with Andropov’s portrait in bas-relief. Stankevich, the deputy mayor of Moscow, arrived to try to calm the crowd. “The statue will be removed,” he said. “But it should be done carefully.” The crowd hissed and booed. Soon after, it was announced that a decree had been issued, apparently by Popov, the mayor of Moscow, to remove the statue in a few days. The crowd whistled and hissed its displeasure. Not much later, the dangers of removing the statue irresponsibly, without the right equipment, were explained in great detail on the megaphone. The crowd was told that cranes were on their way, and to be patient.
We went back to the Lubyanka at midnight, to find that Dzerzhinsky had already been carted off. Journalists were finishing interviews and video shots of the empty pedestal. Most people had left, but about a hundred remained, refusing to leave, while others drove by and stopped to look. It was a nasty crowd: a lot of drinking had been going on. Mstislav Rostropovich, who flew to Moscow after the coup, had just spoken, and was trying to leave. He was surrounded by a shoving, roughneck crowd that wouldn’t let him go. Finally, a sober-looking man in his mid-thirties, talking through a megaphone, got control of the situation by telling the crowd that it was needed urgently at the White House. The quasi-military command to form a column and march off worked. But when we drove home at about 1:30, we were troubled by what the new, uncontrolled release of populist sentiment might mean.
Friday, August 23. Everyone is suffering from information overload and exhausted by hours of talk and tension, the vigil outside the White House, the constant meetings and telephone calls across the city at all hours of the day and night, and now television suddenly full of events. Just as it was during the summer of 1989, which I spent here, when everyone was glued to the broadcasts of the Supreme Soviet, it’s impossible to tear yourself away, that is, if you’re not on the streets.
During the day, Gorbachev spoke before the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Parliament for an hour and a half in a live television broadcast that was repeated in the evening. The deputies spoke rudely to him, and he didn’t acquit himself well. Out on the street, another monument was removed, this one to Sverdlov. A poster on the pedestal read “Tsar-Murderer.” Friends who witnessed the removal tell me that there had been a lot of anti-Semitic murmurings in the crowd around the Sverdlov monument. The bust of Marx near the Bolshoi Theater is now covered with paint and graffiti. Many people are worried about what will happen at the funeral of the three young men, one of whom was Jewish, to be held tomorrow. Calls for calm, dignified behavior have been made all day long.
Soviet journalists are working overtime, scooping everyone. The articles and broadcasts of the independent press (both the new papers and the liberalized established publications, such as Izvestia) are full of editorializing by American standards, but they also contain more information than this country has perhaps ever before seen. News reports are concise (usually none of the independent programs run over fifteen minutes, though there have been some recent exceptions), and their current tendentiousness notwithstanding, they are refreshingly free and candid.
The enterprising television journalist Vladimir Molchanov, long banned from the air, reappeared as a guest on the 11:00 PM edition of the independent evening news program Vesti with an amazing interview with General Yazov and the KGB chief Kryuchkov under arrest. Kryuchkov was obsequious, and tried to bargain with Molchanov: he asked for a newspaper in return for the right to ask him one more question. A later news report showed the general prosecutor entering Kryuchkov’s private offices—a drama not seen since the days of Lavrentiy Beria, the commentator pointed out—to open his safe and confiscate his private documents. At 1:30 AM, on TFN, another independent news program once banned, a Vesti correspondent reported on his just completed interview with Pavlov and Starodubstev at the prosecutor’s office.
Saturday, August 24. Perhaps the most moving moment of the memorial held on Manezh Square for the fallen heroes, as they are now referred to (Gorbachev awarded them posthumous Hero of the Soviet Union medals; Yeltsin later refused to accept the same medal), was the sight of a rabbi reading Kaddish on national television. One of the three heroes was Russian, one had a Ukrainian name, and the other was a Russian Jew—a prayer shawl lay on top of the Russian national flag that covered his coffin. But by 8:30 Saturday night, Elena Bonner was on the program Good Evening Moscow, ferociously defending a civil society in response to criticism of the equal treatment given to Judaism. “We’ve had a government religion for over seventy years,” she said. “We don’t need another one now.” She warned against ethnic divisiveness of all sorts. “Real victory is still far off,” she said.
The memorial procession from Manezh Square to the White House was orderly, dignified, and very moving. I can’t begin to estimate how many people were there, both in the procession itself, and lining the Kalinin Prospekt all the way to the White House. Workers came out of stores and offices; parents brought their children and one could catch their hushed explanations that these were heroes who had defended the White House and freedom. There were many national flags, and the occasional poster: “Armenia Grieves With You.” At one point in the procession I saw two Cossacks and a priest carrying high a portrait of Nicholas II. Several of the people standing near me in the crowd muttered, “Nicholas II doesn’t have anything to do with it…” and as if on cue, several “Afghanis,” that is, war veterans in uniform, approached them, argued, and the portrait disappeared. At the White House the amount of anti-Gorbachev graffiti had grown. A woman in the crowd carried a sign saying: “This is all the result of Gorbachev’s stupid policies—he should resign.”
There is hardly time to take in each new piece of information, much less understand its ramifications, when the next sensation is announced. Nevzorov, the right-wing correspondent of 600 Seconds, is reported to have fled to Scandinavia, presumably to prevent his arrest for complicity with the junta. The Ukraine has declared independence and nationalized all Union property. The Ukrainian Communist leader, Kravchuk, has left the Communist party. On the eight o’clock edition of Vesti, a rumor is reported that Gorbachev was going to leave the Party, but the anchorman expressed sarcastic doubt on this score. Yeltsin recognized Estonian independence. By Yeltsin’s decree, Union and Republic and local Party archives have been confiscated, as have those of the KGB.
Then, at 9:40 PM, on Vremya, came the big news. Gorbachev has resigned as general secretary of the CPSU, left the Party, and recommended that it dissolve itself. A series of terse decrees followed, as everyone watched, breathless. “Departicization” of the Armed Forces, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, KGB, and all other government organs. All property of the Communist party to be transferred to the Council of People’s Deputies and its distribution decided according to law. Anger, satisfaction, and pride seemed almost tangible in the voice of the Vesti anchor at 11:00 that night when she announced that the Communist regime, responsible for millions of deaths and infinite suffering, had come to an end.
Sunday, August 25. For the first time in a week there have been no mass demonstrations in Moscow and traffic has moved freely about the city. Only the Sadovoye Ring Road, where the three young men died, is still blocked by the trolleys, now covered with layer upon layer of flowers. The sky is again a clear blue, in contrast to the rainy days earlier in the week, which occasioned many superstitious comments. There was a full moon in a cloudless sky, and the prophecies of Nostradamus on the duration of Soviet power had been fulfilled, so a news commentator said.
There is a movement not to tear down the statues of Lenin, not to erase history, and thus risk repeating it—although in some republics they are already being removed—the dangers of which are on many people’s minds. Constant references are now made to the experience of the French and English, who allowed statues of Robespierre and Cromwell to remain, and thereby retained their nation’s memory.
But the first sense of closure came after Vremya, when the banned program Vzgliad (“Viewpoint”) reappeared on the air. Gorbachev, who had once attacked the press, now greeted the anchor Alexander Liubimov in the Kremlin with an embarrassed camaraderie and almost excessive jollity. “Now our viewpoints coincide fully,” said the president, handing over the tape of one of the four versions of his statement to the nation his son-in-law filmed at 2:00 AM on Tuesday, August 20.
Members of Gorbachev’s personal guard, clearly shaken, but euphoric at the outcome of events, told their story of those three days. Gorbachev’s face in the historic film was grim. To allow the Supreme Soviet of the USSR a chance to get down to work, and to give the country a breathing spell, “Democratic Russia” called off the political demonstration scheduled for tomorrow evening.
Monday, August 26. The story that has unfolded, the story of the President of the USSR held hostage, seemed almost unreal, made for Hollywood. But then, the same can be said for the millions of stories that are now coming to light, and that will continue to do so in the months to come. Night after night, the television shows chronicles of events, and everyone relives the three days that changed the nation. The people I’ve seen here have been proudly savoring the unaccustomed feeling of having taken an active part in their own fate.
Just hours ago, a session of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR opened. After a great deal of haggling over procedural matters, the deputies listened to Gorbachev’s address. It was a speech of repentance. No longer general secretary of the Communist party, he sounded a different man even from the Gorbachev of two days ago. “This is a different people, and a different country, than it was a week ago,” he said, “and I see the past and the future with different eyes now.” As people have been saying since Saturday night, only now has perestroika truly begun.
—August 26, 1991
September 26, 1991