The August Coup Remembered
Text and photo: John Harrison
In August 1991 I was living and working as a photo correspondent in Moscow for an English daily newspaper. On the morning of the 19th, having returned from a friend’s dacha, I drove straight to a government office near Kievskii Vokzal to complete the long drawn out process of procuring a Soviet driving license. At about 9.30am I was waiting in a queue when I overheard people talking: “It’ll be the end of it, thank God. Teach those bloody rascals a lesson, get some order around here again”. “Do you know what your pension is worth now?”
I asked someone to please tell me what was happening. “Must be a foreigner, do you really think Soviet power can be stopped by your money and Jewish scheming?”
Seeing that only Swan Lake was being broadcast on the large Soviet TV at the end of the room, I thought it’d be a good idea to totally abandon the idea of getting my driving licence and head home to pick up my cameras. It took me an hour and a half to get across South Moscow (a long time then) because Leninsky Prospect was blocked with APCs and tanks trundling into central Moscow. At home, my Russian wife was in a panic, having been told by her parents that they were deserting Moscow for the countryside, but that she would be all right under the protection of a foreigner. Things seemed to move in slow motion, as they do in moments of great tragedy, or triumph. But there was no time to reason anything out. I knew only that Gorbachev had been deposed and hard-liners had taken over. There was no time to work out why, how or what to do next.
My job got me into the press conference where the coup leaders declared to the world that they had imposed a state of emergency, and that President Gorbachev, on holiday by the Black Sea, was ill and unable to return to his duties. Despite Vice President’s Yanaev’s trembling hands, the coup seemed very real; Moscow was in shock.
The phone from London never stopped ringing, that long beep that immediately identified a call as being from abroad. The boys in the news room wanted to know where the tanks were, but I was inside the White House. My brave wife back in our flat had a map on the kitchen table with the radio on, tuned to short wave, and was informing London where the tanks were; and was surprised to be asked so many times whether people were being killed or not.
What was amazing to us was that the self-imposed commanders bothered to call a press conference at all, and that resistance was allowed to build up around the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, who had journeyed unhindered from his dacha to the White House that morning. It seemed that the “putchists” desire to somehow gain international approval, their very civility held them back from using force while they still had time to do so. They did not count on key army and KGB units disobeying orders.
The hard-liners also did not count on the power of raw emotion which Yeltsin and his colleagues successfully harnessed against them. Russians, particularly Muscovites and Leningradians were not yet disillusioned with democracy. Yeltsin did not have the Communist Party to contend with (unlike Gorbachev), and was the undoubted centre of reform. Thousands of Muscovites swarmed around the White House as speaker after speaker denounced the “fascists,” and new arrivals such as Shevardnadze were greeted with tumultuous applause.
Inside the White House, amazing calm prevailed despite the panic. I remember sitting in the office of a deputy from Yaroslavl discussing the situation. She wasn’t panicking; she was rational and together. There was a tangible sense of bravado and confidence, even co-operation, an unheard of quality in Russian politics after 1991. The phones were not cut off, a Gestetner machine was churning out samizdat copies of Vecherniaia Moskva, which were then distributed by the simple and effective method of being thrown out of the window to the crowd below. Alexander Listev (assasinated, 1995) and friends set up a miniature radio station which was broadcast by a weak short-wave radio transmitter. This was picked up by the Moscow based international news corps.
I remember how a Russian cameraman colleague of mine found himself on the White House roof, just as Yeltsin appeared to make a speech, but without a camera. Suddenly he was thrown a VHS video camera from 50 feet below. Amazingly, he caught it. Next to come flying through the air was a cable, an umbilical cord with the world. Sasha didn’t realise it at the time, but he broadcasting live to the world. The CNN transmissions were fed back through monitors inside the buildings. We understood that the whole world was watching. This was a moment of history, fed by the media, and, some would say, kept going by the media.
There were, however some very serious moments. Late in the cold, drizzly evening of the 20th, a voice came over the White House tannoy system advising all women and children to leave, as apparently a squad of paratroopers had been dispatched to quell the uprising. It genuinely appeared to all—even an atheist like me—a miracle that they didn’t actually materialise on the roof, which they probably would have done if the weather hadn’t been so bad.
Not surprisingly, Moscow was split between the good and the bad guys. Between those who supported the “putchists” and those who had supported Yeltsin. No middle ground, and certainly no favourable media attention for the “baddies”. Looking back, there was an incredible of naiveté around. I met a couple of young people half way up a statue near Barrikadnaya Metro station, which I had scaled in order to get some good shots of the huge Russian tricolour being unfurled around one side of the White House on the 21st. I had expensive cameras, which I couldn’t possibly have afforded myself sprouting from every pocket. One of the two students asked me who I supported, like at a football match. I said, “Yeltsin.” He replied: “If we win, we’ll all have cameras like yours.” This just about summed it all up. The early democrats sincerely believed that everything would magically change now, that Russia’s ills would be cured by a panacea from the West. Unfortunately that isn’t quite the way it worked out.