It is Monday morning, the nineteenth of August, 1991, and I am standing in front of the mirror in my room in Moscow's newly renovated Metropole Hotel, knotting my tie in preparation to go down to breakfast. The radio announcer is muttering something about the "Union Treaty," which regulates regulations between the Soviet Union and its constituent republics. But I'm in a hurry, so I ignore the voice.
At the elevator an American hotel guest tells me that Gorbachev has been arrested, and we both descend silently to the opulent dining room. The Metropole is a hard-currency-only five-star hotel aspiring to five. On the scale of its Moscow competition, it's off the scale ─ in price as well as quality. At the new exchange rate of 32 rubles to the dollar, my $240 room charge for one night amounts to a teacher's salary for three or even four months.
In the dining hall the harpist seems to want to lull the few patrons back to sleep, and a tuxedoed water pours strong coffee while I gulp down a pricey bowl of corn flakes. In the words of the Russian concierge, the hotel ─ in contrast to the life of the locals ─ is "an incomprehensible fantasy world."
Once back in the hotel room, I listen more carefully to what the radio announcer has to say; it's a line so trite it could have been taken from any Latin-American coup over the past century ─ "prevent anarchy... law and order... national salvation... rumor mongers to be stiffly punished."
My chauffeur, an uneducated man whose political views were formed during the bad old days of stagnation, seems to feel that my hearing the government statements is a threat to state security and keeps trying to convince me that the static-ridden radio is too bad to listen to. Firmly, I turn the switch back to on, although I have to agree with him on his evaluation of Soviet electronics. "Russians," the announcer intones through the interference (Is the government jamming its own programs?), "used to be proud citizens of a mighty country; now they feel themselves to be foreigners even at home." Thinking of my ostentatious hotel room, I can't disagree.
Despite the coup, the city appears amazingly unchanged ─ taxi drivers continue to shake down customers so brazenly even Manhattan cabbies would be dumbfounded, the drivers of street cleaning machines nonchalantly spray lamp posts and harried pedestrians, and military vehicles and vehicles are no where to be seen. The conspiracy had to be too tightly kept to permit the development of troop-deployment plans.
By evening, however, armored troop carriers and tanks are everywhere. Some of the soldiers wear camouflage uniforms, others are puffed up like football players in their bullet-proof vests, and still others carry aluminum riot shields reminiscent of attenuated garbage-can lids. They are so young you want to kiss them on the cheek and buy them all ice cream. Shy and totally perplexed, these eighteen-year-old recruits ─ even with automatic weapons hanging from their shoulders ─ seem unthinkable as threats to the civilians who mill around them. By afternoon people really are buying them ice cream cones and civilians are clambering over the tanks as if on a picnic (me too ─ see the picture!). The atmosphere is reminiscent of nothing so much as the Washington Mall on the fourth of July. Downtown Moscow, usually bristling with aggressively driven automobiles, has been transformed into a pedestrian zone as huge as it is delightful. Couples hold hands, soldiers and officers grin awkwardly, and military discipline is adequate only to keep civilians from literally climbing inside the tanks.
A few people whom I approach support the coup, arguing that "something had to be done." The intellectuals are all very bitter. Many people in this crowd, however, are dismayed and don't express any opinion ─ not because they are afraid, but because they are so taken aback by the events.
In the meantime the television alternates classical music concerts with programs on how to remove spots from leather jackets. At least one producer parodies the entire situation by playing a tape of a clown show. The desk clerk advises me to try to tune in CNN. I have no luck and decide I ought to be able to do better than get my information from an American television station.
Over at Yeltsin's "White House" the atmosphere is dramatically different. Concrete slabs and metal scrap are heaped up in make-shift barricades while grim-faced men form a human chain in front of the building. A few armored personnel carriers have Russian ─ not Soviet ─ flags and are sprinkled with flowers. Boards and wooden beams project skyward like a huge ragged centerpiece, bonfires blaze, and some girls put on a mini-concert, accompanying themselves with a guitar. The atmosphere is one not experienced in Russia since the revolution. From a radio Yeltsin's voice angrily calls for the criminal persecution of the "so-called Committee on the Extraordinary Situation," and a loud speaker entreats women to leave what may shortly become a killing ground. A rumor spreads that Gorbachev has been murdered.
Obviously, the conspiracy has been too closely held for anyone other than the conspirators themselves to know their intents, so I wrack my brain trying to retrace mentally their intents. Five years ago the hard-liners would have been able to pursue clear options, but now? Years of bitter denunciation of Soviet rule, anger over the empty stores, and a general conviction that private enterprise is the only way to live are facts than cannot be passed over. I ask myself what any government could do differently at this stage of the game? The junta is obviously motivated by two desires. First there is the selfish urge to retain power and position; that would seem to be a plausible goal. But the second, supposedly chief goal ─ to pull the economy out of its tailspin ─ will inevitably run into the same old problems.
I return to the hotel to listen to the press conference of the junta. The thick-necked figures seem resurrected from the Brezhnev era, or perhaps the Planet of the Apes. The group's frontman, Yanaev, says Gorbachev is tired but he hopes to work with him again.... By sheer chance I have the June 24 issue of the German news magazine Der Spiegel, in which Yanaev gave the editors a lengthy interview, waxing eloquent on how closely he works with Gorbachev, how he respects the right of the Baltics to secede, how a military dictatorship "doesn't fit our tradition (?!) and "we ought not to overestimate the role of the military-industrial complex. The army supports Perestroika and Gorbachev's policies." Sitting in front of the television in the airport lounge, I learn that Moscow has been divided into 33 military districts, each with its own commandant.
It is now Wednesday morning, and there is already optimistic insider talk of the coup failing, but the military significance of the defenses around Yeltsin's "White House" is essentially non-existent. The troops are fraternizing, but that can easily be interpreted to mean that the bulk of the population has simply accepted the new leadership. Russian passivity, after all, wasn't invented yesterday.
Instead of flying directly to New York, our 747 makes a stopover in Helsinki to change crews ─ the last thing our pilots want to do is to spend the night in Moscow under such circumstances. As we take off, the television monitor is still announcing that Americans are advised to leave Moscow. Being in the middle of any maelstrom provides a unique perspective, but it can be a disadvantage in getting an overall view. Half way over the ocean I learn the end of the affair from the pilot, who got it from the BBC.
The brief circus-like coup has sealed the fate of the old establishment. This was a joint effort of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the KGB, and the military. The only question now is whether the coup participants will be retired or tried at a military tribunal. Daunting as the array of hurdles may be to reform in Russia, the fundamental obstacle has been precisely this apparat, which was not about to allow anyone ─ Soviet or foreign ─ to engage in any activities without letting the apparat skim 95% of the profits. The old guard is now not only utterly compromised in a moral sense, but ─ more important ─ its ability to force submission has shown itself to be a house of cards. The only puzzle now is Gorbachev's continued membership in the same Party which attempted to overthrow him.
Russia and all her peoples have rescued themselves with ice cream cones, flowers, smiles, and guitars. Hurray for pedestrian zones!John Glad is the former Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C.Do you have any memories of historical events that happened in Russia? Please send them to us as comments to the article!
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