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Report from Moscow: An Eyewitness View of Soviet Putsch

Dr. Iain Elliot in Moscow - August 20th, 1991
Dr. Iain Elliot in Moscow - August 20th, 1991

This story was originally published in the August/September 1991 issue of "Shortwaves," an RFE/RL internal publication. What follows is an eyewitness account of the failed attempt by Soviet hardliners in August 1991 to depose U.S.S.R. President Mikhail Gorbachev, written by Dr. Iain Elliot.

Radio Liberty was very much in the center of developments in Moscow. Sergei Markov, a young politics professor at Moscow University, told me how he had recorded an RL broadcast of Yeltsin’s first decree opposing the junta. Markov cycled through the train to the local soviet at Dubna and had the satisfaction of watching its executive committee put Yeltsin’s instructions immediately into effect after they had listened to the recording. Markov, who is leader of the Russian Social Democratic Party, spent the long night of August 20-21 in the “White House” with Radio Liberty providing a steady stream of information from Russia and abroad.

In the steady rain of Monday afternoon I watched the indignant crowds on Kalinin Bridge and Smolensk Embankment building barricades and thrusting leaflets into the hands of young, confused tank crewmen. Workers dragged concrete blocks into place with their trucks. Young lads carried up stretches of railings. Middle-aged academics, briefcase in one hand, scaffolding pole in the other, delayed their return home to add their contribution to the defense of the “White House” and their elected representatives. The first barriers of trolleybuses with slashed tires grew stronger by the minute.

At five o’ clock a familiar sound caught my attention: the news from Munich emerging loud and clear from the center of a large cluster of umbrellas at the end of the bridge. The owner of the large radio told me that reception had been good for the past hour, but earlier he was sure that RL was being jammed.

At 17:15 the troop transporters, which were trying to force their way through the makeshift barrier on the bridge, and, in a dangerous operation, turned around amid the crowds before disappearing in the direction of the Ukraine Hotel. A frustrated soldier inside one of the transporters fired a few rounds into the air to frighten the crowds into clearing a path. Later a column of several dozen light tanks came charging recklessly round a corner at the Smolensk metro station, their officers desperately waiving passers-by out of the way, but clearly determined not to relinquish their speed for fear of finding themselves pinned down like so many others by leaflet-waving youngsters. Nonetheless, someone had managed to scrawl with a piece of chalk, on tank number 073 “Liberty, not tanks!”

Outside the Marx Prospect metro station, people were clustered around Yeltsin’s “Appeal to the Citizens of Russia” posted on the wall opposite the Bolshoi Theatre. In front of the nearby Moscow Hotel a large crowd was cheering the speeches of young deputies. A general strike was spreading, there was widespread support for Yeltsin, Russians were no longer prepared to kneel before totalitarianism.

The young deputy Dmitry Chegodaev, a “Democratic Russia” leader, was particularly effective with his megaphone, summoning the crowds to an all-night vigil outside the “White House.” (I was to speak to him again under happier circumstances on Thursday night.) Still with his megaphone, he was persuading laughing but determined Muscovites to stand clear so that two powerful Krupp cranes could remove “Iron Feliks” (Dzerzhinsky) from his high pedestal before the KGB headquarters.

That evening I heard from one of the deputies at the “White House,” that Radio Russia and Ekho Moskvy (“Moscow Echo”) had been suppressed. I had visited Sergei Korzun, chief editor of the popular radio station, Ekho Moskvy, in his cramped quarters just that morning, shortly after KGB officers had told him to close down. He had told me he had no intention of obeying them, since he did not recognize their authority. It therefore seemed probable to me that he had been arrested. This turned out to not be the case, and Ekho Moskvy was soon back on air, although its broadcasts were interrupted more than once in the tense hours which followed.

I spoke that week with several journalists, print and radio; their experiences varied greatly, as did their fascinating accounts of how they had somehow succeeded in defying the incompetent junta’s attempts to suppress their activities. But they shared with the young men who stood unarmed before the tanks a courageous determination to do everything in their power to ensure the collapse of the coup.

Suddenly a dozen tanks roared past the Metropol Hotel and Sverdlov statue, heading for Manege Square, scattering those who, like me, were strolling away from the speakers towards the line of tough Omon blocking off Red Square. Three tanks sped past and on through Manege Square, but the fourth ground to a halt so abruptly that I thought for a moment it had hit one of the passers-by. It was a relief to realize that nothing more dramatic than engine failure had occurred.

Within seconds the snorting tanks with flak-jacketed soldiers on top clutching their Kalashnikovs were surrounded by people from the meeting determined to educate the soldiers about how they were being misled. Leaflets fluttered from the windows of the deputies’ offices in the Moscow Hotel, but possibly even more effective were the plump and motherly Russian women who gave the under-nourished soldiers everything they had in their baskets, from bunches of grapes to a very large jar of stewed fruit, which an officer demanded be promptly returned. “And they make our children take part in this!” shouted one irate woman.

Confused and unhappy, the soldiers and tank crews listened to a range of hecklers, from lectures on democracy to the only drunk I was to see among hundreds of thousands of demonstrators against the junta. Ripping open his shirt and thrusting his naked chest against the muzzle of a Kalashnikov in the hands of a nervous teenager, he shouted: “You won’t shoot us will you? We’re Russian, and you’re Russian, after all…”

At last the rain stopped and the setting sun made the red bricks of the Lenin Museum glow. Tank crewmen helped some pretty girls climb up beside them to decorate their tank with flowers. An angry officer chased them off, but agreed to withdraw his remaining tanks the way they had come, if only the crowd would step back enough to allow them to maneuver round. And so they left, towing the broken-down tank ignominiously backwards, the triumphant cheers of the crowd resounding across Manege Square while the Omon looked on impassively.

Monday set the scene for the defeat of the bungling junta. The politically aware among the population realized their strength, and I saw little evidence of doubt among those on the barricades that democracy would prevail. Of course all too many Muscovites kept their heads down, waiting to see which way the wind was blowing before voicing any opinion about events. And there were several in buses and underground who even argued in favor of the junta, hoping for a return to the Brezhnev stagnation when at least there was something to buy in the shops.

On Tuesday, meetings were taking place all over Moscow as the staffs of newspapers, factories, and other institutions decided where they stood. Some simply went about their business as usual. Others were divided, and opted to sit on the fence until it became clearer on which side it would be in their own best interests to jump.

For people in the media this was not really an option; those who did not immediately go public with a statement opposing the coup, were denounced by their more courageous colleagues as compromisers. But some newspapers which immediately decided to defy the junta’s ban found that they lacked the means to publish a normal issue – and not, in most cases that I heard about, because there were tanks baring the way to the printing presses. More often it was simply that in the formerly party-controlled newspapers the official responsible refused to provide keys; and since access to xerox machines is still severely restricted, it was not always a simple matter to run off several thousand leaflets or short “emergency issues” if a newspaper. Even obtaining supplies of xerox paper required considerable initiative.

Liberaturnaya Gazeta journalists held a meeting to protest the actions of the junta and to arrange for joint action by the democratic media. They were not impressed by the attitude of their editor, Fedor Burlatsky, who remained on holiday and gave no leadership to their protest. Since they lacked the facilities to produce an emergency issue themselves, they decided to pile into their bus and join the demonstration of solidarity at the Russian parliament. Vitaly Tretyakov, editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, ensured a special issue by fax of his newspaper despite the ban, and quickly organized underground distribution of this and following issues. He said he hopes to attend the Institute’s conference ins September – “if there isn’t another coup before then.”

Photo from Shortwaves' August/September 1991 issue
Photo from Shortwaves' August/September 1991 issue

Among the most active in producing and distributing leaflets were young members of the Memorial Society, with which the RFE/RL Research Institute’s Samizdat section has developed close ties. They took paper from every office they could find to produce thousands of leaflets on their overworked xerox machines. “Suppressed” newspapers and press agencies sent the Memorial Society information by fax, which they sent to the West via Prague and Bratislava, since they were unable to fax directly. One lad had an uneasy moment when two policemen approached as he was distributing leaflets to tank crews. But all they asked was “Have you got any more for us?”

On Tuesday Memorial Society member Aleksandr Daniel had a bad moment when a truck pulled up outside and a KGB officer rang the bell. They talked, and then he said: “it’s all right, we won’t shoot you…” [The first young researchers from Memorial will be coming to use the RFLE/RL Research Institute’s archives in September]

Outside the White House on Tuesday there was a steady flow of speakers to inspire the thousands of supporters who gathered to precent the storming of the Russian parliament. Yeltsin, Shevardnadze, and Elena Bonner were enthusiastically received: the poet Yevtushenko less warmly. Former KGB General Oleg Kalugin, who had been in RL’s Munich studios the previous Friday (see story on page 8) introduced a KGB lieutenant-colonel who appealed to his boss “Volodya Kryuchkov” to abandon the junta, because it was “about to collapse” anyway. He said that most of his brother officers had declared for Yeltsin. Several other deputies and writes who spoke were also familiar was contributors to RL.

There were false alarms about the impending storming of the “White House,” and instructions were given as to how to respond to a tear gas attack. Russians rose to the occasion with the usual anecdotes: “Why are these people cheering when we know a column of fifty tanks is coming to crush us? – They’ve probably heard that it’s not fifty, but only forty-nine!”

The first reports from the Tchaikovsky Steet underpass in the night of August 20-21 were inaccurate, with as many as ten said to be killed and dozens wounded. Despite the curfew and the tanks in the streets, Katya Genieva, Deputy Director of the State Liberty for Foreign Literature, who was working through the night to arrange for printing of thousands of copies of an emergency issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, thought that we should catch the first plane home; “It’s going to be nasty in Russia now; they’ll arrest all of us. I’ll help in any way I can.”

My wife Elisabeth, in Moscow for the BBC Russian Service, thought it much too interesting to leave. Two trucks stopping immediately opposite in the dark small hours to allow armed soldiers to jump out made me wonder whether it was not getting too interesting to stay.

By the time I reached Tchaikovsky Street, however, it was quiet. Grim but determined “afghansty” talked about their experiences beside a burned out trolleybus. A girl was placing flowers to cover bloodstains. There were several makeshift shrines of broken planks.

Just a few yards from the reconstructed barricade I noticed a wall covered with leaflets. One was a typed page headed “Radio Liberty Informs” containing world reactions to the coup.

Yaroslav Leontiev, who was deputy editor for Radio Russia that night, had compiled a fairly comprehensive and accurate chronology of the night’s tragic events from the flood of phone calls received. He told me that only information confirmed by independent sources was included. Although an attempt was made by the junta to remove Radio Russia from the air, its frequencies were defiantly posted in walls around the city. Radio Russia’s medium-waves broadcasts appeared to be listened to by many of the people around the barricades.

But Radio Liberty was without doubt one of the heroes of the hour, as Gorbachev, Yeltins, Elena Bonner, and others have since confirmed. Everyone I talked to, on the barricades, at the “White House” or in newspaper offices and institutions, and warm words for RL, and for the work of our freelance correspondents in particular.

Gennady Burbulis, aide to Yeltsin, assured me on Wednesday that he would raise the matter of an RL bureau and accreditation at the first opportunity.

And on Saturday, at the memorial meeting on Manege Square for the three victims of the coup, I could see over the shoulder of the man in front a headline on his copy of Vechernaya Moskva: “According to Radio Liberty…”