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Three Days in August

An eyewitness account of the failed 1991 Kremlin coup

The author atop a tank near the barricades around the Parliament building. Photo David Solomon

The author atop a tank near the barricades around the Parliament building. Photo: David Solomon.

Monday, Aug. 19: At 8 in the morning, a phone call from Victoria Ivleva, a photographer, wakes me. “I’m sorry to call so early,” she says, “but I think I’m going to have to cancel dinner tonight. You see, Gorbachev has just resigned, and I don’t think I’m going to make it to the market, and I have no vegetables in the house.”

My mind is fogged. “Gorbachev has resigned?” I repeat vaguely, and she says: “Apparently yes. That’s all I know about it.”

I am recovering from a party that went on until the small hours of the morning, a typical gathering of Moscow’s avant-garde artists. “All right, Vika, I’ll talk to you later,” I say, and go back to sleep. The mood in Moscow in mid-August is so powerfully positive, the attitude toward Gorbachev so nonchalantly dismissive, that his resignation strikes my bleary mind as only another meaningless step in the restructuring of Soviet politics. For more than two years, people have been saying that Gorbachev’s time has passed, that he has to step aside for more vigorous reformers. His decision to do so at last is not worth much fuss.

When I do get up, I turn on CNN, one of the benefits of a few top hotels in Moscow, which is reporting confusingly on his disappearance. The word “coup” is mentioned. I look out the window. Along Rozhdestvenka Street are all the usual vendors, and the usual crowd is pouring out of the Kuznetsky Most metro station to buy things.

I phone the building that Moscow’s vanguard artists have turned into studio space; I have been working and living with these artists for more than three years, communicating in English, French and my minimal Russian, and have just published a book about our adventures together. Larisa Zvezdochetova, a conceptual artist, answers the phone. “Have you heard what’s happened?” I ask. “So it’s true?” she says. “This morning, at 8, Anton Olshvang called me with this terrible news, and I said to him, ‘Anton, I am getting very tired of your sense of humor,’ and I went back to sleep.” At 11, Larisa says, came another call reporting that a friend had seen tanks approaching the Russian Parliament. Concluding that these were just ordinary maneuvers, Larisa went back to sleep again. “But when I got up a little while ago,” she says, “I put on my television, and I saw only Tchaikovsky ballet on every channel, and then I began to be very afraid.”

Along with my brother, David, who is visiting Moscow for the first time, I head for the decrepit building that houses the studios; eight artists are gathered in the small room on the top floor where we go late at night to drink and talk. It was the birthday of Larisa’s artist husband, Kostya Zvezdochetov, two weeks ago, and his sometime collaborator Andrei Filippov made “the biggest Russian flag in the world” for him, because their work deals with the tension between Russian spirit and Soviet bureaucracy. This 10-foot length of tricolored fabric has been in the corner of the studio for days, and now Kostya wraps it around his shoulders like a shawl.

He has managed to tune in Radio Liberty, but the sound comes and goes. We are only half-listening; now, as in the days of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, irony is the only way to deal with fear and crisis, and so the conversation is quick, the witticisms as sharp and brittle as the news. The artists found out long ago that the way to combat a government that presents lies as if they were the truth is to tell the truth as if it were a joke. Humor became a means of encoded communication, and so long as they made jokes they could be vocal and invulnerable. But today, behind the banter, the artists are building up the courage they will need in the next few days. Soon they will have to drop their habitual obliqueness; this calamity will call for real and palpable action.

Hungry for information, we set off together for the Kremlin, and are astonished to find Red Square closed off, its vast acreage empty, tanks and officers guarding the entrance. We press into the crowds and get copies of the printed statements that are being distributed by the resistance.

In Manezh Square, just below Red Square, a rally is beginning. Here, too, the center has been closed to pedestrians. People are gathering to listen to extemporaneous speeches. “You know as much as we do,” one of the soldiers says to us. “We were just told this morning to come here. We’ve had no further orders.” Volodya Mironenko, a painter, replies: “It’s great that you’ve surrounded the Kremlin, but your guns are in the wrong direction. All you’ve got to do is turn them around so that they point toward the Kremlin and away from us, and everything will be fine.” The soldiers laugh.

One speaker says that a resistance movement is building around the Russian Parliament and that Yeltsin is leading the fight against the new junta. “Elected!” the speaker keeps repeating. “Yeltsin we have elected!” The artists shake their heads. “Yeltsin is a troublemaker, a political animal, and no member of the intelligentsia likes him very much,” one of them says. “But we may all have to stand behind him in this moment of crisis.”

As we head up Tverskaya, the central boulevard, we stop to photograph one another beside tanks or talking to soldiers. The streets, cleared of cars and mobbed with people, seem almost as though they have been swept clean for a parade.

We run into a friend who says that there is more action at the Parliament. We take the metro to Barrikadnaya station, so called because it is on the spot where barricades were built during the first Russian Revolution — a redundancy that everyone loves. The ordinarily sullen old woman who sweeps the station has taken it upon herself to confront anyone who seems to pause even for a moment. “Go!” she says. “Go at once to the demonstration!” Then she moves on to the next lot of people. “Go! Go quickly!”

We join the flood of humanity spilling down toward the Parliament. It never strikes us, as we listen to speeches delivered from the balcony, that we are swelling the ranks the press will record as protesters. We are all horrified by the emerging picture of the coup and the dangerous profiles of the members of the junta, but we have not gone to the Parliament to protest. We have gone to investigate.

The speakers warn us that the place is to be stormed at 4 A.M. and urge us to form human barricades to defend it. “Will you do that?” I ask my friends. “If it’s necessary, then of course we must,” is the answer.

We head toward the river, where there are more tanks, and talk to soldiers. The artists’ technique is to engage them in conversation. So, someone will ask, you’ve been in the army a long time? Where do you come from? Ah, my grandmother came from near there. Have you been in Moscow before? At the end of such friendly chat — often accompanied by a gift of sausage, chocolate or bread bought nearby — they suddenly bring the conversation around. “Listen, you don’t know what your orders tonight will be,” one of them says, “and I certainly don’t know, but I want to tell you that I and all my friends will be defending this building. We’ll be sitting outside it. Don’t shoot us.” The soldiers are mostly nervously noncommittal. “We hope not,” they say.

“No, that’s not enough. Don’t shoot us. If you have problems, if you need to go into hiding from your generals, we will hide you.” And there is a ready exchange of names and telephone numbers, often scribbled on the back of the Yeltsin statements carried from the Parliament building.

In 1988, when I started to write about Soviet artists, the people I met would ask me not to telephone them from my hotel lest I arouse the suspicion of the K.G.B., not to use their names in describing certain activities. But now there is no question of anonymity. I say that I may publish something about the resistance, and ask whether I should try to disguise identities. “You must tell everyone in the West, everyone in the world, that I have gone to this fight,” says Yuri Leiderman, an artist. “You should shout our names from the rooftops.”

At the end of the afternoon, we help build the barricades.

“It is usually the nuisance of Moscow that everything is under construction,” Kostya says. “But now it will be our salvation: what popular movement has ever had such good materials so readily available? Today, in this place, we will make a real communal work of art.” It has started to rain, and a woman in high heels asks each of us, “Excuse me, but do you know how to drive a steam shovel or a bulldozer?” Someone has managed to jump-start the construction equipment, and in the end it has to be maneuvered by men who have clearly never before driven anything more challenging than a car. The machines push and drag, and we all line up and push and drag, and the barricades begin to take shape. The self-appointed overseer is another woman, with a shrill but commanding voice. Mud-spattered, wet, cold, she stands hands on her hips and shrieks instructions into the fray. T-shirts with Western writing — the words don’t matter — are fashionable in Moscow; across this woman’s generous figure is stretched: “I’d rather be playing tennis.”

We agree to meet at the studios later in the evening. By 9:30, most of the artists I know best are there, perhaps 40 in all. The fun-fair atmosphere has given way to something more purposeful. Andrei takes the tongue-in-cheek flag he made for Kostya and tells us that, should we become separated, we can meet beneath it. As we head for the Parliament, we are very upbeat. “This is the end of the suspense,” Josif Bahkstein, a critic, says to me. “If we win now, reform has triumphed. If we lose now, we have truly lost.”

We discuss the general strike. “My refusal to go to the philosophy department of the university,” comments Viktor Zagarev, “is unlikely to frighten our junta. Today, for the first time, I wish I were an auto worker.” Someone else says, “If I close my art gallery, it will leave only four people unemployed.”

When, just before midnight, we hear the sound of the barricade being pulled apart, our hearts sink; we go running to the spot and find dozens of people struggling to open a gap in our fortification. “Come on,” they say. “Troops loyal to Yeltsin!” We eventually understand that a battalion has defected to our side, and rush to join the demolition effort.

It is only a handful of tanks, but we leap on the fronts of them and ride to the Parliament, Andrei waving Kostya’s flag, the painter Serioja Mironenko recording the whole thing on video. The soldiers in the tanks say, “We’ve come to join you.” Their arrival heightens our uneasiness: this could be the start of civil war. Nonetheless, the joy as they come through is surpassing. The demonstrations have seemed largely symbolic until now, a gesture no more meaningful than a work of politicized art. Suddenly, the force of physical power is with us.

It is cold and starting to rain; I and my group go up to stand in the sheltered plaza outside the Parliament. Some of us have been separated, and we mass again under Andrei’s flag. There must be 100 people here loosely associated with the intelligentsia, including some I have never met. “People complain that there is no night life in this city,” one artist says. “But tonight, every interesting person in Moscow is here, and we’ll probably all stay for hours.” Lena Kurlyandtseva, a critic, comes rushing over and says: “Andrew, you do not know Artyom Troitsky. Artyom, you have never met Andrew. But you have each read the other’s book, and I think you must have many questions to ask each other.” We stand in the rain and chat. “Private and public energy are fused by Soviet underground rock musicians, and that’s something Western readers have trouble grasping,” Artyom speculates. “They’re more willing to accept such simultaneity in the work of visual artists.” We might as well be at a cocktail party.

Olga Sviblova has been filming the Moscow art scene for almost four years and is a fixture at every party and exhibition, with her semifunctional camera and her semicompetent technicians. Late Monday night, she suddenly makes an entrance, elaborately made up and turned out in a black silk miniskirt. She borrows Serioja’s video camera and films each artist. Since there is almost no light, she asks us to hold cigarette lighters around the faces of those she is shooting. “Two years ago,” she says, “I asked every one of these people whether they thought glasnost might fail, and I asked what they would do if it did. Tonight, I want only to record that they are here, and the attitudes of their faces. It will be the perfect ending for my film — if, of course, the new authorities don’t destroy it.”

By 2, we are getting cold and tired and bored, and we agree that some of us should go home so that we can return, refreshed, tomorrow. “We can’t all just live here for the next six months,” Larisa remarks. As we walk toward the barricade where we parked four hours ago, we are accosted by a striking woman with blond hair and a pale gray coat. She explains that she is helping to inflate a helium balloon to fly over the Parliament and that she wants to attach to its cord the banners of resistance. “You have the biggest Russian flag I have ever seen,” she says. “If you will give me your flag, then all the people of Russia will be able to see it, and take hope from it.”

Andrei smiles. “Of course you can have it,” he says, handing it over. “Long live Russia.” What was wholly ironic between Andrei and Kostya, then semi-ironic as the banner of the vanguard (“And how will we find one another tomorrow?” Larisa asks. “We will have to meet like tourists from Japan, under a green umbrella.”), has become at this moment of crisis wholly unironic.

Tuesday, Aug. 20: In the afternoon, Victoria, the photographer, calls me to say that she went to Germany last night, using up her one-exit visa, to deliver film from Monday. “I wanted to make sure the photos got there,” she says. “And now I have returned to defend my country. Who knows whether I will ever be able to get out again?”

Kostya stops by to watch CNN for half an hour. “It’s my flag,” he says when the Parliament building flashes on the screen, the balloon and flag hovering over it. When we get there, a little later, we are in time to hear Yeltsin speak of rallying under the Russian flag, and he and Andrei exchange glances. “It’s our flag,” they remark.

That evening, I have dinner with Kostya, Larisa, Serioja and Kostya’s mother, a survivor of hard labor in the Gulag. We drink lots of toasts: to Kostya’s mother, to Kostya and Larisa, to me, to freedom, to Gorbachev, to Yeltsin. Kostya doesn’t want his mother to know that he is going to the Parliament. We have a whispered consultation and devise a ruse.

I am feeling increasingly uneasy. A curfew has been declared. Driving back to the hotel, I see that the streets are almost empty. In the lobby are men from the military police.

At about 1 A.M., Tanya Didenko, a musicologist, calls me. Her apartment, opposite the Parliament, has become a sort of base of operations for many members of the intelligentsia, and throughout the night I check in with friends who have gone there to get warm, have tea or use the phone. “Who would have thought it?” Tanya says. “My home has become the public lavatory of the vanguard.” She is organizing the women’s line, to stand behind the men in the human barricade, and she is also negotiating contact with the outside world. “Please keep me informed as you get information from your CNN,” she says. CNN keeps saying that its information is not yet available to the crowds outside the Russian Parliament, but as I repeat everything to Tanya, she sends runners down to tell the mob. I hear that there has been one death; she hears that there have been seven. Much of the time, it is hard to tell who has the more accurate information.

There are a few hitches. The phones are going haywire; they work and then stop, cut us off and reconnect us. There is constant clicking. Once, Tanya gets through and asks me to tell her exactly what CNN is saying. I reply, jokingly, that Hurricane Bob is wreaking devastation on the East Coast. Half an hour later, word is running around the Parliament that Hurricane Bob is coming in from Siberia, destroying everything in its path, and will soon hit Moscow.

At 2:30, Kostya calls to say that he and Larisa and Serioja have been looking for gasoline and have been unable to get any. The metro has stopped running, and there are no taxis. So they have all gone home. I make a half-hearted effort to get down to the Parliament, but I am stopped by the military police. So I pace outside the hotel for a while — symbolically breaking the curfew — and then I go to bed.

At 4, I later learn, Josif Bahkstein, the critic, wakes from a bad dream, gets into his car and drives to the Parliament, joining the throng outside the building. “I met many very attractive young girls,” he says afterward, “one of whom I will see again in some days.”

Wednesday, Aug. 21: The day breaks cold and wet. David has an early flight to New York, after which Kostya and Larisa and I go to the Parliament, where we find a damp version of the previous day’s rally. We want to see where the men were killed last night — there were apparently three deaths — so at about noon we head off together toward Smolenskaya. Where the bodies were, flowers are scattered; perhaps 100 people have gathered to speak of tragedy.

A young man who looks like some early Bolshevik, or like the student from a Chekhov play — unshaven, wire-rimmed spectacles, crumpled cap held in a tense, pale hand — comes running from the barricade. He announces through a megaphone that tanks are approaching and asks for volunteers to come and stop them. Without discussion, we all follow him to the outer limit of the many-tiered system of defenses we have built and range ourselves along it. We are prepared for anything, though there have been so many rumors of tanks that none of us really expect to see one.

In fact, they arrive within minutes. The soldier in the first tank explains that they have come to destroy the barricade and orders us to move, adding that they will have to run us down if we do not give way. The man with the megaphone responds that we are holding our ground not in aggression, but to defend the rights of the people. “We are only a few, but there are tens of thousands at the Parliament, and across all this country,” he says. He speaks of democracy and reminds the young men in the tanks of the terrors of the past. Others join in; Kostya and Larisa each calls up to the drivers. We emphasize that no one can force orders on them. “If you do this, it is because you have chosen to do it,” says the man with the megaphone.

The soldiers look at one other and then they look at us. We are so wet, so cold, so impotent in all but the courage of our convictions — so entirely persuaded that we speak in the name of righteousness, but so transparently lacking in material defenses — that the soldiers might easily laugh. But, instead, the driver of the front tank shrugs as though he is doing nothing more than giving way to the inevitable course of destiny. “We must bow to the will of the people,” he says, and instructs us to move aside so the tanks can make U-turns. It takes a lot of space and some time for a tank to make a U-turn. “Why do you think they are really leaving?” I ask Kostya. “Because of us,” he replies. “Because we are here, and because of what we’ve said.” All of us — friends and strangers — embrace, then stand and cheer until we are hoarse.

Only after it is over do we feel either afraid or heroic. Then we decide that we have had enough of bald courage for the moment, and so we collect friends, to whom we enthusiastically recount our adventure, and go back to my hotel, where we have a good lunch and are proud. My visa expires today, so I leave for the airport after lunch. The others are going home to sleep, and recover, and make phone calls, and prepare for the night’s vigil.

But that vigil does not come. By the time I check in for my flight, the coup has failed, defeated in part by internal argument and in part by soldiers who deferred to human barricades.

For the artists, this has brought another kind of liberation. Freedom has always been their obsession; in these three days they have had the luxury of physically defending it. “We won the war,” says Kostya when I later speak to him on the phone. “You, me, and all our friends.” He pauses for a second. “But it was my flag,” he adds.

Scene on Manezhnaya Square, August 1991. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Scene on Manezhnaya Square, August 1991. Source: Wikimedia Commons.