Like the October Revolution, the August Putsch took place (or failed to take place) in a few confined areas, mainly of the capital city. The only possible target outside Moscow would have been the Leningrad (soon to be St Petersburg) Soviet.
Moscow was the key, as St Petersburg (soon to be Leningrad) had been 74 years before; and as the whole world now knows, it was the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, a big white slab of a Seventies construction on the Moscow River, which had to be knocked out. As it turned out, two other spots became significant: a section of the inner ring road, between the US Embassy on Tchaikovsky Street and the Foreign Ministry on Smolenskaya Square, and Lubyanka Square, until recently Dzerzhinsky Square. These were the places where people went to protect or affirm values whose time they believed had come. Over the past three years, I have been present at other such moments: at the Brandenburg Gate when the Berlin Wall was breached; in Wenceslas Square when Havel and Dubcek spoke; in Bucharest’s Revolution Square when the Central Committee building was taken. In each case, people did things of courage or skill or intelligence expressive of a common volition momentarily set free from the constraints of everyday life.
The night of Tuesday, 20 August would determine whether or not resistance to the coup succeeded. The Emergency Committee, that body of curiously flaccid putschists, had arrested no one except Gorbachev: even Yeltsin had been free to reach the Russian Soviet, or ‘White House’, on Monday, and there, by midday, he had climbed on top of one of the Taman Division’s encircling tanks to proclaim the first defiance. By that night, the Russian Parliament was surrounded by thousands of people, and the barricades were going up – along the embankment which runs before it, behind it, and most important, on Kalinin Avenue, which leads straight to the Kremlin. The Kremlin itself had been ringed with pro-Committee tanks and soldiers, who, when asked, confessed ignorance of their mission and displayed their empty magazines: I thought then, and still believe, that they had full ones in their pouches.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, the Russian deputies inside the White House were getting leaked information that an attack was being prepared. Later we learned that Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB, had ordered an assault on the building by men from the Alpha group of anti-terrorist troops. (In their post-coup exculpation, they claimed they had discussed the order and refused to carry it out: however, Arkady Volsky, the head of the Scientific Industrial League, claimed that he had stopped the attack by pleading on the phone with the Alpha group commander.) All the women were asked to leave (though many of them didn’t), as were the diplomats who had gone to express their governments’ opposition to the coup.
The Russian deputies were nearly all inside, together with many who felt it was their duty to affirm their support for the resistance, whatever the danger – and it’s likely that the attack, had it gone ahead, would have been murderous. Yeltsin himself was heavily guarded; others picked up automatic rifles from the small stock available; most people were issued with gas masks. There was a good deal of fear: few slept.
As night fell, and all of those in and around the Parliament were gripped by the absolute certainty of an imminent attack, the people, as far as I could tell spontaneously (but perhaps marshalled by the young stewards), began to form lines, three or four deep, across Kalinin Avenue and round the back and front of the White House. Most were clearly nervous, but I saw only a few who were obviously drunk. The ones on Kalinin Avenue, likely to be the most dangerous spot, stood looking up the road as it rises towards the Kremlin: their first sight of the approaching armour would have been as it rolled over the brow of the slope, a hundred metres away. The barricades, a mixture of concrete and trolleybuses with their tyres punctured, would not have held for long.
About midnight, there was a crackle of light automatic fire up Kalinin Avenue towards the inner ring road. Some people called: ‘They’re coming.’ Some ran down the avenue, shouting about tanks.
Up on the brow of the slope, where Kalinin makes a bridge over the ring road, the crowds were massing to peer down on the road as it comes out of the tunnel. More were standing along the parapets of the slip roads on each side. At the far end, as the road rises to enter Smolenskaya Square, was a line of trolleybuses forming a barrier. Some of them were blazing furiously. Next to them were what turned out to be four tanks, one of which had crashed its way through the first line of buses; three of the four tanks were alight. On the sloping road coming out of the tunnel were three more tanks, their engines revving, soldiers manning automatic rifles on top of the turrets.
But these tanks hadn’t come to attack the Russian Parliament. Indeed, they had been travelling in the opposite direction when they found their way blocked by a double line of hijacked petrol tankers. Now, with the heaviest vehicle in the lead, they were trying to break out of the trap. Molotov cocktails were thrown, one young hero lept on a tank and tried to get down the hatch: he was shot. The soldiers in the tanks which had tried to storm the barricades got out of the tanks, and gave themselves up (though there was no evidence that the crowd was armed). The other three vehicles rocked to and fro on the road, their crews clearly unable to decide which way to go. Each time they shifted this way or that, the crowds on the roads to either side screamed and ducked, expecting fire.
Then the crowd, almost all of them strong young men who had themselves done their stint in the Soviet Army, produced its own mediators: men who jumped into the well of the road, who held out their empty hands to the soldiers, lifted them up to the noisy crowd on the bridge and the parapets of the slip roads and parlayed with them for peace. Many in the crowd wanted revenge, but the peacemakers were in control. On the pavements, Molotov cocktails, made with petrol taken from the hijacked petrol trucks, were smashed. I saw one young man hector another, jabbing him in the shoulder to make his point, as he ripped the Molotovs out of his hands and threw them to the ground. The would-be firebrand argued at first, then hung his head. After a while, some deputies came, and within minutes worked out a deal by which they would sit on the turrets of the tanks as hostages for their safe passage out of the trap. Their commander meanwhile declared himself for Yeltsin and, as the announcement was made, a great cheer went up.
The three young men who died – Dmitri Komar, a 23-year-old fork-lift truck driver and twice-decorated Afghan war veteran; Ilya Krichevsky, a 28-year-old architect; and Vladimir Usov, a 37-year-old accountant have been made into heroes and martyrs. The spot where they died, though it is on one of the busiest roads in Moscow, remains blocked off, with the line of trolley-buses still parked across the road as it rises out of the tunnel. Anyone who points out the truth, that they died needlessly, foolishly, is reviled. But they did.
Trying to get to a briefing with Alexander Yakovlev the next day, I found my car diverted from the central area and ended up in a jam near Dzerzhinsky Square. Crowds were streaming past, dancing with excitement. Leaving the car, I followed them. As I came round the corner of the Lubyanka itself, I found them trying to pull Dzerzhinsky down. The sight made me laugh out loud. A few minutes before, the crowd whose idea it had been – they were the same tough young men whom I had seen the previous night outside the Russian Parliament – had commandeered some wire cable from a passing truck. A couple of lads shinned up the huge monument to loop the wire round the first of the Soviet Union’s mass murderers. That done, two teams began tugging. At the first convulsive heave, the iron man – he was famously known as Iron Felix – trembled slightly, but did not bend. It became obvious that more than brute force would be required – disappointingly, since the sight of these two teams of men toppling the statue would have been fine.
A touch of farce crept in as the men tried to hook the wire rope into the back of a little bus: it kept slipping and in the end nearly ripped the back axle off. A large crane was brought, but it was judged too clumsy. Sergei Stankevich, former Deputy Mayor of Moscow and now a Russian Minister, drove up with a loudhailer to tell the crowd that the Russian Parliament had voted to destroy the statue and that it would be gone in two days’ time. ‘Now, now!’ yelled the crowd. But we need specialists, said Stankevich. ‘Get them!’ roared the crowd.
Later that night, they found a specialist: a woman who had been part of the statue’s design team – it was erected in the mid-Fifties. She told the impatient crowd that the iron monster was supported by four bronze columns and that cutting and lifting equipment would be needed to get it off. Under the pressure of the crowd, both were found; and by ten o’clock two huge Krupp cranes nodded over Iron Felix.
Just before midnight, the bronze columns were cut away and the German cranes lifted the statue of the Polish secret policeman off its plinth and down to the roaring Russians. It lay, on its front, in the square, as if prostrating itself before the Lubyanka, where now not a light was to be seen. As before, the more responsible members of the crowd linked arms to keep the people back as the statue was lifted onto a lorry and slowly driven off. It was a wonderful sight – in some ways even better than the other wonderful sights, in Wenceslas Square or at the Brandenburg Gate. That this monument to the man who created the institution which destroyed the lives of millions of people should be the first to go was a tribute to the sense and feelings of the crowd.
The sheer happiness of these days has not lasted: the empire is breaking up and the talk now is of civil war as Russia threatens border disputes with those states which take their independence. The winter will be hard. The chances of a rational politics, which can consider how much a centre is needed and what powers it should be given, are small.
The August Putsch knocked sideways the tottering supports of top-down perestroika. From now on, the republics are on their own and the people too. At no time, not even when tanks were parked outside my block of flats, did I feel that I would be in danger. And at no time did I feel that the crowd would become a mob. The coup, and the response to it, have so far been very civilised affairs: the brutality may come later.