This is the first part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For the background, see here.
This morning I woke up early, got dressed, read a while, then felt tired, so I lay back down. Sasha came in to get some things before going to work. I heard the radio droning, it just sounded like a particularly dull announcer. Half asleep I had trouble making out the words, but they kept talking about the Union treaty and “SSSR” (the Russian acronym for the USSR). I got up. Natasha came in and said, “You don’t know anything. This morning there was a military coup.” The details of who replaced whom you’ve read by now in the paper.
After Sasha left, a friend came over to pick something up, and we sat a while in the kitchen. This Vanya says the coup was to be expected: where there is not power, power goes in. And certainly the government has no power—when occasionally there’s no bread in Moscow. (The alternative explanation of this is that in fact the government had too much power, and the people planning the coup were intentionally squeezing Moscow to make the democrats unpopular, and to put themselves on a white horse when they came to power blessed the city with all the goods they had hoarded. 4.IX)
Vanya also made light of an oversight: channel 3 was still broadcasting at 7:30: cartoons, adds, whatever—then suddenly a test pattern. We had fun imagining the expression of the man in charge of turning off all real TV when he realized he’d forgotten one station. As to whether there will be civil war, Vanya says yes, in a sense it already started this morning with the announcement of the state of emergency. The separatist republics have arms (although very few) and can’t accept this. Gorbachev, the radio says, has taken ill. So what? I, too, happen to have a cold.
What caught Vanya’s ear was that in all the verbiage that must accompany a coup (we will clean the streets of criminal elements, we will feed the nation, we will preserve the indivisible unity of the country, etc.) there is not a word of the Communist Party. “Of course not,” says Natasha. “They’re no fools. That would immediately lose the support of the masses.”
And what about Moscow? All the radio said was that in certain part of the country an “extraordinary situation” has been proclaimed for six months, and illegal private military formations will be put down. Nothing is said about which “certain parts” these are, although it certainly includes the rebel republics, and not a word of Moscow. Or of Yeltsin.
Will there be demonstrations here? Vanya says the new bandits are waiting for that; to them, demonstrations would be like air to breathe. Then they could grab the demonstrators and show the workers, “Look! This is the sort of trash that wants to harm you. But we will protect you!” Part of the “verbiage” on channel 1 (the only channel) was that the government will protect those who are hardest hit by the inflation and by the complete disorder in industrial production. (And in fact for people with no sort of privileged position in the society, things are pretty dismal, so this bit of boilerplate is responding to a real problem, and Vanya’s prediction that they will turn the workers against the intelligentsia seems reasonable. 4.IX)
Vanya has a neighbor who works high up in some ministry or other. “I saw him leave the apartment building with such a satisfied face (he demonstrates, amusingly). At 7:00 in the morning! Everyone else is going around with such long faces, but not him. He’s satisfied. They’ll all be there at 7:00 in the morning in the ministries, in their places.” (He smiles like an adoring school boy looking up at his teacher.)
“Doing what?” I ask.
“Nothing. The important thing is that they are there—they show their willing submission to the situation.”
Vanya drew a comparison to 1917. Everything matches up: The power vacuum, the complete disorder in government, society, and economy. It should have been possible to see this coming, the parallels with the Bolshevik coup are so strong. Natasha’s boss returned from a trip to Italy three months ago and said, “We’re going to have a coup. You can’t see it from inside, but when you’re over there, there’s no doubting it.” A few days ago, when Gorbachev’s former advisor Yakovlev was kicked out of the party, he said in Nezavisimaya gazeta (The Independent Paper) that we can expect in the next few days an open outbreak of the reactionary opposition. Who believed him? Who believed that the troop movements around April’s pro-Yeltsin rally were a dress-rehearsal for the real thing? Months ago, Natasha says, Yakovlev called for the democratic forces in the country to unite and actually do something, we should have listened. “Now what can we do but sit around the kitchen table and talk?—the great specialty of the Russian intelligentsia.”
A friend’s family has a diplomatic passport, which gives them access to tickets others can’t get, and they had offered to help in finding entertainment for me in Moscow. This morning their 18-year-old daughter called: “I just got up.”
“Child,” Natasha says, “you know there’s been a coup d’etat, don’t you?!”
“No … a coup d’etat … so I’ll go out today and see what’s on at the Bolshoi, at the Stanislavsky Theater, …”
“Girl! there’s been a coup!”
“Oh, a coup … so I’ll go out and see what there is for Karl to do, at the Bolshoi, at the Pushkin museum … I’ll call you. Will you be in?”
“Karl and I have some errands to run.”
“So you’ll be out for a while … And the circus?”
“The last thing Karl needs is a circus!”
Natasha said this morning that she began to hate Gorbachev when he rudely brushed Sakharov from the tribune at the second congress and prodded the deputies to heckle him. Sasha told her, “Look at the alternatives to Gorbachev; there will come a day when you will miss him.” That day has come.
The next post is here.