Sunday, December 18, 2016

August 19, Monday (evening)

This is the second part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the first part, see here.

Natasha and I left the house just before 1:00 PM to go register my presence in Moscow—not because of the coup, the procedure was required in any case, but with a certain urgency, lest anything be not as it should be. The careless mood of my last visit is a past luxury.

We did the paperwork without unusual hassles, by Soviet standards: there were only three different lines in two different buildings to get through, some of them twice, but nothing extraordinary. On all sides people go about their business without any visible expression that the party’s over. Natasha is sure that people’s faces are longer, duller today, but as I spent the weekend on the dacha circuit out of town I have no way of knowing. (It’s now 11:30 PM and Natasha is calling various people and swapping news—it may all be rumor, but the stuff on TV is certainly wrong.) My passport and visa stay with the registration office and I don’t pick them up until tomorrow afternoon, so in the meantime I have no documents.

After finishing at that office, the next affair is to get me a reservation out of here. I am torn between prudence and a desire to see what will happen. Natasha is pushing for an early exit, although she says it may already be a matter of taking whatever date they have. But first I want to see Red Square.

I think I imagined it would be open, with people milling around as on any other day, but of course at the end of Nikolskaya St. there are steel barriers. At the end of the square that I can see, a line of police and military vehicles is parked along the side of the Historical Museum. And at the barrier, people about three deep, huddled in small groups, talking. One man’s 18-year-old son is serving his two army years. When he realized he’d been sent to Moscow, he called Papa. The boys in the army don’t know what’s going on, they just go where they’re told.

Someone else called friends in the Baltic, who said they knew at 3:00 AM Gorbachev and Yeltsin were arrested. We believed this. One young man, perhaps 21, perhaps younger, was playing the Russian patriot, and seemed to be feeding off the cruel martyrdom that none around him would at all agree, but neither would they provoke him. “Look what they’ve done to the Russian nation,” (“they” being reformers, democrats, etc.).

“What is the Russian nation?”

“How can you say trash like that? Look at our Pushkin, our Dostoevsky.”

“And what? Dostoevsky’s father was a pole, Pushkin was a negro.”

“And what’s a real Russian anyway?” asks a third.

“Well you’re certainly not.” (The implication, based on the man’s physiognomy and manner, was that he’s a Jew.)

“I certainly am entirely a Russian.”

The man whose son called from the army joins in: “But the important thing is not to get into hysterics.”


“You are.”


“Why are you showing such aggression?” comes the reply.

“It is not granted us to judge,” Natasha joins in.

The youth turns around. “We certainly can judge.”

“Only God knows all, only he can judge,” she continues, “we none of us have the right.”

“I agree,” he changes his tune, “we can’t judge, but we can evaluate.” Some more prattle from him about God; then, “I read the Bible every day!”

(“But only a little at a time” says another under his breath.)

He starts calling God to his aid, but the man with a son in the army won’t have it. “You want to bring God into this? Go down the street to the church there, and you can bow and scrape all you like.”

“Well let’s go then, I’m willing!”

“I’m willing too, I would go—” For a moment there is the atmosphere of a shoot-out in the old American West: the man who’s slower to draw the Bible out of his holster loses.

“Don’t play his stupid game,” say the people around. As we leave, Natasha counsels the group: “He’s sick. Don’t argue with him, but heal him (treat him); he’s sick and that’s all.”

Another exchange with the presumptive Jew, who asks, “How old are you?”

“Old enough.”

“Old enough to shoot?”

“… yeah, old enough.”

“Whom? Whom? Whom do you want to shoot?”

“I’m old enough!”

“Who do you want to shoot?”

Revolution Square, devoid of traffic
We walked through a passage to Revolution Square, and from there left to Manezh Square. The entrance between the Lenin Museum and the Hotel “Moskva” was blocked off with trolleybuses, but there was nothing keeping pedestrians from the square.
Buses closing off traffic to Manezh Square.
Like Revolution Square, this is near Red Square in the heart of Moscow

At the other end we saw a crowd that seemed to be streaming past the Manezh itself; from where we were they looked to be 50 abreast. At our end, in front of the “Moskva”, a tribune had been set up, with about 30 people on it in two rows, and two at the end of the first row speaking through an electronic megaphone.

“President Yeltsin has not been arrested. He is in the White House in Krasnopresnya; they tried to seize him, but the first attack was held off. He is surrounded, but they have not taken him. There has been a putsch by a group of bandits (he starts listing them, following each name with an unflattering C.V.), but we still have a legal government—the Russian government.”

“Please clear the square of children. There are tanks, soldiers, and troop carriers in nearby streets. In a few minutes there could begin another Tbilisi.”

“The whole world shudders at the crime committed this morning in our country. The group of bandits that has tried to seize power will fail, and will find themselves on the bench of the accused.”

“While we still have a legal, constitutional government, we cannot abandon our President, our Russia, we cannot fail to show our support.” The crowd shouts: YELTSIN, YELTSIN, YELTSIN, …

“President Yeltsin has not been arrested, the Russian Supreme Soviet and government are still functioning. President Yeltsin” etc. etc. “The KGB—I don’t even have to describe this organization—is out and about today. I ask you again: do not give them any provocation.”

“President Yeltsin has issued an ukase, he has called for a general strike. We must defend our legally formed government.”

“Who here voted for Yanaev for President? … Not a one! Who here voted for Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin?” Every hand goes up but mine. “That is the leader we chose, not some Yanaev. He is not our president.”

There is shouting in front of the tribune; one of the speakers looks down in front of him: “And here we have a provocation. …” etc. etc.

At one point I glimpse a full-bearded unarmed solder with a broad grin exchanging pleasantries with people around him; Natasha confirms my guess that his uniform is of Czarist vintage.

“Once again I ask you to take all children away from the square …” “… don’t give them any provocation …” “… we have a legal government …” “… these criminals who have tried to seize power ...”

We were both getting nervous, so we left the square past another trolleybus barricade to Prospekt Marksa (Marx Avenue). (Incidentally, still not a word all day about Communists.) Natasha stops to ask a woman what performance she’s selling tickets for.

School for emigrants.”

Natasha laughs as we walk away—this morning we had been discussing how many people would now try to get out any way they could.

“What’s so funny?!” babushka calls after us. Finally I buy two tickets.

We go another half block to the Bolshoi Theater—the square next to it is ringed with army bulldozers, troop carriers, etc., and in the middle stand about ten tanks. Some soldiers are milling about within their circled wagons, and Natasha doubles back to talk with them and overhear conversation.

“Where are you from?” a youth asks a soldier.


“Will you shoot?” (he uses the familiar “ty” rather than formal “vy”).

“I’m not going to shoot.”

“What division are you from?” Natasha asks.

“Tamandsky.” She tells me later that this is a division with a great history—they were on hand when Khrushchev was overthrown.

From there we went to the Petrovsky Pasazh to look for a hat to replace the one I left on the train from New York last year. They brought Finns in to do the remodeling, Natasha says, because it’s gotten to the point that Russians can’t build anything right, they can’t even repair anything right.

The Petrovsky Pasazh, from the façade on in, is a little Moscow wonderland, starting from the clean pastel peach paint and restored sculpture around the entry arch, smooth marble underfoot. Inside, 19th-century Russian classicism that looks like new, everything is light and clean, the plasterwork on the ceiling is not chipped. And it sells for rubles! For tasteful elegance I’ve seen no place of business in Moscow that can match it (the pre-Revolutionary theaters, concert halls etc., are another story). One gets a taste of what Moscow must have been like for its small middle class. (I later realized that the prices in the Petrovsky are simply out of reach for most Muscovites, so its actual clientele is still quite limited. 5.IX) But no luck with the hat, so on to Intourist.

The earliest seats to Berlin available for rubles were for September 18th. “But for valyuta [i.e., Western currency like U.S. dollars or German marks] they may have something sooner. Window 24.” Not all the windows are in numerical order, but we finally find 24.

A long line. A Belgian whose train leaves in an hour-and-a-half, and his valyuta is at the train station; it takes an hour to get there and back; I don’t know if he made it.

A Russian émigré who teaches in California and arrived yesterday for the Congress of Compatriots called by Yeltsin; the congress is off.

A couple of Canadians who were in China for six weeks and were heading home via Moscow and Leningrad; they also got in yesterday.

My turn.

“Do you have anything available this month?”

“Give me a date.”

“Say the 28th.”

“Nothing at all until September 2nd.” (You may have noticed she could have told me that after my first question.)

“OK, I’ll take it.” A form is filed out. Upstairs to the valyuta cashier. Back down with the receipt, and I have my ticket.

Now we go to the theater. When we passed Pushkin square a mass of people was milling around a parked column of tanks. Half a block later, as our bus is arriving at our stop, about 15 tanks go by the other way, heading downtown. They keep rolling by as we get off the bus. On one stands a soldier cloaked in a regal mantle of Soviet Army drab. His pose is so noble, he seems to have stepped over a dying German and out of some poster from the Great Patriotic War. In the open rear cockpit of another vehicle a boy soldier sits smiling, joking with his fellows.

They don’t let the audience into the theater building until 6:45, for a 7:00 show. When we finally get into the building Xeroxed copies of Yeltsin’s ukase are posted in four or five spots in the lobby, and people cluster around and read them.

“1. A criminal band has seized power…; 2. There is still a legal government in Russia, which calls the people to a general strike against the putschists … Maintain order, etc. … Those who do not obey the ukase will be considered to be supporting the criminal usurpers; 3. The putschists will be overthrown and put on trial. This ukase is valid from the moment it is signed. (Signed) Boris Yeltsin”

At intermission, all copies of the ukase are gone. Before the performance, the entire company appears on stage and Zakharov, the director, speaks. “Some may reproach us for going ahead with our performance in the midst of these events. We support President Yeltsin’s call for a general strike, with the obvious exceptions he made of medicine, food, and so forth. We spent the whole afternoon in discussion and finally decided to go ahead with the performance. One should not treat the theater like an industrial enterprise. … If nobody else in the company has anything more to say, we will now go on with the performance. May God protect us.”

The first words of Act II are uncomfortably apropos. Émigré Prince Trubetskoy sits in a Spanish café with his silent wife and says with painful deliberateness, “Many people will sleep away from home tonight …” (light laughter from the hall) [looking through his hand-held spectacles at the audience]: “some in the morgues” (laughter and light applause) “… some in the hospitals.” (more chuckling from the audience).

We get home without incident. Sasha’s reaction to what has happened is to be unable to sit still. While Natasha is narrating our day he gets up and walks, not out of hearing, but out of the kitchen, then back in, then out. Natasha’s son Alyosha calls. His wife is vacationing with her daughter in the Crimea and he doesn’t know how to get them back—all Moscow’s airports are closed, and Sheremetyevo International is a den of thievery. (I had wondered whether I hadn’t been foolish not to forget about my damn train ticket and try to fly out of here, but I see we did the right thing.) Alyosha’s wife wants to know what’s going on, all the news she has is from official TV; but people are already cautious on the phone, even within Moscow, never mind out of town.

Today already cleared up one point. People are sorry for Gorbachev, they ask what “those swine” have done with him, but that is all in passing. Everything hangs on Yeltsin. A bit of Marxist dialectic: Gorbachev was widely disliked already a year ago, while Yeltsin’s stature with the people has steadily grown. But when things are at all normal, as they were until yesterday, the structure of the old remains, even while the substrate has changed. According to Marx (more or less), when the old superstructure of society becomes too irrelevant to the new substrate, there must be a revolutionary change in the superstructure to make it fit the reality beneath it. Today’s coup, and the reaction to it, have unintentionally played that revolutionary role. Overnight, Gorbachev has become the past, and in everyone’s heart Yeltsin is the hope for the future.

The next post is here.

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