This is the third part of my narrative from the Moscow coup of 1991. For background, see here. For the second part, see here.
It seems the usurpers had no concrete plans beyond the seizure of power, and now the army has split. This morning Alyosha called: Radio Rossiya is somehow broadcasting, and the division that we saw by the Bolshoi has gone over to Yeltsin. The junta has called in fresh troops. Alyosha is coming over with un-phone news.
This starts to have an unpleasant resemblance to Tiananmen, but Natasha disagrees. She says she’d somehow known there must be a split in the army; how can Russians shoot Russians? This one’s father works on a nearby street, another soldier’s brother goes to school in the neighborhood, and so on. “This is not yet ’17. The very fact that they (the putschists) keep silent in itself speaks of weakness. If they had anything to say they’d gab on all day, relentlessly. Instead they broadcast music [she point to the TV]. My God! a hundred times I’ve seen Swan Lake since yesterday! [she dances a step and sings the famous melody]”
She refers to the Russian saying, “The worse it gets, the better,” the sense here being that the harder the junta squeezes, the more certainly they will bring on a reaction that will sweep them away. The most dangerous element now is that they must certainly understand that they have nothing to lose, and all that awaits them is the prisoners’ dock. “And for what they have done they will be shot. That’s all there is to it.”
Alyosha came for lunch. He says that in Pushkin square and in general in the center, the subway is the only way to get around. Surface transport is stopped up with military vehicles. Downtown, foreigners are freely photographing the scene as young women climb up on the tanks. (I didn’t know what to make of this, as even in peacetime the Soviet military is hypersensitive about being photographed, just walking down the street in dress uniform. What could it mean, that they didn’t care about that in such a crisis? 5.IX) Yeltsin’s ukase is posted everywhere.
In yesterday’s press conference Yanaev wouldn’t say where troops had been sent; but Alyosha heard through short-wave Voice of America that Riga has been occupied, while for now there are no troops in Leningrad, where instead the general strike is proving effective. Sasha calls from work: he saw tanks going by heading north out of the city, flying Russian flags. Back at the kitchen table, Alyosha thinks maybe it’s a trick, maybe they’re loyal to the junta. They could be going to Riga to support the occupation troops there. Or to Leningrad to force the issue. Or maybe they’re ours.
At the press conference Yanaev skirted the question of a concrete diagnosis of Gorbachev’s “illness.” “In good time, a diagnosis will be given. Mikhail Sergeevich is a good friend and I look forward to working with him again. But it’s understandable, a man working under such pressure for five years can take seriously ill.” He looked uncomfortable saying all this.
Yeltsin has demanded concrete information about Gorbachev. Alyosha thinks that Yanaev’s answer may be a way of preparing the world for the news that Gorbachev has “died,” and they may already have killed him. If so, says Alyosha, then they’ve certainly gone so far that they have no way back. Frankly, I thought they’d already burned their bridges, whether they’ve assassinated the President or not.
The news has reached Moscow that Bush called the coup an “unconstitutional act.” Yup.
I just stepped out on the balcony and watched as a young man my age (by his clothes and shoes clearly a foreigner) asks directions of a middle-aged woman with groceries in each hand. She doesn’t miss a step, doesn’t turn her head, and he, or so it looks, breaks off in mid-question. His head briefly follows her as she hurries away; he takes one step this way, one step that way, a useless address book sits in his hand. Two days ago, people on the street might have talked to foreigners.
The next post is here.