Tuesday, December 20, 2016

August 20, Tuesday (evening)

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

Sasha called from work shortly after 2:00 PM. “Turn on the radio immediately, 1207 AM,” then he hung up. We found “Ekho Moskvy” (Echo of Moscow), that had somehow gotten ahold of a transmitter and was broadcasting news and defiant speeches.

The Ryazansky division has gone over to Yeltsin and left the city, flying Russian flags. (One persistent question after the failure of the coup was why the units that went over to Yeltsin didn’t stay in the city to defend him, since hostile units were still stationed in some parts of town. 5IX)

A man came on explaining what a bunch of clowns the putschists were proving to be. Leningrad, Kiev, Novosibirsk, and several other cities are ready to support the Russian government with a general strike.

Amazing how our mood changes. Yesterday we awoke to a sky black as pitch: in one day we seemed to have gone all the way back to Stalin. There is fear, quick submission to the iron hand. Six years have dissolved like a dream and we are back in the nightmare of Soviet reality. Then with this news from “Ekho Moskvy” the clouds part.

A friend who has dropped by listens for a stretch and leaves with the words, “Our side will win.”

The putschists really are a bunch of clowns. They didn’t get Yeltsin, they didn’t keep the Russian and Moscow governments from meeting. If they’d meant it, there’s a hundred people they should have (and could have?) arrested. (It surfaced later that they had printed up perhaps 300,000 forms with a space for anyone’s name, authorizing “administrative arrest” for an initial term of 30 days. I don’t know why hardly any were used. 5.IX) They also could have shut down the phone lines, although maybe they didn’t want people to think things were that extraordinary. In this mood I set out.

Moscow is now three entirely different cities. My route to UVIR to pick up my passport took me only through the outskirts of downtown. Here there is not the slightest indication that the capital is in the middle of a coup, in the grip of its most serious and unpredictable internal event in 74 years. (Now this characterization of the crisis seems overstated, but I thought it was true at the time. 4.IX) People go about their business, there are no more police than usual, maybe less.

The only soldiers in sight are men in dress uniform alone or by two’s and three’s, going about their business like any other citizen—a sight that would be strange not to see in Moscow. On the streets there are no tanks, no troop carriers, nothing. One doesn’t know whether to be relieved or not; somehow this normalcy doesn’t fit well with the news on “Ekho Moskvy”. In part you wish people would either celebrate or mourn, but please! at least react, or I’ll think I’m the crazy one. But not to worry, I was soon to find the second Moscow.

I followed yesterday’s route, which took me to the entrance to Red Square from Nikolskaya St. At the edge of the square stood the same steel barriers as yesterday, but today one of the policemen guarding it is a hospitable young man who wanly smiles at the crowd and seems to know as little as anyone about what’s going on. Even his dour, slightly older comrade occasionally cracks a smile. Here there is some kind of light feeling. Further out, people were indifferent. Here, a submerged dream that maybe we’ve already won, but of course anything could happen, so one doesn’t give vent to the lightness. But there are leaflets posted detailing which units have turned from the junta, and what other cities are doing to support Moscow, and there is a feeling in the air that the tied has turned.

Manezh Square, blocked off with troop carriers
Continuing to follow yesterday’s route, I crossed Revolution Square to Manezh Square and saw from a distance that it was blocked off with troop carriers. But people were milling around, talking with the soldiers quite calmly, taking pictures. These troops must be among those who’ve come over. Since I couldn’t cut across the end of the square to the outlet to Prospekt Marksa (Marx Avenue) as we did yesterday, I went around the Hotel “Moskva” to get to the same place. And there…!

The first thing I see is the barrier 20 yards ahead, made of troop carriers like the other one. But then I see that this one is porous, that people pass through it unhindered, and that children are standing on one transport. I slip through, and here is a block of Prospekt Marksa with tanks parked at the curb and people sitting on them, peering into the open hatches, talking with the soldiers, some of whom are poking their heads out, others just sitting somewhere on a tank, sharing a smoke and a talk with a civilian.

And everywhere, people taking pictures. At the end of the street there is a real blockade as on the other side of the hotel, but people are clambering about all the same. Again there is something reminiscent of what we heard from Tiananmen Square before the blood flowed, but I sense this is different. These troops aren’t turning away from the city with stone faces, they are staying in it with smiles. (But again the question, if they were on Yeltsin’ side, why didn’t they go to the White House? They would have been more effective than impromptu barricades. 5.IX) Some people give off the feeling that these are our protectors—and maybe they are.

Muscovites climbing on a friendly tank
And here, the first of many informal debate clubs that I was to see in this second Moscow, this surreal city. Groups of 3, 5, 8, 15 people stand around, and usually there are two principal debaters, but all feel free to add their two cents. Is this coup justified? Is it a coup? How could you not call it a coup? Well, something had to be done, things couldn’t go on as they were. “What’s the point of calling it a ‘military takeover’? The country has always had a military regime, so how can there be a military takeover?”

I head off for the Central Department Store … I still haven’t found the hat I want.

Debate clubs under umbrellas in front of Moscow City Hall
But first past the Bolshoi. The military vehicles parked west of the theater haven’t moved since yesterday. But now the head of Petrovka St. east of the theater and bordering Theater Sq. is parked full of trucks, their tailgates prosaically labeled “PEOPLE”. And that’s what’s in them, only these are army trucks, so of course the people in them are armed. But they’re friendly enough, and some are standing next to the trucks talking with people.

Under the canvas covers I can see the men are packed like sardines, many of them smoking to pass the time and perhaps calm their nerves. With the light rain that just started it must be unbearably stuffy under that canvas. I cross the street to the store, but still no luck with the hat. Better luck tomorrow.

I cut across to Tverskaya St. (formerly Gorky St., formerly Tverskaya St.). Half a block short of Tverskaya another column of transports has parked itself, taking up a lot of space, but not particularly blocking anything. Near the head of the column a soldier is leaning against his vehicle talking with the small group of people gathered around. The atmosphere here is a touch threatening, maybe because there are no kids crawling all over this column, there is none of the carnival atmosphere of Manezh Square, but all the same everyone is calm.

This soldier doesn’t like the GKChP, but he’s uncomfortable coming under Yeltsin’s command. The army owes allegiance to the Union president, which is Gorbachev; for as long as Gorbachev is unavailable, it’s hard to know who to obey.

The people around want to know why he’s not comfortable with Yeltsin: “All Russia chose him!”

“He’s a politician,” answers the soldier.

“Well, what’s wrong with that?”

He raises some metaphysical objections about the nature of leadership.

But the most astonishing thing in all these groups, whether the disputants are all civilians or soldiers are involved as well, is the irreproachable decorum on all sides. These are people who will be shooting each other if this turns into a civil war, and they are hardly raising their voices. One man disagreeing with what a soldier has said tugs tenderly at the lapel of his uniform, like a father trying to correct his wayward son. I expect this offense to the soldier’s military dignity to draw a response, but there is none. While disagreeing on the revolution-in-progress, all remain calm, and there is very little ad hominem.

Tverskaya is one of Moscow’s busiest streets, leading northwest from the Kremlin, but today there are only a few scattered cars and pedestrians rule, walking where they please. (The air in Moscow has been much improved by all the disruptions of traffic.) And a block up the street, in front of the City Soviet (town hall), another set of debate clubs, smack in the middle of the street, huddling neighborly under umbrellas.

I turned onto a side street and watched as a man said something to a couple walking past; they didn’t particularly stop to listen. “You have some news?” I asked.

“NEWS?!!” he cried and ran off in Russian faster than I could follow.

“Slower please.”

“Oh. Yeltsin has won. The junta is under arrest. The Communist Party has been outlawed.”

“In all of Russia?”

“Yes, yes …” and he hurries off. I had no chance to ask what his source was.

I was seized with elation. I ran a few steps, then thought better of it. As I turned onto Pushkin St. it struck me: How strange—Communism in Russia has died this afternoon, and on Pushkin St. everyone is simply minding his own business. Nobody mourning the party’s fate, nobody dancing in the streets. As if nothing had happened. For half a block I had passed back into the first Moscow, which seemed to think there never was a 19th of August. I don’t know why I assumed the stranger’s news was true.

Arriving at Pushkin Sq. I was back in the second Moscow. Since Gorbachev this square has been the open forum of the city. On one side stands the building of Moscow News, a progressive weekly, a bastion of glasnost. When the square was closed a couple of years ago, with the clear intent of preventing undesirable voices from being heard, it was the first sign for some that Gorbachev was not entirely benevolent.

At Pushkin Sq. today there was nothing particularly new: pictures from yesterday posted on the Moscow News building (one showed a tank with “SHAME” written on it), and some proclamations and announcements, but nothing I hadn’t heard on “Ekho Moskvy”: because the Soviet president was illegally displaced, all Union military forces—army, KGB, Interior Ministry, everything—that are on the territory of the Russian Federation are automatically under the control of the Russian president.

The only thing different here is that at last someone is shouting. A worker is exulting in the burial of the Communist Party—“and it’s about time, too! Look at their 74-year criminal record! They’ve sucked the life out of the people!” Throughout the one-and-a-half hours I spend on this corner I will periodically hear his voice rising above the swarm, crying out some new curse on the party.

One conversation features on one side a World War II veteran and a drunk worker who both think the coup was necessary, and on the other a couple young specimens of the new Russia. One of these goes so far as to blaspheme veterans, the closest thing there is to a saint in Soviet theology: “Look at these old men blowing hot air, their chests loaded with meaningless medals.”

A woman walks past in a hurry: “People! Why aren’t you going to the White House, as President Yeltsin has ordered?”

“Why go there?”

“To make a bigger crowd there, of course!” She moves on.

I translate between a small group of Soviets and a Frenchwoman who’s found a declaration she can’t read. “What’s your opinion of all this?” she asks innocently.

“We wish we knew what was going on,” one man replies. “No one knows. Those soldiers in the center of town are as much in the dark as we are.”

Later, another woman walks by, urging people, “Go to the White House already! They’re advancing on it!” She walks on by. Finally at 7:00 I decide to walk on up Tverskaya to the Garden Ring, and from there home. But first I call Natasha.

“Where are you?!”

“Pushkin Square.”

“Come right home, fast.” So I take the subway. And on the way I’m thinking, Has this ever been in Russia? Granted, when I left Pushkin Sq. the one worker was still shouting out the demise of the Party while around him some were trading charges of “Provocateur.” But in the midst of this crisis the people are talking to each other, the democratic forces have gotten hold of a transmitter to talk to the people (although who knows how many are aware of this source of information), they are doing everything they can to prevent bloodshed and hold off the bandits at the same time. They are far from the classic pitfall of abandoning democratic means in order to save democracy.

Where did this Russia come from? This is the harvest of Gorbachev’s six years of toil, and maybe we were right, those of us thought the changes had gone too far for anything to take Russia back to the old “truths.”

Natasha was quite relieved when I got home. Both from “Ekho Moskvy” and from a friend’s phone call she’d heard that the troops were advancing on the White House, and she’d feared I might have foolishly headed there. The White House is the center of the third Moscow, which I haven’t seen, but only heard about on the radio. In this Moscow there is none of the apathy of the first, nor the surrealism of the second, but a real struggle like you imagine these things are supposed to be, with tanks, barricades, drama.

“Ekho Moskvy” is still broadcasting from inside the White House, where the people show no inclination of giving in to the tanks. Implied in their words is a willingness to die, if that’s what’s in store for them. The radio broadcasts a call for men to go to the White House; women are advised not to go, and children are by no means to get involved. (The shouting worker on Pushkin Sq. had said, “Just go and take power! At first unarmed, but they won’t shoot the people, and then we’ll have arms! … Whadaya mean, ‘provocation’? When they occupy our streets we have the right to take them back. It’s simple self-defense!” He’s a bold one. I wonder if he actually went.)

On the radio now there is talk of barricades. “Anyone who knows something about tanks and how to stop them, your information and advice will be welcome.” “We have to learn from the experience of January 13th in Lithuania. I was there on the 13th, I stood in front of tanks, but this is only possible when the people stand together. Standing alone you can’t take it.” “… certain kinds of barricades are worthless. A tank can also roll over a human body, that’s no kind of obstacle. But the human soul—” “Even in the most hardened heart there is some sort of limit; you can roll over one or two, but can you drive a tank into a crowd thick with your own people? That takes forces with exceptional training.” “Such forces exist.”

Natasha said that earlier they had given advice for protection against gas attack. If you have nothing else, get a piece of cloth from anywhere and piss on it; not only is it good for the cloth to be wet, but urine happens to have a substance useful for filtering out the poisons in gas.

At 9:00 it’s time for Vremya, the evening newscast, so we have the radio going at one end of the room and the TV at the other. They show calm around the country.

There’s an interview with a general who says the troops are in Moscow to prevent bloodshed and provocation, “and what you have just shown [footage of people sitting on tanks near Manezh Sq.] shows that Muscovites welcome the troops’ presence, they understand the need for them.”

Here is the insidious face of misinformation. For some people in Moscow and perhaps for most further away, this is the only public source of information. They might have no way of knowing that the army is split, that either these troops have gone over and the people welcome them as protection against the junta, or the people are hoping to bring them over by showing their humanity. But in all pronouncements from the side of the GKChP there is a suggestion of the old Soviet language that pretended that if it talked only about unity, divisions didn’t exist. When it is most relevant they leave out Lenin’s prescient question: Kto kovo? Who [unto] whom?

An interview with a man on the street in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia: “I think [the state of emergency] was necessary: the situation in the country has gone too far. But as you see, we Krasnoyartsi are going about our work as usual …”

Another general appears and announces a curfew for Moscow, 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM. This is clearly aimed at the citizens gathered at the White House. Earlier in the day I heard that Yeltsin has appointed a Russian commanding general for all forces on the territory of the RSFSR (in practice he commands only those who have gone over), and he has made a statement that the curfew is probably an indication of a KGB attack: anyone defending the White House at night is incidentally in violation of curfew, and the GeBeshniki [slang for KGB agents] will be able to use this as cover to strike—and kill—at will.

The general announcing the curfew is straight out of some American cartoon from the height of the Cold War—the same simian brow, a large formless body like a sculptor’s first draft, and the slow, slurred, unintoned speech of an ape who has miraculously learned to talk. And he too talks of “preventing provocation.”

That word. The democrats Monday on Manezh Sq. told the crowd not to give the troops any provocation. “Ekho Moskvy” has given the same advice. Concrete advice to specific people. The other side talks about “preventing provocation,” as if provocation were some natural phenomenon, like locusts threatening to devour the city, and the best prevention is to put troops on every street. As the GKChP tries to steal the language, it is necessary, in order not to lose one’s balance, to spell out exactly who has done what, although it is a childishly simple exercise: The troops were sent to overthrow the government and cow the population; the people’s response is to resist without giving the troops reason to fight; because the whole situation arises from the sending of the troops, it is a logical impossibility that they were sent to prevent provocation—that became necessary only after they arrived.

There, I did it. I feel stupid spelling it out so specifically, it’s the most transparent demagoguery; but until I worked it through, I couldn’t explicitly say why the general was wrong. And it is painful to watch. You feel like jumping into the TV screen and telling him what a bloody fool he is, you’re not going to let him get away with it. But the interviewer is his accomplice. He asks questions that at first glance are uncomfortable for the general: “I’m sorry to have to ask you about rumors again, but they say that the army may be divided.” But this is actually a great service to the coup supporter, not an annoyance, for the truth is already out there somewhere among the people. The question wounds it, labeling it a rumor, and the answer kills it and buries it under the Committee’s fantasy. And you fear that many people have no other source of information, they can’t see the truth dying and they will take the fantasy at face value.

Further on Vremya, a report that “Acting-President” Yanaev has issued an order declaring that all ukases from Yeltsin are illegal, the law-abiding citizens should not further damage the already troubled economy by obeying Yeltsin’s call to a general strike, etc. That’s funny—I thought Yelstin said Yanaev’s decrees were illegal. I’m confused. Who’s right?

This bizarre war of words and paper decrees is partly a continuation of the power struggles of the last two years, when Gorbachev would make a Union law and Yeltsin would declare it invalid in Russia, and Gorbachev would say Yeltsin lacked the power to so declare, and Yeltsin would say Gorbachev had no right to say that … This has been going on with many republics, but of course Russia is a special case. From the moment she started trying to assert autonomy, she had nowhere to do it but Moscow, the same capital she was trying to escape from. Now the fat is in the fire, and the same game of two-capitals-in-one is being played out with troops in the streets.

The paper war between Yeltsin and Yanaev is a dumb show whose only purpose is to ensure that whoever wins will be able to point to the laws he himself made when he throws the other in jail. What’s really going on is a counting of troops on each side, a continual weighing of the odds, because now the only relevant paper is the one with Mao’s words, “Power flows from the barrel of gun.”

There is a double irony in this coup’s stated goal of preserving the Union from unacceptable decentralization of the Union Treaty that was to have been signed yesterday. First, it has brought two unintended unifications. Russian democrats, who for three years have been unable to figure out what to do, are now acting together with deliberate purpose, and so far with astonishing effectiveness. And republics with progressive governments are pulling together to oppose the Union government.

Yesterday Russia’s government signed a treaty with Lithuania, which had been the first republic to declare its independence from the union. One of the southern republics has also signed a treaty. Ukraine and Kazakhstan have announced their support of Russia and their refusal to recognize the GKChP. The progressive forces in the country resembled a jar of stones that should have fit together neatly, but they were catching at the corners. The putschists have given the jar a shake, and now all the stones start to fall into place.

As for the second irony: I used to be among the pedants who insisted that one should speak of “the Soviet Union,” that “Russia” was merely one of the 15 constituent republics, and that to speak of “Russian” diplomacy or the “Russian” army in eastern Europe, Afghanistan or wherever was both inaccurate and unjustified. Then after my first trip here I changed my tune. Whatever the legal forms, Russians controlled the army, Russians had the last word in the republics; the “Soviet Union” was a centralized state run by Russians. The Russian Empire didn’t end in 1917, it merely changed its colors to fit the 20th century.

But in the last few years local leaders have taken over their native republics, and most importantly, a Russia has emerged that is not synonymous with the Soviet Union. Now, for the first time, it would be inaccurate and completely unacceptable to use the two terms interchangeably. The Soviet Union is preparing to make war on Russia, so they’re obviously not the same thing. But if the Soviet Union is not Russia with appendages, what is it? It is some generals, some bureaucrats—it is no country. Without Russia, no one really lives in the Soviet Union. And in this lies the second irony of the putschists’ goal, that by making brilliantly clear the division between Russia and Union, they have guaranteed that their failure will be the end of the Union. (The jury is still out on this one, although it will at least be a different sort of union. 4.IX) (The jury isn’t out anymore. 6.IX)

Barricade in an alley near the White House (taken August 22)

Bus in a barricade, rammed Tuesday night (taken August 21)
The next post is here.

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