Friday, December 23, 2016

August 21, Wednesday

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

The coup has brought home the importance of information. I felt already the fog of ignorance on Pushkin Sq., and the manipulation on Vremya. Then today “Ekho Moskvy announced that in the small hours of the morning, while they weren’t broadcasting, “somebody” on a very close frequency had copied their music, their voices, their format, and spread disinformation that there was fighting and panic at the White House. Now (11:50 AM) they’ve turned off “Ekho Moskvy” and the one TV channel is broadcasting songs and dances with a folk troupe. We are cast back into darkness.

Yesterday at the visa office I spoke to a German woman who knew already Monday night that some troops had turned (she herself was in the area of the White House at the time), but she didn’t know the airports had been closed—no one called her host family with that information. The eerie spottiness of information is made more oppressive when they start messing with the telephone. A friend called Natasha at 11:00 last night, and after a couple minutes their conversation was cut off. He called back and they continued their conversation, but most likely not alone.

Now Natasha is preparing to go to the White House, and she’s trying to decide what medicine to take with her from Sasha’s supplies. Sasha called from work, he’s going too. Alyosha has the extra house key, so I can’t go out. In any case, Natasha says I would only get out today “over my dead body.” That’s not funny any more. She told me where her documents are, in case something happens. So I am to sit home alone with no radio and a phony folk dance on TV.

Before being cut off this morning, “Ekho Moskvy” reported the first bloodshed. Near the Arbat there’s an underpass where Kalinin Prospekt crosses the Garden Ring. Tanks were going through the tunnel when one driver got nervous and started turning around in the confined space. After he ran over a woman, an unarmed Afghan vet jumped on the tank and pulled open the hatch. He was shot through the head. People began throwing Molotov cocktails. Russian deputies intervened quickly and prevented a lynching.

So far 10 deaths have been reported around the city, according to “Ekho Moskvy”. (These early reports clearly suffered from the hectic atmosphere. On Saturday, August 24, there was a state burial for only three victims of the coup, and later a fourth man wounded in the coup was reported to have died in the hospital. I don’t know where I came up with the woman run over by the tank. 4.IX)

Throughout the crisis, Afghan vets have rendered great service. They have lent their expertise for the building of barricades that can really stop a tank. Now Parliament is relatively well protected, but the ambulances can’t get out.

Friend of one of the people killed, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s disastrous Afghanistan war.
“There it would have been understandable, but why did they kill him here?!”
2:40 PM Sasha called to ask when Natasha left the house (they were supposed to meet near the White House). I told him she left at about 1:30. He wouldn’t tell me where he was.

3:00 Natasha called; she’s near the underpass where the tank-driver panicked yesterday. She hasn’t managed to get to the White House, but Yeltsin has announced that the junta has been spotted heading toward Vnukovo airport, and they are to be captured at once.

3:03 Sasha called; I relayed Natasha’s location, he said if she calls again I should tell her to head home. I passed on her news of Yeltsin’s pronouncement. Sasha says, “Well, we’ll see.”

3:20 Ever since “Ekho Moskvy” was taken off the air, radio has been a fantasy land, with no mention of what’s going on. “The World Service of Radio Moscow,” broadcasting in English, “offers a program of classical music”: the 1st movement of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony, the 1st movement of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, but without the first eight measures. Now they’re reading the news—I turned back to this station too late to hear if they said anything about Moscow. They discussed the urgings of leaders in many republics to maintain worker discipline, without the news we got from “Ekho Moskvy” that these same leaders are specifically supporting Russia, not the Union. Radio Moscow’s summary of world reaction stressed the necessity of reaching a peaceful solution, and the fact that what’s happening here is the Soviet Union’s internal affair. No news that Ambassador Strauss is on his way to Moscow with no intention of presenting his credentials to the junta, and that he will not limit himself to diplomatic language in addressing the usurpers, as “Ekho Moskvy” has reported. Now they’re playing Brahms’ 4th symphony, 1st movement (again without the first few measures).

3:30 Radio Moscow reports that the RSFSR Supreme Soviet met. Chairman Khasbulatov called the removal of Gorbachev a counter-revolutionary coup. Yeltsin outlined steps taken by the Russian government, and proposed going to the Crimea to escort Gorbachev safely back to Moscow, but the Parliament decided to keep Yeltsin in Moscow and send Russian Vice-President Rutskoy and other delegates instead. Troops are being removed from in front of Radio Moscow; their commander says they’re going home and he’s glad to see that. Troops and vehicles are also being removed from around the television tower north of the city.[1] Back to classical music (some Beethoven piano piece, then Mozart C-minor piano concerto). On TV, a completely irrelevant drama set in Uzbekistan.

4:00 “Ekho Moskvy” is back on the air. They confirm Natasha’s news about the junta fleeing, and they mention three deaths and three people wounded. A reporter gives more details of the bloody event at the Garden Ring. Another call for serious, brave men to render help at the White House. “The situation is changing minute by minute. God grant, it seems for the better.”

“Ekho Moskvy” has an interesting style. In the midst of the most pressing reportage they maintain a calm tone. With simple words they all the same build a somewhat indirect, procrastinating language: “And now a report that is fairly sad—‘fairly,’ no—very sad…” they are fond of the oblique opening, as if time weren’t moving.

“Liberals and Monarchists, Siberian Cossacks and anarchists, all are here together to defend the White House.” River barge pilots have docked their boats in the river alongside the White House: “We’ll stay here till victory”; they have come to defend Yeltsin, to defend democracy.

“One must expect anything from the putschists; the fact that they’ve fled Moscow is not necessarily the end of the coup, although it’s a hopeful sign.” (Later I heard that some people immediately feared they were going to threaten Moscow with missiles. 4.IX) “Radio M. Free radio for free people.” The few times I’ve turned back to Radio Moscow they’ve been too busy broadcasting music to give any news.

4:56 On the street, the sun has weakly broken through for the first time since Monday.

4:57 “Russian Television” has come back on channel 2, taking the place of the copy of channel 1 that had been there since Monday. Now they’re broadcasting (I think live) from the Russian Supreme Soviet. They just voted unanimously for live broadcast of the session. There is a decision that those parts of the press that kow-towed to the GKChP will be nationalized by Russia.

The very fact that Russian TV is back on the air is a strong nail in the coffin of the junta. Now across almost all of Russia one can see Khasbulatov’s speech painting the putschists in the blackest of colors, so they have lost their monopoly on mass information and their hope of swinging any significant part of the people. (I just saw a clock in the Parliament and it said “11:56”, so the broadcast is not live, but in any case its appearance on the air is a relief.)

“Ekho Moskvy” is discussing the probability that someone stood behind the eight members of the GKChP, most likely Lukyanov, chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet. But could it have been Gorbachev? “I don’t think so. Mikhail Sergeevich made two big mistakes: he didn’t form around himself a strong team, and he didn’t find any base of support for his policy. But a man who has played such an important role in the history of this great, long-suffering people—I don’t think he would be capable of supporting such an act. … The defense industry, given where their interests lie, could well have taken part.” The “Ekho Moskvy” announcer broke into a chuckle at one point. The tone of the discussion is that the game is up.

Someone called on Sasha’s behalf; when she left him at the embankment by the White House, everything was fine.

Yeltsin has emerged from the coup as a great hero. A USSR deputy said in one interview on “Ekho Moskvy,” “I am a strong supporter of Gorbachev. I didn’t vote for Yeltsin, I considered his psychological make-up a serious obstacle on the path chosen by our president—a great man, I should say. But the events of these days have changed my attitude towards him. I and some others went to Yeltsin yesterday to demand—well, not demand—to ask him to take over command of the army. With President Gorbachev removed and the next in command involved in a criminal act, the army had no one to take orders from. And he gave an answer that only a very great man could give: ‘I have just such an ukase sitting on my desk, but I can’t bring myself to sign it; I don’t want to risk a split in the army, the worst would be for them to be shooting each other.’” (As I understand it, he eventually did sign such an ukase. 4.IX)

6:00 Curfew is lifted in Moscow.

6:45 “Ekho Moskvy” is having a discussion with guests in the studio, including the one who was there last night to give advice on protection from gas attack. Tonight they’re conducting a post-game wrap-up. The atmosphere, despite the seriousness of the subject, is untroubled and sprinkled with witticisms.

Midnight. The coup is definitely defeated. The liberal media continues to resurface: Leningrad TV is again on the air in Moscow (it never went off the air in Leningrad). All the same, “V’esti”, the news show of Russian TV carried the government’s call not to leave the White House unprotected tonight, as there may be a last futile assault by KGB troops loyal to the putschists.

[1] I don’t have a clue why I didn’t comment on this at the time, but the reporting of these events on Radio Moscow was a rather abrupt change from the head-in-the-sand stuff described just above from the same station. Was it the same people in the station just sensing the change in the winds of favor? Did different people take over between 3:20 and 3:30 and suddenly start reporting on things that weren’t favorable to the junta? (October 2007).

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