August 16th, 2011


Losing my religion: Moscow, August 1991


 To mark the 20th anniversary of the 1991 coup by hardline Communists against the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, I am posting part of a draft of a personal reflection on that summer in Moscow. It was my first international assignment as a journalist. This extract begins on Sunday 25th August, 1991.    

MOSCOW WAS STILL NERVOUS. There were frequent rumours suggesting that the tanks had returned in greater numbers, or were about to do so. The Moscow ‘White House’ then the home of the parliament, now of the government, was the headquarters of the coup’s opponents. It was here that, days earlier, Boris Yeltsin had stood on a tank to denounce the plotters’ actions. Investigating one such rumour, I came up against a bare-chested youth armed with a length of hosepipe. He would not let anyone pass the point where we now stood. I wanted to call the office to say that there were no tanks there. He didn’t want me to walk to the payphone that we could both see about twenty metres away. In the end, I just ran past him – reaching the payphone and immediately starting to dial before he could clobber me with the hosepipe. When he overheard my conversation, he let me off without a beating. I walked on further.   

The ‘Defenders of the White House’ had thrown up barricades. They had bottles and even milk churns full of petrol ready for making Molotov cocktails. I found Alexei, who explained to me in his own English what was going on. ‘Today, one hour ago, we received information that a group of tanks was coming to Moscow again. It was a lie, but after this famous week people come to cover by bodies the Russian Parliament.’ 


At the beginning of that famous week, on Monday 19th August, a ‘State Emergency Committee’ had announced that Mikhail Gorbachev had been taken ill, and that they were now running the Soviet Union. I didn’t have a multiple entry visa, so I had to wait a couple of days to get back to Moscow. By the time I did, the coup had collapsed.  The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, had been wrenched from its pedestal in front of the Lubyanka, KGB headquarters. The day after I arrived, a Russian colleague and I had gone to film the Communist Party headquarters a short distance away from the Lubyanka, and found a stray dog asleep on the front step, right in front of the main entrance. Boris Yeltsin, his power and personality now eclipsing that of Gorbachev, his nominal superior, was triumphant. He had felt strong enough to ban the Communist Party in the aftermath of the failed coup. 

The goodies had won. That’s the way it seemed to us in the west – and to most of us who were there that summer. From a westerner’s point of view, everything seemed to be moving in a positive direction. Many of us who were there starting our careers as journalists in Moscow that summer had studied Russian. We had been teenagers in the 1980’s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher upgraded their nuclear arsenals against the Soviet Union. We gave Mikhail Gorbachev the credit for ending the Cold War confrontation which had so worried us. We didn’t understand that many Soviet citizens simply didn’t see it that way. They feared the loss of all that they had ever known, and believed in. In a way, we feared it too. I think some of us shared Gorbachev’s belief that the Soviet system could have, and should have, been reformed – rather than abandoned. Of course, we were naïve. We had not had to live our whole lives as subjects of that system. Even if our naiveté was wrong, it showed an understanding of the way that the people around us thought – an understanding which many of the foreign experts about to head into Russia completely lacked. 

The Soviet Union limped on until the end of the year. Mikhail Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, and the Red Flag was lowered for the last time from the roof of the Kremlin. I returned to Moscow for another assignment on January 2nd, 1992. ‘How are things?’ I asked brightly of the office driver who had come to meet me. ‘Bad. Very bad,’ he replied. I was forced to change my outward mood immediately. It’s true that everything already seemed chaotic. The banking system, such as there had been one in Soviet times, had ceased to function. I arrived at the airport with a large amount of cash for office expenses. No one was convinced that a bank transfer would appear at the other end. I arrived without a visa, but was soon able to get one – something which would have been far less straightforward a few months earlier. In the grim arrivals hall of Sheremetyevo airport, and far beyond, there was no sign of a happy new year. Price controls which had given guarantees for decades had gone, and Russia was entering a period of massive inflation. Pensioners – those who had worked in the belief that they were building a workers’ paradise - would be hit especially hard: the collapse of the state meant their pensions weren’t paid; the inflation destroyed the value of their savings, and, even if they did manage to get some money from somewhere, meant that it didn’t buy very much. On top of that, the weather was miserable. The short midwinter days were made gloomier by the cloud which came with unusually high temperatures. ‘In Stalin’s day we had real frosts, minus 30, minus 40!’ Slava, a man in late middle age who ran errands for the office remembered.  Absolutely everything seemed to be changing. For me, there was one positive personal note. I was welcomed back at the Oktyabrskaya II hotel, where I had spent most of the summer, like an old friend. ‘We’ll always find a place for you,’ the hotel administrator had said, with a smile the opposite of the snarling way I had previously heard that the restaurant was closed. My lengthy stay in the summer had led me across the line which Russians draw between suspicious outsider, and friend for life. It can be a very thin line, but it can take a long time to reach. I had known I was on the way in late July. When I returned from my trip to Kiev, two shirts I had left in the laundry had been carefully wrapped and put away for me. They were returned with a grandmotherly smile from the lady who had kept them safe. I was sorry to see the hotel employees now looking so grim. The hotel corridors were inevitably darker. Moscow earns its long summer nights with short winter days. The only compensation was the comfort of the overheated corridors – welcome, at least, when arriving inside. After a while, it was stifling. The heating made the smell of wood polish, the smell of Soviet order, stronger in the nostrils. But it was already the smell of the past.    

Russia had decided to abandon what had gone before without having a clear idea of what it really wanted next. Phrases like ‘democracy’ and ‘market economy’ were talked about, and repeated all the time without any common agreement or even general definition of either.  The ideology which drove this new life was at best vague. This vacuum felt especially unsettling in a country which had always had some form of faith to guide it: God and Tsar, Marx and Lenin. Now, suddenly, there was nothing.

A press pass issued to me for the US-Soviet summit in Moscow, summer 1991.