September 16 1991


September 16 1991



Letter from Moscow

Since taking over the Maclean’s Moscow bureau a year ago, 43-yearold Malcolm Gray has crisscrossed the Soviet Union, covering the titanic power struggle between liberals and hardliners. But that was only a prelude to the climactic events of August, when Gray found himself reporting on one of the most dramatic netos stories of the 20th century. His personal account:

I wish I could say that I was prepared for the second Russian revolution. But instead, when hard-line Communists launched their coup attempt on Aug. 19, I was on holiday in Bedford, N.S., near Halifax. I heard the news at dawn: tanks had moved into the streets of Moscow. By early the next afternoon, I was back in the Soviet capital, jet-lagged but relieved that the coup leaders had not closed Sheremetyevo II airport Sergei Beliekov, the driver for the Maclean’s Moscow bureau, met my flight and we drove directly downtown, talking our way past police manning traffic barriers closing off the city centre. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were stationed near the Kremlin, at the foot of Moscow’s broad Tverskaya Street I climbed onto a green T-72 tank to listen to a dozen Muscovites who were arguing heatedly with its youthful crew members.

Half out of a hatch at the front of the vehicle, the tank driver only smiled and shrugged as a broad-shouldered man in a blue track suit peppered him with questions. “Against whom are you moving?” the man asked. “Didn’t the people pay for these tanks—and for your food and clothing? Why are you here?” Why, indeed. I did not relish the thought of living under a regime that seemed a throwback to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s era of stagnation. In any event, that tank-top encounter was a surreal introduction to an astonishing series of events. They tumbled past each other without pause until Aug. 24, when President Mikhail Gorbachev, restored to a position of rapidly dwindling power, signalled the end of almost 74 years of Communist rule by resigning his post as party leader.

At the start of that tension-filled week, most Soviet citizens appeared resigned to a return to authoritarian rule. Moscow drivers dodged around tanks as well as potholes in the city’s rutted streets, the statecontrolled media dutifully parroted the decrees of the State Committee for the State of Emergency, and shoppers lined up outside near-empty stores as they always do. To be sure, no one cheered the armored columns on the wide thoroughfares leading to the city centre. The tank treads chewed up the asphalt; the result was the slightly sinister humming sound heard inside a car as its tires passed over the irregular surface. But in a strange approximation of normalcy, the armored columns obeyed traffic signals when there were no police to wave them through intersections. People walked their dogs, the subways continued operating, and light and telephone services remained throughout the capital—even at the embattled Russian legislature.

From the beginning, however, there were hopeful signs that the men of the past had misjudged their country. Many of the troops openly expressed their unease when people accused them of supporting an

illegal power grab. Soldiers deployed outside the city’s main telephone centre even removed the clips from their automatic rifles to show that the weapons were unloaded. “We are Soviet people like you,” said one soldier.

“We will not shoot” With all but nine progovernment newspapers closed down, clandestine buUetins taped to walls near subway stations drew large crowds. And small knots of people gathered around portable radios tuned to Moscow Echo, an independent station that succeeded in staying on the air.

As I was sorting through those signs and countersigns, trying to gauge the chances of violence erupting, I did not have to worry about my children’s safety: Ian, 9, and Colin, 3, were still with their grandparents in Bedford. But my wife, Carol, was already in Moscow. A lawyer, she had interrupted her vacation to attend a meeting in the Soviet capital. As it happened, the coup un folded while she was en route. She arrived in Moscow on Aug. 19, knowing only what the jetliner’s pilot had told his passengers: that Gorbachev had been deposed and might even be dead. After glimpsing tank columns in the streets, her U.S. clients derided that there would be no business transacted in Moscow that week, and they swiftly caught the first flight out of the Soviet Union.

Carol, who spent a summer working as a reporter for The Toronto Star and spent eight months studying in Moscow in 1978, stayed on.

She went to work early the next day, before I reached Moscow, joining a huge crowd outside the city council building.

There, well within sight of the armored ring around the Kremlin, people gathered to defy the emergency committee and shout their approval for speakers who were staking their ftitures—and, potentially, their lives—on its eventual defeat They listened as a sombre Eduard Shevardnadze, the former foreign minister, warned that the committee’s success would lead to a return to the rule of terror and

nighttime visits by the KGB. And they roared with delight when Sergei Stankevich, the capital’s youthful deputy mayor, demonstrated grace and humor under pressure. “I want to thank you for coming out,” Stankevich told a crowd of about 150,000 people. “All 150 of you—because that is how it will be reported on state television tonight”

Carol and many others in that crowd then went to the Russian legislature, and we eventually met up at the Maclean’s offices on nearby Kutuzovsky Prospekt The parliament building, or White House, as Muscovites call it is a bland 19storey building on a bend of the Moscow River about 3.5 km west of the Kremlin. In more normal circumstances, we pass the building on the way to Colin’s preschool classes—he calls it Boris Yeltsin’s castle. That week, the building was a besieged fortress.

There, at the heart of the resistance to the coup, it was immediately apparent that the Soviet Union’s so-called Silent Generation had finally found something worth fighting for. Moscow has seen many huge prodemocracy demonstrations during the past year, attended mainly by responsible citizens, most aged 40 and older. But the children of glasnost, people in their teens and 20s, did not turn out until there was more than a whiff of danger in the air. Explained Yuri Sokolov, a 20-year-old chemistry student: “Mass demonstrations are fine—my mother goes to them all the time. But they are so boring. All you do is march and stand around in the cold listening to speeches. This is different”

In their jeans, high-cut runners and sweatshirts emblazoned with the names of U.S. universities, Moscow’s youth responded to Yeltsin’s call to the barricades. First, however, they had to help build them, incorporating commandeered city buses into a jagged tangle of steel rods, wire and wood from nearby construction sites. That defence of democracy was nourished by distinctly non-Marxist food. Local businessmen who had nothing to gain from a return to orthodox communism helped fuel the second Russian revolution with fast food: brown bags of Big Mac hamburgers from the city’s popular McDonald’s outlet As darkness fell, rumors floated through the rain-soaked crowd: the KGB would attack at 11 p.m.; no, at midnight; or perhaps the assault would come just before dawn. Still, there was no mistaking the hope implicit in some of the other messages that Russian legislators relayed through crackling loudspeakers. Among them was a bulletin that illness had forced Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov to withdraw from the conspiracy. Two other members of the so-called Gang of Eight, KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and Soviet Defence Minister Dimitri Yazov, were also rumored to be missing.

In the end, it mattered little that

Kryuchkov and Yazov had not resigned as reported. Despite the still-present threat of a massacre, those half-factual bulletins had accurately described one astounding development the coup was felling apart Carol and I smiled, too, as we listened, on what we hoped would be the right side of the barricades. Some of the people with whom we have developed close friendships were there in the rain.

Later that night we gambled on being able to return to our apartment for something to eat and a quick rest without missing an attack on the White House. But there was little time to relax. First we received a frantic telephone call from Russian friends who were visiting France when the coup occurred. On their first trip outside the Soviet Union, Sergei and Galina were trying to decide on a far more serious gamble: whether they should seek refugee status in France. But with no guarantee that any friture hard-line Soviet government would allow their three children to join them, our friends decided to return to Moscow. All we could offer them was the still-unsubstantiated hope that the coup was goingtofeil.

Another phone call quickly followed, from friends in central Moscow who told us that they could hear shooting near the White House. Fortunately, the police were not enforcing an overnight curfew, and a tense but uneventful drive revealed that the Russian legislature was still unscathed. But three young men had died in a confused melee when crowds trapped an armored column beneath an underpass on the nearby inner ring road.

And it was early on Aug. 21, on one of several visits to a site already marked by memorial offerings of flowers, cigarettes and bread, that I first encountered Nikolai Amelin, an intense 23-year-old sergeant who was urging bystanders to watch out for KGB provocateurs. Clearly, Amelin had gone over to Yeltsin’s side. But he was so charged with adrenaline and excitement, answering questions in monosyllabic bursts, that it was only later that I discovered the key role he had played in persuading 10 armored personnel carriers to join him in defending the White House-Providing the first, and most visible, evidence that parts of the military had mutinied against the hard-liners.

We kept seeing his distinctive black tanker’s hat at the centre of the wild celebrations that followed the coup’s unravelling later that day. When Yeltsin addressed a victory rally on Aug. 22, Amelin was beside him on the balcony of the White House. And as a crowd of 10,000 people cheered the removal of a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the feared founder of the Soviet secret police, from its pedestal before KGB headquarters, Amelin was perched on the truck that carried off the toppled monument

When Gorbachev resigned from the party leadership on Aug. 24,1 was at home, trying to sort the torrent of events into some sort of publishable order. But the significance of that resignation was clear enough: communism was finished in the Soviet Union and democracy appeared to have taken firmer root Later that night the frantic telephoning and typing finally over, I went out onto the balcony of our 18th-floor apartment It was still warm after midnight in Moscow, with a frill moon shining overhead. Nearby, in adjacent apartment buildings, only a few scattered lights still shone. The first phase of Russia’s second revolution was over. It took only seven days. At about the same time a week later, celebratory fireworks lit the night sky over the Kremlin and Red Square.