The failed soviet coup, 20 years on mixed moscow memories

Aug 18th 2011, 12:37 by G. F. | PRAGUE
The Economist

AUGUST 19th 1991 began like most other Mondays in Vilnius, the capital of what was then still just about the Soviet republic of Lithuania. That meant no coffee until 9am, presumably because most café staff had the right to show up for work when everyone else did.

I was 19 the summer of my first (and last, it would turn out) visit to the Soviet Union. Left to wander the nearly empty streets with my travelling companion – a correspondent for Russian Television, the most progressive Soviet channel – we heard rumours of a coup d’état in Moscow.

Desperate to get to Russia but unable to obtain tickets at the railway station, we bribed a conductor on a train bound for Leningrad (soon to be renamed St Petersburg) into providing us with a sleeping compartment. The train was virtually empty, another small testament to Soviet inefficiency. As we rattled north-east, we couldn’t have known we had lucked on to one of the last trains out of Vilnius before rail lines were cut off.

A loudspeaker in our compartment crackled to life to broadcast a barely audible news conference from Moscow: a group of Communist hardliners said they had set up an emergency committee to take temporary control of the Soviet Union. My friend’s dark complexion turned pale. His job at a mildly critical television station, he believed, would leave him exposed to the recriminations that would surely follow.

In Leningrad the following day we joined a mass of protesters who had taken over Nevsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare. A curfew was imposed, and we boarded an overnight train to Moscow not knowing whether we’d make it. That night in the capital, three young protesters were killed by armoured vehicles.

We arrived the next morning to cold, grey, rainy skies. We made our way to the so-called White House, a brutalist eyesore on the Moscow river housing the parliament

of the Russian Republic, where Boris Yeltsin and a group of other self-styled “democrats” had holed up in protest. Thousands of people milled around streets littered with gutted buses, iron rods and other random objects that together formed flimsy barricades that would have done nothing to stop a tank.

Late in the afternoon someone carrying a radio announced, “It’s over!” The coup leaders had fled the Kremlin. As if on cue, the clouds broke up and a bright sun shone on what felt like a liberated city. In the centre of Moscow people stood around laughing and swapping stories about the tense hours that had just ended as if they were long past. The sense of freedom was intoxicating. Everyone realised that the Soviet Union was finished.

But not everyone was happy. Two days later, a taxi driver told me that food was more important to him than freedom. A harbinger, perhaps, of the trouble ahead. The following year Mr Yeltsin’s new government managed to stave off famine by liberalising prices, but hyperinflation soon impoverished most Russians.

Nevertheless, despite the errors, criminality and corruption of the 1990s, Mr Yeltsin provided space for a group of young, educated and largely Westernised technocrats to begin transforming Russia’s authoritarian political culture.

The changes included an end to centuries of the Kremlin’s governing its provinces through administrative coercion. For the first time, Moscow began bargaining over taxes, budgets and other elements of fiscal policy.

In the end it wasn’t food but pride that helped bring the experiment with democracy to an end.

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The failed soviet coup, 20 years on mixed moscow memories