A Front-Row Seat for the Russian Coup of ’91

My one Zelig-like moment occurred in August 1991. I was in Moscow, by accident of marriage: My wife was an American diplomat covering what at the time had been the fairly inconsequential government of the Russian Republic. Things became somewhat interesting because the president of the republic was the dynamic reformer Boris Yeltsin, and he had actually been elected to his office. On Aug. 19, things became a great deal more interesting.

That morning we woke up, turned on the TV and, as I recall, saw someone playing the cello instead of the customary programming. Word soon spread that something was going on. The U.S. Embassy learned that there had been a coup. Mikhail Gorbachev had been overthrown by an “emergency committee” led by Gennadi Yanaev and other members of the Soviet old guard.

Everyone in the embassy scattered around the city to see what was happening. I went down to Red Square, which was quiet except for the occasional official car whizzing in and out of the Kremlin gates. When I got bored with that, I returned to the embassy for lunch. As I was eating, one of my wife’s colleagues came up and nudged me. You know that your wife is in the White House, he asked. Yep, that’s where she normally was, in the Russian White House, where Yeltsin’s government worked. “Well, did you notice that the White House is surrounded by tanks?” Nope, hadn’t noticed that.

The Russian White House was across the street from the U.S. Embassy, so I walked on over. I wandered around the tanks. Young Russian soldiers were sitting in the open hatches. People were handing them flowers and cigarettes, and the mood seemed pretty friendly. I thought then that it had probably seemed pretty friendly in Tiananmen Square, too.

Being the heroic type, I started casing the White House to see where I might run in to look for, and rescue, my wife when the shooting started. As I was calculating the low odds of survival, I noticed a crowd beginning to pour out the front doors, down the steps and across the lawn. About 30 yards from where I stood, a man climbed up on a tank and started reading a document. Recognizing his white hair and stocky build, I thought, Wow, it’s Yeltsin. And it was.

The next three days and nights were among the most exhilarating of my life. My wife and I climbed over and around the barricades that had been put up. The tank commanders had joined Yeltsin’s side and were defying whatever orders they might have been receiving from the Yanaev gang. I remember vividly the night a tank brigade from Tula drove up. At first, not knowing anything, I was apprehensive. But then the crowd began cheering and putting flowers into the gun barrels of the tanks. The tanks that had been defending the White House opened a lane and the Tula brigade drove through and joined the revolution. I think that’s when we knew it was over, that the coup had failed and that Russia would never be the same.

The other thing I remember was the painfully slow reaction of the administration of George H.W. Bush. As we stood with the Russians on the barricades, the big question for Americans and Russians alike was whether President Bush was going to lend his support to Yeltsin. The decision seemed pretty simple to those of us in Moscow. Here was Yeltsin, a known reformer, standing up against not Gorbachev but an old guard that had taken Gorbachev hostage and threatened to undo the remarkable opening he had made in both Soviet society and U.S.-Soviet relations. But the Bush administration was slow to react. We would later learn that Bush’s administration was at least flirting with the idea of accepting the coup as a fait accompli and working with whatever new team was in place. At the time, we knew only that it was taking too long for the administration to do the obvious thing. In the end, Bush’s phone call to Yeltsin may have come only 24 hours later than we wanted. But 24 hours in those moments seemed like a betrayal.

We stayed in Moscow for 18 more months and watched the strange blend of democratic revolution, mafia takeover and cowboy capitalism that would come to characterize the Yeltsin years. I left Russia in 1993 optimistic that democracy had taken hold despite the obstacles. But even then I couldn’t forget something a Russian dissident had said before the coup, during the brief but glorious period of Gorbachev’s glasnost. She had a nagging worry that things in Russia might yet turn out badly. She compared the moment of freedom they were experiencing to the 1990 American movie “Awakenings.” The film, starring Robin Williams, is based on the story of a neurologist working with long-term coma patients. The doctor gives them a drug that miraculously awakens them, but it turns out that the drug’s effects are temporary. By the end of the film, they fall back into their comas. The woman wondered whether the same might happen to Russia.