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The Russian Coup: 10 Years After - 2001-08-19


On August 18, 1991, eight high-ranking Soviet officials placed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and took control of the government of the USSR. Less than 72 hours later, their coup had collapsed, but it would change the course of history in a way that no one certainly not the plotters themselves could have foreseen. We look back to events that unfolded from the point of view of the people who resisted the coup.

On the morning of August 19, 1991, when people across Russia woke up and turned on their televisions, the only thing playing was music from the ballet, Swan Lake.

Lidia Chornia, a pensioner, was at home that day when a friend called and said, "Turn on the television! They've thrown out Gorbachev!"

What Lidia did not yet know was that a group of eight high-ranking Soviet officials had announced on radio and television on the morning of August 19, that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was ill, and they were taking control of the country. The group called themselves the Emergency Committee, and their goal was to turn back the tide of reforms that were already sweeping the country.

Lidia Chornia's son, Igor, a scientist at the Institute for Atomic Security, rushed to the center of town to see what was going on.

At first nothing looked amiss but on a hunch Mr. Chornia decided to go the White House, the seat of the Russian federation, not knowing at the time that many Russian leaders opposed to the coup were holed up inside. The Soviet hardliners had already ordered tanks into the Moscow streets.

"There still weren't too many people out. It was a very strange picture," he said. "Trolley buses, people, cars and then suddenly, there were tanks. Well it was terrible and strange. Simply wild."

For the next three days, Igor Chornia stayed near the barricades at the White House, only coming home to sleep for a few hours at a time and change clothes. Thousands of people from Moscow and elsewhere, gathered to defend the elected leaders inside. They pulled up stones from the sidewalk to build barricades. They knocked on doors in the neighborhood to gather supplies to make Molotov cocktails. They tried to prepare for an attack that they thought was sure to come.

If it were to come the man most likely to lead it would be Sergei Evdokimov, commander of one of the tank divisions deployed on the streets of Moscow.

"We had an order to arrive at the White House and block Kalininsky Bridge," he said. "So when we came, we started talking to people, who were telling us what happened to Gorbachev, what the Emergency Committee was like, what their goals were."

One of these people was Sergei Bradchikov, a businessman with no involvement in politics, who simply wanted to defend democracy. He climbed on top of a tank and tried to convince the tank commander that the coup was wrong. "I was simply a citizen," said Mr. Bradchikov, "but I was able to talk with him, and show him that what the coup leaders were doing was not right. And he agreed to cross over to the side of the people."

That moment was a turning point. When Mr. Evdokimov decided to oppose the coup, it was a sign to everyone in the military that they needed to take sides. And, according to White House defender Igor Chornia, the soldiers had to decide whether they were willing to follow orders to shoot their countrymen. "There was this feeling that we - peaceful citizens who didn't have either weapons or tanks - had to stand against all this machinery, against the army, the secret services, by ourselves. It was scary. We thought they would fulfill any order, even the most terrible. But it turned out they had a conscience," said Mr. Chornia.

But the coup was not without its victims. On August 20, more tanks rolled toward the White House and this time blood was spilled as soldiers fired on people gathered a few hundred meters from the Russian Federation building. Two people were shot and killed; another was crushed to death beneath an armored vehicle. The Russian people gathered to defend democracy responded by setting many of the vehicles on fire.

That evening, the coup leaders ordered a group of elite soldiers, called the Alpha Group, to storm the White House. Sergei Bradchikov said they overestimated their support within the military and this was the final defeat for the coup leaders. "The Emergency Committee expected the Alpha Group to storm the White House and carry out the putsch, but they made a mistake," said Mr. Bradchikov. "The people in this group were decent, they weren't afraid of death, the devil or the Emergency Committee. When the Alpha Group said no, it was their defeat.

By the evening of August 21, the coup was over.

Mikhail Gorbachev was on his way back to Moscow and many of the coup leaders were in hiding or already under arrest. The old white, blue and red Russian flag was now flying in place of the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union officially continued on until December 25, 1991, Russian Communism was effectively over and the defenders of democracy, such as Lidia Chornia and her son Igor, had won.