Memories of ‘The Coup’

John Harrison

Text and Photos

Every year people mention ‘The Coup’, it has become almost a ritual, soon to be forgotten. If it is still of interest to today’s readers, here is my story, for what it is worth. 

In August 1991 I was living and working as a photo correspondent for that rag, the Mail on Sunday. I remember of the morning of the 19th, the first day, having returned from a friend’s dacha, I drove straight to a government office near Kievskii Vokzal to complete the long drawn out process of procuring a Soviet driving license. I was waiting in a queue in the morning, it must have been about 9.30am when I overheard people talking: “It’ll be the end of it, thank God. Teach those bloody rascals a lesson, get some order around here again”. “Do you know what your pension is worth now?” There was a marked change in atmosphere, all the diplomatic niceties were gone, or maybe it was because I was in a place where ordinary ordinary people were queuing up, and they mostly had a very different  take on politics than the westernised Russians I was hanging out with at the time.

I asked someone to please tell me what was happening. “Must be a foreigner, do you really think Soviet power can be stopped by your money and Jewish scheming?” I overheard somebody saying. Swan Lake was being broadcast on channel 1, and I gathered that it was on all channels, because somebody tried switching the clunky nobs on the large TV set in the room, and the same pirouettes were seen on every channel. OK, something big is happening, I thought it’d be a good idea to just forget about the licence and head home to pick up my cameras. It took me an hour and a half to get across South Moscow (a long time then) because Leninsky Prospect was blocked with APCs and tanks trundling into central Moscow. At home, Marina was in a panic, having been told by her parents that they were leaving Moscow for the countryside, but that she would be all right under the protection of a foreigner. She asked: ‘Will I be?” I honestly had no idea. Things seemed to move in slow motion, like they do in a car accident. But there was no time to reason anything out. I knew only that Gorbachev had been deposed and hard-liners had taken over, that’s what my foreign friends said. There was no time to work out why, how or what to do next. 

My job got me into the press conference where the coup leaders declared to the world that they had imposed a state of emergency, and that President Gorbachev, on holiday by the Black Sea, was ill and unable to return to his duties. The journalists laughed and shook their heads in disbelief. Vice President’s Yanaev, the guy who seemed now to be in charge hands shook when he made the announcement that they were taking control of the country. Nevertheless, it all seemed very real; we were all in shock.

I had a kind of an office on Bolshoi Gnezdnikovski Pereulok, it was really a one bedroom flat but with an amazing view over Pushkin Square. I thought it was really expensive at the time, I was paying $200 a month. The phone from London never stopped ringing, that long beep that immediately identified a call as being from abroad. The photo editors in the newsroom wanted to know where the tanks were, but I was inside the White House. Marina had a map on the kitchen table with the radio on, tuned to short wave, and told them where the tanks were. She said she was surprised to be asked so many times whether people were being killed or not.

What was amazing to us was that the self-imposed commanders bothered to call a press conference at all, and that resistance was allowed to build up around the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, who had made the journey unhindered from his dacha to the White House that morning. It seemed that the ‘Putchists’ desire to somehow gain international approval, their very civility, held them back from using force while they still had time to do so. They did not count on key army and KGB units disobeying orders. 

They also didn’t count on the power of raw emotion which Yeltsin and his colleagues successfully harnessed against them. Yeltsin did not have the Communist Party to contend with (unlike Gorbachev), and was the undoubted centre of reform, drunkard that he was. Thousands of Muscovites swarmed around the White House as speaker after speaker denounced the ‘fascists,’ and new arrivals such as ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze were greeted with tumultuous applause.

Inside the White House, there was amazing calm. I remember sitting in the office of a deputy from Yaroslavl discussing the situation. She wasn’t panicking; she was rational and together. There was a tangible sense of bravado and confidence, even co-operation, an unheard-of quality in Russian politics after 1991. The phones were not cut off, a Gestetner machine was churning out samizdat copies of Stolitsa, which were then distributed by the simple and effective method of being thrown out of the window to the crowd below. Journalist Alexander Listev [assasinated, 1995] and friends set up a miniature radio station which was broadcast by a weak short-wave radio transmitter. This was picked up by the Moscow based international news corps, and broadcast all over the world.

I remember how a Russian cameraman colleague of mine found himself on the White House roof, just as Yeltsin appeared to make a speech, but without a camera. Suddenly he was thrown a VHS video camera from 50 feet below. Amazingly, he caught it. Next to come flying through the air was a cable, an umbilical cord with the world. Sasha didn’t realise it at the time, but he broadcasting live to – everywhere. The CNN transmissions were fed back through monitors inside the buildings. The whole world was with us. This was a moment of history, fed by the media, and I think kept going by the media.

There were, however, some very serious moments. Late in the cold, drizzly evening of the 20th, a voice came over the tannoy system advising all women and children to leave, as, the voice said, a squad of paratroopers was heading by helicopter right here. It genuinely appeared to all—me included, agnostic that I am —a miracle that they didn’t actually materialise on the roof, which they probably would have done if the weather hadn’t been so bad.

It was all over the next day. Everything was over, the lion turned out to be made of paper, it’s roar had lost its credibility even among hard liners. It really was a coup for Yeltsin and his team, they relished in their victory and the West threw their weight behind him. There was no middle ground any more, and certainly no favourable media attention for the baddies. 

Looking back, there was an incredible of naiveté around.  I met a couple of young people halfway up a statue near Barrikadnaya Metro station, which I had climbed to get some good shots of the huge Russian tricolour being unfurled around one side of the White House on the 21st. I had expensive cameras, which I couldn’t possibly have afforded myself sprouting from every pocket. One of the two students asked me who I supported, like at a football match. I said: “Yeltsin.” He shook my hand firmly and hugged me. Then he said: “If we win, we’ll all have cameras like yours.” This just about summed it all up. Everybody thought that by getting rid of the bad guys Russia’s ills would be cured by a panacea from the West. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the way it worked out. People discovered a long time later that they didn’t really know how the West functioned, even what the West was, and that to be lasting, it has to come from internal change first. None of us realised that then, we had to go through the 1990s first, and that led us all back to where we started.