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September 13, 1991 - Image 6

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The Michigan Daily, 1991-09-13
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9 0

Tanks!fur the


My parents and I were seated
aboard the first available plane out
of Moscow, a Swissair jet bound for
Zurich, when the woman sitting
next to us mentioned that the
Soviet coup d'6tat was rumored to
be over. Apparently, she had heard
it announced over the P.A. system
at Sheremetevo International
Airport just before we boarded the
By then, we had already left the
Soviet Union and it was too late to
act on this news. As soon as we
arrived in our hastily-reserved hotel
room in Switzerland, I bolted
toward the television and turned to
the evening news. The telecast was
in German, but I didn't need to
understand the news anchor in
order to grasp what had happened.
I sat there transfixed, staring at the
screen in numb disbelief.
Here I was watching televised
images of perhaps a million Soviets
participating in the earth-shaking
celebrations which I was unable to
attend. Like everyone else, I was
glad that the crisis had ended so
peacefully - and yet, I felt like the
little kid who is grounded and can
only look out the window and
watch his friends play.
Our decision to leave had been
made with such dizzying speed
that I was still a bit disoriented.
This had been my third trip to the
Soviet Union, and, as always, my
brain had kicked into a "Russia
mode" that usually lingers for days.
Now I was suddenly back in the
West, feeling like the hero of some
Kafka story who wakes up to find
himself in Zurich.
Although I was in Moscow for
all but the final few hours of the
coup, I cannot pretend that my
experiences were exciting; I never
threw a Molotov cocktail, and I
certainly wasn't run over by a tank.
Indeed, not once did I feel I was in
any danger, except for the time I
was attacked by a group of Gypsy
children who almost stole my
Rather than telling a thrilling
story about flight and freedom in
the style of Not Without My,
Daughter, I am only able to describe
what it was like to have been an
American tourist in Moscow.
Everyone who was there during
the coup has a unique story to tell.
This is mine.
"Moscow is
My parents and I first found out
about the coup while we were in -
of all places - the Kremlin.
Although it is known primarily as
the seat of the Soviet government,
the Kremlin is also famous for its
complex of ancient cathedrals and
museums. It was about 11:30 in the

* Words and photos by Q1 Renberg *
morning on Monday, Aug. 19, and exactly asitrkad on all the previous picture?" He shook his head nyet,
just having finished a two-hou tour occasions Ihad strolled there. but soon I decided to take a cue
of the Kremlin's finest museum, At one o'clock we finally left the from the others and began firing
we were making idle conversation Kremlin and discovered that even away with impunity.
with the salesperson at the more military vehicles had arrived The carnival atmosphere was
souvenir shop. After a few minutes, in front ofthe main gate. Armored broken by the arrival of two tanks,
he'dropped a bombshell: vehicles; heir guns covered by one of which was confronted by a
Gorbachev had been ousted and canvas bags, were lined up along lone man in a light-blue shirt. As he
that tanks were surrounding the sidewalk and formed a cordon defiantly stood before the tank, I
Moscow. Our guide, Misha,4 around the Kremlin. Every so often was reminded of the famous scene
confirmed the news, which did not another vehicle would arrive and in Tiananmen Square two years
dismay him. "They should have position itself. Their advance was ago when one of the Chinese
done it sooner," he said. Despite stalled by several busses whose . protesters held up a column of
the seriousness of the situation, drivers had left them parked in the tanks merely by standing in front of
Misha convinced us that iere was middle of the street so as to the lead tank. This man, however,
no danger and that we'should hamper the army. The military was not immortalized because the
continue our tour of the.Kremlin. made no attempts to move the international media were not
We walked on for anotherhalf- barricades while the square was present. He was promptly dragged
hour, thinking more of theisis filled with protesters. But late away by a police officer, though he
than what our guide was saing. Monday night, when rain and. quickly managed to break free and
Around noon we decided that sleepiness reduced the crowd, the join the large crowd that was
we should go back to our hotel and busses were removed and replaced running up the street and chasing
contact the American embassy for with army trucks and armored the tanks as they chewed up the
advice. As we approached the vehicles. pavement on the way to an
Kremlin's main gate, we saw Scores of curious onlookers unknown destination away from

Soviet Union have been held on
Marx Prospekt. In the first few
hours of the coup, this was a focal
point for protests against the
hardline takeover, before angry
Muscovites started gravitating
towards Yeltsin's headquarters.
As we walked up Marx Prospekt
towards our hotel, we found that
thousands of curious and alarmed
Muscovites had flooded the area.
Protesters with large signs calling
for a general strike were using
military vehicles as platforms, and
the army made no attempt to
knock them from their perches.
As I walked around and took in
these amazing sights, I felt uneasy
for the first and only time during
the coup. We still had no idea what
was happening or how volatile the
situation was, and it clearly was not
prudent to be in the middle of a
square packed with anti-
government protesters and
surrounded by soldiers.
Although we would have loved
to remain a bit longer and join in a
few rounds of "Yeltsin! Yeltsin!"
we headed for the Intourist Hotel,
located on Marx Prospekt opposite
Red Square. We had chosen our
hotel for its central location, but
now we found that its true
advantage was a commanding view
of Marx Prospekt, Red Square and
the Kremlin. During the next two
days we were able to observe
demonstrations and troop
movements from our own hotel
Back in our 21st floor suite, we
dialed each of the American
embassy's ten phone numbers
several times before we got
through. The embassy's staff was
instructing all Americans to come
by and register, since the State
Department would need to know
our whereabouts in case an
emergency arose.
We found the embassy blocked
by two long lines of Russians
seeking visas to emigrate to the
United States. I am unable to say
for certain that this large a turnout
was due to the possible return of an
oppressive dictatorship; however, it
seems likely that the lines were
longer than the lines on the
previous and subsequent Mondays.
These Russians seemed quite
relaxed, probably because they
were all used to standing in very
long queues. As Americans, we
were allowed to enter the embassy
right away. Membership does have
its privileges.
While waiting to register, we
struck up conversations with other
Americans, trying to find out what
they knew about our predicament.
The embassy personnel
themselves were too busy to give
us detailed information about the

coup, and their only advice was
that we should avoid large crowds
in case violence occurred. In
addition to processing all these
Americans who were converging on
the building, the officials had to
deal with special situations. For
example, a disturbance was created
by some Russians who insisted that
their child - who appeared to be
just two or three years old - was
endangered by the coup. They
insisted that the toddler be
protected by the embassy. I got the
impression that the youngster had
some American blood in him -
just how much was unclear - so
the panic-stricken adults were
vainly begging the employee not to
turn them away.
The embassy personnel and our
fellow tourists had convinced us
that we should continue touring -
at least until the situation had
clearly worsened. We returned to
our hotel and found that some
people were already beginning to
check out. The lobby was busier
than usual, thanks in part to the
enormous line of foreigners waiting
to use the two international pay
phones to let people back home
know their plans. Wishing to avoid
the hotel's outrageous fees and
long lines, we headed up the street
to the main post office and
telephone exchange, which we
discovered had been shut down
and placed under guard - one of
the few things that the coup
leaders did right. We returned to
the Intourist but decided not to call
any relatives, since we assumed
that they would realize we were in
no danger.
All day, the television had
featured nothing more informative
than ballet and cartoons. Finally, at
nine o'clock the evening news
program Vremya was shown. The
anchors devoted much of the first
15 minutes of the program to
reading the various statements and
decrees of the Soviet Union's new
leaders. We were greatly surprised
to see that the opposition to the
coup was mentioned; Yeltsin
himself was even shown reading
part of one of his own declarations.
After the news, the first - and last
- press conference given by the
coup leaders was broadcast in its
entirety, and no attempt was made
to hide the fact that "President"
Yanaev's hands were shaking
something awful.
Monday night, before we went
to bed, there were still protesters
on Marx Prospekt, although there
were fewer than before. When we.
awakened the next day, it was clear
that during the night the Red Army
had taken control of and sealed off
the boulevard, pushing the
protesters to the periphery and

snarling traffic. Regardless, several
hundred Muscovites showed up to
demonstrate, and their chants of
"Yeltsin!" were loud enough to be
heard 20 floors up.
On Tuesday we tried our best
to ignore the coup and continue
sightseeing. This was not as'
difficult or stupid as it sounds. As
we walked away from our hotel and
Red Square, we noticed that life
went on as usual. The city was
bustling as people went to work or
shopped. The expressions and
actions of the citizens in no way
betrayed the gravity of the crisis
confronting their nation. The only
reminders of the military takeover
of Moscow were the streams of
troop carriers coursing through the
Strange as it seems, many of the
Russians seemed quite apathetic.
Away from the protests I saw only
one person who demonstrated
support for the opposition: a
waitress who wore a Yeltsin pin. In
all of the subway stations,
photocopies of a letter signed by
Yeltsin had been posted in several
places, as were other handbills and
messages from the opposition to
the coup. For example, one of
them stated at the top in large, bold
letters, "People! We await you in
the Parliament Building," and
ended with the plea, "Come to the
Russian Parliament Building!"
Although there were always groups
of five to 20 Muscovites crowded
around these fliers, the majority of
commuters ignored them. (So, too,
did the coup leaders and their
security forces. I pondered long
and hard just what kind of military

had immediate concerns and could
not be bothered by events over
which they felt jpy had little
There appear be two
contrasting mindsis among the
Russians. There e the people
like this woman, people with little
hope and whose siirits had bowed
or broken after so many years of
oppression. Most of them are old
enough to rememberthe days of
Stalin, and though much of their
burden has since been lifted, they
do not know what it is to walk
erect. Such people were dismayed
by the coup, but accepted it. They
desired freedom, but did not know
how to fight for it. Many of them
are too attached to the old ways:
they want the wealth associated
with capitalism, but don't know
how to earn it. The latter problem
is one faced by all of the former
Eastern Block countries, where
people were paid automatically
and, having no incentive, forgot
how to work hard. I should add that
this segment of the population will
be of little or no use in reforming
However, there are many
Russians who, having attained
some freedom, gladly risked their
lives so as not to lose it - or would
have if the chance had presented
itself. These people, the majority
of whom are less than 45 years old,
owe much to the Gorbachev
Revolution's policy of glasnost, and
they reciprocated by defeating
those who ousted him, although
this was not their goal. For many
years, Soviet citizens have been
jealous of the abundance of
freedoms and merchandise in the
West. Although Gorbachev has
been unable to increase the quality
or quantity of material goods and
foodstuffs, he did grant them
freedoms not experienced in their
country for scores of years, and he
introduced new freedoms. For the
first time, people can go to church
without being blacklisted; one can
criticize or lampoon the
government without being
arrested; books once forbidden by
the Communist dictatorship are
sold openly in all bookstores. As
Secretary of State James Baker
said, there is no way to put this
genie back into his bottle. These
"Westernized" Russians, who
defied the coup, understand that
there is much to be done to
improve their country - if they
knew just how much, they might
lose heart. They are the ones who
will do the most to transform their
country in the coming years.
The Battle for the T.V.
We continued touring, winding
up that night at another one of
Moscow's hotels for foreigners, the
Cosmos, where we knew we would
be able to watch the Cable News
Network in the lobby and find out
what was happening from a news
source we could trust more than

the Soviet media. Western
newspapers such as the
International Herald Tribune and
Wall Street Journal are available in
Moscow, but they are usually a day
or two late. Therefore, our one-
hour dose of C.N.N. was our first
opportunity to get some real news.
Ironically, C.N.N. decided to
broadcast the Soviet evening news,
which was being shown at the same
time. Instead of American news,
we were only getting an English
translation of Vremya!
This was ironic for another
reason. At nine o'clock, knowing
that C.N.N. was about to give the
;headlines, a large crowd of
Americans had gathered around the
television set. A Russian bartender,
as desperate for news as the rest of
us,.came over and changed the
chatiliel so that we were watching
Vtarma in Russian. The Americans

As a means of communicating with t
supporters posted fliers in the Mosco

roared and one of the men jumped
up and changed back to C.N.N.
The bartender returned the
television to Vremya. This would
have all been quite comical if the
stakes had not been so high. The
scene became ugly when several
American men shoved the
bartender away. As he was being
rudely pushed around, he was
shouting hysterically, "It's my
country! Do you also want to kill
After the bartender's boss also
tried and failed to commandeer the
television, the Americans then
formed a tight cordon around the
TV set so as to seal it off from
further assaults. They were using a
method probably learned from the
Red Army. (What's that saying
about "When in Rome..."?)
It was from this broadcast of the
Soviet news program that we heard
about the curfew that a local
military commander was imposing
a! of eleven o'clock that night. In
addition we found out that two of
the coup's leaders were ill and that
a handful of generals had
committed suicide.
While hurrying back to the
hotel I remembered a joke I had
heard years before, when the
Polish government instituted
martial law in 1981. As the story

Marx Prospekt was filled with protesters who used buses to seal off the square. The next day, the protesters
were gone and the square had been sealed off by the military. (See cover photo.)

several military vehicles already
stationed in front. Realizing that it
would probably be impossible to
resume our tour of the Kremlin
cathedrals once we left, we turned
around and continued touring.
President Gorbachev had just
been removed from power and,
there were tanks in the streets, but
the Kremlin grounds, located at the
center of Moscow, were
unaffected, much like the eye of a
hurricane. The Kremlin seemed

surrounded - and sometimes
mounted - the vehicles. The
crowd included some tourists, but
it was mostly composed of
Russians. I saw that many in the
crowd were taking pictures;
however, knowing that
photographing the military was still
strictly forbidden, I figured I
should ask permission to be on the
safe side. I approached a soldier
seated in an armored personnel
carrier and said, "May I take a

the Kremlin.
In front of the Kremlin and Red
Square lies Marx Prospekt, a vast
paved area that is much larger than
a football field and seems more like
a square than a boulevard (which is
whatrpnrpekt means). Only cars use
the street, while pedestrians cross
by means of underground
walkways - unless these
pedestrians are protesters. In the
past few years, some of the largest
demonstrations taking place in the

Hours after the coup had begun, a
lone protester stood outside the
Kremlin urging passers-bye to join in
the general strike.
junta would permit such obvious
calls for revolt to circulate
We gained some insight into the
Russian philosophy of apathy on
Wednesday when an elderly
woman who spoke fluent English
struck up a conversation with us.
She said that her main worry, like
that of so many, was finding food:
'The only way for us is to live for
today," she said. Many Russians

_. _ ... _.

September 13, 1991


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