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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Democracy's Spring: A Sentimental Journey

I got a phone call last month that set off a chain reaction of recollections. A man's voice told me that there would be a reunion of the Interregional Group the following Saturday at Moscow's House of Cinema. The Interregional Group was a faction in our country's first freely elected parliament, a group that once included figures like Boris Yeltsin and Anatoly Sobchak, a group of which I had the honor of being a member.


As I walked to the House of Cinema that day, I thought: "Is it possible to return to the days when the word 'democracy' -- shouted at the top of one's lungs from Manezh Square -- would summon a thunderous ovation from the crowd?"


I was traveling into the past knowing full well that many members of the group had made the transition from the opposition to officialdom, had acquired a taste for power and -- like all those in power -- had squabbled with one another. But no matter what, I was heading back to the happiest time of my life.


It was the winter of 1990. Members of the radical nationalist group Pamyat had burst into the House of Writers, openly demonstrating their right to preach their repulsive ideas. Fascists were making their threats without restraint, knowing that the authorities simply took it all as some kind of childish prank.


Volodya Molchanov, who was the host of the popular television program "Before and After Midnight," called me and said: "Look, let's try to do something. They've gone too far."


The next day we met at Ostankino and taped a discussion that was supposed to be aired on his show the next Saturday. But on Friday, the bosses at Ostankino refused permission for him to air it. "What can we do?" I said, trying to comfort Volodya. I was, after all, used to the censor's scissors as an inseparable part of life as a journalist.


But this was already 1990. Although they were still stronger than we were, we no longer felt that we were mere cogs in the rigid machine of the state. Suddenly Volodya asked: "Just the same, where will you be tomorrow night?" I gave him the phone number of Aleksei Borodin, the head of the Central Children's Theater.


That Saturday evening a group of friends gathered at Borodin's apartment for one of those typical Moscow evenings of wine and tea and an indescribable warmth. During the dreary Brezhnev years, it was these evenings and such people as these that made it possible to maintain hope, even when it began to seem that there was no hope left.


That night, of course, we were discussing Pamyat and how it had become so bold, why the government was so passive and why our leaders were trying not to notice the attack on our writers. It all boiled down to the question of who was behind Pamyat. The Central Committee? The KGB?


Censorship had already been officially abolished, the word "glasnost" had already crossed the boundaries Gorbachev had set for it. But the censor was still invisibly present in the offices of editors, forcing them to cut up material that was ready for publication or to take programs off the air.


We were sitting around when Volodya Molchanov called. "I know you're at dinner," he said, "Just don't drink anything."


"Why not?" I asked in surprise.


"Maybe we'll be able to get on the air live. When everybody leaves."


The very thought of such an opportunity -- to go on live, for the first time in television, made my heart beat faster.


"Volodya," I said, "Arkady Murashov is here with us, the secretary of the Interregional Group. If you can manage this, we'll come together."


"Then tell Arkady not to drink anything either."


After that all we could think about was whether or not Volodya would pull it off.


We sat, not taking our eyes off Channel One, as if suddenly the chief controller would come on the screen, stretch and say, "Okay, guys. I'm going home to bed. You can come now."


Suddenly the phone rang.


"Come quickly. Everyone has gone."


It was already 11:30 P.M.


We were on the air shortly after midnight. We were nervous, of course, and we were not as clear as we should have been. But I think we said what was necessary: "Pamyat is a toy that the authorities are using against the fledgling democratic movement. Pamyat is a threat of genuine fascism." And it was probably because of this that exactly one week later half a million Muscovites, summoned by the Interregional Group and human rights movements, went out onto the streets for an antifascist demonstration.


The night of the broadcast, when, exhausted from the tension, we finally got up, the entire camera crew began to applaud -- first of all for their colleague, Vladimir Molchanov, for his courage.


Molchanov was not thrown to the wolves. He was protected -- primarily because our rash act had been supported by Alexander Yakovlev, who was then a member of the Politburo.


All of us -- Volodya, Arkady and myself, were called at home the next morning, and each of us received his share of threats and insults. But what was that, compared to the next Saturday.


Half a million people marched from Park Kultury to the Kremlin, filling first the Garden Ring, then Gorky Street, then all of Manezh Square. I have seen many demonstrations in Moscow, but I have never seen such a united group as this one, which had come out to say "Down with fascism."


I can still remember the smell of the approaching spring, the people's faces, and my colleagues from the Interregional Group who were then still people of the spring, not yet grown self-important, not yet at odds with each other.


That is what I was reminiscing about that Saturday on my way to the House of Cinema.


The street was empty. There was no crowd at the door like there used to be, eager to see their idols. No one had come to hear what was happening, to find out what they should do now. And there were only five or six television cameras, not 20 or 30 like there used to be.


A photograph of Andrei Sakharov, who had been one of the group's leaders, decorated the stage. The same old people were in the half-empty hall -- Anatoly Sobchak, Gavriil Popov, Gennady Burbulis, Arkady Murashov, Mikhail Poltoranin. And we were happy to see each other. But nevertheless it was clear that the springtime of democracy had been over for a long time. I even began to think that we were now like Russian ?migr?s after the Revolution, gathering somewhere in Paris or Constantinople.


Then, once again, I remembered the evening when we waited for Volodya Molchanov's call, and the nighttime program, live, and the demonstration that showed that my city was alive.


No, it is not yet evening. And it is far from autumn.





Yury Shchekochikhin is head of the investigations department of Literaturnaya Gazeta. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.