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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Diary of the Coup

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Aug. 19, 1991. So it's happened, after all. My husband woke me this morning with the words, "Get up, Cassandra, there's a coup." The State Committee for a State of Emergency, GKChP, announced that Gorbachev has been taken ill and therefore could not perform his presidential duties. They really are idiots Ч they couldn't even come up with something more original than the 1964 formula when they kicked Khrushchev out: "The president has been taken ill and is therefore incapacitated."

It's easy enough to see what the Trinity Ч representing the KGB, the Interior Ministry, and the army Ч are doing on the state committee. Yanayev is there to give everything an appearance of legality: The president is unexpectedly and inexplicably incapacitated; naturally, the vice president takes over. It's happened on the eve of the very day the union treaty was supposed to be signed Ч what could be more natural? Pavlov's presence is no mystery, either; hadn't he requested emergency powers back in June? Baklanov and Tizyakov represent the defense people, the MIC. As for Starodubtsev, well, the old Soviet-style mentality demands that there be a "representative of the people" on the committee, and how fine to have a country boy and firm defender of the collective farm system. But where's Lukyanov? Is he sticking with Gorbachev? Or is he doing his usual, running things behind the scenes?

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
The putschists explain that the country's chaotic conditions demanded a restitution of order. A state of emergency is to be in effect for six months; activities of political parties and movements have been suspended, and censorship of the press is imminent. "Taking advantage of the freedoms granted, trampling upon the fresh shoots of democracy, extremist forces have arisen which intend to liquidate the Soviet Union" Ч that's their explanation. Oh, how afraid they are of losing their property Е

This is the second time this year I've started a journal. Seven months ago, when the Chekists and the military began killing people, it was in Vilnius, far away. Now, the trouble's right next door, under my windows. A column of tanks just rumbled past the newspaper office; people ran into the street and started shouting at the soldiers, shaking their fists. One tank deliberately aimed for a man, who just managed to avoid being run over.

There's quite a crowd here at the newspaper: members of the staff, writers, some strangers, too. Our editor-in-chief is in the thick of things: Yegor [Yakovlev] is over at the parliament building, the "White House." It's clear the paper won't be coming out today; men with machine guns are stationed at the printing presses. CNN shows columns of tanks moving along Kutuzovsky Prospekt and the Garden Ring. Across from Moscow News, on the other side of the square near the Izvestia building, there are more tanks (or armored personnel carriers Ч I can't tell the difference) from the elite Tamanskaya division. The word from the soldiers is that they were roused at 5 a.m. and told they were being sent to pacify draft evaders in Moscow. In addition to the Tamanskaya division, the Kantemirovskaya Tank Division and the Tula Paratroopers Division have been sent to Moscow.

News from the White House: Yeltsin has issued a decree declaring the GKChP an unconstitutional body and calling on people not to obey it. He managed to get through to Gorbachev's summer residence at Foros, but was told that Gorbachev was resting and couldn't come to the phone. He tried getting Yanayev, and was told that he couldn't come to the phone, either: "He's resting after a difficult night and asked not to be disturbed." All of Yeltsin's government telephone lines have been cut off.

2 p.m. Yakovlev's back. Yeltsin's holding steadfast. The situation is grave. Since we can't publish, we'll put out Xeroxed leaflets. Each one of us will have to decide whether or not to remain at the editorial offices. There is no guarantee we won't see armed guards here as well, no guarantee of Е anything. Grim smiles; but nobody leaves.

2:30 p.m. Well, it's about time. The gekachepisty are finally getting on the ball; a TASS wire reports that independent democratic newspapers, including MN, have been shut down. The right-wing papers Ч Pravda, Sovietskaya Rossia, Rossia, Krasnaya Zvezda Ч will appear as usual. The rest must "reregister" at GKChP's new media control office. Our colleagues at Kommersant have already found out that neither they, nor we, have any more chance of registering than of seeing our own ears.

An anonymous voice just attacked Yegor over the vertushka, saying, "You tried to do me in; now listen to the radio, you son of a bitch." On the radio, the GKChP's decrees were being repeated for the hundredth time. Yegor is perfectly calm; he thrives on tension.

Some Izvestia reporters have come over (to their great embarrassment, their paper wasn't shut down). There was a scuffle at their printing presses; the printers refused to set the newspaper unless they could run Yeltsin's decree. Izvestia editor in chief Yefimov, back from vacation, burst into the print shop floor, yelling Ч and that's where the story ends, for now. The outcome's still in doubt. We add what we've got to our leaflet, which begins with an apology to our readers: You won't be seeing the next issue of our paper; unfortunately, there's a coup going on here.

I call up the KGB's Center for Public Liaison to find out what they're thinking over there, but all their perestroika politeness has vanished, and they cut me off brusquely. You want an interview? Write down your questions, drop them in the box in the KGB's reception area, and we'll take a look. I could hear the smirk in their voices.

More news comes in: Moscow KGB has shut down the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy and taken Radio Russia off the air. There are Chekists at every elevator and studio at Central Television; tanks surround the building, journalists are being searched at the entrance. The guys from "Vesti," the Russian Television news program, thought fast Ч they lowered their equipment out the window on ropes and then slid down after it. But then how come our telephones are still working? People are calling in from all over the country; in fact, the international lines are still open.

7 p.m. Great news: an acquaintance from the KGB called one of our colleagues to say that 7,000 people are going to be arrested in Moscow, including 11 Moscow News journalists Ч I'm on the list, as is Natalya Gevorkyan, with whom I've often worked. Thanks for the honor, guys; it's nice to know our work hasn't gone unnoticed.

Night. I'm going to stay at a friend's. There's no way for me to get home Ч Kutuzovsky Prospekt and Minskoye Shosse are wall-to-wall with tanks and armored personnel carriers. Everything at home is fine.

Aug. 20. We're churning out leaflets on an assembly line; we can't keep up with the demand. There's a line outside MN, as though it were a store with some rare commodity. Our schoolboy couriers can't get past the waiting crowd to distribute the leaflets Ч people snatch them right out of their hands, then grumble when they're told it's one to a customer. There's a scarcity of news sources in the city: Central Television is showing "Swan Lake," and CNN isn't generally available. Our Xerox machines are already smoking, even though the Soros Foundation brought over two more. Now, we're running out of paper.

Editors from 11 of the shut-down newspapers met with Yegor Ч we're going to pool our efforts in an underground newspaper. Arrangements have already been made with a printing press in Tallinn. We've been sending news out by fax to Paris, New York, Rome: It's coming out in Liberation, The New York Times and Repubblica, with a Moscow News byline. But why are the faxes working? Why are the airports letting flights land? Why are the trains running on their regular schedules throughout the country? Why are they letting us put out our leaflets, even letting our boys plaster them to the sides of tanks? ("Tanks are the best place to advertise MN" is the latest marketing wisdom at the office.) What kind of a coup is this, anyway?

3 p.m. I took a ride through the city. Apart from heavy congestion here and there, traffic seemed normal. There were two armored personnel carriers in front of the Main Post Office; crack troops surrounded Central Television; on the Garden Ring, eight tanks and two APCs thundered past me. Most of the military vehicles were on Kutuzovsky, not far from the White House.

4 p.m. The square around the White House is packed with people. Announcements are made over megaphones: "Seventh chain is forming; fifth chain, meet by entrance No. 8." It's anticipated that the building will be stormed within the next hour. A chain of people with arms linked blocks our passage, saying, "No women allowed here." Andrei Makarov, a well-known attorney, shouts: "They're not women, they're journalists." There's no time or energy to retaliate in kind. People grab our leaflets Ч and any others they can find.

9 p.m. The dancing swans are replaced by the "Vremya" news program, on which a 10 p.m. curfew is announced for Moscow. Yegor orders everyone to leave the editorial office. Sasha Shalganov, our managing editor, has gone with the typists and printers to set an underground issue of MN. The joint underground newspaper planned earlier is being put to bed at Kommersant. Our parliamentary correspondent, Volodya Orlov, is still at the White House. Natalya Gevorkyan, Tatyana Menshikova, who heads our political reform department, and I have decided to spend the night at the newspaper; we have to hustle information over the faxes and into the underground issue.

Aug. 21. 12:30 a.m. Something terrible is happening in the tunnel directly across from the U.S. Embassy, where people are trying to stop tanks from coming through with a barricade constructed out of trolleybuses. The embassy's press office is no help; they tell me, "Call the State Department in Washington, we're not giving out any information."

"According to our information, people are being killed right now under your windows," I snap back.

"Call Washington," they respond.

2:10 a.m. Tatyana has gotten through to Burbulis [then state secretary of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] on the vertushka. "Sound the alarm, girls," he says. "Spread the good news: the putschists are getting mean. We're surrounded by tanks and APCs. There are about two hundred deputies in the building, plus a ton of reporters. Everyone's been issued a machine gun."

"Where is Yeltsin," we ask.

"Yeltsin is here."

It's a disaster. It's all over. We open up a bottle of cognac and toast all the wonderful things that Ч were; including MN. I feel a twinge of regret for our editorial faxes and computers; whatever the OMON doesn't smash, it'll carry away. I try to fax some friends in the States: "If something should happen to me, please take care of my little girl." The fax doesn't go through. Domestic fax lines are still working. Igor Korolyov, the MN telecommunications engineer, transmits our information to Kommersant.

2:47 a.m. We call Burbulis again. "I spoke to Yazov and Yanayev," he tells us. "They say they weren't responsible; it's the Russians at the White House who are causing all the trouble."

Three of us are trying to reach the coup leaders Ч Yazov, Pugo, Kryuchkov. No luck.

3:45 a.m. Called Burbulis again. "We just heard that the Vitebsk KGB Paratroopers Division is moving toward Moscow. I called Kryuchkov. At first he denied it, then he said, "I'll look into it."

Where is Yeltsin? "Yeltsin's still here."

5:25 a.m. Burbulis: "The troops stopped advancing. Things seem to be turning around. They'll pay for this."

At dawn, our "underground" crew is back. We're ready to go with a leaflet entitled "Chronicle of a Bloody Night" Ч and it was bloody; three people died in the clash near the U.S. Embassy.

9 a.m. Our typist, Anya Oreshechkina, and our technical editor, Natasha Senina, were arrested while pasting up leaflets near Lubyanka. At 9 a.m., the GKChP issued an order prohibiting the distribution of "provocative leaflets." The decree calls for up to 30 days detention, or a fine of 1000 rubles, but Anya and Natasha were released anyway; they asked for a copy of the leaflet as a "memento."

Evening. Well, it's over. The putschists are under arrest. Gorbachev has been brought from Foros. He looks terrible, with black circles under his eyes. Everyone at the office is kissing and congratulating each other in euphoria.

I went home during the day for a few hours to sleep. My 3-year-old daughter Lyolka met me, asking, "Mama, did you beat the junta already?" I almost cried. What kind of country is it where 3-year-old children can so easily add the word "junta" to their vocabulary?

10 p.m. Gorbachev's first press conference since his house arrest in Foros. He's obviously not thinking about what he's saying: "I'll never tell you the whole truth, anyway." Well, that's true enough. I feel a bit sorry for him, but it's just human compassion: I wouldn't want my worst enemy to go through what he did. Still, he brought the whole three-day nightmare on himself, and all of us. And yes, the three boys who were killed are on his conscience. Coincidentally, Aug. 21 is the 23rd anniversary of the invasion of Prague by Soviet troops. The regime marked it in its finest tradition Ч with blood and corpses.

These are excerpts from a diary kept by Yevgenia Albats. She included part of the diary in her book "The State Within a State."