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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

State TV Stages a Revolt of Its Own

A coup of another sort took place Aug. 19, 1991, on Channel One, the main state television channel in the Soviet Union.

Expected to serve as the Kremlin's mouthpiece, Channel One journalists staged their own cautious revolt and played an important part in rallying support for Boris Yeltsin.

From early morning, the anchors dutifully read official documents announcing that new leadership had taken over to prevent "chaos and anarchy" and to save the Soviet Union, but their black clothing and gloomy expressions communicated a darker development. And when broadcasting was interrupted to air the coup leaders' news conference, the camera lingered naughtily on the shaking hands of the self-appointed acting Soviet president, Gennady Yanayev.

Finally, the evening news program "Vremya" came out with a daring report that showed Muscovites the growing opposition to the coup.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
Looking back, Channel One's part in thwarting the coup appears to have been the result not of a concerted effort but of people standing up for their principles individually, coupled with the inactivity of those whose job it was to make sure the party line was delivered without a glitch.

For Channel One, the coup started in the very early hours of Aug. 19, 1991, when Leonid Kravchenko, the head of the State Committee on Television and Radio, or Gosteleradio, was swiftly delivered to Communist Party headquarters on Staraya Ploshchad at about 1 a.m.

According to Sergei Medvedev, a 33-year-old "Vremya" evening news commentator at the time, Kravchenko was presented with a handful of documents that were to be read to the nation starting with the first early morning broadcast.

Kravchenko, though, insisted on sticking to the established procedure for disseminating information in the Soviet Union and asked that state news agency TASS be the first to report the changes in leadership. TASS chief Gennady Shishkin was promptly called in. At 2 a.m., Kravchenko alerted "Vremya" news editor Olvar Kakuchaya. He then delivered the documents to Ostankino.

"It's incredible, but many of those papers were either written by hand or typed out in such a rush that they contained mistakes and typos," said Medvedev, now chairman of the board of television production company RTS, which makes shows for ORT.

When the staff at Ostankino saw the documents, they decided the day's whole broadcasting schedule had to be changed. "By that time, the morning news was a cheerful friendly show aimed at putting people in a good mood. With these documents it was obvious the show would not be cheerful, nor would any other part of the daily broadcast," he said in a recent interview.

When a woman anchor saw what she was to read, she insisted on changing into something more somber. "So she got a man's black sweater that was borrowed from somebody in the office," Medvedev said.

"And the mood here wasn't the best. Not only did everyone quickly realize that something serious was happening, people also had no news from anywhere apart from the stack of papers that arrived from Staraya Ploshchad," he said.

Many within Ostankino, corrupted by the new freedoms brought by Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost, did their best to circumvent the rules.

That wasn't easy. At 4 a.m. a tight ring of troops sealed the office in Ostankino so no one could get in or out. A KGB colonel was placed in the editorial offices to monitor the reports and give final approval, Medvedev said.

The documents themselves, however, gave away the members of the State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP, and undermined their cause. Their announcements were full of Soviet-style patriotic cliches such as "patriotic readiness" and "age-old friendship in the unified family of fraternal peoples and the revival of the Fatherland," phrases that harked back to the period of stagnation under Leonid Brezhnev. The message to viewers was that the GKChP was trying to return the country to its pre-glasnost past.

The television anchors did their part to make sure the implications of the coup were fully understood by reading the announcements with grave expressions on their faces.

Channel One chose to fill up air time with solemn music and classical ballet, which also served to alert viewers that something serious was happening. Remarkably, "Swan Lake" was scheduled to be shown that day anyway, but it was shown over and over in the absence of regular programming. Tchaikovsky's ballet is still remembered as a distinctive feature of the coup.

The serious music and unfortunate swans dancing on the blue screens were another throwback to the old Soviet ways, when the death of a Party general secretary was announced with the canceling of entertainment programs and the sounds of solemn music emanating from televisions and radios.

Programming was canceled on Channel Two, or Russian television, which supported Yeltsin as president of the Russian republic; Channel One was seen on all TV channels.

There also were some conscious attempts by Channel One's staff to tell the nation the truth, starting with the live broadcast of the news conference given by self-proclaimed acting president Yanayev and four other GKChP members: Interior Minister Boris Pugo; Alexander Tizyakov, president of the Association of Transport and Communications Enterprises; Oleg Baklanov, first deputy chairman of the Security Council; and Vasily Starodubtsev, chairman of the farmers' union. Some presumably more powerful figures were absent, including KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov and Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov.

The absence of key GKChP members and, more importantly, the work of the cameramen and live-feed editors effectively undermined what was meant to be an attempt by the coup leaders to legitimize power.

While experienced in covering up leaders' failures in the past, the Ostankino television crew chose not to apply this skill that day. Instead, an observant lens went after Yanayev's weakness — his constantly trembling hands.

There must have been a way to send a different message — perhaps by showing the stern face of Gorbachev's replacement. But what viewers saw was a group of agitated elderly men who did not look at all sure of what they were doing.

The most exciting point of the news conference came when young Nezavisimaya Gazeta reporter Tatyana Malkina, just out of journalism school, bluntly asked Yanayev, "Could you please say whether or not you understand that last night you carried out a coup d'etat?"

Not only did this particular question get aired, but as Yanayev mumbled something incoherent, the camera kept showing Malkina's face bearing an expression of disdain. Even though it seemed the screws were tightening in the country, people saw that it was still possible to speak out.

The next question was how "Vremya," the main Soviet news program, would respond.

Since there was a ban on crews leaving the building, the staff within Ostankino had little way of knowing what was going on outside — except by watching CNN. Incredibly, the CNN feed was not cut off.

"And there suddenly we saw pictures of the tanks heading along Prospekt Kalinina [now Novy Arbat] toward the Kremlin," Medvedev said. Tanks reached the city center by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m.

According to Medvedev, he ran to Kakuchaya arguing that someone had to go out and see what was actually happening in the city. The news editor gave his written permission for Medvedev's crew to leave the building. After trying to sneak out several back exits and being stopped by the troops, the reporter and his team marched out the main entrance.

Getting into the city center was a monster task on its own. Roads were blocked by both army troops and protesters. Eventually, however, waving his official "Vremya" ID and screaming at officers, Medvedev made it.

The TV crew, not knowing whether their reporting would ever be aired, went to Manezh Square. There, among a mix of armored vehicles, disconnected trolley buses, soldiers and police, people were walking around looking worried or amused.

In the late 1980s, before the formal gardens and underground shopping center were built, Manezh Square was something like Moscow's version of Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. Political gatherings and rallies were a frequent scene there, so it was a natural place for Muscovites to come in hopes of getting more information about the situation in the country.

Despite the men in uniform, two activists with megaphones kept up a running commentary calling the GKChP illegal and advising people to go to the White House, the parliament of the Russian republic. People in the crowd listened to them, discussed the news with one another and with the soldiers and policemen. Medvedev filmed it all.

His crew shot the tanks moving across the city and went on to the White House to film the defenders of the parliament. Medvedev caught the key event — Yeltsin standing on a tank and speaking to "the citizens of Russia."

Three defenders of the White House — a blue-collar worker, a young man and a bearded intellectual — spoke on camera and, in different words, all three said the same thing. They said they did not want to submit to the GKChP and were determined to protect democracy and freedom, "to defend our legitimate elected representatives, our power," as the intellectual put it.

The young man said the defenders would fight even if there was no food for them to eat. The worker, from the ZiL automotive plant, declared that he had come to the White House because he felt it was the right thing to do and was prepared to stay for days.

Before returning to Ostankino, Medvedev did an impassioned stand-up during which he said that he was not sure whether his report would ever be broadcast. He quoted Yeltsin calling the GKChP a coup d'etat and described "the human waves that kept rolling in, one after another" to defend the White House.

The crew returned to Ostankino about 40 minutes before "Vremya" went on the air at 9 p.m. According to Medvedev, at some point during editing, the report was shown to Kravchenko's deputy Valentin Lazutkin. Lazutkin gave it his approval — a brave move by the deputy head of Gosteleradio.

But even more surprising was the reaction, or to be precise, lack of reaction, of the KGB colonel who remained in the "Vremya" offices throughout the day specifically to monitor what was aired.

"He just looked at it and said nothing," Medvedev said.

At 9 p.m., "Vremya" started with the two anchors reading the official documents as if under a spell. In between, however, the anchors read the reactions of world leaders to the events in the Soviet Union. In a clear voice, one of them simply told the nation that U.S. President George Bush called the GKChP unconstitutional and the leaders of many countries were worried by the developments.

Then came the bombshell — Medvedev's report and the reaction to it.

"The telephones just exploded in our offices. It seemed as if there was not a phone that was not ringing," he said.

Some of the people on the lines were journalists calling to congratulate the "Vremya" team. In Lazutkin's office, though, the calls were different.

"He had a dozen telephones in his office, many of which were direct lines to the Kremlin. I think at some point he had half of the GKChP on those lines," Medvedev said. Some made threats, others were only mildly reproving.

To protect their reporter, Channel One immediately sent Medvedev on a vacation, which he began by going back to the White House.

Thousands of Muscovites did the same, and many of them did so after being inspired by the least likely source — the state mouthpiece "Vremya."

When the coup collapsed, Kravchenko was promptly fired. He is now the editor of Parlamentskaya Gazeta, the State Duma's newspaper.