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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tank Commander Says He Never Backed Yeltsin

If there was one moment that decided the outcome of the August coup — and, by extension, the fate of Russia — it was when Boris Yeltsin looked into Boris Tesyolkin's eyes.

Tesyolkin was commander of a group of three tanks that pulled up outside the White House on Aug. 19, 1991. And it was onto his tank that Yeltsin clambered to read his appeal declaring the putsch illegal and the putschists criminals.

"I greeted the commander of the tank upon which I was standing and talked with the soldiers," Yeltsin wrote later. "From their faces, from the expression in their eyes, I could see they would not shoot us."

Yeltsin describes the moment as an epiphany. After meeting the tank crew, he wrote later, he was sure the Russian people — and the Russian army — would rally behind him.

It was his signature moment, the image that would define his career.

But according to Tesyolkin, Yeltsin misread the moment.

"He asked me, 'Have you come to kill Yeltsin?' " Tesyolkin said in an interview. "I replied, 'No.'"

That wasn't an expression of support, Tesyolkin says — it was no more, and no less, than the truth. His tanks had no ammunition, and he had no orders to target Yeltsin. "I never supported Yeltsin," he insists.

Amid the confusion that marked the coup, one concern dominated: Whom did the military support? The answer now, as then, isn't completely clear.

After the coup, some news reports described Tesyolkin as rallying to Yeltsin's defense. But Tesyolkin tells a different story.

He was a 27-year-old captain in the elite Tamanskaya motor rifle division, which sent in about 40 tanks that day, divided into three companies. When they reached the bridge in front of the White House, the first two companies crossed the bridge and turned left down the embankment, rolling past the front of the White House.

All of a sudden, he says, ordinary people started to walk up to the tanks. Some lay down in their path. Tesyolkin ordered his tanks to halt. Immediately, a few people climbed onto his tank. Tesyolkin's mechanic had been riding with the hatch open, and they began to beat him on the head. Tesyolkin ordered the hatch closed.

"All of a sudden, there was a roar from the stairs — 'Yeltsin! Yeltsin!' And there was Yeltsin, coming down the stairs," Tesyolkin recalls. "He came up to us, climbed up, showed no fear. He deserves credit for that. No one knew we didn't have ammunition. For all he knew, he could have climbed up on the tank and been fired on. His bulletproof vest couldn't have saved him, and he had nothing else. What he did was brave."

After his brief exchange with Yeltsin, Tesyolkin listened to the Russian president's appeal along with everybody else.

"When I'd heard a little of what he said, I began to make sense of the situation," Tesyolkin recalls. That morning, all he'd been told was that they were being sent into the capital because of a possibility of "disorder," he says. "I began to think about it a little. … This could have turned serious. But no one can attack their own people. I know I couldn't, and I couldn't order my subordinates to."

But he never faced that decision. When Yeltsin finished, he asked the crowd to let the tanks pull away. The crowd backed off, and the tanks drove off to fulfill their orders to blockade a second bridge farther along the river.

"I was just a captain. I wasn't even 30 years old. None of it was really sinking in," Tesyolkin says now. "All we did was follow orders."