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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bangers Could Have Saved August Putsch

Last week marked the 12th anniversary of the 1991 putsch, when the hard-line State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP, tried and failed to seize control of the Soviet government. I regarded the political struggle going on at the time as a clash between the "Bolsheviks" and the "Communists." The "Bolsheviks," usually referred to as "democrats," included such ambitious leaders as Boris Yeltsin, Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Vytautas Landsbergis -- men bent on achieving their aims at any cost. The "Communists," or the old nomenklatura, were on the wane but still strong enough to put up a serious fight. The only politician I respected was Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was trying to hold both sides in check.

My opinions applied equally to the pro-Yeltsin media, such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Ekho Moskvy and RTR. It was very fashionable at the time to regard Yeltsin as a champion of democracy and Gorbachev as having outlived his usefulness. In journalists, however, I considered this belief a sign of professional incompetence, and I tried to avoid dealing with them during "peace time."

As luck would have it, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta offices were right across the street from my apartment building. On Aug. 19, the first day of the putsch, the newspaper's staff gathered in the newsroom and waited to be arrested. My sister, the wife of one of the newspaper's founders, was among them. I had little choice but to abandon my neutral stance and cross over to the side of "democracy." My main contribution to the struggle came when I carted my family's entire store of canned food over to the newspaper. This seemed a major sacrifice at the time, considering how long we had stood in line during the previous months waiting to buy the food that was supposed to carry us through the forthcoming hungry winter.

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My most vivid memory of sitting in the newspaper offices is also related to food. Despite the siege mentality at the paper, employees -- mostly women -- would go out into the street from time to time, dart around to the nearby stores and come back, shaking their heads in reply to the hungry gazes that followed their every step. You see, rumors had been circulating in Moscow for months that the KGB was amassing huge stores of food, which it would deliver to stores at Zero Hour. The rumors proved unfounded.

Sausage might have saved the GKChP, but tanks could not.

On the evening of Aug. 20, I was at the barricades. "White House Radio" was up and running. High-falutin appeals from famous "democrats" constantly boomed from the loudspeakers: "In this final, fateful hour for democracy, we, your elected representatives, appeal to you, our defender ... " That kind of thing. As the night wore on, the voices of our elected representatives became less and less comprehensible. For the extremely sober audience, which had been standing for several hours in the rain, this was maddening. At times I even entertained hopes of a genuinely democratic solution -- for the defenders of the White House to take it by storm.

On Aug. 21 it became clear that the White House would not be stormed. The "Bolshevik" Yeltsin defeated the "Communists," and the democrat (without scare quotes) Gorbachev came out the loser.

To this day, I take consolation in only one thing. My father was soon appointed foreign minister of the Soviet Union, and this led to a sharp increase in the number of invitations I received from the organizers of various forums and conferences in Europe. I would return from abroad my bags stuffed with canned food.

The family stores were not just replaced but significantly swelled. And this helped us through the first brutal months of Yegor Gaidar's "shock therapy" reforms, when food appeared on the shelves but money disappeared.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals (