by Renee Earle
Monday, August 19, 1991. The morning started like most of my days as a press officer at Embassy Moscow. I rose early, made coffee, and turned on the TV to check the news. The similarity of routine quickly vanished. Instead of the news, Soviet state TV was broadcasting the Swan Lake ballet, often a sign in the Soviet Union that something was amiss. Through the open window, I heard a strange, rumbling noise coming from the direction of the Ostankino TV tower, located just a few minutes from my apartment complex. I thought they might be having technical difficulties. Thirty-one years ago, there were no home computers or cell phones to help me unravel what was going on.
I went to my car in the outside parking lot and started the half-hour drive south to the embassy. It was only then that I saw the Soviet military tanks, which rolled alongside the busy morning traffic past the embassy in central Moscow to their nearby destinations, including the “White House,” the Russian Parliament building, not far from the back of the embassy.
What Was Happening?
As the day’s events unfolded and embassy officers tried to gather the latest details of the coup against USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s government, it was hard to believe barely three weeks had passed since we worked feverishly behind the scenes as Presidents Bush and Gorbachev signed the START I treaty and Barbara Bush and Raisa Gorbachev dedicated a gift from the United Sates to the Soviet Union’s children. Admired by Raisa Gorbachev during an earlier visit to Boston with Barbara Bush, nine sculpted mom and ducklings, replicas of Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” bronze originals in Boston’s Public Garden, now marched peacefully across the lovely Novodevichy Park. The U.S.-Soviet relationship had come far.
Despite some encouraging signs, however, many reforms to the Soviet system of government and economy introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 had not produced the hoped-for economic results, especially for the average Soviet citizen. There were long lines for fuel and other goods. Embassy staff was not exempt; I remember planning my weekend trips to the gas pump where queuing up often meant losing an entire morning. Most grocery shelves stood empty, including at Moscow’s largest department store GUM, where a large display window featured only a handful of cans of condensed milk enveloped in cobwebs. Factories, producing little, lacked the funds to pay their employees. Meanwhile, a few, including the former Communist Party nomenklatura, became rich quick through connections, some entrepreneurial energy, and the unchecked privatization of state enterprises under a voucher system.
Embassy reports to Washington had warned of hardliners’ resistance to the new freedoms of both glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), which weakened the Communist Party’s control over government and economic resources in the entire Soviet empire. The party saw its power slipping away; the last straw came in the signing of a new union treaty among several Soviet republics that would replace the USSR with a configuration called the Union of Sovereign States, scheduled for August 20.
These hardline elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, joined by the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, established a “State Committee of Emergency” while Gorbachev was at his vacation villa in the Crimea. On Soviet state media, we heard the Committee announce control of the government, necessitated, they said, by Gorbachev’s “illness” preventing him from governing. Gorbachev resisted their demands to resign and was placed under house arrest in Crimea.
To the great surprise of the hardliners, accustomed to the acquiescence of a population in a totalitarian state, resistance by the people, not only in Moscow but also in the provinces and especially in the Baltic republics, manifested itself quickly. Thousands began to gather in the streets, moving toward the Russian Parliament. We saw many people surround the tanks in the streets close to the embassy, trying to convince uncertain soldiers that they should not attack their fellow citizens. As the embassy had reported in the months before the coup, the new activism was certainly the result of several years of glasnost under Gorbachev but was also fueled by mounting dissatisfaction with the current state of economic degradation.
At the Russian White House, Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic since June, began to direct the opposition forces. From our close vantage point at the embassy, we watched as makeshift barricades were constructed. Embassy political officers went to the White House to gather information. The situation remained highly uncertain, and those of us who lived off the embassy compound were told to sleep in the embassy gym hastily transformed into a dormitory.
News and Information
My colleagues and I in the press section were furiously trying to monitor what media we could to stay abreast of developments for updates to the Ambassador and Washington. Although the coup plotters had taken control of state television and radio stations, some independent media now existed and continued to broadcast in defiance of the order to stop their operations. Even state television in Leningrad reported events as they happened. Thanks to glasnost, Radio Liberty broadcasts were no longer jammed, and RL correspondents went live from the Russian White House, the streets of Moscow, and other Soviet cities. The independent radio station Echo of Moscow broadcast live the speeches of Russian legislators. Some more courageous Russian publications began to publish a few underground editions.
The View from Outside Moscow
A colleague from the embassy’s political section and I had been scheduled to visit Yerevan for meetings with Armenian political and broadcast leaders. My mission, ironically, was to negotiate the U.S. gift of a satellite dish to the Armenian Republic’s state broadcaster for better access to international programming, as we had done a few months earlier with the three Baltic republics, who had already declared their independence in the preceding months. After some debate concerning our security, it was decided we should proceed with the trip as it would be useful to have information for the embassy’s reporting to Washington about how other republics were reacting to the state of emergency. Accordingly, my colleague and I, rather than sleep in the gym, headed to the airport in the hopes of getting a plane. Many flights had been cancelled. Weaving through tanks along the way, our driver managed to get us to the airport, and after several long hours in the waiting room, we finally boarded Aeroflot for Yerevan.
In the Soviet republics we found there was little information about and mixed reaction to events in Moscow. In most cases, although demonstrations also broke out in several republics, not least Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the leaders of other Soviet republics were careful to avoid direct confrontation with the Emergency Committee. We heard firsthand that this was the case with Armenia. Our interlocutors told us they remembered too vividly how Soviet troops had harshly put down demonstrations in neighboring Georgia in 1989, and they were well aware of the Soviet special police forces’ actions against independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia in early 1991. As Swan Lake and classical concerts, interrupted occasionally by the official TV news broadcast Vremya, continued to blackout most information about developments in the capital, Armenian officials chose to lay low, waiting to see which direction the tides would flow.
We were still unsure of the status of events when we flew back to Moscow later in the week. The coup lasted barely three days. Even many soldiers had joined the thousands of intellectuals, students, and workers in the streets. On August 21, Minister of Defense Yazov ordered the withdrawal of troops. Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22. And some days later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree officially accrediting the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow. The license remained in force until Vladimir Putin revoked it in 2002.
Although the coup was a failure, it succeeded paradoxically in hastening the end of the Soviet Union, which collapsed before the end of that year with the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev. In the ensuing months, the U.S. hurried to open embassies in the fourteen newly independent states and to support these new republics, including Russia, in their transitions to independence, democracy, and a new system of managing their economies.
Just as many citizens of Central Europe today do not remember life before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, by 2016, according to Russian information service Interfax, almost half of Russians hardly recalled the events of August 1991. Recent reports from Russia show that, unlike the courageous pro-democracy forces we saw on the barricades, a growing percentage of Russians view the events of 1991 and their aftermath negatively, agreeing, it seems, with Vladimir Putin that the loss of the Soviet empire was a disaster for Russia.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services. She currently serves as the Publisher of the American Diplomacy Journal.