Twenty Years Later: Memories of the August 1991 Coup Attempt
Newspaper courtesy of: Arista Maria Cirtautas.
Associate Professor, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Comparative Literature
On August 19, 1991, I was finishing a University of Texas summer study abroad program at Oxford (my first time in Europe), and had just returned to England - after an exhausting overnight bus trip - from a weekend in Paris. I was lying on the green in London's Hyde Park, nursing a cold I'd picked up in France, when the news came in: the putsch in Moscow, the crowds rallying, Perestroika itself in danger. By then I had almost completed my undergraduate degree in Russian Language and Literature, and the thought immediately seized me: To the barricades! I've got to book a flight and get over there right away! When I did eventually make it to Russia two years later, it was a very different country from the doomed USSR of that sunny August day ...
Affiliate Lecturer, JSIS
On the day of the coup, August 19, 1991, I walked into the HUB and saw a crowd fixed on a large television set (today, thanks to the ubiquitous Internet, such a scene would not be likely). Among them was Zoya Polack; I went over to stand next to her. As we watched the events unfold we said nothing. During a brief break in the telecast Zoya and I discussed our mutual concern that civil war would erupt over the future of the Soviet polity. Of course, it did not. But, that was a real fear at that moment. I learned shortly afterward that Slavic Department Professor Hal Swayze had died, ironically, that very morning. Prof. Swayze's death was ironic because he had been our specialist on Soviet literature. We didn't fully realize it then, but the fast-paced chain of events was unstoppable; and by Christmas it was clear to the world that the maximalist coup not only had failed but also had hastened the dawn of a new order---precisely what it had been meant to forestall. I don't remember exactly where I was when I watched the footage of the Russian tricolor being hoisted over the Kremlin, probably because I couldn't believe my eyes. It took me a long time to get used to the "new" Russia and the "former" Soviet Union and the new states that emerged from it. No doubt many others felt the same way, as evidenced in part by the variety of labels applied to these territories in the first decade after the Soviet collapse.
Arista Maria Cirtautas
The attempted coup in August 1991 is not an event that has been seared into my memory. Circumstances were changing so rapidly across eastern Europe that almost every week since the spring of 1989 produced not just headline news but history making news. Although I arrived in Germany after the year of miracles, the feeling of being caught up in extraordinary times was still very much present. German reunification with all of its attendant challenges, the struggles for independence in the Baltic states, including the siege of the parliament in Vilnius, a surprisingly contested presidential election in Poland were all events that generated hope and anxiety in almost equal measure. Journalists I knew at the time were all twitchy, diving to answer the phone at the first ring since any call could lead to the next career-building assignment. In this context, news of the coup seemed somehow ‘normal’ as yet another tension-filled series of days in which everything, literally everything, seemed to hang in the balance. Seeing the pictures of tanks in Moscow that summer inevitably brought the images of the tanks in wintery Vilnius to mind. Only half a year separated the roll-out of troops in both cities. Again, force was being used in an attempt to forestall the collapse of the old order and again the citizens mobilized to defend their vision of the future. Only this time, Gorbachev was the victim not the architect of a reactionary backlash. As I followed the news of the coup, I hoped that the Vilnius precedent would hold true – that the outcomes would not be what the old guard intended. That nothing was certain except uncertainty.
Professor, Department Chair, Slavic Languages and Literatures
In August of 1991 my friends from Leningrad, as it was still called then, were visiting us in Seattle and we watched the events on TV, accompanied by their often unprintable comments. But it was a year earlier that was really historic for me. It was still the era of glasnost and transition, with some things still old and some things new. There was the first Nabokov International Conference in Moscow in the spring of 1990, organized by the Library of World Literature, to which I was invited. This was the first time I went back after my emigration as a Jewish refugee in 1975 (enabled, of course by the Jackson Amendment!). I was apprehensive. My tension probably infected my elder daughter, who was 6 years old at the time. Known for hardly ever crying, she was sobbing and screaming “Please don’t go” at the airport, and her screams became louder as I started going through the corridor to board the plane. I almost turned back. When I landed in Moscow, the first sight was of the border patrol agents and soldiers still in Soviet uniforms. I would have turned back but at this point I could not. As a part of the conference we went to Leningrad, the city where I was born and grew up. The very same friends who would watch the coup with us in Seattle a year later waited until dusk to drive me around the city because, in the twilight, the shabbiness and peeling paints of the buildings were magically masked. One of my American colleagues who was in Leningrad for the first time remarked: “It’s obvious that it used to be a beautiful city.” The conference went well; it was marvelous to see my old friends, and yet, on the way back, when I saw on the SAS map that we had crossed into Norway, I was strangely relieved that even if the plane crashed, it would no longer be over the territory of what was still the Soviet Union…
In August, 1991, I was getting ready to go to the (then still) USSR for an international conference on education organized by the Ministry of Education to take place in Sochi. I had my plane tickets and visa in hand when the news came of the coup attempt. For a couple of days, I seriously wavered as to whether or not I would go. But then, after things resolved themselves and I spoke with some Russian colleagues, I decided to make the trip. All went well, and the conference was both productive and interesting (the focus was on introducing Soviet educational planners to Western models for research and development).
Two memories stand out: After arriving in Moscow and before flying to Sochi, a Russian friend drove me into the center of Moscow, to the area around the "White House" where the coup events had taken place. About a week had elapsed, but there were still signs of the disturbances everywhere -- graffiti were especially interesting, including "A good Communist is a dead Communist." But entrepreneurial spirit was also on view: posted on a wall were large photographic prints of crowds at the counter-coup demonstrations, with a sign saying, "If you see yourself here, call Kolya -- I can make you a print for 10 rubles."
Another distinct memory came from the conference in Sochi -- a tour one day took a group into Georgia, which by then had declared its independence and was erecting a border-crossing station. It looked imposing, but was not yet staffed. As we made our way to Lake Ritsa, we stopped for lunch in Gagra, at that time a pleasant resort on the coast of the Black Sea; a year later, it became the scene of a ferocious battle that was part of the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia.
Professor Emeritus, History
I knew that my colleague and friend, Don Treadgold, was leading a tour in Russia, and I wished he were closer for I had often benefitted from his insights and his willingness to correct my thinking about a part of the world he knew well and I did not. I was saddened by the news for I believed in Gorbachev's greatness, recognized it as a crucial factor in the great events of 1989, and regarded them as ending the Cold War much as Truman had often predicted it would end.
Matthew J. Ouimet
Senior Analyst, Office of Analysis for Russia and Eurasia
Bureau of Intelligence and Research
U.S. Department of State
I recall the coup very clearly, indeed. I was preparing to start my doctoral program in the History Department, having just finished my Masters at the Jackson School. Sadly, my grandmother died in mid-August, and so I went back to New York for her funeral. After a good Irish wake that lasted three eight-hour days, we held the funeral on August 19 in the middle of Hurricane Bob - a Category 2 storm that was crashing directly into New England that morning. We were in Queens, so we were not directly in its path, but the rain was coming sideways at us as we stood by her graveside, and there was much Irish levity at how grandma was going out with a bang. Looking to get out of the rain as quickly as we could, we found a bar of some kind close by and ordered drinks to warm up. A television was on over the bar, and they were running the news of the coup from CNN. I was riveted to the television, and refused to leave the bar for the post-funeral party until I had a handle on what was going on in Moscow. Years later, I had the opportunity to research the events of those days for Herb Ellison's television program on Yeltsin. I came across an unpublished Russian study of the coup at the Library of Congress, and brought it, along with other insights I found at the Library, to Herb's attention. So to this day, the fall of the Soviet Union is linked in my mind with Herb Ellison and my sainted Irish Grandmother. Sorry, Grandma...
Twenty years ago, I was a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Southern California during the months leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I was one of two graduate students studying Soviet Central Asian History. It was very interesting as a student of history to be in such an exciting historical moment and to experience with your own eyes the rapid social and political changes occurring in the region that you were studying. I remember that I was taking a seminar course on Soviet Central Asian History and the most fascinating aspect was that we were discussing current events much more rather than past history. Of course, none of us ever anticipated the dissolution of Soviet Union. I was so happy when Kazakhstan declared sovereignty on October 25th 1990. Even more, I was extremely overjoyed to witness Kazakhstan finally, like other Soviet Republics, become an independent country in 1991. I wished that my father, who had to flee his homeland Kazakhstan as a one year old, could have witnessed that historical moment.
Founder and Former President
Foundation for Russian American Economic Cooperation
In August of 1991 I was hosting a friend from Moscow, reciprocating her hospitality when I stayed with her in 1990. Anna’s daughter was in Moscow and she was enjoying Seattle when we learned of the coup. It was shocking to learn of the coup but to witness first-hand Anna’s fear and anxiety as to what this would mean for her and her daughter so far away and her country was gripping. I had just started FRAEC and every event that occurred, positive or negative, meant flip flops for my stomach. The coup had both Anna and me on the edge; her not knowing what she would be returning to and me wondering how this would impact our small, nascent organization.
We were both very relieved when the coup ended peacefully and spellbound by the events that followed. That November we held our first major conference entitled “The Transformation of the Soviet Economy” and it was only a month later when the Soviet Union dissolved opening up many opportunities for Russians, my friend Anna, and for all of us working to bring our two countries together. The coup and the subsequent events was a pivotal time in world history; one that I will not forget.