Gregory Freidin


The New Republic, September 10, 1991




As she stuck her hand through a police barrier, a heavy-set middle-aged woman whispered to a pimply young sentry guarding a bevy of mean-looking armored personnel carriers lined up near the Red Square: "Sonny, hey sonny, here's a candy bar, go ahead, take it, please." "Against regulations," he muttered shaking his head, hands gripping a Kalashnikov, and added almost inaudibly: "Stick it in my pocket, fast." The hand lunged forward -- and a tiny chocolate bar disappeared into the pants' pocket of the soldier's fatigues. Further on more of the same: chocolates, cigarettes, sandwiches sliding into the pockets of the young soldiers stand- ing guard before their APC's, as their officers look the other way, both embarrassed by the soldiers mendicancy and moved by the crowd's consideration and warmth. An occasional late-comer to the revolution, anxious to show his militant resolve, elbows his way to the barrier and begins to berate the soldiers, exhorting them to come over to the people's side, to join Yeltsin and Russia. The soldiers, mostly Slavic-looking, winked and smiled at him from under their rain hoods. On Monday morning, having deposed and, possibly, disposed of the country's President, the self-appointed Emergency Committee declared an all-out war on the opposition. It was hard to imagine at 8:30 am that there was another power in the Soviet Union which could accept the challenge of those that had taken over the omnipotent central state. Yet the recently installed mechanism of the separation of powers was already working. By late morning of Yeltsin was climbing a tank -- a big tank dispatched to bring this big man to his knees -- to thunder away at the junta and to pronounce its actions illegal. The lone member of the Union Cabinet, Minister for the Environment, Nikolai Vorontsov, a deputy of Russia's Supreme Soviet, joined Yeltsin on the tank to the cheer, as he told me later that day, of a hundred or so people. For a space the size of the Capitol steps this was a sparse crowd.


No more than an hour earlier, on my way to the writers' enclave in Peredelkino, I asked my taxi to circle once around the White House, the seat of Russia's parliament: all was calm and ordinary as befits a government building on a sleepy Monday morning in August (inside Yeltsin, Khasbulatov, and Silaev were denouncing the Committee as unconstitutional to the Moscow press corps). As we drove West through the outskirts of the city, a column of tanks, APCs, and trucks full of armed soldiers was rumbling in the opposite direction. By the time we turned off the main highway half an hour later, I had counted a hundred and fifty tanks and APC's.


"This is my fourth coup d'etat," confided the ninety-two- years-old writer I went to Peredelkino to visit. I inscribed for her volume of my Russian translation of The Federalist Papers, published a few months ago in the United States: "To Tamara Ivanova, on the day of her fourth coup d'etat." Starved for news, we turned on the TV only to be treated to a splendiferous Bolshoi production of Swan Lake. The sole channel that was broadcasting over most of the country was teasing the viewers, at the brink of a civil war, with a preserved vestige of Russia's imperial __dornment. The news blackout lasted all throughout the coup, but on the second day an inventive soul in programming ran a concert hall production of Boris Godunov -- an operatic blast at regi- cides, silent majorities, and pretenders. "Now, come to think of it, I have lived through six coups d'etat," Ivanova corrected herself as we were parting. I amended my inscription accordingly. The book now seemed no more than a cruel reminder of yet another chance that Russia had missed.


Part of the tank column I had run into earlier was already parked on the center lane on the Kalinin bridge right opposite the White House. A cop was blocking the traffic, but in such a dazed and half-hearted way that my taxi driver jumped the curb under his very nose and sped without looking back to the other end of the bridge. There something strange was going on. The column of tanks stopped short of a flimsy barrier made of sections of a wire mesh fencing behind which a dozen or so people were silently pushing an empty trolley bus. "It must've stalled," I said to myself and wondered why they were pushing it at the right angle to the line of traffic. Next to the trolley bus, a small crowd consisting of two respectable-looking women and several men in business suits and with attache cases, were pursuing a weaving milk truck. One of the men managed to jump onto the step of the cabin but was immediately pushed off by the irate and foul-mouthed driver: "You mother-fuckers, I am the one who'll be paying for it, not you..." They were trying to commandeer the truck. Only then did it dawn on me that I was witnessing was the construction of a barricade.


Further up, where the bridge formed a thoroughfare with the road leading to the embankment and the White House, half a dozen tanks had already taken up a positions, their gun barrels trained quizzically onto an empty patch of overcast sky between the Russia House and the famous ghost tower of the new American Embassy. The leading tank peaked out dinosaur-like from behind a barricade consisting solely of a ten-feet-long garden bench. Up close you could see the insignia of one of Moscow's two elite tank divisions. A helmeted soldier sitting on top of the gun turret displayed that intensely sullen and distant look which one readily associates with the actual Soviet man engaged in actual socialist construction. Before long, neighborhood kids were crawling all over the armor, their presence transforming the tank, if not into ploughshares, than a heavy-duty tenement jungle gym. Taking in this scene, my eye paused to register a few inch- thick metal bars, used for reinforcing concrete, sticking out of the wheels of the tank treads. The bars disabled the vehicle, but the soldiers were in no hurry to take them out.


A young man in his twenties was now climbing on top of the tank. Leaning against the gun barrel and without any regard for the soldier, he began waving Russia's non-communist tricolor flag. "Folks in the 'White House' say you ought to stick another flag into the gun barrel," an unassuming elderly woman whispered loudly to the flag-waver. "Tell'em I can't do it: the gun is sheathed," he hissed back, his face showing that he was at the limit of his pluck, and with added fervor went on making figure eights with his giant tricolor. Did the people holed up in the "White House," for whose benefit the flag was being waved, find in this sight the needed encouragement?


__ The news spread that tanks were coming along Kalininsky Pro- spekt from the direction of the city center. By 3 pm the crowd, which had swelled to a few hundred, rushed to the end of the avenue which opened onto the "White House." Men and women, mostly well-dressed types in their thirties and forties, scurried around in search of the barricade building debris. As barricade building goes, Moscow is Europe's most efficient city. You don't have to overturn cars or newspaper booths, or tear up roads for the sake of the archetypal cobble stones, because the city's construction bosses had unwittingly positioned stores of debris within everybody's easy reach. Unfinished buildings, torn-up roads, and mounds of fragments of reinforced concrete are as plentiful in Moscow as outdoor cafes are in Paris. Past me marched a team of several men shouldering a heavy pipe, their shopping bags and attache cases swaying in unison.


A column of light tanks and heavy APC's was rumbling along the Kalininsky Prospekt. The fortification, supposed to block their passage, consisted of see-through wire mesh screens strung across the street, held erect by some sort of telepathy or magic. To shield this contraption from the caterpillar treads, men and women joined hands to form a chain across the breadth of the avenue. The approaching column, headed by a tank-like thing but without a turret, slowed to a crawl. It halted a few feet before the human chain, filling the air with the noise and stench of idling diesel engines. People rushed around the leading vehicle, some shouting heart-rending pleas not to shoot, other hurling insults at the helmeted head of the convoy commander which was sticking forlornly out of the vehicle's top hatch. "Shame!" "Don't shoot at your own people!" "Yeltsin is your President!" "Junta's lackeys!" "Murderers!" "Be with the people!"


The commander climbed half way out of the hatch. This exhausted wiry man of about forty was wearing a paratrooper's uniform with the two stars of a lieutenant colonel. Crouching behind him was a junior officer, a beefy young man with an anxious smile, cradling in his enormous arms a handy little automatic rifle. Red-eyed, his face the color of dust covered asphalt, the commander had the tormented look of a rudely awakened man who was ordered to choose between his duty as army officer and killing his own mother. The worst was still to come. Waving his half-empty string bag at the commander, a grizzled diminutive man -- a lifetime of labor stamped indelibly into his demeanor -- elbowed his way to the side of the tank. He was shaking with rage. Almost bursting to make himself heard over the engine noise, he shouted: "I've worked all my life, you see, all my life I've paid for this army, and now you've turned against me, you're shooting at me!" "Shame, shame!" the crowd was egging him on. Several people were pressing into the officer's hands Xerox copies of Russia's government first appeal, issued at 9:00 am, calling the Emergency Committee "unconstitutional," its members, "putschists," and declaring an "indeterminate general strike." Many were yelling: "You did vote for Yeltsin, didn't you, you yourself voted for Yeltsin, and now you've got your guns pointing at him." The officer would not take the bait, but his gold-toothed smile made it clear that he did not mind being counted among Yeltsin supporters.


__ A young man in blue jeans climbed on top of the tank, helping onto the armor two very good-looking, stylish young women. Like many in the crowds around the "White House," all three had about them the secure air of people who "owned the place." Nonchalantly, they took a brief surveys of the tank's top, located a comfortable spot, and without much ado settled down, park-bench style, for a chat and a smoke. But before their charm could begin to melt the armor, a corpulent matron, her graying hair in a tight bun, wrestled her way to the front of the tank and began to bellow at the officers. Gesticulating forcefully, as if unaware that her hands were ensnared by a brace of string bags, she pointed to her breast and roared: "I've nurtured you, bastards, and now you will be shooting me in this breast!" A vein on the commander's temple, which had been pulsating visibly all throughout the encounter, swelled enormously, his dust covered face grew ruddy, jaws clenched, but the eyes were clearly pleading to spare him this unbearable ordeal. His aide let go of the rifle, and it disappeared down the hatch. "Cut off the engine, commander, save your fuel for the crops!" The engine was stopped, and minutes later every vehicle in the convoy followed suit. No, he will not obey if ordered to shoot at the people, he said to the French reporter in reply to the question on everybody's mind.


The family reunion was now in full swing. The paratroopers had not eaten for twenty four hours and had been on the march since leaving their base in Ryazan for two days. The contents of the barricade builders' shopping bags -- those unprepossessing horns of plenty stuffed with sausage, bread, candy, cartons of milk -- flowed freely into the open hatches of the paratroopers' tanks and APCs. An hour or so later, an order came for the convoy to leave. The street grew empty, exposing to all the vicissitudes of a revolution the still flimsy barricade and the wearied, vulnerable men and women who had the determination to built it. There were the people, there was their government which the people had gathered to defend, and there was the enemy, epitomized by the old communist state. There was a nation in the making.

Copyright (c) 1991 by Gregory Freidin