The People Say 'Nyet!'

updated 09/02/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/02/1991 01:00AM

THIS TIME IT TOOK ONLY THREE DAYS TO SHAKE THE WORLD. BY chance, associate editor Maria Wilhelm was in Moscow on the morning that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was temporarily deposed. Wilhelm had arrived in the Soviet capital to arrange an interview with Raisa Gorbachev and was scheduled to leave Moscow at 6 P.M., Aug. 19. Instead she awoke to find herself an eyewitness to history. Her account follows.

THE FIRST CALL COMES AT 7:15 A.M. On the line is my Russian interpreter for the last three weeks, a young American living in Moscow. Tanks are rolling. Her voice is agitated. "It's Gorbachev," she says. "My roommate just got a call. It's on Radio Moscow. He's resigned. For health reasons. She says tanks are in October Square."

Although it has been discussed for months, the idea that Mikhail Gorbachev's six-year revolution is actually being crushed under the treads of his own tanks seems impossible. As I hurriedly dress, I keep thinking how there have been too many tanks this year. I covered the war in the Persian Gulf for three months, so I saw tanks in Saudi Arabia, tanks in southern Iraq, burned-out tanks on the highway out of Kuwait City. Reporting on factional fighting in Slovenia in June, I'd seen more tanks. As I walk to nearby Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the wide boulevard leading toward Wed Square, I listen for the rumbling of mechanized treads.

I arrive at the Time-Life News Service office. The phones ring constantly, as Soviet citizens call to ask what we know. Outside, tanks roll past. After a while I hurry outside, following the crowd streaming toward the mammoth Russian parliament building, the headquarters of Boris Yeltsin, known as the White House. If the conservatives have overthrown Gorbachev, then Yeltsin—the earthy populist President of the Russian Republic, the first democratically elected leader in Russia's 1,000-year history—is surely their next target.

When I arrive, out of breath, Yeltsin himself is atop a tank, addressing a growing crowd. He is wearing a dark suit, sweating, and speaking with obvious passion. This coup clearly will not be a pushover. With the Russian Republic flag behind him, Yeltsin thunders, "Any army against the people will not work!" He calls for a general strike, exhorting the crowds to civil disobedience against the "putschists." He will later warn of "clouds of terror and dictatorship gathering over the country."

Looking back, I realize that Yeltsin's extraordinary show of courage probably saved the day. I could see that the crowd was stirred. Maybe Gorbachev's fledgling democratic reforms had finally penetrated the infamously passive Soviet citizenry. The thought of returning to life under the yoke of the Communist Party, and another dictatorship by men with bad suits and bad haircuts, was obviously unacceptable to the thousands rallying around Yeltsin.

Not far from where I stand listening to Yeltsin, an elderly woman stoops to pick up a piece of rusting metal on the street. Her lips are chapped, and she is wearing a soiled blue scarf over her wiry white hair. Laboring, she hoists the twisted metal to add to the makeshift barricade the people are hastily assembling around the building. She shouts at a young soldier peering out of a tank turret, "Where is your heart, your soul? Will you fire on your own people? Will you?!"

I head for the headquarters of the Novosti Press Agency, making my way through streets jammed with military vehicles. There, the members of the State Committee for the State of Emergency, the junta now ruling the country, has scheduled its first press conference. Though no one knows it, this will be the only public appearance by the coup leaders. Gennady Yanayev, Gorbachev's handpicked Vice President and now acting President, announces that Gorbachev "has gotten very tired over these many years, and he will need some time to get his health back." Four of his committee members, faceless all, sit beside him at a table. In contrast to Gorbachev's easy charisma, these gray-suited, jowly men are throwbacks to the sclerotic Kremlin leadership of the past. Yanayev's hands shake nervously. The journalists are hostile; they laugh derisively when Yanayev explains that Gorbachev is ill.

At 7:45 P.M. I am back across town, where I spot a man lifting his wide-eyed 8-year-old son so the boy can get a close-up look at a tank. Vadim Stinger, 48, a gymnastics coach, is resigned. "What did you think would happen when there is nothing in the stores and the money you make wouldn't buy anything—if there was anything to buy? If that is reform, reform doesn't work." As he watches his son scamper over the dusty tank, he shrugs. "All boys like to play war."

I stop to talk with a passerby, Heinrich Elesin, 29, a cellist with the Moscow Piano Quartet. He says when he heard the news on the radio this morning, it was "like being hit with a hammer on the head." His wife, Marina Pukel, 25, a pianist studying at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, says she wept when she heard the news. "Communists," she hisses, her dainty, heart-shaped earrings swinging. "Idiocy and amorality characterize this day. It is something people always said would happen, that they would get rid of Gorbachev, but nobody really believed it."

DAY TWO

Daylight breaks Tuesday with a light rain falling. Yeltsin supporters have kept an all-night vigil at the barricades, sharing Marlboros and moonshine. We do not know it, but the coup is beginning to crumble. The plotters acted hastily, seizing power and hoping to prevent Gorbachev from signing a treaty giving new rights to nine of the country's 15 republics. But they have overestimated the allegiance of the Communist Party and the army. We hear that the defiant street protests in Moscow are being echoed at mass demonstrations in other Soviet cities. Midafternoon it is announced that one of the Emergency Committee members, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, has resigned because of "severe hypertension." KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov are also rumored to have resigned.

Tuesday night, Aug. 20, may go down in history as the night Russians rescued their nascent democracy. Against a misty night sky, bonfires dot the streets bordering Yeltsin's headquarters in the White House. Despite a curfew, tens of thousands have responded to Yeltsin's appeal to defend the building. Although rumors swirl that the military is about to strike, men and women form a human chain across the bridge spanning the Moscow River. They are united, exuberant, sharing food and fearful anxiety. Three people are dead, some say; tanks are advancing. At 2 A.M. Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev's onetime Foreign Minister who resigned in December predicting a "coming dictatorship," appears. His words, "Long live freedom!" ring with life. The crowd surges, chanting "Russia, Russia!" Vladimir Sergeyev, a 36-year-old psychologist who has joined the people on the barricade, says, "The people are awake. We have already tasted freedom. It is impossible that [the coup] will succeed."

DAY THREE

By midafternoon Wednesday, word spreads fast that the army is pulling back. The coup leaders have fled. Gorbachev arrives back in Moscow under heavy guard. In the streets surrounding the White House, the mood is relieved but still wary. Yeva Ryabova, 23, speaks of the Russian character as "stoic. We've lived through so much. We're happy tonight, but not drunk with it."

This isn't the wild jubilation of Berlin or Prague. It is very different, though, from Moscow on any other evening. At midnight a heavy-metal rock band plays for thousands still massed at Yeltsin's headquarters. Bread and thick slices of pink sausage are passed among the people who formed the links in the chain blocking Kutuzovsky Prospekt. The tanks guarding the area are strewn with flowers. On a gray concrete wall, someone has scrawled DOWN WITH THE RED FASCIST EMPIRE.

His back to the building, Yevgenny Shvets, 42, one of those who risked their lives to block the tanks, tells of teaching young men and women to make Molotov cocktails. An army major for 20 years, Shvets says that for the last 24 hours he has been a "commander of an army of anarchists. I taught them to be careful, to let the tanks move forward and to throw the cocktail slightly behind the tanks." Shvets has been two days without sleep, but in the early morning hours after the collapse of the coup, he says he feels as if he's on vacation. "For the moment," he says, "we've won the war."

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