updated 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/09/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT
The tanks that rolled into Moscow were meant to take control of the entire Soviet Union—that vast patchwork of often reluctant republics that runs from the Finnish border to the Chinese frontier. But it was in Russia that the battle for freedom raged, and it was Boris Yeltsin's impromptu army of ordinary Russians who won the day. Here are the stories of some of the thousands who took to the barricades to defend their beloved rodina—and their dream of freedom.
The badge proclaims him a member of Unit 30 of the People's Militia for the Defense of the White House—Yeltsin's nickname for the Russian Parliament Building. Andrei Vishilovski is only 14 but, he insists, "I'm a very independent boy." As soon as he heard the Aug. 19 radio announcement that an "Emergency Committee" was filling in for an "ailing" President Gorbachev, Andrei understood what was happening. "I knew it was really a coup," he says. "I came right downtown. I called my mother and told her I was staying for the night."
A few weeks ago, most Muscovites would have said that one of the nation's problems was its youth: Apathetic and disenfranchised, they had no interest in the future of their country. But that, too, changed. The barricades outside the White House were filled mostly with young people, teenagers like Andrei and even children. "I came here to defend Russia," he says. "I had to do this."
Andrei's mother followed her son to the barricades, although the two never saw each other. While he stayed near the parliament building, Andrei barely missed the confrontation a few hundred feet away in which two men were crushed by armored vehicles and a third was shot dead. "I knew there was a possibility I could be shot," he says. "But I was never afraid."
Nor was Vyacheslav Savenko, who witnessed the bloodshed. "I learned that when everybody is united, nobody is afraid," he says with a quiet intensity and seriousness beyond his 16 years. "I saw a man about 35 years old placing himself in front of one of the armored personnel carriers. He was urging them to go away, to turn back. They kept moving, rolled right over him and crushed him. Everybody was in fear then. But I stayed right there on the spot." At that moment, the young high school student became a warrior. "I don't mean to show off," he says, "but I was the one who threw the first Molotov cocktail. We filled bottles with gasoline and they burst into flames, right in front of the APCs [armored personnel carriers]." Those crude weapons and the shock of resistance were enough to make the soldiers flee.
Four days after the coup collapsed, Slava still mans the barricades around the parliament, allowing access only to the cars of officials loyal to Yeltsin—and to the rodina. What will they do with the rest of their lives? Slava's colleague, Yevgeni Schistokov, 17, answers for all of them: "We're hoping to find ourselves in the future. We're hoping now there will be a future."
In the gold-braided, black dress-uniform of a Soviet Navy captain, Alexander Ousov once cut a figure of considerable power. But a few mornings after the coup ended, his posture was almost meek as he clutched his white service cap to his chest with both hands. His eyes were dark and numb, his face a diary of the terror the coup inflicted on his people. With his granddaughter at his side, he seemed to sleepwalk as he moved away from the grave of his only child.
"Vladimir was so ordinary, so average," the retired captain says repeatedly, as if his son's death were some bureaucratic blunder that could be rectified through the appropriate ministry. "I am his father, of course, and I am biased, but I must tell you he was a good man." Giant portraits of Vladimir Ousov and two other men dominate the sidewalk outside the Vagankovfkaya cemetery near parliament, and a steady stream of pilgrims was arriving, adding flowers to a pile that was already several feet high. These three men—Ousov, 37, Dimitri Komar, 22, and Ilya Krichevsk, 28—were unknown when the coup began, but as much as anyone they were responsible for keeping freedom alive.
It was Krichevsk who clambered onto one of the APCs and threw a cloth over its window to blind the driver; a soldier emerged and shot him dead. Komar stood in front of another vehicle and tried to stop it with his body; as he was about to be crushed, Vladimir Ousov reached to save him. Both were run over. But their deaths galvanized the crowd and helped stop the military advance, and the next day the coup failed.
Vladimir came from a privileged background. He studied economics and landed a job in a joint venture company in Moscow, investing Western capital in Soviet enterprises. He was married and had a 14-year-old daughter. Like many young professionals, he chose not to join the Communist Party. He was not a man to put his faith in church or state. As his family leaves the graveyard, the women stop to pray at the chapel by the entrance. Captain Ousov waits outside, saying Vladimir would have done the same: "My son was christened, but he was not a believer."
Vladimir did have one belief, and he gave his life for it. "He was a very strong patriot, and I was very proud of him for that," says the captain. "Now this country has a democratic future," he adds, his voice breaking. "My son played a very important part." A friend takes Ousov by the elbow. They cross the street in front of the cemetery, and a driver in a long black official limousine whisks the captain away.
Nikolai Amelin's face became known to the world when he climbed atop the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky in Moscow the day after the coup failed. He slipped a steel noose around the neck of the founder of the KGB, and a crane later lifted it into exile. But the muscular 23-year-old construction worker believes his real contribution came a few days earlier, when he acted as a resistance leader. "It was at 11 A.M. I heard there had been a change in power," he recalls. "It's hard to say this now, but it was music to my ears to learn Gorbachev was gone. We all supported him when he started these changes in 1985, but he stopped three years ago and hasn't done anything since. At least Yeltsin is our legally elected president." A former tank driver with the Soviet Army in central Asia, Amelin put on his old helmet, bullet-proof vest and some camouflage pants and headed for the White House.
"Yeltsin was atop a tank appealing to the crowd to defy the leaders of the coup," says Amelin. "His words were as strong as a cyclone. I was amazed." Amelin needed no further prompting. He roamed the streets scavenging debris to bolster the barricade—wood, metal, broken bits of concrete. "One old lady even brought us a toilet," he recalls. "Everything was important."
Throughout the coup, the people at the barricades—as well as those inside the building—received remarkably accurate information about the plans of the usurpers. The plotters apparently intended to strike at the White House with regular army troops, KGB attack teams and units of the Interior Ministry's Black Berets. Although none of these assaults materialized, the defenders were prepared for them. At one point Nikolai even left the barricades, using the cover of army clothing to mingle with nearby tank crews. He brought back valuable information about the military's strength and morale. "It was clear to me none of them wanted to fight," he says. "They were as scared as we were."
By Aug. 21 the danger had passed, and Nikolai began to realize that the impossible had happened—the Russian people had saved the first democracy Russia had ever known. "I didn't relax until I heard that Gorbachev was coming back," he says. "His return to Moscow wouldn't have been possible except for us. He knows, I think, the struggle wasn't about him or even about Yeltsin. It was about us. And when we won, we won for good."
The struggle against the coup was really two battles—one in the streets outside the White House, another in the fevered, sometimes desperate halls and offices inside. As the American people grasped for news of developments in those tumultuous days, one young woman emerged as spokesperson for the fight for freedom. Journalist Veronica Khilchevskaya, 26, moved from listening in on meetings with resistance leaders—sometimes including Yeltsin—to phoning U.S. television networks and news agencies with reports on what was happening. In the cramped office she shares with a colleague at the reformist magazine New Times, she chuckled with delight when told that millions of Americans had seen her picture and heard her voice in their living rooms. But her greatest happiness springs from her role in defending democracy.
On the first day of the coup, Khilchevskaya, a diplomat's daughter who lived in New York as a child and speaks English, set out for the Kremlin with her husband, Artyorn Borovik, a well-known television news anchor. After the swelling crowd there moved to the White House to rally around Yeltsin, Veronica and Artyorn offered to send his message to the world outside. "It was easier to call New York than it was to call the Moscow suburbs," she says. "I was amazed that I dialed a number in the 212 area code and got NBC."
Her first task was to reach foreign correspondents in Moscow and tell them that there was a resistance. Like many Muscovites, journalists had seen tanks around the Kremlin and assumed the coup was successful. Through her foreign contacts, Veronica learned that George Bush had issued a statement condemning the coup; a fax from a friend at NBC allowed her to relay the text from the summer White House in Kennebunkport to the White House in Moscow. The news buoyed Yeltsin and his supporters. "This coup was very unprofessional," she says. "It was so stupid that the fax was left on."
Although she did not speak with Yeltsin personally, Veronica saw him several times and passed on his comments to the foreign press. "The fact that Yeltsin was there at that moment was the most important part of defeating the coup. He was very quick and very tough. He came right out and said, 'This is a crime, period.' That forced people to make up their minds."
By the second day of the siege—after Yeltsin addressed a triumphant rally at the barricades—Veronica was optimistic. "When I talked to Tom Brokaw, I said, 'I think there is already a victory,' but he said, 'Veronica, I don't think so.' He was right."
Soon afterward, reports reached the parliament building of an imminent KGB helicopter assault. Resistance leaders ordered women to leave the building. "That bothered me," Veronica says. At first, she hid in a closet. Then, with her short hair and jeans, she emerged carrying Artyom's 8-mm camera, posing as his cameraman.
That night seemed endless. "We heard the first shot around 1 A.M." she says. Expecting a tear-gas attack, she groped her way to a bathroom in the dark building, tore her T-shirt to pieces and began to soak it in water to protect her face and nose. "Somebody suddenly said, 'Are you crazy? This is the men's room!' I said, 'Shut up. I don't care.' "
But when the night ended peacefully, the sudden realization came to her. "In Russia there is an expression, 'They don't have the guts for the job,' " she says. "We started hearing that the coup leaders were not giving orders. We started to realize we had won."
For Veronica, those days were the most important of her life—and a turning point in history. "It was the first time the people could be proud of themselves," she says. "This was the first time we really did something ourselves instead of letting the people on top do it for us. You could see it in people's eyes; there was happiness instead of the anger you always saw before."
Two weeks ago, the likenesses of Dzerzhinsky and the old Leninist M.I. Kalinin—both toppled from their pedestals by angry mobs—joined the dustbin of history. In a trucking company yard not far from the Kremlin, they lay face down in the mud beside a junk heap. A philosophical truck dispatcher named Alexei Asanov, 42, gave them as sympathetic a eulogy as they are likely to receive. "It's not civilized," he said, looking at the fallen idols. "They are part of our history." That said, he quickly shifted his gaze forward. " 'The future will be a bright light," he said. "We will be proud of our country. I hope we will find our way.