Tank officer talked to the people, broke army ranks THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 22, 1991|By Elizabeth Shogren | Elizabeth Shogren,Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- Awakened before dawn Monday morning and ordered to get his men into tanks and head toward the Soviet capital, Lt. Nikolai Kotlerov had no idea he was being sent to enforce a reactionary coup d'etat.

"When we got to Moscow, people walked up to us and asked, 'You're not going to shoot, are you?' " recalled Lieutenant Kotlerov, the platoon commander from the elite Tamanskaya Tank Division.

"It was shocking to us," he said, "because of course we didn't plan to shoot our own people. We thought they were just asking us stupid questions, but then they explained what was going on in our country."

After his tank had joined a long row of armored vehicles posed menacingly along the Moscow River embankment near the Russian parliament building, Lieutenant Kotlerov was approached by a Russian government official who entreated him to enter the building and speak with Boris N. Yeltsin, the besieged Russian president.

"I agreed, and my commander did not prohibit me, so I became the ambassador for my unit," said Lieutenant Kotlerov, a slight 23-year-old who grew up on a collective farm in central Russia.

Mr. Yeltsin appealed to the soldier for his help, telling him that his duty was to protect his people and his government.

Won over, Lieutenant Kotlerov returned to his unit and persuaded his commanding officer, Maj. Sergei Yevdokimov, to meet with Russian officials.

"Half an hour later, Sergei Yevdokimov swore his allegiance to the Russian government, which decided to station his 10 tanks around the parliament to defend the Russian leadership," according to Irek Mortazin, the official who invited Lieutenant Kotlerov into the building.

With the 10 tanks were about the same number of armored personnel carriers, whose crews also swore allegiance to Mr. Yeltsin's government.

By breaking ranks to side with the Russian government, this small unit inspired tens of thousands of Muscovites in their resistance and helped put down the putsch that had threatened to erase the democratic reforms achieved over the last six years.

Although there were many defections to Mr. Yeltsin's side by military groups, the Tamanskaya tank crews won the spotlight because they were the first to break ranks and defend the very heart of the resistance, the Russian parliament.

"If we did not have military strength behind us, it would have been very difficult to hold up," said Vladimir Nikiforov, 24, the leader of one of the unarmed volunteer defense units at the building. "They've shown us that they are our brothers and they will not go against us."

The soldiers -- lavished with food, flowers and Russian flags by grateful Muscovites -- seemed sheepish about all the attention.

"People treat me as if I did some very brave act," Lieutenant Kotlerov said. "They treat me like a hero, but I didn't do anything special.

"I'm a Russian myself. How could I go against my own people?"

As the coup collapsed yesterday, all armored vehicles were ordered to leave Moscow and return to their garrisons, but the Russian government decided that the Tamanskaya tanks would remain in place until tension eased, according to Mr. Mortazin, assistant to the deputy defense minister, Maj. Vladimir Lopatin.

Mr. Mortazin, who was an officer himself until a year ago, said there were countless stories of military units that helped thwart the conservative takeover.

The junta's inability to command the army despite the position of Gen. Dmitry T. Yazov, the defense minister, on the coup's emergency committee was a major reason for the coup's failure, according to Oleg D. Kalugin, a former general in the KGB security and intelligence agency and a member of the Congress of People's Deputies, the national parliament.

Not since the Russian Revolution, when czarist soldiers refused to obey their officers, has discipline in the army been so seriously violated.

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