Three midshipmen and a Russian language specialist, all crowded around a satellite receiver at the U.S. Naval Academy, were among the first Americans to learn that the coup in the Soviet Union had failed yesterday.
Ludmila A. Pruner, a Russian emigre with a doctorate in linguistics, could barely contain her excitement as she translated the8 a.m. (4 p.m. Moscow time) "First Channel" newscast received live via satellite in Annapolis.
"It's over for the hard-liners! Look at him (the newscaster): He is free! His voice, his gestures and the way he is adding emotion andextra words to the statement. This shows that something extraordinary is happening," she said.
While the rest of America was trying todecipher the cryptic messages coming out of Moscow, Pruner and the midshipmen were learning from Soviet television that Yeltsin had assumed control of all armed forces and was going to rescue Gorbachev.
Even if the statement wasn't completely accurate, they knew at least that the emergency restrictions on the news media instituted during the coup had been lifted. Before yesterday's broadcast, anchormen on the same news show had dutifully and monotonously read statements prepared by the coup leaders.
"Two days ago the broadcast began: 'Gorbachev is ill, and the committee has to take care of the situation. And because he destroyed the country we have to declare a state of emergency,' " Pruner said. She noted that the anonymous anchorman never lifted his eyes from the paper and never strayed from the prepared text.
But yesterday, the anchorman's eyebrows rose and his voice betrayed a strong hint of mockery as he reported that Gorbachev,"who the committee told us had taken ill Sunday," would be back in Moscow shortly. He paused at one point, choking back tears, and said, "Excuse me, I'm anxious."
The midshipmen were also anxious or, more accurately, euphoric. During the three-day coup, they had been haunted by thepossibility that they may one day have to use their Russian skills in a new Cold War.
Dan Packer, Susie Stewart and Robert Chesson, all Class of 1992 Russian-language students who traveled to Moscow and Leningrad this summer, were in awe of Boris Yeltsin's leadership.
"It's not like he's brilliant or intellectual," Stewart said. "What everybody says about him is he's courageous."
"When he stood up on that tank and took control -- that was Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King all rolled up into one," Packer said.
Chessonexplained that an emphasis on the ability to use your knowledge and take "personal initiative" during a crisis is a main theme of the academy's leadership training program. This concept -- drilled into their heads since they were plebes -- is almost completely unknown in theSoviet Union.
"If something has to be done over there, 'they' always have to do it," Chesson said. "Yeltsin, he's their 'they.' "
During their trip to the Soviet Union, the midshipmen had round-table discussions with young Soviet officers. One of the subject was loyalty. Because their careers depend on it, Soviet officers' allegiances are still to the Communist Party; but in their hearts, their allegiance is to their homelands, Chesson said.
In one of the morning's most dramatic moments, John Hutchins, who is responsible for the satellite connections at the academy's 7-year-old Interactive Video Project,tuned in the FM radio station "Mayak" at 11:15.
The listeners were stunned to hear an English-language newscast -- explaining that "anti-constitutional forces" had been defeated -- on Moscow's main radiostation, which had been controlled by hard-liners since Sunday.
"This is very unusual to hear English on 'Mayak,' " Pruner said. "Thisis not for Russians; they are sending this message out to the rest of the world, that reformers have taken control."