After coup, Muscovites braced with city in chaos THE SOVIET CRISIS


August 25, 1991|By Kathy Lally and Will Englund | Kathy Lally and Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- The day the hard-liners told the world that Mikhail S. Gorbachev was ill, a gentle Moscow man hurried to the apartment of some American friends fearing that the forces of darkness would soon be carrying him off.

He gave the Americans a small, plastic grocery bag holding a well-worn address book, a collection of business cards and photos of a few close friends. Then he sighed with relief. When the KGB came to get him, he said, they would not find evidence to incriminate his friends.

This 39-year-old man, who radiates such quiet kindness that 5-year-olds can't help but throw themselves in his lap, committed a heinous state crime five years ago. He took up the cause of human rights in the Soviet Union, and the KGB put him in prison.

As news got out about the kind of people who were in control of the Kremlin, he was sure the KGB would start rounding up the kind of people who might resist.

But before the KGB men could find him, the leaders of the coup were facing their own arrest. In the end, the principled Russian did have to take out the papers he carries in his wallet identifying himself as a former KGB prisoner. But this time, he was using the KGB records to persuade two rows of well-armed guards to admit him to the Russian Federation building -- where the resistance gathered to take its stand.

"They know if I once was a KGB prisoner," he said happily, "I'm all right."


It was that kind of week in Moscow. Life moved at such mind-altering speed that it was difficult to grasp at times who was who and what was what.

The city was in upheaval. It was nearly impossible to drive, and every minute there was somewhere to go, some new twist to be witnessed in a dramatic story. The barricades erected by Muscovites to fend off the tanks caused one traffic snarl. The huge, lumbering columns of tanks caused another. And the traffic police trying to impose their own sense of order created yet another.

The Sun's Moscow reporters were fortunate enough to have possession of their own tank: a big, lumbering, once-shiny-black 1981 Ford LTD Crown Victoria.

The formerly totalitarian state gave her and other cars driven by RTC foreign correspondents a great advantage in covering the revolution.

The car of every foreigner here is identified by its license plates. Business people are identified by yellow plates. Journalists are picked out by a "K" for correspondent. And you can tell they are Americans because they bear the numbers 004.

All of this made it easier to drive to the revolution because everyone could see you were neutral.


It turned out to be a good thing that not everyone listened to Boris N. Yeltsin's appeal for a strike. If they had, the subway might have been shut down and no one would have had transportation to the revolution.

As it was, the subway system rose magnificently to the occasion, packing in what seemed like thousands more passengers headed for the conveniently named Barricade station next to the zoo and not far from the Russian building. The huge stream of humanity in and out of the station never stopped.

The subway costs a socialistic 15 kopecks, about half a cent. And those who don't pay usually are avoiding it because it's too much trouble to get the right change. But despite the huge crowds, the wardens would spot every miscreant, blow on a whistle, and police would emerge from nowhere to confront the would-be penetrator.

One passenger, watching one of the redoubtable female wardens snare a poor soul who tried to avoid paying, suggested that if these women had been assigned anti-tank duty, no Soviet tank would have reached the city.


The experience leaves an indelible image.

It is the image of solid workaday people walking, driving, riding subways and streetcars to the revolution, wearing high heels and carrying briefcases, standing at Mr. Yeltsin's headquarters through three days of rain in a growing sea of mud.

A people who sometimes seem to treasure public brusqueness as a national pastime were kind to each other in the extreme as they gathered in huge crowds. There were more "excuse me's" heard in the thick crushes of people trying to move around the Russian Federation building than are heard in the course of a hundred subway rides.

The hard-liners who staged the coup thoughtfully handed Mr. Yeltsin his rallying point. The plotters clamped a lid on information about the coup, obliging the entire city to gather outside the Russian building, where Mr. Yeltsin was pleased to tell them just what was happening.


Moscow is a city of impossible traffic regulations, one of them being that left turns are almost always illegal. Usually, this means that instead of making a left turn you must drive for block after block after block past where you want to go, waiting for the right psychological moment that all Muscovites sense to make a U-turn. Then you drive all the way back and turn right instead.

But last week, as the tanks rolled in and the barricades went up, driving anywhere got harder and harder. Anyone out on the streets that night could almost see the idea as it began to take hold in the minds of the city's drivers; "There's a revolution going on out there. Sense and justice dictate that I shall now make a left turn. Right here."

And sense and justice prevailed. It was a giddy feeling to turn into any street you pleased. What power!

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