'People preferred to be hungry but free'

September 01, 1991

Vladimir P. Kuzmishchev, 42, born in Tula in central Russia, has worked on Moscow newspapers for two decades and now is editor of economic news for Trud. He was in Moscow when the coup began.

A colleague called me early in the morning [of Monday, Aug. 19], at my apartment near the Bauman Metro stop and said, "Turn on your TV! They ousted [Soviet President Mikhail S.] Gorbachev." I was angry and said, "That's a stupid joke. What are you waking me up for?" But I turned it on anyway, and I heard the announcer read the statement of the putschists. Later I found out there were soldiers with automatic weapons already in the studio.

My first feeling was anger. We were hearing phrases we hadn't heard since [Leonid I.] Brezhnev's time -- stuff like "in the interest of raising the material well-being of the Soviet people." We had heard those phrases for many years and we knew perfectly well this had nothing to do with the well-being of the Soviet people. These people wanted only to preserve their power. Power was not a means for them but a goal in itself. They were talking as if there hadn't been six years of perestroika.

My wife, Natalya, was awake, too. She's also a journalist, at one of these new little papers that have sprung up, called Russky Kurier [Russian Courier].

We sat there and even laughed, but it was angry laughter. The coup was very unexpected. We were afraid that the people would support them, because it really is true that a lot of people were sick of all the political talk when nothing is really changing. I decided specially to take the Metro to work -- I usually drive my car -- to see how people were reacting to the news. People wouldn't look each other in the face. There was a feeling of confusion and fear. People were unusually silent.

I came out of the Metro and walked to the paper, and it seemed to me strange that there were not troops already out on the street. I thought, "What kind of coup is this?" The troops and armored personnel carriers appeared only a half-hour later.

Inside the paper, there was a feeling of anger and confusion, but in those first few hours people weren't condemning the coup openly. People were cautious.

I went back outside and spotted 10 to 12 armored vehicles headed down Tverskaya [the restored name of Gorky Street, one of the capital's main thoroughfares]. . . . People had formed a chain to cut off the road at Mossoviet [the City Council building], and a lot of them immediately jumped on the armored vehicles and put Russian tricolor flags and flowers in the gun barrels. There were several hundred people. Housewives started coming out of the apartment buildings nearby and yelling at the soldiers: "You're our children. What are you doing?"

Then a guy with a megaphone started addressing the soldiers from the window of Mossoviet, repeating again and again that the president had been illegally removed and that to follow the orders of the coup leaders is criminal.

Already by 11 a.m. or 12, the first leaflets began to appear with [Russian President Boris N.] Yeltsin's declaration that it was an anti-state coup and was illegal. People threw them out of the windows of Mossoviet, despite the fact that it was surrounded by soldiers and armored vehicles. Soon there wasn't a single armored vehicle that did not have Yeltsin's statement pasted on it. The soldiers themselves were handing around the leaflets. It was almost funny.

People ask: What would have happened if Yeltsin had been arrested? They say the KGB got to his dacha 20 minutes after he'd gotten away. But those first protests were spontaneous. The resistance started at a time when nobody knew what had happened to Yeltsin.

The group that had stopped the armored vehicles turned down Tverskaya and walked in even columns to Manege Square [the site of many rallies, outside the Kremlin], yelling "The coup won't win" and "Fascists!"

. . . Already that first day I stopped being afraid. I understood

that there were forces that would not permit the coup to succeed. Young people, tens of thousands, were already there. . . . It was like a holiday. People built bonfires and sang songs. Orchestras played. Rock groups that are so popular you can't get tickets to see them came down, handed their amplifying equipment over the barricades and played all night. Passersby stopped by out of curiosity just to see how the revolution was going.

At about 6 p.m. on Tuesday, somebody from Nezavisimaya Gazeta [Independent Newspaper] called me at home and said the tanks were coming to seize the building. We all hurried over there. They said we should get ready for a gas attack, so we soaked our handkerchiefs in the puddles and got ready to put them over our faces.

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