Three days that shook the world . . . THE SOVIET COUP ONE YEAR LATER

August 16, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Marina Raikin was in tears the day the coup fell apart.

They were tears of relief, but also of foreboding and regret. Russia had gone through three days of pure nerves, three days on the edge, three heartsickening days. And then the crash.

Like so many others, Marina Raikin felt a sudden clarity of mind. Before dusk turned to dark, on the evening of Aug. 21, 1991, she grasped for the first time that what lay ahead was all new.

She wept.

The coup that shook the Soviet empire and the world one year ago was a long time coming. It could be traced back to a thwarted parliamentary revolt in June, or to Boris N. Yeltsin's accession to the presidency of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, or to Mikhail S. Gorbachev's attempts at perestroika, or to events in 1964, or 1956, or 1917 or back beyond that.

But when it happened, it was like a clap of thunder, or a window shattering in a hurricane, flying to shards. There was no going back. Yesterday was history. Today was a beginning.

Marina Raikin sat out the coup. While thousands heeded Mr. Yeltsin's call and gathered at the Russian parliament -- known as the White House -- to stand and defend their newly minted democratic government, she stayed in her apartment. Today she'll spend an hour explaining why. As a mother, she had no right putting herself in danger. The people at the barricades were young and reckless. What were they against tanks and bullets, anyway?

Across Moscow, across the Soviet Union, there were many millions like her. They listened anxiously to Radio Liberty beamed from Europe, they grilled their neighbors for news, and they waited. Most were horrified by the crude grasp the hard-line putschists made for power, but they waited.

Where do responsibility and citizenship begin? Where does acquiescence end?

Today, those questions won't leave Marina Raikin alone.

"At the White House there were a lot of young people. They were free. They didn't have children to be responsible for. I had a child. I was being responsible. I shouldn't go," she says.

She looks up. "On the one hand I believed that. On the other I didn't. What is it, to be responsible? If everybody had thought that way then, life for my child would be worse. We would be leaving him a life under a fascist regime."

She may not have quite understood it during those terrible, overwhelming days, but the choice was hers. She stayed away.

Aug. 19, a Monday, began gray and turned colder. A light rain began to fall toward evening and continued intermittently throughout the brief life of the State Committee for the State of Emergency, as the putschists named themselves.

The focus of those days was Moscow. The eyes of the world were on Mr. Yeltsin, in the White House; on the plotters, in the Kremlin; on the troops, of uncertain loyalty, in the streets; and on the crowd of thousands, building barricades from anything at hand on the avenues leading to Mr. Yeltsin's redoubt.

What happened there, in those three days, led to the creation of 15 different nations out of the Soviet Union, to the expulsion of communism from its homeland, to the fanning of bitter, bloody ethnic conflicts throughout the empire, to deep and dangerous economic reform, to the slashing of nuclear arsenals, East and West, to hope and pride, disillusion and doubt, opportunity and despair.

Along the shores of the Baltic and in the mountains of Central Asia, people reclaimed their national birthrights, cast out the Cyrillic signs of Russian domination and took charge of their affairs -- all because of the August showdown in Moscow.

Across Russia, factories are closing now, prices are soaring, and yet so far people are willing to put up with it, willing to bet on the future -- all because of what happened a year ago.

Yet few, even today, want to consider their personal role, want to talk about individual responsibility, about choosing, about guilt. The system that went before was bad. Why did it exist? It was overthrown. Who acted to overthrow it? And who did not?

And what of the future -- who is shaping it?

Maybe these questions are too hard.

Lives of contrast

Marina Raikin met her husband, Andrei, at a party 10 years ago. Leonid I. Brezhnev was first secretary of the Communist Party and president of the Soviet Union. His was a regime marked by cynicism, corruption, decay and brutal intolerance of dissent.

She was 20 at the time; he was 24. She would soon land a job with the in-house newspaper of a large Moscow factory. He was already building a career in radio.

Their life together is a study in contrasts.

Ms. Raikin's father abandoned the family when she was born, and her mother worked all her life as a civilian employee at an army base. Ms. Raikin was the first member of her family to get a university education.

Today she is restless, ambitious, impulsive, creative. She ditched the newspaper job years ago and is a free-lance critic of rock music and sometime concert promoter. She has plans.

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