In the summer of 1991, my friends and I were 20-year-old college students who had no intention of participating in our country’s politics in any way, shape, or form. But on the morning of August 19, politics came to us — in the form of radio broadcasts and tanks on the streets of Moscow. It was a real shock, even in 1991, when the Soviet system was coming apart before our eyes.
Initially, we just watched things unfold from the outside, but before long, to our own surprise, we found ourselves behind the barricades at the White House [in Moscow] — if only to catch the final act of this surreal saga. It felt like we were right next to the epicenter of important historical events but unable to enter them, which I can’t say bothered us much back then. It was right after August 1991 that it finally hit us: the past was over, and nobody knew what the future held. Paradoxically, there was something comforting about it — being 20 years old and watching the whole system come crashing down.
We’d planned to go to Crimea that summer. However, we had no money to rent a place, no tents to live like savages on the beach, and so we ended up stuck in the dorm at MSU. We vowed to come up with something else, but things felt bleak.
Even in the summer, the dorm wasn’t completely empty; about four dozen students were there, as well as some randos who came every morning — which, for them, meant the afternoon — to the coffee shop above the cafeteria to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes.
On the morning of August 19, 1991, on the way to the coffee shop, I ran into a friend. “Hi,” he said, “there’s a military coup underway.” I stared blankly for a few seconds, struggling to get the joke. Finally, at a loss, I asked him, “Where — here?” “Here in Russia,” he said, and he smiled widely. “Get outta town!” I said, still uncertain, and I kept walking. I heard him laughing behind me.
There was a small radio receiver on one of the tables in the coffee shop and several gloomy-looking people sat around it. The voice coming from the speaker said, “Fellow countrymen! Citizens of the Soviet Union! We’re addressing you in a difficult, critical hour for the fate of the Fatherland and all its peoples! A mortal danger has descended upon our great land!”
“Wait, there’s really a coup?” I asked the barista, Lyuda.
“Really,” she said, not changing her expression.
“So what now?” I asked for some reason.
“I have no idea. What size coffee do you want?”
I took my small coffee over to the people with the radio.
“What are they saying?”
“They’re playing the same recording over and over, and they’re not giving any other information.”
“They’re called the State Committee on the State of Emergency. Gorbachev’s out, they’re in.”
Things didn’t get clearer. After I drank my coffee, I went to wake up the others: my roommate, Sergey, and our friends Gulya and Ilona. Unable to resist a stupid joke, I told them the same thing I’d been told: “Good morning! There’s a military coup underway!” I watched with satisfaction as they struggled to get the joke.
The four of us went to the coffee shop to listen to the Committee’s message one more time. Then someone told us there were tanks in the center of Moscow. Naturally, we had to go see the tanks.
We found them right next to our very own journalism department, on Manezhnaya Square, back before it was full of sculptures and fountains. They were manned by soldiers, and hundreds of people were roaming the area, looking around, smiling awkwardly, and asking each other, “What’s going to happen? Have you heard anything? What are they saying?” Some people trying to start conversations with the soldiers, and others handed them flowers — mostly red carnations. The soldiers stayed silent, but they took the flowers and put them on their uniforms. A light autumn rain began to fall.
“So are you going to shoot us, your very own people?” an elderly woman asked a soldier with anguish.
“We have orders to stand here,” he answered.
“And you’re going to shoot us from there?” she persisted.
With a tired grimace, the soldier turned around and looked upwards, as if asking the stars on the Kremlin towers for advice.
“Don’t come up here, you’ll fall and break your leg,” an officer in another tank implored someone.
It was there, in the crowd on Manezhnaya, that we heard the State Committee on the State of Emergency’s new names — ”putsch” and “junta.” In the Soviet imagination, if there’s a military coup, there must be a junta. But this time, it wasn’t somewhere far away like Chile — it was right here.
We got tired of looking at the military equipment after about 20 minutes; it seemed like a demonstration, or a theater production — something rang false, or at least surreal. We followed Gertsen Street towards Pushkinskaya Square, and after about 50 meters, there was no longer any sign of the tanks, the junta, or the military coup. A normal day, normal people, a normal city.
We went back to the dorm, another place where life hadn’t changed. In the coffee shop, people were discussing two important rumors: that there would be a curfew, and that the sale of liquor would be banned. The prospect of the first one was a lot less distressing — it’s easy to live in the MSU dorms for months without going outside.
We didn’t go to defend the White House that day — at that point, we didn’t even know there was such a “White House,” or that people were gathering outside it to fight back against the junta. We were concerned with a much more pressing issue: what to have for dinner. The day ended exactly like every other day in the dorms: with endless games of [the card game] Preferans.
The next day, a friend from the Biology Department told us about the White House. He volunteered to go and check out the situation. Later that day, when he returned, he told us that the White House was “this big, stupid building next to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance complex,” that they’d already built makeshift barricades out of debris outside of it, and that there had been a huge rally against the State Committee on the State of Emergency that day. “The crowd was fucking massive,” his report concluded.
We decided that even if that was the case, there was no role for us in the rally, and besides, rallies are no fun. August 20 was a standard lazy summer day, on which the State Committee on the State of Emergency had absolutely no effect. In other words, it was yet another day spent playing card games.
At midnight, the biologist ran into our room and, without a word, switched the radio from “Europe Plus Moscow” to a new station called “Echo Moscow.” As the radio went in and out, people told us with anxious voices how tanks were headed toward the White House, how the storm of the White House had begun, and how some people had already died. We listened in silence.
And that’s when it became clear that something very serious and very important was happening, and we were missing it. The four of us decided to take the first available metro to Barrikadnaya station.
Dozens of people were walking from the subway towards the embankment — people of all ages, for the most part looking completely civil. Seryoga, who’d served in the Navy, pulled a black beret out of his pocket and put it on his head.
When we were halfway there, someone cried out, “Tanks! Tanks are coming!” The entire procession stopped, unsure what to do. The same voice continued, “We need to go to the American embassy! They won’t touch us there!” Some people turned around, some ran, but most people, still not seeing tanks after five minutes, continued on.
The White House really was both big and white. There was no iron gate around it at that time, but it was surrounded by pretty unimpressive-looking barricades made of concrete blocks, metal bars, public benches, bits of chain link fence, boards, and rubble. Several blue and white trolleybuses were parked together on the embankment.
Behind the barricades, you could see patchwork tents, awnings, stretched-out pieces of polyethylene, and thousands of people sitting and standing around. It smelled like a bonfire. To us, it looked like a mixture between a large gypsy camp and the Grushinsky festival. An Orthodox priest in robes walked with a crest and a big bag of apples, wishing everyone a happy Feast of the Transfiguration and blessing them.
We went up to one of the openings. At first, the people next to the entrance tried to convince us to go home, saying it could get dangerous, and that there were already a lot of people, but eventually they started letting us in, a few at a time. On the other side, we were all asked to stand in line so they could count us. When they got to 100 people, they stopped counting, and someone stepped out in front.
“Greetings,” he said. “We’ll be the Second Ukrainian Hundred. I’ll be your leader. Our camp will be right there, next to the trolleybuses. ‘Ukrainian’ because we’ll be standing on the side of the Ukraine hotel. ‘Second’ because there’s already a first Ukrainian group. Any questions?”
We started making our way through the tents and campfires to the area he’d pointed to. Everyone around us was tired and wet from the previous night’s rain, and they looked at us like we were tourists, with a sense of superiority — or at least it seemed that way to us.
When we rounded the corner of the White House, we saw several tanks. “Those are ours,” said our group leader. A man sitting in one of the tanks was clutching a bouquet to his chest and repeating, “Thank you, dear ones, there’s no need, we have everything we need, thank you,” over and over.
A small group of people in helmets and bulletproof vests made their way through the crowd with machine guns. People parted to make way for them, and everyone started to applaud. Someone cried out, “Alpha’s with us! Alpha’s with us!” The soldiers passed through quickly and intently, without looking around.
We reached the cluster of trolleybuses. “Now we’ll pitch our tent and get settled in,” said the leader. “In addition, everyone will receive a gas mask. In case of an attack.” Before long, they really did bring us gas masks.
“Panther! Panther! How come you’re not answering?” a heavyset man in a black beret yelled at Seryoga. We went up to him.
Seryoga spent a while explaining that they hadn’t called Navy members in Sevastopol, and that he’d served during such-and-such years, in such-and-such regiment, and the man seemed to be convinced. “The young guy’s with me,” Seryoga said, gesturing to me.
They invited us into the tent. Inside, there were about five muscular men in their late 30s. The naval flag was flying, it was very clean and dry, and music was playing. We sat there for a while, talked about something, passed around a flask of cognac. “See you around, Panther. Take care of yourself,” our new friend said to Seryoga. He gave me a nod.
Some time later, a stocky man with camouflage pants and wild, curly hair walked past our half-constructed camp. Seryoga’s black beret caught his eye, and he came up to us. “You served in the Navy? Good,” he said, before going over to our leader to whisper about something. Then he walked over to a central spot.
“My name is Sasha. I’ve been tasked with creating a separate group to patrol the outer perimeter. We need 15 volunteers. Who here served in the army?”
Seryoga stepped forward, along with two others. Sasha grimaced.
“Who does martial arts?”
Seryoga looked at me and began frantically gesticulating with his face, and I, with my nine months of Northern Shaolin kung fu classes in the Skhodnenskaya school gym, stepped forward, along with about ten others. Sasha arranged us into a column and sent us behind the trolley. Gulya and Ilona looked after us, frowning.
We came out of the barricades and sat down on some pieces of debris. Sasha started talking about himself — how he was a military scout, an “Afghan [War veteran],” and had come from Leningrad to Moscow for the opening of a photo exhibit about the Afghan war. And when he’d seen tanks next to the building hosting the exhibit, he’d thought they were a part of the same project. Before long, though, he caught word that something was going on at the White House.
According to Sasha, our task was to patrol the territory we’d been assigned, prevent conflicts, identify drunk people and provocateurs, observe the surrounding areas, and report everything to headquarters.
“What if Alpha comes? If they attack?” someone asked.
“If Alpha, or any other armed people, come, our task is to negotiate with them. Try to convince them not to storm the building,” said Sasha.
He was silent for a moment, then continued.
“But if they do attack, it will be too late for negotiation,” he said. “They’ll use stun grenades right away. That’s a serious thing — don’t try to cover yourself with your hands, it will burn through your hands. Immediately put your face on the ground, quickly crawl as far away as you can, and try to get out of here.”
Our squad consisted mostly of students, but there were also two gang characters from Dnipropetrovsk, a soldier who’d been decommissioned that year, and an older guy who introduced himself as a “Soviet hobo.”
Sasha ordered everyone to tie white bands made of medical bandages on their sleeves — “to identify our own” — as well as to pull materials like sticks and rebar out of the barricades and to go to the neighboring Gluboky Pereulok for inspections. The few people who passed through did doubletakes at the sight of fifteen or so people with metal rods.
Sasha had told us to keep watch, and we did just that, looking around as best we could. After our shift, he told us to report what we’d seen. Everyone was silent.
“Well, some suspicious-looking guys stood next to that entrance,” someone finally said.
“Aha! And what was suspicious about them?” said Sasha, perking up.
“Well… their faces were suspicious.”
“Alright, look. It’s great that you noticed those guys. You’re all young, you all have the standard haircuts. You’re dressed like civilians, but you all have military berets on. In the window on the fifth floor over there, a person can be seen watching the White House through binoculars or a telescope. On the third floor…” Sasha continued for about five minutes.
We listened in shame.
“Don’t worry, it takes time,” he said, trying to reassure us.
On the way back, a black Volga came around the corner, headed straight at us. “Slow down,” ordered Sasha. But the driver stepped on the gas and sped towards us. We jumped out of the way, the Volga passed by, someone threw a club after it, which bounced off the side of the car and didn’t leave a mark. Sasha looked at our upset expressions and laughed.
“Alright, let’s go back.”
We spent the next few hours pacing around the perimeter of the White House, listening to Sasha’s stories and trying to develop our scouting skills. Every hour, we received word from headquarters that the attack on the White House might start in an hour. Or in two hours. Or in four hours. That we shouldn’t let down our guard.
They detained a suspicious person hiding a walkie-talkie and a State Security Committee certificate under his jacket — but, alas, it was once again Sasha who had spotted him. Nonetheless, we were happy, and we ran to report it to headquarters; they told us he was “one of ours, a Russian KGB guy,” so we had to return the certificate and release the man. We met a Japanese correspondent with a strange device in a bag on his shoulder; he told us it was a satellite phone, and that you could use it to make a call right here. After the third call — “Mom, hi, I’m calling you from the barricades” — he politely said goodbye and left. We made a fire in a barrel near the trolleybuses and cooked some sausages that had come from who-knows-where. Then we went to the next barricade over, where things were just as boring, despite the continued reports that the attack would begin soon.
“This is all just a giant war game. And it’s a good thing, too. This time, there’s no shooting, but next time, we won’t get so lucky,” said Sasha.
For some reason, he had no doubt there would be a next time.
Sometime after midnight, the word in the barricades was that the members of the State Committee on the State of Emergency had been arrested.
After making his way through the barricades, Sasha gave us the lowdown: Yes, they’d received information that the Committee had been arrested, but it was unconfirmed, possibly a provocation, and we shouldn’t let down our guard.
“We have a new task: to stand at this entrance and search newcomers for weapons and alcohol. We’ll confiscate the weapons, pour out the alcohol, and keep out the drunks,” he said.
More and more people were coming — many of them came to celebrate the victory, and got upset when they weren’t allowed to bring alcohol to the White House.
“We’re on your side, we brought it for you!” (Angrily.)
“Can’t I just have a drink and pass through?” (Hopefully.)
“Come on, let’s have a round together, celebrate the victory!” (With a wink.)
“Oh, look at them. Doing official searches. Pigs!” (Viciously.)
We spent several hours confiscating brass knuckles, nunchucks, and clubs; turning away drunk people; pouring vodka and port wine out on the ground; hugging people in celebration; and resisting the various provocations. But by dawn, the flow of people had become so strong that we were told to disband, as it was no longer feasible to search people individually.
Seryoga and I also decided to go to the White House, just to see it up close. We also heard they were giving out food there — supposedly, McDonald’s and some other friendly companies were bringing boxes and boxes of it. We didn’t find any burgers, but there were several Cervelat sausages on one of the parapets, and red boxes of Astra cigarettes on another. We grabbed two sausages and a carton of cigarettes.
The walls of the White House were reminiscent of the walls of the Reichstag in May 1945: people had drawn all over them and written slogans like “Down with the junta!” and “I launched a shell into Pugo’s carcass!” along with the recurring “DMB-91.” Outside one of the entrances, there were several dozen bottles of gasoline with wicks taped to their necks — luckily, they didn’t come in handy.
We went to see the girls back at the Second Ukrainian. They were sitting outside the tent, in headscarves, with medical bags on their sides.
“What’s with your hands?” Ilona asked.
“These are bandages, the sign of our squad,” I said solemnly.
“Well, we’re nurses. We’ve been preparing to take in the injured.”
“Oh. That’s cool, too.”
But it was clear that we were cooler, and that the girls were full of envy — or at least it seemed that way.
When we returned to our trolleybuses, Sasha brought us a pack of Boris Yeltsin’s thank-you letters, titled “To the Defenders of the Supreme Soviet of Russia.”
“I SINCERELY THANK YOU ALL FOR THE COURAGE AND LOYALTY TO FREEDOM AND THE HOMELAND THAT YOU EXHIBITED IN THE DIFFICULT DAYS OF AUGUST 19, 20, 21, AND 22,” said the notes. We signed all of the copies (unfortunately, I lost mine, long ago).
We hid the letters in our pockets, shook hands, and embraced one another. It was obvious that it was time to part ways, but nobody wanted to. Something seemed to be missing, some kind of finale or catharsis. The crowd was getting larger and larger; it felt like the dozens had become hundreds. Someone said there would soon be a victory concert on the side of the White House. And that they were compiling lists of future award recipients for defending the White House, and that we needed to go sign up.
Seryoga and I went with the Dnepropetrovsk squad to the embankment. They took out a bottle of cognac (not everyone had poured out everything) and some glasses. A woman walking by with a watermelon smiled at us and congratulated us on our victory in broken Russian. She seemed to be an American. We drank cognac and ate watermelon with her, with an unforgettable view of the Moscow river, the White House, and the Ukraine hotel.
In the afternoon, Seryoga, the girls, and I headed home. In the subway, people stared at us — with our white bandages, gas masks, and medical bags. One woman came up and started to thank us: “You guys, where have you come from? Thank you very much, thank you for everything!” We immediately felt ashamed — we hadn’t done anything, why was she thanking us? We put the bandages and bags away.
At the Akademicheskaya subway station, people were reading the “General Newspaper,” which had been posted directly on the walls of the underpass. On the way back to the dorm, we picked up some gold balloons and a bottle of Zubrowka to celebrate our victory.
I never saw anybody from our squad again. Seryoga died soon after. I lost touch with Gulya. Ilona and I married in ’93.
Translation by Sam Breazeale