Our Role in the 1991 Russian Coup: Accidental Eyewitnesses to History

Seeing yesterday’s news about the  20th anniversary of the 1991 Russian coup brought back memories of one of our most memorable, and certainly one of our most historic trips—one where we found ourselves in the midst of history, without even realizing it.

 

The Remnants of the Berlin Wall

Tom had business in Berlin. After completing work and exploring the remnants of the not-too-long-ago divided city (fragments of the wall, the day/night differences between neighborhoods that were only blocks apart from each other, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and so forth), we decided to take a detour to Russia.

 

Saint Petersburg as our Welcome to Russia

Our first and primary destination was Saint Petersburg—a wonderful city to which we plan to return someday. But despite our overall enthusiasm for the beauty and charms of the city, the signs of trouble were all around:

  • The shabby government-run tourist hotel at which we had to stay with the worst mattresses we’ve probably ever had to sleep on;
  • The evening spectacle of citizens standing at subway stations in an attempt to sell virtually anything (pots, plates or pets) that might bring money;
  • Block after block of stores with empty shelves;
  • People selling beef, carved on demand, out of warm car trunks;
  • The sad disrepair of the incredible Hermitage Museum.

And don’t even get us started on the adventures of our Aeroflot flight from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (where the flight attendants were passing out juice while the plane taxied down the runway or where large dogs on leases were occupying seats). Or the fact that our most welcomed culinary treats of the week came from the recently opened (and amazingly packed) McDonald’s and Pizza Huts.

 

Moscow Memories

Although our few days in Saint Petersburg did help prepare us for the economic distress in Moscow, it left us totally unprepared for the political and military atmosphere:

  • Everybody seemed very tense;
  • Soldiers with machine guns were everywhere, including in Red Square, where, when Joyce managed to innocently step outside the lines painted on the square, she found machine guns pointed at her;
  • The atmosphere around the Russian Parliament Building, called the White House, was particularly ominous. Soldiers, guns, military transport trucks and jeeps were everywhere, blocks were cordoned off and soldiers were—even for Moscow—unusually brusque;
  • Nor could or would any of the few people who spoke English, tell us what was happening or if this was normal.

By our final morning in Moscow, we were more than ready to leave. We left the hotel in a cab at 4:00 AM, just to make absolutely, positively sure that we would make it to the airport and get through customs in time for our flight. We really didn’t want to stay any longer.

Imagine our surprise and confusion when, on the way out of the city, we passed a seemingly unending convoy of tanks and trucks filled with soldiers, on their way into the city.

Once at the airport, we had a standoff with an airlines agent who told us that we probably would not be able to board our plane (and a lot of consternation as to how much we should “tip” him to allow us to board). Much to our surprise, he did allow us to board and left Russia to go to Paris.

 

Return to the West

In those ancient days before email, the Internet, CNN and universal access to English newspapers—not to speak of Soviet-era censorship—we didn’t know until we reached Paris that we had just experienced our first (and so far only) coup:

  • President Gorbachev had been held, “for a much needed vacation” at his dacha;
  • The legislature was protesting the coup by occupying the White House;
  • The tanks and soldiers, which we saw coming into the city to crush the parliamentary rebellion, ended up crushing a civilian protester of the coup; and that
  • The failure of the coup would, within a year, lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, formally end the Cold War and forever alter world history.

In the end, we saw a lot of Moscow and found the people, despite a lack of a common language, to be friendly and helpful (albeit inexplicably, at least at the time) tense. True, we did see a lot of the city and sights including Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral, Lenin’s Tomb and The Kremlin were unforgettable.

Overall, we can’t really say that we enjoyed the city, or that we ever felt an urge to return. There are, however, two things we can say about our Moscow experience.

  1. We will never forget it; and
  2. We are forever thankful that we had the opportunity to experience at least one part of a seminal moment in world history and live to tell about it.

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