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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Memories of Twenty Years Back: The Soviet Putsch


I was planning to return to Moscow on August 23, 1991. We were about to begin an advisory project for the USSR Oil and Gas Ministry. I was in Houston, Texas.

It must have been August 20. I awoke to the news that hardliners organized a putsch against the vacationing Gorbachev. His reforms were too much for them. CNN showed a rather sorry group of  old and typical party apparatchiks. They did not exude confidence.

Everything was in flux. The commentators had nothing so say. CNN turned to live feed from the streets. No commentary. Crowds were everywhere. Tanks and troops were everywhere.

One live feed convinced me that the Yeltsin side had a good chance. It was a scene of an old woman, pleading with a young soldier in a tank: “Please do not fire. Do not do anything. Just go home.”

CNN then showed the huge crowds around the White House. The famous scene of Yeltsin mounting the tank to address the crowds. Finally, there was the withdrawal of troops and tanks. The reformers had won.

I remember Gorbachev’s return. He appeared before the Duma. No one paid him attention. The old communist Soviet Union was, in effect, no more.

I was in Moscow several days later. I must have stayed there three weeks or so. The most vivid memory was the sense of optimism and joy. I talked to a friend whose sons had joined the crowd protecting the White House. I asked: Did you not try to persuade your sons not to go. At that time, the best guess is that they would have been shot.  Her answer: I was proud that they went. The cause was worth it.

I was in the White House shortly after the victory. I remember the optimistic parliamentary deputies saying: Now we have the power. We will transform Russia. One made a special point to show me the White House cafeteria. Its food was no better than anyone else’s. What a change from the communists.

By looking backwards from the present-day Putin KGB state, I understand the sense of disappointment of the Russian people. Russia had its brief chance and blew it. What a shame.

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