20 Years Ago: Coup Backfires, Destroys Soviet Union

The Soviet Union was at a tipping point two decades ago. Communist party hardliners, determined to stop President Mikhail Gorbachev's moves towards democracy, attempted a coup. The action backfired, and rallied many Russians behind Boris Yeltsin.

One journalist who witnessed those tense days is Ann Cooper, who was then the Moscow bureau chief for NPR. She remembers being at a Russian government building, the White House, during the protests.

"Seeing the people, the crowds who came to defend Boris Yeltsin," she says, "just people realizing: This is it. This is the moment of choice. Do we go backwards, or is there enough good in the change that has taken place that we're actually willing to risk our lives?"

In the week of the coup attempt, Cooper recalls, the hardliners held an extraordinary press conference. Their official line was that Gorbachev wasn't under house arrest — that he was resting from exhaustion.

Cooper says some journalists in that press conference played an important role in identifying for the world what was really happening:

"There was a young journalist — Tatiana Malkina — and she stood up and asked, 'Are you aware that what you carried out last night was a state coup d'etat?'

"And wow — the subtext of that was, 'You guys can put me in jail, but I'm not going back to the way things were, and neither is the rest of my generation.'"

Cooper says she doesn't recall what the group's exact answer was — but it was almost beside the point.

"The thing that everybody does remember is that, one of the leaders, his hands were shaking. He had apparently been drinking heavily through the whole thing. They just looked like a bunch of bumbling drunks up there."

You can watch that press conference online. Malkina's question begins around the 29:30 mark.

Ann Cooper has also written an article about the coup attempt and Russian journalists, for the Columbia Journalism Review.

DAVID GREENE, host:

Now we'll take a moment to look back to a tipping point in another part of the world. Twenty years ago this month, hardliners in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union staged a coup. They were trying to put an end to Mikhail Gorbachev's modest attempts at democratic reforms. Ultimately, the coup attempt backfired, and the hardliners got exactly what they didn't want. They unleashed a public protest that ushered in the end of the Soviet Union, and rallied many Russians behind a new leader named Boris Yeltsin. All this gave Russians - for a fleeting time, at least - a feeling that democracy had truly been born.

The events during those few days in August 1991 were dramatic, and here's what we were hearing.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Male Broadcaster: Communist hardliners backed by the military say they have ousted Gorbachev to prevent what they call a national catastrophe.

GREENE: Those hardliners in the Communist Party were enraged by Gorbachev's reform attempts, and they trapped the leader in his vacation home in Crimea.

Mr. ANDREI GRACHEV (Former Adviser to Gorbachev): I learned the news about the coup on the early morning on the 19th. And actually, my first, instinctive thought was finally, they got us.

GREENE: That's the voice of Andrei Grachev. At the time, he was an adviser to Gorbachev.

Mr. GRACHEV: It's really dramatic because the initial question, at least, was what kind of coup is it going to be? Is it going to be kind of a Pinochet coup in Chile, with the firing squads?

GREENE: No, as it turned out. The military refused to back the hardliners and held fire, as reported on the BBC.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Unidentified Female Broadcaster: Here at the Russian Parliament, thousands of people have gathered to watch what's going on. The rumble over to my left are tanks. They're surrounded by young men, some of them carrying flags, some singing anti-communist songs; others just curious, watching the young soldiers emerge from the tanks and pushing flowers into the barrels of their guns.

GREENE: Gorbachev, for his part, made a dramatic return, announcing that he was staying in power. And he gave a defiant press conference with his version of events.

Mr. MIKHAIL GORBACHEV (Former Soviet Leader): (Through translator) The demand was made that I should resign. I said, you will never live that long. And I said, convey that to those who sent you.

GREENE: But nothing was the same after those days. By the end of the year, Gorbachev was no longer in power, and the Soviet Union had ceased to be.

Mr. GRACHEV: For Gorbachev, it appears that it was much easier to change the world than to change Russia.

GREENE: That's because over the next 20 years, Gorbachev's ideas about democracy never fully took hold. After his departure, Boris Yeltsin led Russia into a period of economic disarray and disappointment. Still, Andrei Grachev says the spirit of those protesters lives on.

Mr. GRACHEV: The lesson now, for August '91, is still there to confirm to us that -I would say - there is fire under the ashes.

GREENE: One person who witnessed that fire while it was burning strong was Ann Cooper. She was, at that point, the Moscow bureau chief for NPR, and she remembers being at a Russian government building, known as the White House, during the protests.

ANN COOPER: Seeing the people, the crowds who came to defend Boris Yeltsin, just, you know, people realizing this is it, you know. This is the moment of choice. Do we go backwards or, you know, is there enough good in the change that has taken place that we're actually willing to risk our lives?

GREENE: Cooper recalls how that week, while the coup attempt was under way, the hardliners held an extraordinary press conference. Their official line was that Gorbachev wasn't under house arrest; he was resting from exhaustion. Cooper says some journalists in that press conference played an important role, identifying for the world what was really happening.

COOPER: There was a young journalist, Tatiana Malkin(ph), and she stood up and asked: Are you aware that what you carried out last night was a state coup d'etat? And wow - I mean, the subtext of that was, you guys can put me in jail but I'm not going back to the way things were, and neither is the rest of my generation.

GREENE: Wow. And how did the hardliners respond? I'm sure they weren't used to being confronted by a journalist.

COOPER: You know, I don't even remember much of what they said at that press conference. The thing that everybody does remember is one of the leaders, his hands were shaking. He apparently had been drinking very, very heavily through the whole thing. They just looked like a bunch of bumbling drunks up there. And so imagine, I mean that just really emphasized the coolness of this, you know, you-carried-out-a-coup-d'etat statement.

GREENE: Well, I want to ask you where Russia has gone from there. Because, you know, the Committee to Protect Journalists says Russia's one of the most dangerous countries in which journalists can operate. Why did this coup attempt - why didn't it change things permanently in Moscow?

COOPER: One of the things that I came to understand was people need to see some really important changes pretty quickly, like economic change. And the early Yeltsin years were very chaotic economically. The ruble got devalued, and pensioners suddenly had to live on a fraction of what they had had before. So not too surprising, I think, that some of them said, gee, I'd kind of gladly exchange some of this freedom of speech stuff if there was economic stability. And so the push for democracy began to be a little more diffuse.

And meanwhile, strong democratic institutions were not being built. So that when a leader like Vladimir Putin came along, he could pretty easily start to roll back press freedoms.

GREENE: You know, it's interesting: I have the honor of having the job as Moscow bureau chief now, and I hear all the time from Russians that they don't want to go back to the Yeltsin years; that it was too dangerous, that that kind of democracy was too chaotic.

COOPER: Right.

GREENE: What do you take from that?

COOPER: Well, I've had friends in Moscow say, we were afraid we wouldn't be able to feed our families in the '90s. Well, if you have that kind of fear, you can see how people would be much more concerned about that than about, you know, the future of democracy, the future of the press. And so it became easy for someone like Putin to come in and build what he calls managed democracy, whatever that means. And you know, today democracy in Russia is a very nominal thing.

GREENE: You've written recently: Is happily ever after simply not an option after revolution? And certainly in the years after that, Russia struggled, and I guess you could say the results of this revolution are still unknown.

COOPER: You could raise that question - is happily ever after ever an option? -about Georgia, Ukraine, Russia. I think people are beginning to say in Egypt and Tunisia: Where is all of this headed? You get past that first euphoric, very dramatic stage. The leader is toppled. People have been so united against a hated figure, and that's when things start to get tough.

I'm not sure when we ever know whether happily ever was the answer in any of these revolutions, because the aftermath does go on for years and years.

GREENE: That's Ann Cooper, who is currently a professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. And in 1991 she was the Moscow bureau chief for NPR. Ann, thank you so much for joining us.

COOPER: Thank you, David.

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