1991: Fall of the USSR

Reuters/Corbis

 

 

 


Stuart Loory ’58 and Ann Imse ’76

In “Seven Days That Shook the World: The Collapse of Soviet Communism,” Stuart Loory of CNN and Moscow correspondent Ann Imse of the Associated Press drew upon their own reporting and extensive coverage by their American and Russian colleagues to craft a sweeping portrait of a superpower’s downfall.

1991
“Seven Days That Shook The World: The Collapse of Soviet Communism,” from Day 4: Standoff

By Stuart Loory and Ann Imse

Moscow’s Kutuzovsky Prospect has long been an avenue of conquest. Napoleon surveyed the city from a height on the roadway, relishing his conquest. Then he marched along the thoroughfare to the Kremlin at the head of his army. Every day, in more recent decades, the Communist Party leaders who conquered the country sped in their huge limousines down the unusually well-maintained avenue to their offices in the Party’s Central Committee headquarters and the Kremlin.

At midnight Tuesday ten women stood in the rain in the middle of Kutuzovsky Prospect’s eight lanes in front of a barricade of buses, facing west. Tanks of the KGB’s Vitebsk Division were expected. They held umbrellas and a huge sign that read, “Soldiers, don’t shoot your mothers.” Behind them, a few hundred yards from the White House, defenders packed trucks onto the Kutuzovsky-Kalinin Bridge over the Moscow River. When the tanks approached, the bridge full of vehicles would be set afire, a Russian legislator explained later.

On another likely attack route—a small street leading from the Garden Ring Road past the United States Embassy to the White House—demonstrators had picked up and moved dozens of American diplomats’ cars to block the road. If Soviet tanks assaulted the democrats’ stronghold by this way, they would have to crush a considerable amount of U.S. property.

The armored column appeared on the Garden Ring Road in front of the American embassy at midnight. Inside Armored Personnel Carrier No. 536, a teen-aged private named Nikolai breathed the smell of greasy metal and sweaty bodies packed into a small space as he squinted through the four-inch-wide visor, trying to see where he was driving the massive fighting machine. The column was heading south through the Kalinin Prospect underpass. As it neared the other side, Nikolai saw a barricade of concrete, metal, and a dozen buses blocking the street.

Outside Nikolai’s roaring APC, hundreds of White House defenders lined both sides of the walled ramp, yelling in anger and fear. Although the armored column was not heading directly toward the White House, the defenders assumed that this was the beginning of the long-awaited attack. Suddenly, the lead PAC crunched into tens of thousands of roubles’ worth of Moscow city buses, trying to batter its way through the barricades. The demonstrators no longer had any doubts. The battle was on.

As the first APCs rocked forward and back, ramming the barricades, demonstrators ignored the danger of tons of moving armor and climbed on board the vehicles. Frightened soldiers atop the APCs fired their machine guns in the air trying to scare off the crowd. Several demonstrators threw a tarpaulin over the visor of Nikolai’s vehicle, blinding him. Then someone in the crowd threw a firebomb.

“I couldn’t see anything,” Nikolai told Izvestia later. “I opened the hatch, but someone hit me on the head. I ducked back into the vehicle and started to turn it around. Suddenly, smoke appeared inside. It was impossible to breathe. I tried to open the hatch again and couldn’t. Someone was standing on it. There were already flames inside the vehicle, and my clothes caught fire.

“Finally, I managed to open the hatch, and I started to put out the fire,” Nikolai said. “Most of all, I was afraid about the vehicle, because it was fully armed for combat and could explode at any moment.”

Nikolai’s sergeant, Yuri, remembered cobblestones flying through the air, and the “inconceivable noise” of a dozen armored vehicles and hundreds of people screaming.

Dmitry Komar, a medal-winning veteran of the Afghan war who had never been able to speak to anyone about his experiences there, tried to climb into the rear hatch of Nikolai’s vehicle. A soldier leaned out another opening and fired shots. They missed. But Komar fell, struck his head on the pavement, and died of the injury.

The crowd went wild, screaming, “Fascists! Shame! Shame!”

With weapons firing, Molotov cocktails in flight, people screaming, the armored vehicles backing and rearing, smashing again into the barricade of buses blocking their escape from the claustrophobic confines of the underpass—confusion prevailed. Vladimir Usov and others rushed to pull Komar’s body away from the APC. A bullet struck Usov in the forehead and killed him. Nikolai’s APC ran over Usov’s dead body, crushing it.

Ilya Krichevsky, a 28-year-old former tank gunner who had gone out that night to talk tank crews out of killing civilians, instead died of a shot in the forehead as he stood in the roadway screaming at the APC crewmen.

Inside his APC, Nikolai had no idea what was going on. “I heard one of ours start to shoot overhead, to drive the people off the top. But at that moment, I didn’t know anything about anybody being killed.”

The APC was in flames. Nikolai and the rest of the crew abandoned it. “With difficulty, we managed to fight our way through to another APC,” the sergeant added. Nikolai and two other crewmen from APC No. 536 suffered burns. As the burning APC crashed into the nearest bus once more, the fire spread to the bus and flames leaped to the sky. Several of the other armored vehicles bashed the buses until they found themselves stuck in a mass of crushed metal.

By this time, the crowd was out for blood. They had just watched three protesters die. The civilians were not about to let the column of vehicles escape. Water trucks were driven into place at the other end of the underpass, trapping the APCs.

Russian legislators Oleg Rumyantsev and Anatoly Alexeyev ran out to the confrontation armed with a megaphone. Rumyantsev, his lip dripping blood from an earlier encounter, talked with soldiers and then pleaded with the crowd, trying to stop the bloodshed. “We don’t want any more deaths,” he said. But he was not speaking just of deaths among the several hundred civilians and dozen armored vehicles in front of him. With a KGB division on the outskirts of town, he feared this confrontation would be the excuse to start storming the White House. “I am afraid the KGB will attack if this gets out of hand,” Rumyantsev said.

Perhaps tens of thousands of lives hung on the legislators’ ability to defuse this confrontation, to stop the soldiers from firing their guns, and to stop the crowd from throwing firebombs that could detonate the APCs’ ammunition.

Finally, the military commander promised to order his men back into their vehicles, where they would quietly stay put until morning, when everyone would leave. There would be no attack by either side.

Rumyantsev told the crowd about the deal.

“No! No!” the demonstrators screamed, still charged with shock and anger over the deaths. Though the bodies had been removed, the blood of the victims still ran in the street, mixing with the rain. The soldiers could leave, the demonstrators yelled, but not with their armor and weapons.

The two legislators negotiated further. Finally, they turned again to the crowd. The soldiers would stay with their vehicles, and this unit would be turned over to the defense of the White House. A Russian legislator would ride on each vehicle to ensure that no more firebombs would be thrown.

“Do you agree not to attack them?” Deputy Alexeyev shouted through the megaphone. There was a smattering of applause, though hardly enough to inspire confidence. “With each APC will be a Russian legislator,” Alexeyev continued. “I ask you to preserve their health.”

 

A few blocks north of this confrontation, six armored vehicles came roaring down the Garden Ring Road in the diredction of their trapped comrades. Several hundred demonstrators ran out into the road and formed a line of people across the eight-lane avenue at Vosstaniya Square. Faced with the prospect of shooting or crushing dozens of people, the APC’s stopped. Four turned and rumbled back from whence they came. The demonstrators surged around the two remaining.

“Don’t shoot!” they begged the soldiers.

“That I can promise,” replied one. “My personal decision is that I’m not going to touch anyone.” He said they had been ordered only to occupy Vosstaniya Square for the duration of the curfew. And then he took a small tricolored Russian flag from inside his uniform and stuck it in the gun muzzle of his APC.

At 4:35 a.m., just before dawn, two officers drove up and spoke to the two crews. The soldiers told the civilians that they were being ordered back to their base and started their engines. Suddenly, all lights in the city went out, at least as far as they eye could see. Then a huge tank came roaring down the Garden Ring Road toward the demonstrators. People screamed and ran.

Endless seconds later, the tank reached its mates—and turned around. It was a false alarm. All three vehicles departed.

 

Back at the underpass, it took more than an hour to move the water-truck barricade and turn the nine APCs around. Finally, they came lumbering slowly out of the underpass, each one carrying about two dozen people on top—demonstrators, Russian legislators, and soldiers. On the lead APC flew a white flag of surrender and the Soviet flag, its hammer-and-sickle insignia removed.

“They’re our first captives,” said legislator Alexeyev happily. As the column of armor approached the White House about 5 a.m., the crowd broke into cheers of triumph.

 

Lt. Col. Anatoly Chistyakov, political officer of the Taman Division, told Izvestia later that these APCs had never intended to attack the White House. They were only heading further south, to the positions they had been ordered to guard during the curfew. The commander on the scene decided he had to break through the bus barricade to get there, Colonel Chistyakov explained. He added that although obeying an order to enforce the curfew, the division had refused to follow the verbally transmitted order of General Varrenikov “to prepare three tank companies for deployment in the region of the Kalinin Bridge,” just in front of the White House.

“We had heard that very many people had gathered in the Kalinin Prospect region, and if we had allowed tanks to break it up, we could not have escaped disaster,” Colonel Chistyakov said.

 

Those inside the White House heard the noise but could not see the confrontation on the Garden Ring Road. “I heard shots and saw tracer bullets outside my window,” said Colonel Samoilov, of the Defense Committee in Yeltsin’s government. “We thought it was an attack of the Spetznaz [KGB special forces].” The Russian chief, Gen. Konstantin Kobets, advised Yeltsin to escape to a safer pace, but Yeltsin refused to leave the crowds of citizens who were ready to be crushed by tanks in his defense. “I’m not going anywhere,” Yeltsin said, according to Kobets. “I’d rather die here, with you, in a fight to the death.”

However, Yeltsin did take some precautions. He spent more than two hours hidden in the bomb shelter underneath the Russian Parliament Buidling. His personal bodyguards deployed around the vault as a last-ditch defense, said his aide, Viktor Ilyushin. Also, a helicopter remained on alert to swoop into the inner courtyard of the nineteen-story building to rescue Yeltsin, Samoilov said.

 

At the paratroopers’ headquarters, midnight Tuesday came and went. General Grachev, the commander, said his troops were supposed to start moving toward the White House at midnight to prepare to clear the way for an attack by the KGB Alpha Group. But General Grachev issued no command. Unconcerned by his decision to defy orders, Grachev waited, expecting to hear from an irate superior any second.

“What would have happened if I had agreed?” he said later to the Soviet Army newspaper. “We would not be sitting here. The ‘victors’ would be dying excruciating deaths from chemical and bacteriological warfare.” That passage was the only suggestion that a Red Army military unit had the capability to use lethal chemical and germ weapons and could have been ordered to use them against its own people.

Aboutu 1 a.m., Grachev said, he received a call from General Karpukhin, of the Alpha Group, which was supposed to storm the White House after Grachev’s paratroopers opened the way. As Grachev recalled it, Karpukhin complained that he could not reach his bosses. Grachev asked Karpukhin where he was.

“About two kilometers from the Russian Parliament,” Karpukhin said. “I have evaluated the situation and made a decision.” Then he fell silent. Grachev waited. “I won’t take part in this storming. There will be no attack. I won’t go against the people,” Karpukhin said finally.

“At that dramatic moment, I tried to call Yazov,” Grachev recounted for Krasnaya Zvezda. “Nobody answered. The Defense Minister was asleep.” At 4 a.m., Grachev received a call from an officer relaying a message from Yazov: his paratroopers should withdraw—presumably from around the White House, since that is where they were supposed to be by that hour.

“Tell the minister that the troops never moved in,” Grachev said he replied.

Despite reports from numerous officers that they were ordered to attack the White House and refused, Vyacheslav Nikonov, an aide to Oleg Bakatin, who became post-coup KGB chief, said the post-coup investigation found no order to attack the White House was ever given. He said the only order to prepare for an attack was issued on Monday, not Tuesday. But Nikonov said that Tuesday night, after Marshal Yazov decided finally against an attack, KGB Chief Kryuchkov considered going ahead with only KGB forces. Kryuchkov decided against that course of action at 3 a.m. after meeting with his lieutenants in his KGB headquarters.

According to other accounts, Karpukhin’s Alpha Group had already refused an order to prepare for an attack the night before.

In his own defense, Yazov told prosecutors later that he merely ordered troops to block intersections on Tuesday night, and that he barred the use of weapons. However, Kobets later obtained a copy of the minute-by-minute plan of attack.

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