I remember that sharp, radiant day in mid-August because of three things. The folks were up early, a sense of foreboding was imminent, and there was nothing on television. My sister was ominously silent, too. I was only in the third year of my life at that time.
The whisper went around that my homeland, the Soviet Union, was collapsing, though I didn’t understand this very well, “collapsing.” Nothing was falling, or even moving very much, at least as far as I could see. There were few people in the streets, and there was still nothing on television.
My mom protested a bit but gave in pretty quickly, and let dad take me to see what everyone was calling, tentatively, cautiously, “the putsch.” I was not sure what this meant, but seeing as the day-out involved us going to the river, I was glad. There was nothing on television, anyway. We took the metro to Krasnopresnenskaya, and were immediately drawn into a multitude of people waving unusual flags – the white, blue and red ones – and chatting excitedly about someone called Yeltsin.
We went with the crowd, through a park where, on a big hefty monument, Red Army soldiers were holding a position on the barricades, never asking, never complaining, and soon came to the Russian parliament building, on the bank of the Moscow River. Gleaming white, it still officially housed the former parliament, the Supreme Soviet, on that bright, keen day of August 19, 1991.
My dad was carrying me on his shoulders, so I had a better view and informed him of whatever he was missing out on. There wasn’t much going on, though, just people shouting things at each other, and crying out with rage, or suffering, or devotion, but this was better than television.
That name, Yeltsin, was ringing out over my head, getting louder, quieter, then louder again. The police were pretending they were in control and kept looking over the bridge, where, in due time, the tanks appeared. Now, this was interesting. The crowd pushed back, but then, almost instantly, there was a sigh of relief, and then joy, and cheers of jubilation, as the tank men emerged holding that same flag, the white, blue and red one. I wasn’t exactly expecting pools of blood and gore on the pavement, but this floored me, and, I think, just about everyone else. The tanks had obviously been sent to kill, or at least intimidate, and now they were on our side. I didn’t really understand what our side was, and who was on it, and who we were against, but the sense of fraternity, and strength, was complete.
Then there was that man they all talked about, Yeltsin, with the white hair and in a suit like he was going to the Bolshoi. He was a good bit away but I could just make out how he clambered onto a tank, and then there was silence, and Yeltsin read out something from a creased piece of paper that I didn’t understand. I only remember him saying the words “the Russian Federation” very often, as if to let the people fully grasp them, try them on, roll them around their tongue and gullet. I said them a few times myself. They tasted good in my mouth, but there was a newness about them that took years to understand, and take in, and accept. Some people, many of them in the government, have yet to come to terms with it.