Surviving the Coup – Twenty Years Later

Boris Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Russian White House

From all indications, the trip to the USSR was going to be a great experience.  Our delegation of fourteen faculty from various member institutions of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) was headed to Moscow to work cooperatively with Russian professors to develop a values-based MBA curriculum.  The Soviet Ministry of Education had signed a “protocol of intentions” with the CCCU that laid the basis for this cooperative project.  Ministry officials told us that Russian educational institutions needed course materials to train their students in economics and business, but that a moral vacuum currently existed in the USSR and they wanted the help of competent Christian scholars to fill this vacuum.
As Vice President of the CCCU, I had the challenge of leading this delegation, together with Professor Lin Geiger from Eastern College (St. Davids, PA).  The delegation was excited about this opportunity – it was something none of us could even have imagined a year earlier.

When the wall came down in Berlin in December 1989, dramatic changes were occurring all across Eastern Europe and the USSR.  These were historic times and now we were going to have a part in this unfolding story.  The adrenaline was flowing.

The Three Days of the Coup

We arrived in Moscow on Sunday morning, August 18, 1991.  Our hosts from one of the state universities in Moscow met us at the airport and we headed downtown for a driving tour through the city and a walk around Red Square where we enjoyed the impressive Kremlin and the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.

Late afternoon we arrived at a conference facility about an hour’s drive from downtown Moscow, the location for our faculty seminars.  By 9 p.m. most of us were tired from the overnight flight with little sleep, so we headed for bed in the newly-renovated dormitory rooms.

On Monday morning, August 19, I took a shower and was shaving with the radio on in the background.  Suddenly I was wide awake: What had I just heard?  The BBC reporters announced that Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, had been removed “for health reasons” and that a new government had been installed.  I rushed down the hallway, banging on the doors of my American colleagues to share the news, but most did not believe me.  They were convinced I was teasing them.  When they came into my room and listened to the developing news stories, they too were shocked.  It occurred to all of us that we were just outside the walls of the Kremlin on the previous day when the coup arrangements were being finalized.

After much confusion on the part of our Russian hosts about whether or not to proceed with our seminars, we headed downtown to meet with various Soviet educators, but a number of them did not show up “in light of the situation.”  Our seminar began several hours late, but we all tried to conduct the meeting as if everything were normal.  At 4:30 p.m. our hosts drove us to the U.S. Embassy to register our presence in Russia, as we had been instructed to do.  As we drove through the city, traffic was heavy and slow with tanks and personnel carriers scattered throughout the central sections of downtown Moscow.  Crowds had converged in front of the Embassy and our hosts had to make a path through the crowd so we could enter the building.  We registered and were told that there were no new developments to report — and we would not be able to make any calls from there to the States.  We did not get back to the conference facility outside Moscow until after dark.

For the next two days, there were many animated discussions with my faculty colleagues about our plight and what options were available to us.  Some of our delegation wanted to head for the airport, but we knew that this was not a viable choice.  Lin and I talked about the crisis and agreed that we were probably safer at the conference center than if we were in downtown Moscow.  Frankly I was very excited to be a witness to these events – what more could a guy trained to be an historian ask for!

When Lin and I told our hosts that our delegation was in this for the long haul and that we were not going to cancel our program, they were thrilled.  We told them we would stay in Moscow until they felt it was no longer safe.  My journal records the comments of one of the professors who said: “Don’t worry!  We will protect you from harm with our own bodies!”

Meal times and evenings were spent gathered around the television and radio, with both Russians and Americans, talking nervously about the threat of violence and the possibility of an attack by the armed forces against the Russian White House.  This was the headquarters for Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Republic, and his government that was courageously opposing the hard-line coup leaders who wanted to remove Gorbachev from power and stop his reform efforts.  News reports indicated that an attack was scheduled for Tuesday night, August 20.  Most of us had difficulty sleeping, but when we woke up on Wednesday, we were excited that an attack on the Russian White House had not taken place.  We were so impressed with the courage of Boris Yeltsin and I recorded one of his quotes that especially memorable: “You can create thrones of violence, but you can not sit on them for long.”

The American delegation climbs on the barricades

On Wednesday afternoon, August 21, as the news of the collapsing coup was broadcast, our conference center became the site of a joyous celebration.  People who hardly knew each other were hugging, yelling, and crying.  A spontaneous party began in the parking lot and I vividly remember Russians and Americans grabbing each other’s hands, forming a large circle, and singing “We Shall Overcome” – in English!
The next day we talked our hosts into taking us to downtown Moscow, where we would host a “celebration dinner” at Pizza Hut, drive to the Russian White House so we could climb around the barricades, and then, of course, try to call our families.

Looking Back

It is striking to me how dramatically things have changed in Russia since the failed coup in August 1991.  Within four months, the USSR became the UFFR (Union of Fewer and Fewer Republics) as fifteen different countries were created out of the former Soviet Union.  The Communist regime that General Secretary Gorbachev tried to reform imploded with surprisingly little violence – an implosion no one saw coming!  Gorbachev resigned his leadership position in December 1991 and the flag of the USSR was lowered from the Kremlin to be replaced by the tri-colored flag of the Russian Federation.

The joy and excitement that permeated Moscow during August 1991 was exhilarating.  This was a new day in Russia.  Expectations were very high, but the radical changes required to rebuild Russian society after seventy years of Communism were greater — and more painful — than most people anticipated.  It is much easier to tear down a building, especially one that is poorly designed, than to build a replacement.

I feel sad looking back on this experience.  The joy, the excitement, the hugs, the mutual concern for each other – all these dimensions of the time with our Russian colleagues seem long gone. As one commentator noted, “Discarding the Soviet past required courage, enthusiasm and hope.  Building a better Russia demanded realism, patience and stamina and still does.” 

Cynicism and hopelessness is now the default position for many Russians.  Without spiritual renewal and the rebuilding of the moral foundations of Russian society, this cynicism and lack of hope will not go away.