Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: Katya’s Memories of St. Petersburg, August 1991

Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: Katya’s Memories of St. Petersburg, August 1991

It’s been 28 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We’re marking the anniversary with eyewitness accounts from MIR colleagues and contacts. Katya Boyarskaya, Director of our affiliate office in St. Petersburg, was living there during the time of the 1991 August Coup. Here’s her story. (read other stories in this series)

MIR's Katya Boyarskaya, outside her MIR tour bus Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

MIR’s Katya Boyarskaya, leading a tour in her hometown of St. Petersburg in the late 1990s
Photo credit: Katya Boyarskaya

Morning, August 19, 1991On Aug 19th I had a free day, and I was woken by a phone call from my friend, who shouted nervously that something extraordinary happened: there is a coup d’etat in the country, Gorbachev is detained in the Crimea, and the communists are trying to get power back.

Then in the next two or three hours there were dozens of calls, people were exchanging news and thinking about what we should do, where we should be. I was alone in my flat; my husband was at the dacha. Soon he called, although the nearest phone booth was two kilometers away, and there was a huge line of people, all of them waiting to call friends, families, not knowing what to do.  

He told me to stay at home and not to leave the flat. But I immediately did, because, really, it wasn’t possible to understand what might be going on just by calling each other. On TV they were showing only Swan Lake from the Bolshoi Theater on repeat. (Which would be nice to watch some other day.) In the street (I live near the main street, Nevsky Prospekt) there were groups of people, listening to radio transmitters. Radio was more active – a couple of radio stations were trying to find out what was happening, and journalists were in the streets of Moscow.

Galeria indoor mall is steps away from St. Petersburg's famous (and rainy) shopping street, Nevsky Prospekt Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

Nevsky Prospekt, the main street in St. Petersburg 
Photo credit: Jenelle Birnbaum

Still, the most terrifying thing was ­–­ NO INFO. But to be honest, I wasn’t terrified. Maybe it was because of my young age, maybe cause we had been so happy about the recent changes that we couldn’t, even in theory, accept that they might disappear.

The day passed in strolling along Nevsky, where all my friends seemed to be with no preliminary agreement. (Though one actor whom I met was hurrying to a movie theater to see a new Italian movie, just released.)

Evening, August 19 1991In the evening Swan Lake stopped for a while, and there was a regular TV program, “Vremya” (Time), which came on every day at the same time, 9:00 pm. The info at first was all about supporting the coup leaders, but suddenly there came on a short segment taken near the Moscow White House, and there was Yeltsin, reading the document that said the “new provisional government” (as the coup leaders called themselves) was against the law.

This assured us that there was strong resistance, and nothing bad would happen. Also the trembling hands of the “acting president,” Gennady Yanaev, one of the leaders of the coup ­­– during his press conference, those hands showed how frightened he himself was, and it convinced us of his weakness.

August 20 1991All the next day, Aug 20, I stayed on Palace Square, and St Isaac’s Square, near city hall. The evening before, on local TV, St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak announced a political strike, and no one had gone to work. Sobchak was very well respected: he was a very well educated, cultured person, and represented the “cultural capital” well.

There were hundreds of thousands of people on the square, and I have never seen so many beautiful, soulful, fierce faces.

Masses taking to the streets. Note St. Isaacs in the background. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Masses taking to the streets in St. Petersburg; note St. Isaacs in the background, and the Russian tricolor flags
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Along with his call for a strike, Sobchak had announced on local radio to gather on Palace Square. He made a speech there, as many others did. He was in a summer raincoat, and I remember as he walked quickly to the improvised podium by the Winter Palace, his coat kind of flowed behind him, trying to catch up to this impetuous person. His speech was great. He assured us that democracy would win. But by the evening there came rumors that there might be troops and even tanks sent to assault Leningrad.

We decided to stay out in the street.

(When my husband finally got home from the dacha, he tried to find me in the street. He realized it wasn’t possible and stayed in the flat, worrying.)  

Night, August 20-21 1991First the crowd went to the local TV studio, where there were improvised barricades and many people. Then we went to St. Isaac’s Square, because Mariinsky Palace (city hall) was the center of resistance, and there we stayed till morning.

There, at night, it WAS scary at a certain moments. Especially after my calls home to my husband. Each time he was shouting like crazy, “Come home! There will be tanks! You all will be killed!”  

I think it was more scary, in a way, for those who were at home. With the people on the street, it wasn’t so bad. We did search for and discover several archways leading to inner yards, where we could possibly escape in case of tanks.

You know, all together it was….not really FUN, no, because we didn’t know that the tanks would never come that night. But it was an ADVENTURE, and a rare feeling for Soviet people­ – we felt that we were needed.  

Morning, August 21 1991In the morning we all went home for a while, to take a nap, to eat and change, but my husband locked me in the flat and didn’t let me go out again till we heard the good news that Gorbachev was OK and back in Moscow, and that the coup leaders were all arrested. And so began a new era.

Travel to Russia with MIR

MIR has 30 years of travel experience to Russia, with affiliate offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Siberia offering on-the-ground support, and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

If you’re looking for a ready-made tour of Russia, MIR offers a variety of scheduled departures to Western RussiaSiberia, and along the Trans-Siberian Railway

MIR specializes in personalized, private journeys, and we’d love to take your ideas and weave them into a trip tailored especially for you. Travel wherever, however, and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. Contact us to find out more about our custom and private travel expertise – each trip handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.

(Top Photo: Katya is a St. Peterburg native and has worked for MIR for more than 20 years; Credit: Katya Boyarskaya)

PUBLISHED: May 11, 2019

Related Posts

Share your thoughts