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