Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: Doug’s Memories of August 1991

Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: Doug’s Memories of 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. In this installment, Doug shares his memories of the fateful days of the August coup in 1991, and his travels from Seattle to Moscow to Kamchatka in the Russian Far East (read other stories in this series).

Doug Grimes, MIR founder and president, was in Seattle at MIR headquarters, which in 1991 took up just a corner of the floor that it occupies today.

It was a sunny day in August, and he was on the phone with Annie Lucas in Finland. Annie, today MIR’s vice president, was leading an early MIR tour scheduled to drive from Helsinki to Leningrad on August 19, the first day of what was to become known as the “August Coup.”

Something weird is happening,” she reported to Doug. She had heard an announcement that Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, was ill and “resting” at his Crimean dacha. His second in command, the communist hard-liner Gennady Yanayev, had declared himself acting USSR president.

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

Masses of people flooded the streets of Leningrad during the coup; note the Russian flags flown by the horsemen
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

While Annie and her group of travelers decided to continue on to Leningrad, Doug called MIR’s man in Moscow, Kirill Takhtamyshev. Kirill said there was definitely something happening, but he wasn’t sure what it was. The state radio and TV stations were playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake over and over.

Later that day Kirill called back, saying that he could see tanks rolling toward the Kremlin, so there must be a coup going on. By that time people were taking photos from the tall Ukraine Hotel near Red Square and sending them out to the world.

St. Basils standing stately during the coup. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

St. Basil’s was untouched by the coup
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The secrecy was lifted, and international news sources began three days of non-stop reporting on the crisis, which was heard all over the country. (In a foreshadowing of 21st century social media, the people in Moscow stayed informed through CNN broadcasts, and even Gorbachev is said to have listened to BBC coup reports on a secret transistor radio.)

Red Square at Night. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Red Square with its red star, after the coup was over
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

In Seattle, the local TV news heard that Doug had a contact in Moscow and invaded the office with video cameras and microphones. They had him call Kirill again, and recorded his descriptions. “I’m looking out the window and I can see tanks and trucks full of soldiers. There’s still nothing on the news, but people are saying they’re gathering at the White House, where Yeltsin has his office,” Kirill reported.

The White House in Moscow, Russia. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The White House in Moscow, Russia, where protesters gathered to challenge the coup leaders
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Doug had tickets to fly to Moscow in the next day or so, planning to continue on to Kamchatka to scout locations for some proposed fishing trips. He spoke with Annie in Leningrad, and she reassured him that everything was fine; her group hadn’t encountered any problems getting across the border, or in their touring so far.

Meanwhile, Kirill had joined the crowds at the White House, and was at the scene for the historic moment when Yeltsin climbed on the tank and declared the coup illegal.

Close up view of the leftover barriers in front of the White House. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Close up view of the leftover barriers in front of the White House
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

By the time Doug landed in Moscow, the coup was over. Kirill took him down to the abandoned barricades, but the military had left the city. Gorbachev was still in charge, but the empire was slipping away.

Doug flew to Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, where he boarded a small plane to scout the peninsula’s wild rivers for prospective groups of fly fishermen. 10 days later, when he came out of the woods, everything had changed.

Avachinsky is one of the most active volcanoes on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, dwarfed by looming Avachinsky volcano
Photo credit: Martin Klimenta

Lithuania, Armenia and Georgia had already declared their independence before the coup, and by early September, as Doug flew back to Moscow with his fishing rod, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had followed suit.

By December 8, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had signed the Belavezha Accords, dissolving the Soviet Union and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Russia ratified the Accords on December 17, and most of the other Soviet republics did so on December 21.

As the USSR crumbled, wintertime in Russia. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Soviet soldiers, soon to be Russian Federation soldiers
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Gorbachev left the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, and the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and replaced with the pre-revolutionary Russian tricolor. The country’s name was formally changed from the “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” to the simpler “Russian Federation.”

As the USSR crumbled, wintertime in Russia. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

The USSR crumbled in December of 1991
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Back in Seattle, Doug found that his fledgling travel business had irrevocably changed, too. Looking on the bright side, there were 15 newly-opened countries for travelers to explore, but he knew there would be other ramifications. As it turned out, many of MIR’s early clients were NGOs that were made redundant by the collapse, or were prevented from operating in the new Russian Federation, which was in disarray for years.

MIR’s NGO business began to wane at the same time that it became harder to get U.S. visas for Russian citizens traveling to the States. Doug had first discovered his love for Russia by helping to organize – and participating in – a volleyball exchange to the USSR, and the small team at MIR believed in citizen exchanges like this.

Doug first discovered his love for Russia by helping to organize – and participating in – a volleyball exchange. Photo credit: Steve Richmond

Doug (back row, 5th from left) helped to organize and participate in a volleyball exchange in Moscow in 1986
Photo credit: Steve Richmond

The team at MIR was instrumental in planning and supporting other citizen exchanges, bringing Hawaiian hula dancers to Siberia for a dance festival, Russian musicians to Seattle, and LAPD officers to Moscow to meet their counterparts, just to name a few.

Doug was instrumental in planning and supporting citizen exchanges, like bringing LAPD officers to Moscow to meet their counterparts. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

MIR believed in citizen exchanges, and arranged  for LAPD officers to meet their counterparts in Moscow
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

When it became apparent that the Russian side of these exchanges couldn’t take place any longer, Doug realized he had to rethink the whole concept of MIR.

Why did he persevere?

“Because I was a believer that travel breaks down barriers – and a bit crazy, too,” he says now. He’s glad he remained committed to the idea of travel to Russia.

Returning to Russia six times in 1992, Doug continued to work toward making new contacts in places where foreigners hadn’t been allowed to go for so many years. He was able to tap into travelers’ hunger to finally pull aside the Iron Curtain and see Russia – and all the former Soviet republics – for themselves.

Doug traveled to Russia six times in 1992, following the dissolution of the USSR. Doug focused on going places where foreigners hadn’t been allowed to go for so many years. Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

Doug traveled to Russia six times in 1992, from Moscow to the Russian Far East, following the dissolution of the USSR
Photo credit: Douglas Grimes

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 Russia, Siberia, 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.

Contact MIR today at info@mircorp.com or 1-800-424-7289.

Top photo: A peaceful still life: Kremlin wall with Ladas in August 1991, just after the coup. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

PUBLISHED: April 28, 2019

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