Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: 25 Years Later – Doug’s Memories of August 1991
It’s been 25 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We’re marking the anniversary (and the 30th anniversary of MIR) 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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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: June 28, 2016