Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: The August Coup, 1991

Witnessing the Fall of the USSR: The August Coup, 1991

It’s been 28 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. This account of a MIR tour that coincided with the August Coup is the first installment. (read other stories in this series)

For a good part of the 20th century, the countries that made up the Soviet Union were bound together, most of them unwillingly, as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Then, one by one they reasserted their independence, following Lithuania’s lead the year before.

The day after Christmas, December 26, 1991, they formally drifted apart, as quietly as a dandelion gone to seed.

Douglas GrimesAnnie Lucas and Katya Boyarskaya have also shared their stories as they witnessed the fall of the USSR.

How could the fall of the USSR have happened?With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced
the USSR’s downward spiral.

Check our our brief synopsis here.

 

Things were a little dicey in the Soviet Union that day in 1991, and the MIR tour manager wasn’t sure if she should cancel the day’s itinerary.

The coach tour had begun in Helsinki, Finland, a good place to get acclimated to the 12-hour time change. The group had spent the night there, and was about to drive to St. Petersburg, still known at that time as Leningrad. The itinerary called for spending a few days in Leningrad, heading south to Novgorod and Moscow, then continuing through Belarus and Poland, ending in Berlin.

Headed to Leningrad. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

A quick shot from the tour bus as the group heads to Leningrad
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The tour manager was Annie Lucas, now MIR’s vice president, and she was leading one of her first few MIR tours to Russia. In her early 20s, she had done this several times before, but it was still new to her. And on this trip, her own father (Bud Lucas, who kindly let us use his photos) had signed up to be one of the participants, making it even more important to her that the trip go smoothly.

Annie Lucas, tour manager of the fateful trip. Pictured here with their bus drivers and Dmitri the tour guide. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Annie Lucas, tour manager of the fateful trip, pictured here with their bus drivers and tour guide, Dmitri 
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

As Annie and her group of travelers packed for the coach ride into Russia, they heard the news on Finnish TV: Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union, was said to be ill and confined to his dacha in the Crimea. A State of Emergency had been declared and an Emergency Committee formed to take the reins of government while he was recovering. That was all anybody knew.

Meeting over breakfast, Annie and her group discussed the fact that something strange was happening in Moscow, but it wasn’t clear what. What did they think about continuing into Russia?

This was an adventurous group of people; they had already chosen to ride a bus through the Evil Empire during the Cold War. Their consensus was, “Of course we have to keep going – at the least, to find out what’s happening!” Annie considered her options and decided to risk it. Since they had their own bus, she reasoned, they could turn around and retreat at any time if things got sticky.

They climbed aboard the swanky black coach with its two drivers who would trade off on the journey, and set off for the Russian border. It was August 19, 1991.

As they crossed into Russia, the calming strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake came from the radio on all the Soviet stations.

KGB headquarters. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Standing outside the KGB headquarters
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Soviet citizens and observers of the Soviet Union were well aware that when momentous things happened in the USSR, communications were immediately shut down in favor of musical programs, typically featuring Russian composers or Russian folklore performances.

Today, we know that a small group of communist hard-liners, including the Deputy Chairman of the KGB and the Russian Vice President, were holding Gorbachev incommunicado at his Crimean dacha in a coup attempt. While Tchaikovsky was streaming on all stations, tanks rolled into Moscow to back the leaders of the coup.

By 10:00 that morning, as the MIR tour bus was still en route to Leningrad, Boris Yeltsin – in a strange oversight, the coup leaders had not arrested him as planned – had hopped up on his famous tank in Moscow to declare the attempted coup illegal and to urge the Soviet tank crews not to fire on their own people.

Scenes of the anti-coup demonstrations, most carrying umbrellas. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Scene of an anti-coup demonstrations in St. Petersburg
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

It took the MIR travelers most of the day to get to Leningrad, and when they finally arrived, they drove by Palace Square, where some 150,000 people thronged the huge open space. Since there was no information to be gleaned over the airwaves, the crowds headed out into the streets to try to find out what was happening. As the big black bus rolled by, excited people were flashing the peace sign and grinning, elated and hopeful about the showdown between business-as-usual and imminent change.

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

Masses took to the streets that day to find out what was happening – in the background is St. Isaac’s Cathedral
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The group stayed in Leningrad for several days, calmly touring the Hermitage and Peterhof without repercussions. The local people were amazed and thrilled to see travelers from the U.S. during this political upheaval, when no one knew what might happen next. News of the events in Moscow percolated through the populace; people were on edge, but remained calm and upbeat.

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

The White House in Moscow, Russia, where Yeltsin and his supporters held out during the coup
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Meanwhile in Moscow, demonstrators threw up hasty barricades to protect the Russian White House, seat of the government, where Yeltsin and his supporters had holed up. Scrap iron, trolleys and street-cleaning equipment blocked the avenues, and three protestors were killed in the initial scuffle. They were to be the only casualties in a conflict that everyone expected would be much more violent.

Special Forces units were commanded to enter the White House by force and kill Yeltsin and the other anti-coup leaders. But after mingling with the huge crowds of protestors, the Special Forces commanders convinced the Deputy Chairman of the KGB that the human cost of the attack would be horrifically high, and the victory fruitless. The attack was called off and the tanks withdrawn.

On August 24th, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as Communist Party Secretary. In front of KGB headquarters, crowds pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the despised head of an early version of the KGB.

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

Close-up view of the leftover baricades in Moscow
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The MIR group got to Moscow soon after the failed attack on the White House. The coup was over, though Yeltsin’s tank was still there. Annie’s father snapped pictures of the burned out buses that had blocked the streets. Wreckage was still scattered in a few of the avenues, and Felix Dzerzhinsky’s pedestal still stood empty near KGB headquarters, defaced with graffiti. Hope was high.

The empty statue stand in front of KGB headquarters, crowds pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The empty pedestal in front of KGB headquarters, where crowds had earlier pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Inside the Kremlin, where Gorbachev and Yeltsin had side by side offices in this building. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

Inside the Kremlin, Gorbachev and Yeltsin had side-by-side offices in this building, currently being demolished
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The travelers explored Moscow as they had planned, admiring Red Square and the Kremlin, with the added bonus that everywhere they stopped the bus, local people came crowding around to celebrate with the Americans. Jubilant young men jostled each other in their eagerness to trade for Levi’s and Marlboros.


Annie and her group chatted with the traders about what the future held in store as they exchanged the blue jeans and cigarettes they’d brought for caviar and other treasures. No one bothered to look over their shoulders as they traded. No one was nervous about talking with the Americans. Change was in the air.

Browsing the outdoor markets on Arabat Street in Moscow in August 1991. There were two miles of vendors. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The group browsed the outdoor markets on Arbat Street in Moscow in August 1991; there were two miles of vendors
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

The MIR group left Russia and crossed into the former Byelorussian SSR only a few days after that country had triumphantly changed its name to The Republic of Belarus.

Their final Soviet adventure came at the Belarus/Poland border, where an epic lineup of cars and buses stretched into the distance. Soviet citizens were mistakenly convinced that now they could leave the USSR without special papers, and sat for days waiting to cross into Poland.

It’s said the wait time for those in line at the border going from Russia to Poland was six days. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

It’s said the wait time at the border for people going from Russia to Poland was six days
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

When the coach drivers saw the jammed border, they huddled with Annie and strategized. Since the busload of American travelers was such an anomaly, they thought they might get away with a bold move.

Confidently, as if he knew what he was doing, the driver pulled up past the miles-long line of vehicles to the border station, where Annie hopped out with the travelers’ passports. Assuming an air of great authority, the young American woman presented the passports and demanded to pass into Poland immediately. Astounded that this bus-full of Americans had suddenly appeared at their border crossing at this precarious moment, the guards came to the conclusion that it would be best if this coach disappeared as soon as possible.

August 1991: A portion of the processing line to enter Poland from Russia post-coup. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

August 1991: A fraction of the processing line attempting to enter Poland from Russia post-coup
Photo credit: Bud Lucas

With a cursory check of passports, they waved the coach through. As Annie ran back to the bus with the stack of documents, she saw they were just in time. A gathering crowd of disgruntled drivers surrounded the guards to complain about that black foreign coach that had jumped the line.

They waved goodbye to the Soviet Union and left it to its fate.

Annie remembers the serendipitous journey as a very successful and memorable trip, during which they felt a sense of euphoria among the local people in all the countries they visited.

“It was a fantastic experience for everybody. We knew history was being made all around us.”

A stateside newclipping of the coup.

A stateside newsclipping of the momentous changes

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: The empty base near the KGB’s headquarters, defaced with graffiti, where the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky once stood. Photo credit: Bud Lucas

PUBLISHED: April 15, 2019

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