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.
How could the fall of the USSR have happened?With the benefit of hindsight, historians have traced
the USSR’s downward spiral.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Travel to Russia with MIR
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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