13.12.2001 | Eugene Zakharov, Kharkov

How I got the sacred key


Only twice in my life I comprehended clearly that I live in the critical moment of history. The first time was in February-March 1987, when prisoners of consciousness were massively released from prisons and concentration camps. The second time was 19-30 August 1991. I hope that a brief chronicle of those days would be interesting to our readers.

On Monday, August 19, I had the first day of my leave. The day before I toiled in the vegetable garden preparing potatoes for digging out. On 19 August I had to drop to my job: to agree with my chiefs the new staff list of the bureau that I headed. That was the final touch: after that I was free to rest.

At my dacha there was neither TV nor radio, because from my childhood I dislike all mass media. That was why I learned about the putsch only in the late morning, when my mother, wife and son came to the dacha. My son ran to me crying: ‘We have a coup!’ I decided that he was teasing me. But when my wife and mother came up with very stricken faces, I understood that it was true.

I remember well my first reaction – overwhelming amazement. How did they dare? It was extreme idiocy! The second reaction was – they must fail! I told it to my family. They did not believe me: ‘You have always been a clinical optimist!’ I thought about my bosom friends in Moscow: Larisa Bogoraz, Aleksandr Daniel, Pavel Marchenko. Where are they, what happens with them?

Mother with my son remained at the dacha to look after our dog, which again gave birth to a lot of puppies, I and my wife hurried up to town.

I came to my office about 2 p.m. All faces were somber, nobody looked straight at other one’s faces. I said to my colleagues: ‘Cheer up! This will last two or three days, a week at most!’ A few people did cheer up and smiled, the rest remained moody.

What to do? I phoned to Henrich Altunian, he knew nothing except what was shown on TV. Nobody knew anything. Now it is difficult to believe, but then any information was unacceptable even to rather high authorities. In the city council (then I was a member of the council) knew nothing either, everyone was dispirited and frightened.

I phoned to Moscow, to ‘Express-Chronicle’ and the Agency of social information. There the people, on the contrary, were animated and ready to fight. They told about the occurring events. I gave them Altunian’s fax number (he was a happy owner of this technical miracle), ask them to dump the news and ran to his home. From the both sources we received the information about the meetings throughout the country and Eltsin’s declaration. The sheets with the news were as large as bed-sheets. Henrich took one sheet to the city council, I took the other one to the organization, where we rented a computer. I typed and printed Eltsin’s declaration in many copies and ran to the square, where people gathered for an improvised meeting. It began, as people told, about 11 a.m. and was held permanently. About one hundred people were present. Many of them were plain-clothed ‘democrats’. To an experienced eye they were easily recognizable.

In general, I do not love to speak at meetings, but here I had to. The more so that many traditional speakers were absent.

I took the floor, told the events and read Eltsin’s declaration. The audience tried not to omit a single word. People cheered up. The plain-clothed were puzzled. Was it new even for them? I repeated that the putsch would last for few days. I passed around the copies of the declaration.

I phoned to Altunian. He told that after having got the information the city council became somewhat calmer. Evgeny Kushnarev, the then city mayor, regained his usual assurance and decided to gather an emergency session of the city council. ‘We shall not manage to do it on Tuesday, so Wednesday it will be’. Aleksandr Maselskiy, the head of the oblast council, on the contrary, postponed the session appointed at 20 August: ’We must reap the harvest’. Altunian told that Maselskiy refused pointblank to disband the meeting in the square. Upon the whole, the local authorities acted in the spirit of Kravchuk’s declaration.

I wrote the text about the Kharkov events and dictated it by phone to ‘Express-Chronicle’. I phone to Larisa Bogoraz. She told that Daniel and Marchenko went to guard the White House.

Next day I was exited and alarmed: what is going in Moscow? How will the army behave? I spent time either at Altunian’s fax in order to get the information or in the square in order to spread the information. In the evening I and my wife hurried to the dacha, to calm down mother and son. We returned very late.

In the morning I learned about the clashes in Moscow, about the three deaths. Alarmed, I went to the session of the city council. Several deputies suggested to denounce the putschists. Two members were against this proposition. One of them was Pereverzev, the deputy head of the oblast KGB. In fact, he supported the putsch. Grigoryeva, the secretary of the Chervonozavodskiy district party committee, told that we should not provoke the youth and we had to wait for the decisions from the top.

Nonetheless, the session took the decision to condemn the illegal actions of the putschists. The communist fraction voted against.

I remember the following two days not so well. What I distinctly remember is a breathtaking feeling of freedom that I experienced then. The information blockade already stopped, people did not leave TV sets. Kushnarev gathered the emergency session of the city council again on 26 August. Stanislav Gurenko vowed at the session of the Supreme Rada that the Ukrainian communist party knew nothing about the putsch.

On Saturday morning some acquaintance (unfortunately, I forget who) phoned to me and said: ‘Run to the obkom(headquarters of the oblast communist party)! A mob gathered there, some papers are burned. They are going to attack the building!’ Obkomis a five-minute walk from my home. I ran there. The mob counted about 60 people, some stranger spoke through a megaphone. I saw militiamen that had to guard the building behind the locked glass doors, their faces were pale of terror. I was recognized by some people in the mob, somebody showed me a whiff of smoke rising from a window on the fourth story. If they wanted to burn anything, I thought, they had plenty of time. I took the megaphone and called them to keep order, not to break the door, but to elect a group of five representatives, which would enter the building peacefully and check what was burning, where, etc. People agreed, and the delegation was elected. I asked the mob to step back from the entrance, knocked on the door, showed my deputy’s ID, asked to open and told about our intentions. The frightened guards told me that they had not to let anybody in without the permission of their chiefs and that they would call fist secretary of the obkomAnatoliy Mialitsa. Two obkomservants in the standard uniform (dark suit, white shirt and dark necktie) left the building through the hooting crowd. They elbowed their way and trotted off. Thank God, their kissers were not beaten.

Some time later Mialitsa appeared. People crowded around him, shouting and hooting. I started negotiations and explained our intentions. He agreed, but asked the crowd to step away; he said that he could not negotiate in such a noise. I repeated his request. The people obeyed. We, I and Mialitsa, remained alone, he started to dodge in any way. He was a first-rate demagogue! We were debating for the best part of an hour. Several times the people got impatient and closed in, then Mialitsa agreed with anything and asked the people to get away. After this he again began to dodge. Suddenly a car came up, Kushnarev and Altunian, who just arrived from Kyiv, stepped from the car. Kushnarev said: ‘Now we shall seal the doors of the obkom– the executive committee will decide further actions. Mr. Zakharov, I ask you to join the commission that will seal the doors. Choose two more deputies to assist you’. He went away, and Altunian remained and told that in Lviv the mob broke into the obkombuilding at night and found there a telegram from the Central Committee of the Communist party of Ukraine of 18 August, in which there were orders of the putschists. We had to seal the obkomto preserve such documents. I asked my colleagues-deputies Sergey Vladimirov and Aleksandr Novikov to assist me.

Mialitsa became gray in the face, stopped debating and returned to the building. Some time later several people, Aleksandr Prymak ( a deputy of the oblast council) and unperturbed poker-faced militia captain, joined us. So the five of us began the procedure. I was in the obkombuilding for the first time. Rugs on the floors, marble, impeccable cleanness. We inspected all rooms on all stories and sealed the doors. We were accompanied by photo correspondent Nina Bezhina, who clicked her camera without stop. People, who served in the obkomwere leaving the building. The much grown crowd at the entrance whistled and shouted. At last we went outdoor and sealed the main entrance. I was the tallest in our commission, so I raised the paper strip with the seal and glued it as high as possible. The crowd roared in triumph. Mialitsa, standing by us, locked the main door with a big key and was turning it in his hands, as if he did know what to do with it. I snatched the key from his hands and told that it would be safer in my hands. He protested, but I did not flinch. The crowd continued to shout. Mialitsa had to agree, but he made me promise that I would bring the key to the door on Monday at 8 a.m. I did not argue, and he went away.

I remember well the strange feeling: I am holding the key that, perhaps, was not used since the day liberating the city from German occupants, when the obkommoved into this building. I was unwilling to give it back to Mialitsa next Monday. An elegant hansom militia colonel came to me, the head of the city directorate of guarding the public order (I do not remember his name) and advised: ‘I say, can’t you disappear somewhere with this key?’ Even militia hated them. Nina Bezhina proposed to take my photo with the key. I refused. Then she asked to let her take the photo of only my hand with the key. Later this photo was printed in all Kharkov newspapers.

The whole Sunday I was trying to think away of not giving back the key. Late in the evening I learned that the Presidium of the Supreme Rada took a decision to prohibit the communist party. Early in the morning I phoned to Kushnarev at his home, told him about this decision and proposed to use this pretext for not returning the key. He agreed and promised to come to obkomat 8 on Monday morning. He came, told Mialitsa about the prohibition and took the key from me. Later the liquidation commission was formed that dealt with the obkombuilding and other inheritance of the communist party.

At the session of the city council all decisions were taken unanimously, communists looked distressed, but voted for. Some commissions were created: for liquidating of party organs, for investigating the facts of obeying illegal putschists’ orders; Dzerzinski square was renamed to Svoboda (Freedom) square, several streets in the downtown and the subway station named after Dzerzhinski were also renamed. Only once the communists showed obstinacy and voted against: when it was proposed to remove Lenin’s monument from Dzerzinski (Freedom) square. In order to be taken the decision needed three more votes, but the decision was blocked. So this monument is still standing. Myroslav Marynovich, when he came to Kharkov for the first time in November 1993, said: ‘How symbolic it is: Lenin, the great strangler of freedom, decorates the square of freedom’.

In the break of the session Kushnarev asked me to head the commission for investigating the facts of obeying illegal putschists’ orders. I agreed to join the commission, but refused to head it.

There were many interesting details in the work of this commission, but the size of the article does not permit to dwell upon them. I will only mention that I rigidly opposed that the commission would consider anonymous letters, and I managed to convince my colleagues. I was working in the commission for a week, during this time I had to seal several party buildings and to talk with party chiefs of various ranks. We managed to find the mentioned above (which found in Lviv) telegram of 18 August and to observe how it was obeyed. The longer was the distance from the obkom, the more unwillingly the orders were obeyed. District party committees developed measures of endorsing the putschists, passed the instructions to party committees of enterprises and organizations, but there all was fuzzy and ineffective. As a result, the putschists got no support from the grass-root organizations. The putschists’ actions were so unnatural that they were doomed to failure.

The unsuccessful putsch catalyzed the disintegration of the USSR. The communist majority in the Supreme Rada gave in and endorsed the Act on the independence, regarding this as a smaller evil than the export of revolution from Russia. Ukraine quite unexpectedly became independent, although in many respects it was not prepared for this.

I often brood, whether we could succeed more, if we acted otherwise? I do not know. History does not present subjunctive moods. It seems to me that the Ukrainian society was not prepared to conduct the process of decommunization, to remove from power those, who participated in repressions dissidents, i.e. to replace the so-called nomenclature. Our society contained not enough people capable of such actions, the society was weakened by 70 years of mass repressions. That was the reason why on 1 December the Ukrainian people voted for the former party ideologist Kravchuk and not for the former dissident Chornovil. The quick and efficient start, like in Poland, Czechia or Hungary, was impossible in our country. Alas, we were doomed for this intolerable decade that we have survived since August 1991. We were doomed to suffer through the post-totalitarian depression aggravated with typical Ukrainian vices.

But every cloud has a silver lining. In spite of all the difficulties, sufferings and misery, the total vector of changes on the country is directed, in my opinion, to the better. The further results will depend upon ourselves.

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