Ten years have passed
On 19 August 1991 I came to town from my dacha, where my husband remained, and planned to return with my friend. I, like many on that morning, was woken with a phone call. The voice of my interlocutor, a very reticent woman (she is a psychiatrist, after all), did not leave doubts – something abhorring happened. ‘Stitch on the TV set. They (further followed some unprintable characteristics) made a state coup. I rushed to the TV set and saw airy fairs, who dances on the screen. It was the ‘Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. My friend explained to me the essence of the appeal to people by the GKChP. ‘That is civil war, was my first thought.
I am still sure that we were at hairbreadth from it. The situation was saved only by the fast loss of control on the side of putschists. It was the consequence of the loss of control by any central organ. On the other side, any power that lost the contact with the population, which is based exclusively on the law (rather lawlessness)-enforcing organs is unable to act adequately.
For several first hours, when alarmed members of the city council (my husbands colleagues) kept phoning to me asking where my husband was, I was felt fear. I was afraid for my husband, for my friends in Moscow and Kharkov. Then the well-known speech of Kravchuk followed. Many say that he demonstrated a double attitude. I do not know, I did not understand it in such a way. Not to introduce the state of emergency in the republic meant unambiguously that he was not going to endorse the coup. From this moment the situation stopped to resemble a horror film, the more so that some other republics (according to radio ‘Liberty) also refused to submit. Then the TV channel RTR showed Eltsins famous speech. I went to dacha to fetch my husband, and he at once said that the putsch would fail, moreover, he said, it would serve as a catalyst of centrifugal processes in the USSR. An incessant meeting was held on the central square and nobody tried to disband the people. This time the well-known dramatic events were occurring in Moscow; in three days they resulted in the defeat of the GKChP and Ukraines independence. All the time we stayed near TV and radio sets: everybody understood that historical events were occurring. It was a very strange feeling to participate in the creation of history. We, Soviet people for decades did not take part in the civil life, observing important events on TV screens only.
Since that time ten years have passed. We have got a country of our own. It is a new and remarkable feeling, since I never regarded the USSR as my country. Maybe the reason was that I was bred by my mothers parents, who, mildly speaking, did not love the Soviet regime. Maybe because I was bred in the countryside, where practically nobody loved the regime, especially older people, who remembered the great famine of the early thirties. I had hot discussions with my poor parents (who believed in the ‘socialism with the human face), as a result I convinced myself more and more. Now I understand that they tried to convince me in order to save me from possible repressions. Yet, in my teens I felt that we lived in quite different countries. By 24 August 1991 I have been a citizen of Kharkov and the Kharkov oblast, without identifying the place of my birth with the country as a whole. I supposed that one day the USSR should collapse, just because that was the fate of all empires. In 1990 I thought that it would happen in about five years. The immediate independence of Ukraine was unexpected even for those, who understood that the USSR was already disintegrating. There is the opinion that Ukraine is advancing so painfully because it never struggled for its independence like the Baltic republics and Georgia. It is difficult to agree with this idea, because the struggle for independence should mean an inevitable war, split to the East and West and much bloodshed. As to the national movement, which strove for freedom in the peaceful way, this movement in Ukraine was the most powerful.
All former Soviet republics, excluding the Baltic and middle Asia ones, which have their own specifics, are advancing in the construction of their states slowly and with a lot of difficulties. Ukraine does not make an exception. In order to build a state, a town, a house and even a shed one must have the plan and the wish to achieve the result. In Ukraine the majority of citizens do not feel themselves as citizens, even if they do not feel any nostalgia for the Soviet past, even if they do not vote for communists (which is an extreme king of anti-citizen behavior). They do not understand what must they do as citizens. That is why each election is so shapeless, that is why the state bureaucrats may afford a quite arbitrary behavior. That is why ten years later we again speak about a new ‘standstill, this time in a young independent country. But that is a nonsense to have a standstill in the country still unshaped. If a young country does not develop, then it perishes, loosing its independence partly or entirely. In our times the former threatens us. I do not want to list all our troubles, to sum up all sad results of our underdevelopment...
Yaroslav Dashkevich, reacting to my words said that we live in an alien country again. Yet, after all, we have something like a native country, and here lies our hope.
There is a small church in Kotlova street in Kharkov, which is as old as our country. The church is not completed and already needs repairs; the Ukrainian Autocephalic Church is not rich, but the number of its followers is increasing from day to day. Younger people more and more often say ‘In our Ukraine, and this is also a reason for hope. Maybe some day a new population will be bred, unlike the Soviet people, who were indifferent to all. It would be good, if we have the country, where law are obeyed, where the Convention is not violated, where helpless old people do not starve, where women give birth to many children and do not give them away to the orphanages. But we shall have such a country only if we desire it very much.
Nobody will make us to become citizens, and without becoming citizens we shall never have a country, which we would like to call our native one.
The answers to the following questionnaire somewhat illustrate our attitude to the putsch.
What did you feel when you learned that the GKChP seized the power?
What did you intend to do?
What were your expectations?
Of whom among your friends and relatives did you think first of all?
What were the causes of the defeat of the putsch in your opinion?
Henrich Altunian, a political prisoner in 1968-71, 1980-87, MP in 1990-94.
1. I was deeply depressed and recollected the prison in Chistopol. Rejoicing due to the obtained independence evaporated at once. The air became stale. I was sure that if arrests begin, I should be one of the firsts. Not because I was already imprisoned twice, but because I have made a speech in the Parliament against the KGB, which would not be excused.
2. I went to my friends, I joined the crowds in streets. Many, even strangers, came up and asked, what shall we do? As a rule, I answered: be yourself. I will never forget two facts. First, when 100-150 representatives of the so-called democratic public gathered in one of small halls in Sumskaya street and held a spontaneous meeting. No one of the speakers endorsed the putsch. Second fact: I came to the office of the freshly elected chairman of the city council, where the city top authorities gathered. Everybody was gloomy, with nerves strained. All waited for news from Moscow. They had no fax then, radio and TV gave no information. I tried to cheer up the audience, I added that everyones life now has divided into two parts: before and after the 19 August. All our future will depend on our behavior on these critical days. If you want, I joked, I can tell you how jailbirds live in Soviet prisons. Many people paled. They found my humor somewhat somber.
3. About children, grandchildren, family and my bosom friends. I did not want to throw them down to the despondency, grief and long-long separation, the life filled with expectancy of letters, meetings and movements from one prison to another.
4. But from the very beginning I did not believe that the putschists will succeed. Their hands were trembling and the eyes were shifty during the TV demonstration.
5. Because the country has changed: all political prisoners were released, Article 6 of the Constitution was cancelled, centrifugal forces became so great that it was impossible to retain the system in the old form, since the system was based on fear and lies. It is untrue that three ‘conspirators, several months later, ‘disintegrated the USSR in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. In fact the empire collapsed under its own weight, and no putsches could save it.
Mikhail Blumencrantz, professor of philosophy
2. That time I was in England and all the time I stayed before the TV screen. I was advised to ask for a political refuge, but I refused.
3. Pessimistic, since the first day. But when the first putschist, Pavlov, went on a sick list, I began to hope that all of them will fall ill soon.
4. About my daughter, who remained in Kharkov.
5. The train has already departed. One year before they had a chance to succeed. Five days before the putsch, talking with professor Piatigorskiy, I said that the country was on the brink of the military coup. Piatigorskiy that it was impossible, that it would be complete idiocy. I retorted that he lived abroad too long. That something is sheer idiocy is an argument-against in England, but in our country it would rather be an argument-for. The talk was on 14 August...
Irina Golets, artist
I thought that the wave of arrests will come to the country and the first, who would suffer, would be artistic intelligentsia. I thought that Stalins times would return, that the population of the east Ukraine would not resist, since after many years of the communist regime they were conditioned to bear anything. I think that Leonid Kravchuk, who did not introduce the state of emergency, did a great service to the people.
I did not know what to do, but I did not intend to change my position. That was also a from of resistance. The inner freedom is more important.
The first impression, rather a consternation, passed the next day, it became apparent that the overthrow was being done with trembling hands. Moscow resisted and it inspired us. By the way, recently Pavlov, Yanayev and others gave interviews, in which they spoke about their lofty destination. They told that the GKChP could have saved Russia. On the TV screens they felt themselves as national heroes. This is a terrible symptom, showing that the ‘disease is developing.
But at that time we inhaled a breath of liberty and were full of illusions. We believed, maybe naively, that the liberty was forever, it is natural, because liberty is given to us from God. But the sober mind has returned, and nowadays the intelligentsia, which was euphoric in the times of the perestroyka, now is hopeless and depressed. The reason is that Russian and Ukrainian authorities, who determine the fate of the countries, were bred in the best traditions of the totalitarian regime.
About my father, who survived a term in Stalins concentration camps. He served 8 years being accused of high treason, since, while fighting Germans, he was wounded and taken prisoner of war.
I have already answered this question: the combat with trembling hands is hopeless.
Nina Mamontova, poetry and prose writer
I felt that my grief caused by the loss of my favorite cat became less painful.
I and my neighbors in the village intended to move to the forest and become guerillas. One of my neighbors, who was building his house, decided to make embrasure for a machinegun. Then we, I and this neighbor, went to the forest, inspected foxholes left after the war and agitated out villagers to join the guerilla unit.
Both pessimistic and optimistic. So, after all, I will not be mistaken.
I intended to demand from the village council to give a refugee status to my numerous friends, dissidents from Kharkov.
They had no resolute people, like myself and my neighbor-machine-gunner.
Svetlana Muravyeva, nurse of the oblast pediatric hospital
I felt awful disappointment in Gorbachevs promises.
I did not consider myself so influential to undertake anything.
I wished very much the putschists to fail.
The very fact of the putsch did not promise anything good, even in the case of its suppression.
I think that it happened because the progressive minority was active and the retrograde majority was, fortunately, passive.
Marlena Rakhlina, poet
I was terrified to death. I fancied that it was the ABSOLUTE end. I felt great fear for my son, who went in for human rights protection since he was 18.
One hour after the communique I had to meet my 12-year-old grandson, take him to the dacha and stay there with him, with his dog and newly born puppies at least for ten days. Because of my habit to keep my promises I stayed at the dacha for the first two days having no radio and TV. Then my some came and I, to my great and pleasant surprise, learned that everything was more or less quiet.
My expectations were bleak. I never believed in perestroyka and never trusted Gorbachev (by the way, I think that he knew about the putsch and said something like: ‘Do whatever you want, but do not involve me).
The answer to this question is partly given in item 1.
I think that the people, who could endorse the coup, were elderly, with inbred passivity and lack of initiative. The number of the people, who were full of new hopes, was larger, and they were more active.
Maria Shutaliova, co-chairperson of the Kharkov oblast Union of soldiers mothers
I heard about the putsch, we switched the TV set and watched Swan Lake. By the way, we just returned from the leave and the ballet with its consequences meant the return to everyday routine. The putschists communique resembled a common beginning of a subsequent campaign.
We had no choice. At worst we hoped to move to some foreign country. All the time we watched the TV screen.
I do not know why, but I was sure that the coup would fail.
Certainly about my children. What would expect them?
It was sufficient to look at their trembling hands to understand what kind of people they were. Such people were unable to keep power.