Witness: A failed coup and a difficult start for Russia

Wed Aug 17, 2011 7:34am EDT
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The following Witness piece recalls how the hardline communist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev unfolded in August 1991. Steve Gutterman is currently based in Moscow for Reuters and was working as an assistant for a U.S. newspaper in the Russian capital at the time of the coup.

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - My rented flat had no television or radio, and the blank faces on the bus sputtering into central Moscow betrayed no hint of the news that had broken that Monday morning in August 1991.

But there it was when I walked into the office of the U.S. newspaper where I worked as an assistant: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ill and something called the State Committee for the Emergency Situation had taken charge of the country.

Suddenly, a power grab by hardline communists seeking to turn back Gorbachev's reforms and halt the disintegration of the Soviet Union turned a sleepy summer into a defining moment in the history of Russia and the world.

Like many plans in Russia, the coup plotters' conceit went awry fast. Their abortive putsch only hastened the collapse of communist rule and the breakup of the world's biggest country.

But on that first day, nobody knew the coup would fail -- not Gorbachev, not Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia's president, and certainly not the people I met on Moscow's streets.

I found a mix of apprehension, hope and resignation intruding on the weary routine of survival in a country staggering under the system introduced after Russia's other great 20th Century upheaval -- the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

In the drab capital of what had become a bad parody of a workers' paradise, Muscovites made the rounds of poorly stocked shops, looking for a rare bargain or unexpected bounty amid piles of overripe onions and tins of mystery meat.   Continued...

<p>Boris Yeltsin (C) speaks to a crowd from atop an APC surrounded by security men in this file photo taken on August 19, 1991. REUTERS/Stringer</p>