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East: Coup Served As Unpleasant Reminder Of Past (Part 4)

  • Ron Synovitz

The failed coup by Soviet communist hard-liners in Moscow 10 years ago ultimately sped the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The events of 19-21 August 1991 had special significance for people living in Central and Eastern Europe, who had recently won their own freedom and were fearful of a return to Soviet domination. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports.

Prague, 16 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Peter Bruhnev had only recently launched his own private business -- an English-language school in Plovdiv, Bulgaria -- when Soviet hard-liners launched a coup in August 1991.

Bruhnev says he first became aware of the putsch on 19 August when coup leaders gave a press conference in Moscow that was rebroadcast on Bulgarian National Television. His recollections of the moment are similar to those of many Eastern and Central Europeans:

"People were upset, of course, because changes were just starting. They were just starting to feel a little bit more freedom, and so, of course, the idea of going back to the old times wasn't too far away from anybody's mind."

But Bruhnev says that fears in Bulgaria of an invasion by Russian troops were not as great as in countries like Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland -- which had already experienced Soviet troop deployments in previous decades.

"Certainly, we were absolutely concerned about the [possible] reintroduction of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War policies, and the relationships that existed in the world before the Iron Curtain fell down. It was just a much more uncomfortable place to live in before. But it happened too quickly, and there wasn't much time for people to give [much] thought [to the possibility of an invasion]."

Bruhnev says he thinks most ordinary Bulgarians were more worried about their difficult economic situation than about the possibility of Russian soldiers occupying the country.

"People were too much concerned, I believe, with other issues, than with this one -- particularly the threat from Russia and Russian troops being reintroduced. I'm not sure. Some people might have felt more threatened. But we were basically concerned with the economic issues at that time. People were struggling too much economically to give it a real thought."

For many citizens in former Warsaw Pact countries, the news of the coup in August 1991 was an unpleasant reminder of their own not-too-distant totalitarian pasts.

Residents of cities like Budapest and Prague had faced Soviet tanks in the 1950s and 1960s. Many listened to news reports about events in Moscow with a general nervousness, feeling that if the coup leaders succeeded, Soviet troops might return to their countries.

Many people in Poland -- which was only starting to adjust to its newly won freedoms -- also feared the possibility of Soviet tanks rolling across their country again.

Indeed, the Berlin Wall had been a historic relic for less than two years when the coup was launched. The transition to democracy and market economics had only just begun in Central and Eastern Europe. Many felt unsure that their freedoms were guaranteed.

Correspondents who were in the Soviet Union at the time say the overwhelming reaction of most people outside of Moscow was to keep silent and wait to see how events unfolded before voicing an opinion.

Journalist Valerii Kucher -- who was editor of "Rossiiskie Vesti" ["Russian News"] the weekly newspaper of the government of the Russian republic -- explained in early 1992 that most people in the Soviet Union had been lied to so much and for so long that they simply could not understand what was going on.

Kucher wrote that it took several months for ordinary citizens to make a sober analysis -- and to realize what would have happened had the putschists won. He said events developed so quickly that people simply did not have time to make an informed opinion. They could not appreciate the enormity of what was happening -- that the entire social system, as well as the geopolitical balance of the world, was changing.

One exception was the former Soviet republic of Lithuania, where Soviet troops already had been deployed by Moscow earlier in the year to try to contain a strong movement for independence.

Most analysts and historians agree today that -- while the failure of the August coup eventually provided an opportunity for other Soviet republics to abandon the collapsing Soviet Union -- it helped Lithuania gain international recognition for the independence its parliament had already declared 18 months earlier.

In January of 1991, special Soviet forces took control of several public buildings in Vilnius. The operation prompted demonstrations by crowds of ordinary Lithuanians who openly called the Soviet troops "occupiers."

Soviet troops killed 15 Lithuanians who had gathered at the state television broadcasting tower to prevent its possible seizure by a Soviet detachment. In July, seven Lithuanian border guards also were killed by special Soviet forces at the Medininka customs post on the border with Belarus.

Soviet troops eventually did take over Lithuania's Radio and Television Center on the morning of 19 August -- just as news of the Moscow coup was spreading around the world.

Correspondents in Vilnius that morning say the streets outside Lithuania's parliament building were already littered with metal beams and concrete blocks that had been laid out to stop the advance of Soviet tanks.

Inside the parliament, the stronghold of the republic's democratically elected officials, police loyal to the pro-independence government were crowded into a lobby area and were counting out bullets for their rifles.

Legislative workers rushed out of the building carrying electronic equipment -- apparently for storage in safe places -- while journalists and parliamentarians traded scraps of information.

Girvydas Duoblys, who now directs the Center for Civic Initiatives in Vilnius, was working in Lithuania's Education Ministry at the time of the coup. Duoblys said:

"I cannot say that there was a panic. But people were scared, of course. At the beginning, when this [coup] started in Moscow, one of the impressions was that [the pro-independence government was finished]. Lithuania will be occupied. A new power will come. Of course, the reaction was that we had to stand against it."

Duoblys explained that events earlier in the year had strengthened the resolve of ordinary Lithuanians to stand up against the coup leaders in Moscow.

"In Lithuania, the 13th of January showed that it's possible to stand against these military troops. So it could be a reason that during the August coup, Lithuania behaved in a different way, because Lithuanians had an experience that it is possible to stand against."

Duoblys admits that the recollections of most people have been tainted by the passage of time, but he said he had a deep feeling that the coup would ultimately fail:

"I thought that all these [independence] movements in the Baltic states, and in other former republics, these movements were too strong and too deep to be stopped. I thought that it was impossible. Maybe for a short time, but not for long."

The Soviet coup did fail after just three days. And by the end of that year, the Soviet Union would be as much a relic of the past as the Berlin Wall.

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