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CNN, Tanks, and Glass Walls: The August 1991 Coup

In August of 1991, hard-liners opposed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a coup attempt to overthrow him. The rebellion occurred in part because of financial strife as the Soviet Union transformed quickly from a statist to a market-based economy. Long lines formed for essential goods including medicine and fuel, and grocery shelves were empty. Inflation rates rocketed upward as the winter approached, leading to factories lacking the funds to pay their employees. The economic crisis reflected badly on Gorbachev’s leadership and encouraged resistance to the regime.

The coup was led by members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). They held Gorbachev at his country home, demanding that he either resign or declare a state of emergency. However, following heavy civil resistance, the coup attempt ended unsuccessfully a few days after it began.

Although the takeover ultimately failed, the attempt signaled an end to the Soviet era and contributed to the dissolution of the USSR at the end of 1991. It also led to the rise of Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, who played a pivotal role in opposing the coup from Moscow. While the rebellion ended with little bloodshed, it raised anxiety among those who experienced it first-hand, many of whom feared a rise in violence and a return to hard-line Communism.

Naomi F. Collins, wife of Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow James F. Collins, lived in the U.S. but was visiting her husband in the Soviet Union during the coup attempt in 1991. She recounted her experience in an interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in February 2012.

To read more about coups, the USSRForeign Service spouses, the account of Ambassador Robert Strauss or William Green Miller of the American Committee on U.S.-Soviet Relations about the coup, please follow the links


“People who are hungry don’t keep big dogs”

Naomi F. Collins, spouse of James F. Collins, Deputy Chief of Mission to the Soviet Union, 1990-1993

COLLINS:  As the Soviet system came to an end, it was eerie: the shops were virtually empty, little kiosks sprouted up along the curbs selling an assortment of miscellaneous goods…e.g., a pair of stockings or one chocolate bar or a pack of cigarettes, or other miscellaneous and unrelated items that somehow got into the country or somebody had stashed somewhere. (Naomi Collins is seen at left.)

For the larger economy, as the economy transitioned, it was as much about barter as money. Jim likes to tell people it was a time when an academician from the National Academy of Sciences was out-earned by the guy at the corner selling Snickers bars. It was also a good time to play loose with acquiring the nation’s resources and properties. Some people became very rich very quickly, much of it not illegal, in the absence of new laws.

Of course I spent time trying to imagine how people were surviving. Jim had guys going around the country reporting back or looking at charts of economic statistics, graphs going down down down. But one day it occurred to me – and I shared with Jim – the thought that although all the charts and graphs were diving or flat lined, what my eyes saw often conflicted with those assessments.

“Why don’t you ask people to report what they are actually seeing on the ground?” I asked.

In Moscow, at least, it seemed clear to me that people on the streets were not starving. They were not hungry, desperate, or malnourished. I looked at their eyes, their hair, their skin, their pace.

And to top it off, they were walking dogs. Large dogs. People who are hungry don’t keep big dogs. So now the job was to find out how they’re getting their food.

Even today no one knows for sure, but a few hypotheses are: that people were doing what they’ve always done: black market and bribery, food disappearing off the backs of trucks that never make it to groceries or restaurants. Another factor of course was the free midday meal provided at workplaces and schools. This hot meal, supplemented with bread, cheese, and such, could get a person through the day.

Then there was barter, as mentioned – sometimes so complex an arrangement that it required exchanges of IOUs that came to be called veksels, multi-dimensional barters. And, finally, people grew things for their own use at their dachas or in villages, on small plots, in rural areas—or their mother or grandmother did.

“I saw the tanks rolling slowly toward the Embassy compound, toward our house”

The attempted coup in August of 1991:  I was there for the summer when it occurred.

I’ll admit I was terrified. I was in the DCM’s house. Jim was the Chargé, in charge, because Jack Matlock (former ambassador to the Soviet Union) had finished his term and his replacement, Bob Strauss (the incoming ambassador), hadn’t arrived. This wasn’t Jim’s first stint as DCM, but of course nothing this dramatic had ever occurred.

When he first learned of the coup attempt, he told me simply to stay in the house and not go out. And so I did… I had turned on the TV set and was surprised to see CNN still broadcasting. I saw the tanks rolling slowly toward the Embassy compound, toward our house, where all our walls were made of glass. Where there was no fence or high wall, only a low brick wall that I could have scaled myself. So I did not feel personally safe or secure.

What I was most worried about didn’t happen, that we could be surrounded, stormed, and/or held hostage. We were right across the street from the Russian Federation Government building, Yeltsin’s headquarters, his so called “White House.”

The noise of tanks — I had never heard tanks before – was frightening, the deep, low rumbling sound they make as they tear up the pavement, like prehistoric monsters…

Jim remained in his windowless office, like a bunker, so I called him from time to time with updates on what I was seeing on the street outside our house. He did not emerge until lunchtime.

By then I had a couple of thoughts: that he ought to suggest that people not sleep in outside rooms with huge glass windows facing the streets with the chanting crowds; and that they ration the food and water in the commissary before people make a run on these supplies. I feared that Molotov cocktails could come flying through our plate glass…

About noon or 1:00 Jim came into the house, which is on the compound there… He said, “I got a call from Yeltsin’s office.” This, right across the street.

“They said they have a message for me for my President and that I should come and get it.”

I said, “The crowds are very thick in the streets, perhaps tens of thousands marching and chanting. There are also tanks in the street, and jersey barriers. Are you going to go?”

“Yes,” he said. “Are you going to call Washington first?”

“No,” he said. “But this is the right thing to do.”

I am selfishly thinking – “I’m too young to become a widow.”

So he got into the Embassy car, which was armored, with a driver and another large man. They drove slowly through the crowd, dispersing them; American flag flying on the hood. Then he disappeared inside the building where he received the message. Although it seemed as if hours had gone by it was perhaps an hour. (James Collins is seen at left.)

Right before he left, I had said, “Jim, you know you would be an ideal hostage.”

“Yes,” he said, “but the Russians do not have a tradition of taking hostages.”

“Well,” I said, “You know that and I know that, but do they know that?”

So he said, “I will be fine.” Yeah, right, I am thinking. Of course he was and it turned out to be all right: they had no intention of taking hostages at all. It isn’t their tradition…

So Jim came back through the crowd and returned to his office at which he had a call from President George H.W. Bush, the father, not son. He told him that he had a message from Yeltsin, basically to the effect that he should not take the coup leaders seriously. They do not have control of the country. Do not give credence to them – and broadcast this to the world, so others will know this, too…

“They thought they saw the return of the Communist regime”

As evening came, we were slated to host the Gannett Foundation’s Freedom Forum group. But with communications and transportation all fouled up, I had no idea whether they were coming.

So I called someone at the Embassy snack bar and asked if they could supply mini-pizzas for everyone – in case they showed up. And of course we had a full bar; goes with the turf. The buses did show up with people streaming into the house while Jim was still at the office and I stood shaking hands and greeting people as if it had been an ordinary day. I was on automatic pilot, in a daze, pivoting from one to another. Meanwhile, outside our windows, huge crowds were milling, tens of thousands of people, chanting…

Though Jim was in charge, he was actually the Deputy, the DCM, so we were in a house on the Embassy compound [not the ambassador’s residence], a pleasant town house, but enclosed in glass without serious fences or walls to separate us from the streets or crowds. There was no protection.

The Russians who came to the reception were in tears. They thought they saw the return of the Communist regime. So did I. So it was a very scary evening; very difficult to act normal at a time like that. But we did. Jim eventually showed up. We did the social thing.

But people were distraught, crying and upset at the uncertainty and the likelihood of the return of the old Soviet, authoritarian system – after they had gotten used to more openness and a less fearful life, of perestroika and glasnost. Then they left and I went to bed. I found it hard to sleep with the chanting crowd – and moved to a bedroom facing inside the compound.

We didn’t actually know at the time whether they were unified or mixed. When Jim had ridden through the crowd earlier in the day, with the American flag flying on his car, and the demonstrators milled all around his car, his instinct was that they were not hostile to Americans. On his return he realized that what they were chanting was, “Americans please help us save our freedom.”

I had also mentioned to Jim that we should all sleep in rooms that were not on the street side of the house, with glass windows right on the roiling crowd. When we awoke, Jim checked the radio and noted to me how odd it was that the coup leaders had not taken over the radio stations. That made him realize that they probably were not succeeding in their quest to take over the government and restore the past.

And you know the rest of the story, how Yelstin, the President of the Russian Republic, came out of the Russian Federation building and stood on the tank, then stood firm against the coup.

“If the American Embassy gets evacuated, gets flights out of Moscow, would you please take my infant with you?”

I think everyone was concerned with his or her own family. Should we be packing? Could there be an evacuation? That was an immediate question for everyone. (“Not yet” is not much comfort.)

And here is the strange part: that when I planned to go out to Moscow for part of the summer, I had booked a return ticket home for August 21st [the day the coup ended.]. Of course I had no idea at the time that I would want to stay longer. After the coup attempt occurred, I tried to change my ticket to stay longer and be with Jim, but it turned out that if I gave up that ticket, there would be no empty seats for weeks: flights all booked quickly…

So I left reluctantly. I think I told you that at the time it was not at all clear who would triumph or what our fate would be. I’m not sure I told you the really poignant story of a seasoned, tough CNN reporter. She had an infant. She called [their son] Jon, very scared for the baby and herself, and asked: “If the American Embassy gets evacuated, gets flights out of Moscow, would you please take my infant with you?”

That is when I knew how serious it was. I choke up thinking about it. Of course he said “yes.”

Well, fortunately, it didn’t come to that, but makes me realize in retrospect how scary it really was, having no idea of outcomes – or even survival. You stood there on the ground watching it and thinking this could be the return of the entire Soviet regime and the KGB. It could be civil war.