Defenders Recount Their Moment of Glory
By Robin Munro
White House defenders building barricades on Aug. 19, 1991, out of bricks, concrete blocks, cobblestones and whatever was close at hand. They worked by forming lines and passing the materials from person to person.
First they came by the dozens, then by the hundreds and by the thousands.
From the morning of Aug. 19, 1991, as they heard about the coup and the Yeltsin-led opposition forming at the White House, people began converging there and — unarmed — placed themselves in the line of fire should the coup leaders try to storm the building.
Undeterred by rain, the White House defenders built barricades out of bricks, concrete blocks, rusted bathtubs, cobblestones, tree trunks and branches — whatever was at hand. They moved the materials by forming lines and passing them person to person.
On the night of Aug. 20, when an attack appeared imminent, they stood side by side, linking arms to form an impenetrable ring around the building.
"These were days when the people made their own decisions and did not merely do what the leaders of the government told them," said Andrei Kosyakov, one of the organizers of Georgiyevsky Korpus, a group of former defenders of the White House.
Pavel Kryuchkov, 35, an editor at the Novy Mir literary journal, was then a journalist in the culture section at Nezavisimaya Gazeta. On the afternoon of Aug. 20, Kryuchkov grabbed his dictaphone and went to the White House.
"I was amazed by the diversity of people," Kryuchkov said. "A small group with placards from the Russian Language Institute, punks, anarchists. I saw [rock star Andrei] Makarevich roaming around drinking beer and members of the Congress of Compatriots whod just arrived in Russia."
Every hour or two there were warnings that the White House would be raided.
"The mood was tense," he said. "But there was a genuine push for collective consciousness, like we were all in this together. … It was both frightening and fun."
Despite the rain, some defenders stayed day and night. They built rickety tents for shelter and camp fires for warmth. Some came and left, going home to sleep or even going to work during the day.
Eduard Kufal, now 55 and a scientist at a radio-communication institute, said he was one of the oldest in the crowd around the White House. He spent the night of Aug. 19 there, went home in the morning and returned that evening to spend another night.
Kufal said he has little memory of the many speeches made.
"There was such tension we didnt really listen," he said. "There were many of the type that we need to hold on, we expect an attack at such and such a time, but many of these times passed without incident."
Most people brought their own food for the days and nights spent out in the rain.
Nikolai Uskov was then a 21-year-old history student at Moscow State University.
"As a novice historian, I was very excited about what was happening," Uskov said. "I remember a couple of old women were talking about how to make tea, which sausage was better — doktorskaya or lyubitelskaya — and they were standing behind the barrier. It was surreal."
Tatyana Lysova, 33, currently deputy editor of Vedomosti newspaper, was working as an engineer at a closed military institute and went to the White House with her teenage brother after work.
"By that time, they were only letting men behind the barriers," she said. "People inside were explaining that disorder could break out at any moment and that maybe there would even be shooting." At her work, staff had been taking notes from the radios various appeals against the coup, typing them out and photocopying them.
"We stuck these appeals around the city. My brother and I pasted them onto the walls with ice cream because we didnt have any glue with us," she said.
Food was provided largely by the defenders themselves, mostly supplies like bread or preserves from their own homes, although some demonstrators recall eating hamburgers distributed by anonymous donors.
By the second night as many as 60,000 defenders were there; the crowd was so densely crammed behind the barrier that there was little they could have done if shooting started, Kufal said. That night, when three people were killed not far from the White House, was much more frightening than the first, and the crowd around the White House could hear shooting nearby.
The defenders recall the huge pleasure they felt on Aug. 21 when it became clear that many army units would not support the coup and the tanks and armored personnel carriers began leaving town in huge convoys.
"The mood was wonderful," Uskov said.
"The euphoria was higher than the roof," Kufal said.
"There was exultation!" Kryuchkov said. "A sense of complete revolution, that the people had seized power."
Valeria Korchagina and Natalia Yefimova contributed to this report.