Where Were You On 19 August 1991?

History in Literature: The coup attempt in the Soviet Union of 19 August 1991 as viewed from the hinterlands.

19 August 1991
Bolshoi Ballet-Swan Lake-            WWW NEWS CN

I love reading good literature that gives a view of great historical moments from the perspective of ordinary people. At the beginning of Andrei Dmitriev‘s novel The Peasant and the Teenager (Крестьянин и Тинейджер) there is depicted, through the memories of a man in rural Russia, presumably the “peasant,” an event recent enough to be a part of my own consciousness–the coup attempt of August 1991 that sought to reestablish centralized Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union, in reaction to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The decline of Soviet economic and social life leading up to 1991 is highlighted in the reminiscences of Panyukov, the first character introduced in The Peasant and the Teenager, as he reflects on the life he shared with his childhood friend, Vova, after both had served with the Red Army in Afghanistan. Vova, for example, after finishing his tour in Kandahar, knocks around in various cities of the U.S.S.R. before returning to his home in the town of Sagachi, and reports of his travels:

It’s the same everywherevouchers, lines, empty stores, filthy hostels, money not paid or paid late; get away from this place? For what?

The chronic problems of Soviet agriculture are also hinted at (see an earlier post of mine:‘Крестьянин и тинейджер’), as is the scourge of alcoholism: working together to support themselves, the two men manage to survive, “and more importantly, did not take to drinking.” In the winter they work at a sawmill: “for lumber and firewood, but mainly to keep from drinking.”

There are no dates given to this point in the story, and aside from the mention of the war in Afghanistan there is practically no indication of a time period. Panyukov marks time according to the life cycle of his televisions, which reach to the ceiling in a stack, new ones put on top of older, broken ones. It is in the time of the third TV that a date, while not specifically named, is made clear:


Once in August their three televisions showed ballet, and nothing else. Then they saw a crowd of people, closely gathered all around the staircase to the huge porch of a huge white house. It was raining in Moscow, and the people, awaiting their fate, had covered their heads with polyethylene sheets.

Vova, not saying a word, got up from his bunk, packed his trunk for the road and, glancing at his watch, set out for the highway, to the bus stop.

19 August 1991
The Parliament Building of the Russian Rebublic, a.k.a- The White House         -Reutuers

 Any citizen of the former Soviet Union alive and reasonably aware at the time would recognize this as 19 August 1991. Mikhail Gorbachev, on the eve of his signing a new treaty of union that would give the Soviet republics greater freedom, had been put under house arrest at his Dacha near the Black Sea. A faction of the ruling elite who came to be called the “hardliners” sought to return to the CPSU–The Communist Party of the Soviet Union–the complete monopoly of political power that was being eroded by Gorbachev’s reforms. Boris Yeltsin, the democratically elected president of the Russian Republic, would rally opposition to this attempt at the “huge white house,” a.k.a. ‘The White House,’ as the parliament building of the Russian Republic in Moscow was called. These protests would undermine support for the coup, ensuring its failure, and stripping the Party of any remaining legitimacy it enjoyed to this point.

19 August 1991
Mikhail Gorbachev announces his resignation on 25 December 1991 (which is not the same day that Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas).

The aftermath of these events saw Yeltsin declaring the independence of the Russian S.S.R.; his outlawing the Communist Party in Russia; the formal declaration of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. by the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies; agreement among presidents of the larger republics on the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States; the resignation of Gorbachev and his recognition of the independence of the remaining republics. All in this in the space of four months.

These events impacted me on a personal level as I was, on 19 August 1991, completing my third year of a bachelor degree program in Russian Language and Literature. Having begun my studies with the aim of better understanding our Cold War adversary, my worldview now needed to be radically restructured. I spent these same four months continuing my study of the language, history and culture of a people whose lives had been far more radically upended, avidly following the news as the fate of these people unfolded, and preparing to apply to a study abroad program that would allow me to study in Russia, in Saint Petersburg, the next year. As a lover of history I felt for the first time that I was a witness to it. I will, in a future post, I will describe Russia as I saw it one year later, during my semester of study there in the fall of 1992.

For now this is as far as I’ve translated The Peasant and the Teenager, so I don’t know yet to what extent it delves into the history of the breakup of the U.S.S.R., beyond this rather mundane observation of a crowd of people standing around in the Moscow rain. I do hope to find more depictions, even if fictional, of the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. This is, to me, a more interesting and important history than the narratives about the “great” men and women.

So where we’re you on 19 August 1991?

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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