Deeper Than Oil: Children of the Coup

© RIA NovostiMarс Bennetts
Marс Bennetts - Sputnik International
Today – August 19, 2011 – marks twenty years since the unsuccessful coup that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. The TV, papers and airwaves are full of the reminiscences of politicians, diplomats and foreign correspondents. But what about the kids?

Today – August 19, 2011 – marks twenty years since the unsuccessful coup that led to the break-up of the Soviet Union. The TV, papers and airwaves are full of the reminiscences of politicians, diplomats and foreign correspondents. But what about the kids? The generation who would grow into adults in the new Russia? What do they remember of the event that would - in many ways - shape their futures?

Unsurprisingly, many of the now adults I spoke to said they hadn’t really concerned themselves much with the coup. Even if it was one of Russia’s defining moments, it’s a rare child or teenager who pays much attention to the games grown-ups play.

Tatiana Nevinskaya was 15 and living in Ulan-Ude, in East Siberia, when Kremlin hardliners attempted to wrest control of the Soviet Union from reformist Mikhail Gorbachev.

“I came home late that evening, full of the usual teenage concerns,” she told me. “And my mum started getting at me, yelling that the whole country was falling apart and I only cared about hanging out with my friends.”

“But, you know, I’d just learnt how to smoke and kiss properly and she was going on about some coup! A typical adult – they never understand anything! I was so used to adults deciding everything anyway that I didn’t even try to find out more about what was going on.”

Others were altogether much closer to events. Muscovite Alexei Korolyov, who was only three in 1991, was taken by his father to check things out.

“The whisper went around that my homeland, the Soviet Union, was collapsing, though I didn’t understand this word very well, ‘collapsing.’ Nothing was falling, nor even moving very much, at least as far as I could see,” he wrote in his Russian Profile blog.

“My mom protested a bit, but gave in pretty quickly, and let dad take me to see the putsch…I was not sure what this meant, but seeing as the day-out involved us going to the river, I was glad.”

Down by the river, Alexei caught a glimpse of the figure who would lead the newly independent Russia through the calamitous 1990s.

“Then there was that man…Yeltsin, with the white hair and in a suit like he was going to the Bolshoi Theatre. He was a good bit away but I could just make out how he clambered onto a tank, and then there was silence, and Yeltsin read out something from a creased piece of paper that I didn’t understand. I only remember him saying the words ‘the Russian Federation’ very often.”

The day almost made a lasting impression on others even younger than Alexei.

“I was only two, and I was at my granny’s,” Polina Kosheleva told me. “Then they showed tanks rolling through Moscow on telly. I spoke to my dad on the phone and he said he’d been in the centre and seen everything. I watched the news again, but I couldn’t see his car.”

Eleven-year-old Irina Ryapolova was in Russia’s south, near the dacha that Gorbachev would be held prisoner in while the coup unfolded in Moscow.

“I was staying with my mum at Foros, a resort in the Crimea, several kilometers away from Mikhail Gorbachev’s dacha,” she told me. “Almost every day we saw him taking trips in a speedboat. And then one day we found out that something had happened and that Gorbachev and his wife were imprisoned at the dacha.”

“But we learned what was really going on when we returned home, to Kursk. Everything was calm in Kursk, but my parents and grandparents were very concerned. But I was too young to understand all that politics. But the word ‘putsch’ sounded very funny to an 11-year old girl.”

Unlike the 1917 October Revolution, the news of which took months to spread across Russia, the coup of 1991 was followed by worried Soviets all across their sprawling homeland.

“I was 14 and living on the island of Russky near Vladivostok,” Yulia Smirnova told me. “That August, I went with my mum to see relatives in Bishkek [the capital of the then Socialist Republic of Kyrgyzstan].”

“At first we didn’t have a clue what was going on – on television they were showing Swan Lake intermixed with tanks in Moscow and some guys with shaking hands talking about a military coup.”

“We couldn’t get in touch with my father as we had no telephone at home. He was a military man – a sailor – and we were worried they might send him to fight. We started thinking how we could get home – what if they’d closed all the stations and roads? But while we were worrying, everything came to an end.”

Dmitry Dudenkov was on his summer holidays, staying with his grandparents in Alma-Ata, the then capital of the Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan.

“In the evenings, all the family gathered around TV and watched the news from Moscow. And by the reaction of my grandparents I understood that something bad had happened. They were real communists and supported the Soviet Union and the idea of communism until the very end. I remember how shocked they were when we saw on TV crowds pulling down the statue of [Cheka founder] Felix Dzerzhinsky outside KGB headquarters in Moscow.”

Arslan Aisakadiev was a teenager in the North Caucasus city of Makhachkala when the coup began.

“I was 18 years old,” he said. “I was captivated by the footage from Moscow. It felt like everything was collapsing around us. Who knew what tomorrow would bring – or if there would even be a tomorrow? Who would come to power? What new laws would be introduced? It was a frightening time.”

Others had brighter hopes for the future.

“I spent that whole summer in the countryside…Like a lot of people, I didn’t like the junta too much. I remember how they trembled at the news conference,” Maksim Pototskiy told me.

But, despite being “for the opposition” Maxim and his friends had more pressing concerns than the era’s “music, magazines and documentary films that were soaked with glasnost and freedom of speech.”

‘It was like the people were preparing for something,” he recalled. “But we, eleven-year-old boys, were waiting for the day when, at last, they would sell bubblegum with trading cards and American jeans in the shops.”

“I was nine,” his wife Yulia said. “I was with my mum in the countryside, and I just remember being afraid for my dad, who was still in the city.”

August 19th, 1991 was many things to many different people. For some it was the welcome death toll of the Soviet Union. For others, it would lead to what Vladimir Putin has called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Some remember it with regret, others with more mixed feelings.

But for then 15-year-old Oleg Barantsev, of St. Petersburg, it was the day the world finally revealed itself to him in its true colors.

“That was the day I got my first contact lenses,” he told me. ‘It was a real breakthrough for me. I’d been too embarrassed to go out in glasses and I suddenly saw the world in all its bright colors for the first time!”

And as for the coup?

“In the evening I discussed it with more politically advanced friends and, well, waited for events to develop…”


The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.

Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books).

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