Veteran journalist Tatyana Malkina looks back at the 1991 coup, and wonders if people will ever remember her for anything but a question she posed to one of its organizers.
During the past week I’ve given about 25 interviews. Each of them started like this: “Could you please tell us the question you asked Yanayev?”
At first I was on the verge of tears. I thought it might make sense to issue a press release with my definitive answer: I rose and asked, “Do you understand… and so on.” Later on I felt ashamed. I knew that my colleagues were just doing their job, that there is a real news shortage in August and that this was a significant anniversary. So I decided to be agreeable and to mix up my answers to this routine question as much as possible, to not be moody or take it personally. To be honest, I’d like to think that I have achieved more in my life than that famous albeit easy attack on the wretched gray-faced members of the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP).
What exactly have I accomplished? Although it is difficult to speak about oneself, I think I was an excellent political reporter. I never lied, even on small matters, and I was a trendsetter in the press, having suggested the publication of menus of official dinners and the introduction of direct speech. Later on I was a good columnist and relied on the best informed sources, whom I had never let down and who never used me to leak information. I never asked authorized questions at news conferences. I tried to write the more perfunctory newspaper articles as if they would be judged by the harshest of critics. I launched the magazine Otechestvennuye Zapiski (Patriotic Notes). This great or at least incomparable magazine (there was nothing else like it) was published for eight years. I flew all over the world with Boris Yeltsin and part of the world with Vladimir Putin. I learned not to sleep unless having dictated an article, to write on an aircraft wing or a camel’s hump, and to live in a foreign country. I’ve raise two children. I’ve gained wisdom. This may not be much, but it is much more than asking a rhetorical question at a news conference.
I remember how we used to joke – at first when we worked at Nezavisimaya Gazeta, then when we were jobless, and then at the newspaper Segodnya – on the first, second, third, fourth and fifth anniversary of the coup attempt about how, many years from now, I will be a fat old woman in a long skirt and a shapeless stretched sweater with a “Russian Democrat” badge, dirty gray hair, a string bag full of empty kefir bottles and a Belomor cigarette clenched in my teeth. In addition to making money on empty bottles I could earn some by attending pioneer functions at schools. Mixing vodka and beer and smoking Magna cigarettes, we laughed imagining how pioneers would ask: Could you tell us about that question you asked Yanayev? I’d laugh in a husky voice, baring my last three tobacco-stained teeth and say to one of them: “Cross my palm with silver, my dear, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Well, I do smoke like a chimney. I have a designer string bag. I have a gray-haired bob. But they don’t pay cash for empty bottles anymore, and the pioneers disappeared along with the Soviet Union and Magna cigarettes.
Indicatively, I registered complete social stability by chance exactly ten years ago. On the tenth anniversary of the failed coup, few people even remembered it and I had to produce three or four routine texts for friendly publications. I wondered over this discovery – is this the sic transit of my dubious gloria? Or is the present so eventful and breathtaking, so promising and entertaining that the events of ten years ago pale in comparison?
I’d like to think that today’s fascination with the toy coup d’etat of 1991 is rooted in important and even romantic reasons, for instance a classic revolutionary situation in which those on top can’t and those on bottom wouldn’t live in the old way; or “Clouds over the city rose up in the air and it smells like a storm,” or “Believe, my friend, she’ll climb high, steep, that star of captivating rapture, for Russia will arise from sleep, And on the shards of slavery fractured our names will be writ large and keep!” Or in 2012, like in 1989, all hit parades will be won by Viktor Tsoi (not to be mixed up with Anita Tsoi) with the lyrics “Our hearts demand a change.”
To sum up, the current agitation of the journalistic community is explained not only and not so much by one more anniversary against the backdrop of the seasonal shortage of news as by the feeling that what happened 20 years ago has remained under-interpreted, underestimated and undigested. And historical indigestion is painful. It prevents us from understanding the present and dreaming about the future. It also prevents us from properly evaluating the past, seeing the present clearly and thinking about tomorrow. It prevents us from getting on with our lives. In other words, I’m being tempted by what are, most likely, idle dreams.
Don’t think I’m one of those who would urge you to struggle against the bloody regime of Putin (Medvedev, Yeltsin, Nemtsov, Prokhorov or Zhirinovsky – take your pick). I would urge you to fight if I were sure this fighting was necessary and nobody would be able to prevent me from doing so. But, alas, I don’t know whom I should ask a daring question today, to whom I should complain about corruption, incompetence, great power neurosis and nationalistic tics. I’m afraid there is nobody to address.
This is so because the obvious link between times, people and reasons has been broken, which is probably normal. It is also normal how I once realized that power does not exist. Power is a black hole, a horrible nothing, not counting the five or seven people who stand on the edge of different abysses every day by virtue of different circumstances and make decisions proceeding from their own mentality, responsibility, purposefulness and horror. These are accidental leaders and standing behind their accidental backs are the Russian people in a semi-comatose state who are ready to jump into any abyss in their daze. This collective social imbecile is the outcome of long-term negative selection.
I don’t know how to explain this to other people, and I’m not even sure this is necessary (this is why I quit journalism). I don’t know how to explain – not only to my children (for whom a landline telephone is an antique), but even to my slightly younger colleagues – how we worked when the Internet, computers and even cell phones did not exist. I still keep my first pager …
I don’t know how to cheer up those who have not enjoyed the privilege we had – to witness the most important historical upheaval since the French Revolution. How can we excuse ourselves for being not merely witnesses but participants in these great changes? They were part and parcel of our daily life and our working routine that had never been routine; they accompanied our personal self-fulfillment and professional careers. How can we explain that the coincidence in time, space and aspiration made everything ours – our country, the first Russian president, our parliament, the Constitution, the flag, the anthem and the pain? How can we tell them that we had invented the language of the post-Soviet media, introduced new genres and established the rules of new journalism just because we represented it? How can we explain that the best of us were stringers at foreign news agencies for $40 per month and considered ourselves wealthy?
Foreign journalists who interviewed me the other day extensively quoted my Russian colleagues, who complained that the ideas of Yanayev, Tizyakov, Starodubtsev, Yazov and others (it would be great to remember all the names but we’ve forgotten them) have won now, 20 years after. My dear colleagues! Come to your senses! You’ve forgotten everything! I won’t go into details here but I will recall a recent anecdote. Some 20 year-olds asked me how we were prevented from going abroad technically. Can you imagine that I couldn’t even recall instantly that Soviet citizens did not have foreign passports? There were just two types of foreign travel documents – green diplomatic and blue service passports. I won’t recall “sausage” commuter trains, lines for bananas and the shortage of cheese and underwear for fear of being dubbed a vulgar consumerist. But don’t I have the right to recall the blind samizdat copy of Brodsky, Mandelstam and Solzhenitsyn?
My friends, I know this is the logic from a famous joke about Vladimir Lenin and pioneers – he patted them on the back but he could have killed them. But let’s be honest with each other. Yes, he could have killed us. Anyone who wished to do so could have done this. But they wished different things – a market (monstrous), democracy (now sovereign) and glasnost (with the current obvious business restrictions). When did we feel relief to say nothing of gratitude for this for the last time?
I’m biased. I have my own heroes of this era – Yeltsin, Government House defenders in 1991, and Gaidar, whom I told straight in the face that his appeal to children and seniors to defend the Moscow City Soviet in 1993 was unacceptable. Suitcase traders are also my heroes, not the miners who were brought to bang their helmets at the Government House – although the miners from Kuzbass were my first scoop as a reporter (I remember how I was crawling on a flooded conveyor, in a miner’s uniforms, with a helmet light, coughing out coal dust, miners’ friend forever). Suitcase traders are people with a different destiny (I particularly sympathize with downshifters like former professors, engineers and technical and school workers). They had only one thing in common – during their time of trial they realized that nobody was going to take care of them and decided to do so themselves. Overcoming disgust, fear, caste prejudice and real class differences and ignoring terrible risks, they flooded the country with cheap Chinese goods that were cooler than Chanel. Without these shuttle traders we wouldn’t have all these throw-up boutiques today, Maseratis and Ferraris in Moscow in the Tretyakov Proyezd, not far from the monument to Ivan Fyodorov, Russia’s first printer. We wouldn’t have had anything else without them.
As I’m sure you understand, I love my homeland, but that love is combined with a strange feeling. I’m grateful to suitcase traders, Yeltsin, Gaidar and Chubais and all those people whose names I cannot quote for lack of space. I’m even grateful to the “old farts” on the GKChP, as young people would call them. I’m grateful to the latter because, thanks to their idiotic actions, they ended up scoring in their own goal, cutting the legs out from beneath the Soviet Golem, who fell instantly, killing three guys. He could have fallen slowly, burying all of us in the process. It is a pity, of course, that the cause has remained unfinished, the empire has not been fully destroyed and the economy completely liberalized. This is why democracy can now pretend to be “sovereign.”
“Blessed is the one who has visited this world at its fatal hour. He was called by the blessed as a guest at the feast.” This applies to all those who were born and grew up in the Soviet Union and have matured, fallen in love and flourished later, who have no doubt about the importance of the wheels that were set in motion by the coup attempt.
There is a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” My great grandmother knew a wonderful curse in Yiddish: “May you have ten houses and ten rooms in each house and ten beds in each room and may you shake so much as to fly from one bed to another.” Perhaps this is a curse, but I wish you and me the same from the bottom of my heart, because life is short.
Tatyana Malkina is a special correspondent of The Moscow News, the founder and editor-in-chief of the first post-Soviet literary magazine Otechestvennuye Zapiski. As a correspondent of Nezavisimaya Gazeta she attended a news conference of the GKChP on August 19, 1991. Malkina asked Yanayev a question: “Do you understand that you have perpetrated a coup this night?” and offered him to choose a historic parallel – either 1917 or 1964.
In 2007-2009, Malkina was the anchor of the program “Nothing Personal” on the TVC television network. She was fired after criticizing the then Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and diagnosing him ironically as suffering from “honey intoxication.”