Tanks, pies and flowers; resisting 1991 Soviet coup

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Milena Orlova did not think twice when she heard about the coup 20 years ago that threatened a return to hardline Communist rule in the Soviet Union.

She quickly took the train to Moscow from her home outside the city and joined other protesters who had gathered around the Russian parliament to defend it.

“When we heard about the coup, my father told me not to go there under any circumstances. But as soon as I could, I slipped away and joined the protests,” said Orlova, who was then a 23-year-old student of art history.

“l didn’t think about the danger. I was young and foolish. A revolution was happening and I wanted to be part of it.”

From the announcement of the coup on August 19 until its collapse two days later, Muscovites crowded around the White House building which then housed Russia’s parliament in defiance of tanks and Soviet security forces.

The resistance, led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was vital to putting down the coup and preventing the plotters turning back the reforms that had already brought big changes under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

“There were all sorts of rumors going around, suggestions that tanks were on their way, but we all just joined hands when we heard this,” said Orlova, who is now an art critic.

“We resisted because we thought this was the last hope we had. None of us wanted to go back to the Soviet way of life.”


The protesters included people from all walks of life, young and old alike. Orlova did her bit for the cause by copying out leaflets providing protesters with the latest news of the coup, during which Gorbachev was held at a residence in Crimea.

“We had no photocopier so we wrote the leaflets by hand,” she said.

Sympathizers provided food. Some brought burgers, old women handed out pies and a flower shop sent red carnations. Musicians came and played for the crowd, Orlova said.

Three men were killed during disturbances in Moscow, and priests were present to bless protesters who feared they might be killed, but Orlova remembers above all the party atmosphere.

She fondly remembers Yeltsin, who climbed onto a tank outside the White House to appeal to the army not to turn against the people.

“He was so impressive, this white-haired, burly figure who was so determined, pushing bodyguards out of the way so that he could talk to the people,” she said.

Orlova recalls a feeling of euphoria when it became clear the putsch had collapsed, a feeling that a new life was opening up for her and that Russia had a new start.

“There was a feeling of us all being united behind one cause. I’ve never had such a feeling again,” she said.

Orlova went on to become a journalist and many of her friends, some of whom were present at the White House, have done well in life. She believes many of her dreams of that time have been fulfilled but there are also some regrets.

She thinks democracy could have gone further and has lost her passion for politics under Russia’s present leaders.

“At a certain point I stopped being very interested in politics,” she said. “I still have some interest but I don’t vote. I think there came a time when nothing depended on my choice any more.”

Asked whether she cared who won Russia’s presidential election next March, she said: “It’s all the same to me.”