Eyewitness Recalls 1991 Soviet Coup; Upheaval 20 Years Ago Peacefully Ended a Longtime Rivalry

By Sherbin, Jan | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 22, 2011 | Go to article overview

Eyewitness Recalls 1991 Soviet Coup; Upheaval 20 Years Ago Peacefully Ended a Longtime Rivalry


Sherbin, Jan, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Jan Sherbin, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union the evil empire. A fast-food commercial featured a matronly Russian woman in a drab, ill-fitting outfit. Day wear, droned the Russian-accented announcer. The woman shone a flashlight to turn the outfit into evening wear and carried a beach ball for swimwear.

Back then, we didn't hold a high opinion of the Soviet Union.

We didn't realize that the Soviet Union's people held it in similar low regard. It seemed more of a surprise to us than to them that their country imploded in late August 1991.

I happened to be visiting the Soviet Union during those historic days 20 years ago. On Aug. 19, our group heard that President Mikhail Gorbachev had disappeared. The truth soon came clear: There was a coup to halt his reforms. On Aug. 22, Mr. Gorbachev reappeared. In a shocking payback on Aug. 24, he terminated Soviet communism. Ukraine seized the opportunity to declare independence, and other Soviet republics followed in the weeks to come. Things never would be the same in the Soviet Union or in the world.

Looking back, I recall that we Americans took the dramatic events more seriously than the locals. They wondered why we asked to watch TV. We said we wanted news. The locals laughed; they knew that when something unsettling happened, Soviet TV aired the Swan Lake ballet.

We learned to garner information the same way the locals did - via shortwave radio. In Kiev the day the coup started, we joined the crowd at October Revolution Square, where people huddled around shortwaves, catching news from the BBC and Voice of America.

We Americans presumed a people's uprising was brewing. We agreed to let our guide show us the Kiev sights if we could return to the square in the evening. When we returned, there was no uprising. In fact, there were hardly any people.

A couple of days after Kiev, I became a houseguest in Kharkov. I asked my hosts why we Americans seemed more upset by the coup than did the local people. It's because we have lived through so much that our souls are empty, the husband told me.

Over my days in Kharkov, I heard perspectives on the coup and whether the Soviet Union should stay together. …

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