Where were they? Top Russians recall August coup

16th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

The seizure of power by Soviet hardliners on August 19, 1991 was an event no Russian could ignore or forget. Those whose lives were changed included cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and a KGB officer named Vladimir Putin.

Herewith is how some of Russia's most prominent figures behaved at the time of the coup. All ages and job titles refer to August 1991.


By then Putin was already working for Leningrad city hall, but was still a serving KGB officer.

Putin cut short a holiday and rushed back to Leningrad on August 20 to aid his boss and mentor, mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who spearheaded the opposition to the coup.

"It was dangerous to leave the Leningrad city council building in those days, but we were involved in quite a lot of action," Putin was quoted as saying in his autobiography "In the First Person."

They visited factories to speak to workers and even handed out weapons, Putin said.

"It was only in the days of the coup that all the ideas and aims that I had when I went to work for the KGB bit the dust," he said.

"As soon as the coup began, I decided who I was with. I knew for sure that I would never follow the orders of the coup leaders and would never be on their side," he is quoted as saying.

And on August 20, he submitted a request to leave the KGB.


The current president was a university law lecturer but was also working as an advisor to mayor Sobchak, which is how he met Putin. But at the time of the coup, he was in hospital with a broken leg, he told Itogi magazine, saying he had no regrets about missing the events.

"I was in hospital with a broken leg. That's how it worked out," he said. "I always thought it was a lot more constructive to do something concrete than to shout in a crowd."


The world-famous musician sensationally flew back from the West to support the defenders of the White House.

He had emigrated and been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and state honours after criticising the treatment of Nobel Prize winning author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The decision was reversed by Mikhail Gorbachev.

He flew back to Moscow from Paris and headed straight to join the defenders of the White House. In a famous photograph, he sat on guard, wearing a jacket and tie and holding a machine gun.

"For me, it was clear that I had to be here," he told the Soviet state news agency.

"I flew in from Paris and came straight here. I have spent 23 hours on my feet here inside the White House and around it, together with the defenders because I thought: it doesn't matter. Even if they kill me, I need to give my last strength to my motherland, to my home."

"I have not had two happier days in my life than the ones I spent here."


Russia's current best known prisoner Khodorkovsky was the chairman of the board of directors at Menatep bank, but as an activist in the Komsomol youth organisation had worked with Yeltsin.

"I saw myself as one of the members of Yeltsin's team, one of the very many. That's why I went to defend the White House in 1991," he told Radio Liberty.


Zyuganov, now the leader of the Communist Party, was on holiday at a party sanatorium in Kislovodsk and did not break it off, a cautious step often thrown back in his face, Kommersant daily wrote.

"Gennady, have you heard, we have a coup on our hands?" he was asked by a minister holidaying at the same sanatorium, a book critical of his leadership called "Zyuganov. No!" alleged.

"Where, Bolivia?" he asked bewilderedly.

"No, here."

He has expressed support for the hardliners. But last year in an interview to Interfax news agency on the anniversary, Zyuganov criticised the coup leaders for their "criminal indecisiveness."


Zhirinovsky, already heading the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia which he still leads to this day, supported the coup.

"It was a holiday, the happiest day of my life. The tanks entered Moscow," Zhirinovsky said later. He wrote in a book that his was the only party to openly support the coup, while "the first secretaries of many regional party committees hid at their dachas."

"While not supporting Communism and the Soviet regime, he and the party he headed supported the participants of the coup... to save the country from the betrayal of then president Gorbachev and from Yeltsin, who was then preparing a coup d'etat," his party website says.

In 2001, he suggested the coup leaders should receive state honours. "We should acknowledge that they were right," he said, quoted by the Interfax news agency.

© 2011 AFP

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