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20 Years Ago: Coup Backfires, Destroys Soviet Union

Filed by KOSU News in World News.
August 22, 2011

The Soviet Union was at a tipping point two decades ago. Communist party hardliners, determined to stop President Mikhail Gorbachev’s moves towards democracy, attempted a coup. The action backfired, and rallied many Russians behind Boris Yeltsin.

One journalist who witnessed those tense days is Ann Cooper, who was then the Moscow bureau chief for NPR. She remembers being at a Russian government building, the White House, during the protests.

“Seeing the people, the crowds who came to defend Boris Yeltsin,” she says, “just people realizing: This is it. This is the moment of choice. Do we go backwards, or is there enough good in the change that has taken place that we’re actually willing to risk our lives?”

In the week of the coup attempt, Cooper recalls, the hardliners held an extraordinary press conference. Their official line was that Gorbachev wasn’t under house arrest — that he was resting from exhaustion.

Cooper says some journalists in that press conference played an important role in identifying for the world what was really happening:

“There was a young journalist — Tatiana Malkina — and she stood up and asked, ‘Are you aware that what you carried out last night was a state coup d’etat?’

“And wow — the subtext of that was, ‘You guys can put me in jail, but I’m not going back to the way things were, and neither is the rest of my generation.’”

Cooper says she doesn’t recall what the group’s exact answer was — but it was almost beside the point.

“The thing that everybody does remember is that, one of the leaders, his hands were shaking. He had apparently been drinking heavily through the whole thing. They just looked like a bunch of bumbling drunks up there.”

You can watch that press conference online. Malkina’s question begins around the 29:30 mark.

Ann Cooper has also written an article about the coup attempt and Russian journalists, for the Columbia Journalism Review. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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