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‘We understood that the system was dead’ Photographer Artem Chernov looks back on the events of the 1991 August coup attempt

Source: Meduza

In the early 1990s, Artem Chernov was studying physics at Moscow State University and simultaneously taking photography courses at the Union of Journalists of the USSR. When a coup attempt began in Moscow on August 19, 1991, Chernov packed his bag with his camera and film and headed to the White House. Years later, the photographer compiled his snapshots of these events into a book titled, “Three Days at the End of the History Textbook. August 1991.” To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the attempted August Coup, Meduza’s photo editors selected the most important photographs from Artem Chernov’s book and asked the photographer to tell the stories behind them.

It was an unimaginable sight: after 70 years of Soviet power, tanks in the streets is like science fiction. The first thing that came to mind when you saw tanks rolling along the Garden Ring was the [Chilean dictator Augusto] Pinochet, a military junta. It was scary. It felt like now everything would return and be thrown back up again. 

I was studying in the Physics Department of Moscow State University, it was between my fourth and fifth years. I was in a course where everyone had served in the army. I served two years and so did all of my classmates. This gave us the very powerful experience of being exposed to the system from the inside — and this was the unanimous feeling when we returned and discussed what we saw in the army: we understood that the system was dead in the water.  

One of my classmates served in the same air defense unit that missed Mathias Rust [the German pilot who bypassed Soviet air defense systems and landed on Red Square in May 1987]. He said, “Yeah, we were just sleeping on mattresses at our post.” Another served in aviation and told us how kerosene was just dumped into the ground. Those who served in the tank units talked about appalling drunkenness. And I served at a nuclear plant: for several months some of the sections of the fence that surrounded the nuclear plant were knocked down and, in principle, it was possible to get in. This was a system that was falling apart, coming unravelled, and we understood that. But on August 19 it felt like it wasn’t — like now it was all going to come back again.

I spent almost two nights on the streets, only on the night of August 20, I went to sleep at a friend’s place. My friend’s family had party apparatchiks. On August 21, I called them and said, “Congratulations, we won,” and they replied “[Artem], that’s all very well, of course, but there is a chance that they’ll come and trash us, because we have a nomenklatura home [housing for high-level functionaries].”

Of course, no one came to trash them, everything was fine. There were neither pogroms nor reprisals, everything was very positive. People who didn’t live through all of this often confuse 1991 and 1993, though these are two opposite events. In 1993, there was aggression and a desire to shoot. In 1991 the feeling that we were still a united country and couldn’t shoot each other won out. 

And now — the photographs

Tanks — the first thing I saw near the Park Kultury subway station. This is the morning of August 19.

This is Novy Arbat [Avenue]. The soldiers were communicating with people rather kindly, [people] brought them ice cream and cigarettes. That is, they weren’t perceived as enemies, the barrels of the tanks were closed with end caps. The soldiers themselves were in a lost, gloomy and depressed state, because the majority understood that they were somehow being cheated — and it wasn’t clear what to do in this situation. Violating an order is bad, crushing your own is bad.

One of the very first barricades that was built on the evening of August 19. The objective was to block the path to the White House for the tanks. When we were standing at the White House we saw people who were in Afghanistan, they were 26 to 28 years old — people with combat experience. There was the thought that if they seriously attacked us, we would be swept away no matter what. And if we start shooting back, blood would be shed and we would be killed. But if we stand without weapons — just on the understanding of our own righteousness, — our position is stronger. We are citizens of this country, we’re the majority, and we think it should be so.

The White House ramp, people are listening to someone’s speaking from a window. From the White House, with the help of a microphone, they simply conveyed the current situation to people, at the time there were a lot of people there whom we trusted, starting from the [television] program “Vzglyad” in its entirety. There were no other sources [of information], because the newspapers weren’t being published, there was no Internet. It was possible to find out what was happening on the radio station Ekho Moskvy, but it was cut off periodically. 

The first night at the White House. The people stayed by the fires, there were 10,000 people and it was clear that there weren’t enough people to protect anything. On the first night they could have come, arrested everyone, and not stormed anything.

The ascent from Novy Arbat to the Garden Ring on the afternoon of August 20. Women stood in the cordon, they had a poster [that said] “Soldiers, don’t shoot mothers!”. It was believed that women are the most peaceful [protest] constituents and we were demonstrating that we weren’t talking about violence. But by evening men took the places of women in the cordons because there was a feeling that everything would [soon] be much worse. We heard shots up ahead and I knew from the army that it was a Kalashnikov. At that moment everything inside me sank, because I thought a civil war had begun. To my left was a guy about 16 years old, he was just shivering.

A barricade by the American Embassy, the White House is to the left. This is the place where the workers’ barricades stood during the 1905 revolution. The people who built barricades on this spot talked about this constantly. It was very encouraging for everyone.

After we heard shooting in the cordon, we went forward into the tunnel, I saw an armoured personnel carrier, trolleybuses that were dented, some of them were on fire. People had already died. It seemed that the armored personnel carrier tried to hit a trolleybus that was blocking the exit one more time, and no one tried to stop it; there was blood on the asphalt. And then the mood around me changed: it was no longer scared — [there was] the feeling that there were so many of us and we had crossed some line and we were ready for anything. And this is, of course, a very dangerous situation. If the [Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry] Yazov hadn’t removed the troops, it would have been the flashpoint of the start of a civil war. 

Yazov had been through war and I believe that this overcame him: this is my country, my compatriots — and I won’t crush them, I won’t shoot at them. He simply spat and said that he was withdrawing the troops on the night of August 21, as soon as he was informed that three people were dead. From what I’ve read, I know that he made this decision personally: screw this, the army is no longer involved in this. Nobody wanted to kill. The level of mutual hatred is much lower than it is now. But people died because of the confusion and the high degree of tension.  

A civilian cordon around the KGB building on Lubyanka Square on August 21. After the tanks were taken away, it was understood that everything was over and a huge number of people poured into the streets. There was a sense that this was a day of victory. 

Everyone was in high spirits. But they feared pogroms. These guys are from the hundreds who were in the cordon at the White House — and they came here so that the KGB [building] wouldn’t get trashed, because there were provocative shouts from the crowd.

August 24, the funeral of the victims. They were taken by trucks from the Kremlin or from the Lubyanka building, along all of New Arbat Avenue to the White House, and on to the Vagankovo Cemetery. There was a rally at the White House, where Yeltsin spoke. [Moscow Mayor] Gavriil Popov said: “The main thing is that this victory isn’t taken away from the people.” He knew what he was talking about, in my opinion.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Photographs by Artem Chernov

Interview by Anastasia Yakoreva

Translation by Eilish Hart