Live Souls

by The New Republic | September 16, 1991

The Red plotters in Moscow preyed upon, and planned to exploit, two basic biological feelings: fear and hunger. For the former they had tanks; for the latter, sausages. Cynical imbeciles, that is to say, typical products of "materialistic philosophy," they regarded the people as Pavlovian dogs. (The prime minister in the Committee of Eight was named Pavlov.) They had no doubt that Muscovites frightened by tanks could be appeased by the immediate delivery of unheard-of stocks of food to the stores, and thus harmony between the people and their new rulers could be immediately established.

For it's logical, isn't it, that anyone confronted with the choice between mortal danger and a good chew would choose the latter? These plotters, in short, appear to have had no idea of the higher reaches of human nature. It never occurred to them that their attempt to restore communism would broach other alternatives to the people of Moscow: between dignity and servility, between humiliation and freedom. Least of all did they suspect that inside the tanks rode human beings, with their own notions of the alternatives.

What a triumph, what a sense of joy, of revelation, of pride, of gratitude! People of my own generation cannot but remember Prague 1968. Why did the bastards again choose the third week in August — to help us experience the historical parallel more perfectly? If so, they certainly succeeded. Twenty-three years ago we were filled, in that third week in August, with hatred and despair; we did not even dare to dream that the Czech liberals would resist or that the Soviet tankmen would not open fire. This time, in this third week of August, the wildest, most metaphorical dreams of our generation came true. The miracle took place. The spiritual revolution envisaged by Tolstoy came to pass.

One analyst wrote of the coup that it was Dostoyevsky at the beginning, the Marx Brothers at the end, that the twilight struggle turned into farce. Not quite. For me it was more a musical development: nameless and faceless dodecaphony at the beginning, then Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, and at the end a real Rite of Spring.

In a way, Russians should be grateful to the bastards for helping them to attain the sense of a new national identity. These three August days and nights resolutely repudiated the cynical idea that Russians want nothing but order, that lousy old euphemism for brutal pseudo-patriotic rule. The Russians proved, without any reservations, that they seek a new, civilized relationship with each other, that they wish to be a part of the civilized world.

It is amazing how wrong the Slavophile chauvinist writers and intellectuals have turned out to be. There is no doubt that they were paving the way for the putsch. One thousand percent Russian, they knew best what Russians really want. Some of them even took part in the final preparations. Three weeks before Gorbachev's arrest and the deployment of the tanks in Moscow, the right-wing newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya published an "Appeal to the Russian People," and among the list of signatories, along with some of the top military brass, could be found some of the most active Nazi-Bolshevik writers, such as Yuri Bondarev, Valentin Rasputin, and Aleksandr Prokhanov.

The wording of this appeal looks like a draft for the junta's communiqu?. It was surely written not by people in uniform, but by those "engineers of human souls" in the service of the great fatherland. And in precisely the same spirit the junta deplored, among other things, "the hydra of pornography." The spread of this hydra over the holy land since the beginning of perestroika was one of the major reasons for the arrest of the president and the ordering of troops into the streets of Moscow.

The hysterical screams of the ultra-patriots among the writers have been heard for quite some time, but nobody took them very seriously. The liberal writers had no time to waste on such matters, and so nobody was alarmed, even though there was evidence of close ties between the Slavophiles and the KGB, the Party apparatus and the military establishment. Strangely enough, the only serious reply to the "Appeal" came from their fellow Slavophile, the writer Viktor Astafiev. "Don't trust them," the old novelist warned the television audience, "they want to return you to Communist slavery. They are the bandits of the Black Hundreds!"

In the first week in August I drove by the Gorbachevs' resort near Sevastopol, in the southern Crimea, and noticed the two navy vessels anchored in the coastal waters to guard the president. They turned out to be bad at their job. That same night I saw Colonel Viktor Alksnis, the curly-haired leader of Soyuz, the reactionary group in the Soviet Parliament, on television. I remember being struck by the thought that he sounded like nothing but the spokesman for a draconian regime that is just around the corner. I'm sure that I was not the only viewer to be alarmed by Alksnis's statements; but again they were not taken seriously, because such statements had all been heard before.

In those early days in August the Russian air was filled with ambiguity, with hopes and fears, with lust and fatigue. Young balladeers in the streets sang songs about the White Army's "irreproachable knights." And towering over them were the same old heavy statues of Lenin, with the same old slogans: "Lenin's ideas are immortal because they are eternal." And finally the ghosts of the past materialized, in the forms of a dozen high-ranking bastards and a thousand tanks.

What happened next might be called, without exaggeration, the greatest and most glorious page in the history of Russia. Challenging what the plotters thought was "common sense," a tall, broad-shouldered man, a former apparatchik himself, repeated almost step by step the famous move made by the Communists' idol seventy-four years ago. With one rather substantial difference: Lenin climbed onto the armored car to announce that communism's time had come. Yeltsin did so to announce that communism's time had gone.

It appears that miracles have been taking place in the souls of millions. "Enough!" shouted everyone. "Never again!" Old women and street punks, Afghan vets and factory workers, militiamen and teenage rockers (the bikers were especially useful as messengers for the resistance) Journalists and musicians, intellectuals and bricklayers — all stood arm in arm in their own Tiananmen Square, which the Moscow street, thank God, never became.

I imagine that the intoxication of solidarity can make a man fearless. Happily that same intoxication overwhelmed the tankmen, too, and all the troops that had been readied for a massacre. The disobedience of the soldiers provided the final chords in the great symphony of Russia's spiritual revolution. God's spark was lit in all the hearts in the crowd, including the hearts in uniform. And there was still another call to the nation: of the three young heroes who lost their lives in the confrontation with the coup, two were Russians and one was a Jew. What do you think of that, Comrade Rasputin?

These were the happiest days in the life of our generation. Whatever fate has in store for us, now we can say that everything we lived, beginning with the very first steps of resistance decades ago, was worth living. If there is a sense of bitterness in my soul, it is only because I left Moscow for Paris on the quiet Sunday morning of August 18, just one day before the event. While my son stood on the barricades, and my wife joined the crowd that surrounded the White House in the expectation of an assault, I sat with a stack of newspapers in Montparnasse. Paris, with all its glitter, looked dull to me.

Vassily Aksyonov is the author most recently of The Destruction of Pompeii (Ardis) and Say Cheese (Random House).

By Vassily Aksyonov

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