Twenty years ago, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, just as Egyptians, Tunisians and Syrians have this year — rejecting the old order, demanding freedom and democracy. That August, the Russian democrats prevailed because their will was greater than that of those who plotted the coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The dynamics of the Arab Spring are strikingly similar.
I was there that day, as the ABC News correspondent in our Moscow bureau. Mr. Gorbachev was vacationing on the Black Sea. It looked like August would be a quiet month — I even made time to shoot a feature in Leningrad about a Russian Elvis impersonator.
Everything changed early Monday, Aug. 19. The Soviet news agency announced Vice President Gennady Yanayev had taken charge because Mr. Gorbachev was ill. State television started playing classical music. I reached Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who had turned KGB critic and been elected to a seat in the Soviet legislature. Mr. Kalugin explained what was going on: The next day, Mr. Gorbachev had been scheduled to sign a treaty to devolve more powers from the central Soviet government to the republics (Georgia, Lithuania, Ukraine and a dozen others). If the Communist hard-liners, who hated what Mr. Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika were doing to the Soviet Union, had any hope of stopping him, this was their last chance.
By then, from the windows of the ABC News office, we watched tanks roll past toward the Kremlin. We sent to New York all the pictures, sound and reports we could gather — at any moment, we assumed, transmission would be blocked; we couldn't figure out why we hadn't been stopped already. We didn't know it then, but not far away Boris Yeltsin, newly elected president of the Russian republic, and his aides were asking themselves similar questions: Why haven't we been arrested yet?
Each hour brought another clue that the coup leaders were bungling their attempt to take over. No one stopped Radio Echo Moscow, the independent station, from airing interviews urging resistance to the coup. Tanks surrounded the White House, but no one stopped civilians from haranguing, cajoling and pleading with the young soldiers in them. By early Monday afternoon, Mr. Yeltsin walked out of the parliament building, climbed onto a tank, shook the soldiers' hands and called out to the country to defy the coup.
"The reactionaries will not triumph," he shouted.
It was the iconic image of resistance to the coup — and no one stopped the working journalists at state TV from putting it on the air that night. That afternoon, our skeleton ABC News crew got reinforcements; no one stopped camera crews, producers, correspondents and reporters pouring into Sheremetyevo International Airport, even though many had no visas.
To us in Moscow, the coup looked toothless, even before Mr. Yanayev's evening press conference, when his hands quivered and his words fell flat. Yet, for reasons unclear even two decades later, top U.S. officials talked as though the coup might succeed — and America wouldn't object much. Monday morning Washington time — hours after I had talked with Mr. Kalugin and reported the coup to ABC radio listeners (Moscow opens for business eight hours earlier than Washington) — President George H.W. Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft told reporters: "This is an internal development in the Soviet Union."
Only late Monday, after one Soviet military unit had mutinied and refused to fire on the White House, and another had defected and joined Mr. Yeltsin, did the U.S. government clearly state that it would not recognize the coup and Mr. Gorbachev must be restored to power.
By Wednesday night, he was on his way back to Moscow. The victory over the coup plotters helped destroy the Soviet Union. Whether or not it was a turning point for the best in Russian history is more complicated. The union dissolved within four months, Mr. Gorbachev lost power, Mr. Yeltsin and then Vladimir Putin led Russia into the 21st century.
But the lessons of revolution were clear. In Moscow in 1991, as in Cairo in 2011, strength of will made all the difference. The Soviet plotters had planned for months, but they had not contemplated the strength of will they would be up against: Mr. Yeltsin was not a tired former Communist Party hack. He was a leader invigorated by his overwhelming election two months earlier. He inspired citizens who had just voted for him to match his will and face down army tanks. Mr. Yeltsin was so sure he could do it, he infected President Bush with the same hope: "Yeltsin's sheer guts made a big impression on the president," an administration aide told Newsweek.
What we're seeing these days in Syria is a closer match of wills. It has cost many more lives than the three young resisters killed in the confusion around Moscow's White House, and it has lasted far longer than the three days of the 1991 coup. But we can expect that dogged determination — on both sides — will count for more than anything in how it turns out.
Sheilah Kast is host of Maryland Morning on WYPR 88.1 FM and co-author of "Dracula Is Dead: How Romanians Survived Communism, Ended It, and Emerged Since 1989 as the New Italy." Her email is email@example.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun