Archive for August 2014
When I entered the compartment of the Moscow-bound train in Sevastopol, there was a young woman with a child and a very drunk navy officer accosting that woman. She looked terrified. But somehow I managed to engage him in some kind of a political dispute and eventually lured him into the restaurant car to get more drinks. There he found a jolly good company of fellow sailors, so I went back to the compartment and instantly fell asleep only to be rudely awaken by the same guy at 5am.
It was August 19, 1991.
“There is a putsch in Moscow! The fucking bitches have arrested Gorbachev” – he said.
A few hours later the train rolled into Kharkov.
All the passengers – holiday makers from Moscow and sailors relocating to White and Baltic sea ports – poured out into the platform. It was a huge crowd which was quite anonymously against the coup and supportive of Yeltsin.
Suddenly an old railway employee dressed in parade uniform emerged and started ranting loudly: “We’ll get a new Stalin for you. He’ll sort you out, put you against the wall”.
So several officers of the glorious Soviet Black Sea fleet beat him up in front of a cheering crowd.
I came to Moscow and went to ‘defend’ the White House which was probably the best thing I’ve done my life. Inverted comas because in fact I just stood there in a human chain for two days under pouring rain. Nothing dangerous happened, not where I was anyway.
A week later I went on a tour of the newly independent Baltic countries, visiting them all in three days, sleeping on trains. It was strange and exciting. As I was writing this sentence, I suddenly realised that it was in fact my first trip abroad. Never thought of it like that and always claimed Germany, which I visited in 1994, was my first foreign country.
Ironically, I am writing this in Riga, which I’ve never visited since then, despite my huge admiration for the independence movement and my Baltic ancestry. The city suddenly feels a few times more Russian-speaking than it was 23 years ago. But it is so un-Russian at the same time – if by Russia we mean Putin’s Russia.
Anyway, what happened back in the Soviet times or in 1991 is increasingly irrelevant, like the Anglo-Boer war was irrelevant in 1941. I’d say the post-Soviet Russia that emerged in August 1991 is now completely done with. You may laugh at it, but it’s the closure of Moscow’s ‘heritage’ McDonalds, which made me come to this conclusion. Those who queued there for hours when it first opened will understand.
This Russia was not a good state by any means, but out of the last 100 years this period of half-freedom and relative prosperity happened to be the best in the life of Europe’s most traumatised (and dangerous) nation.
Maybe this is the real end of the 20th century and being Russian I fear there is another century of utmost horror to come. But that 1991 spirit is alive in me and many Russian people I know. We’ve seen one evil system kick the bucket. We’ll outlive this one, too.