Watching History in Action–Moscow 1991

In August 1991, almost thirty years ago, Moscow seemed ready for a quiet month, but unexpected changes were brewing. Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, was vacationing at his summer home unaware that others were plotting his downfall. As was later reported in the New York Times, on August 17, half a dozen conservative communist Russian officials gathered at a steam bath to plot the overthrow the Soviet government. Four of the group would fly to Gorbachev’s estate and give him an ultimatum to resign, while others would assume control of the White House—the center of government. Over glasses of vodka and Scotch, they laid their plans.

On the day that these conspirers met, another group of people were assembling in Moscow—hundreds of librarians were arriving in the city to attend a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA). Most of them were from Europe and the Americas, while some came from India, Africa, and Asia. Their goal was to encourage the development of libraries and the exchange of information between the people and governments of the world. Many of the participants were keenly aware of the differences in information policy between the countries of Eastern Europe and those of the West, but probably none of them had expected such a dramatic display of the struggle for freedom as they encountered in Moscow that summer.

I was lucky enough to be participant in that IFLA conference and to become a witness to the way many ordinary Russians experienced the events of the abortive coup. As a reminder of what life was like during that handful of August days in Russia, I have posted the journal that I kept as a record of that eventful week. It is available on this site.

The years that have gone by since 1991 have not been good ones for the Russians. The joy that ordinary people felt during the heady days when it seemed as though democracy was triumphing has faded away. The story of how freedom was gradually lost in Russia is masterfully told in Masha Gessen’s 2017 book: The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. I highly recommend it.