23 February, 2008

Flashback 5: Moscow

(excerpt from a letter to friends)
Tuesday, October 5, 1993

"Things have been insane around here-- even more ridiculous than normal! Apparently more turbulence is expected because of all the semi-automatic weapons that anti-Yeltsin forces passed out to bystanders at the White House like so many door prizes at a church bingo game.

All of these tensions between Yeltsin and the Parliament have been building for a while, but it was still a surprise when it all finally came to a head.

Two weeks ago Yeltsin dissolved Parliament after an altercation with Khasbulatov and his party. And in retaliation Parliament turned right around and absolved Yeltsin of his power.

For two weeks we had two opposing groups leading the country. Yeltsin's team would work out a 1994 budget with deficits of 10 trillion rubles, and Khasbulatov's economic "experts" would override the decision and implement their own budget with a 26 trillion ruble deficit. It's been completely absurd!

Last Sunday I was headed for the gym when I came upon a huge crowd of people. They were carrying communist flags, anti-Yeltsin banners and climbing all over the huge statue of Lenin that graces the middle of the square. Amidst the angry protesters, however, you also saw families out for a stroll, their children painted up like clowns and clutching balloons with sticky fingers. It was so surreal!

I left quickly-- I feared for my safety because I really stood out in my western clothing. As it turns out I narrowly missed the beginnings of the coup by about 25 minutes!

For the last two weeks the gym has been my barometer as to the mounting political tension because it's located directly behind the Central Bank of Moscow. The Yeltsin-backed news programs are stating that everything is under control, but I know it's not.

Each day I see them amassing arms and supplies in the bank parking lot. At first it was just a few armored trucks and listening devices. Then troops in bulletproof vests appeared. The next day they were all carrying riot shields, and their numbers had doubled. By Sunday there were too many armored personnel carriers to fit in the bank parking lot and they spilled over into the lot next door.

To get to the gym I had to pass down a human corridor of soldiers on either side. They were stationed 2 - 3 meters apart and were staring at me stonily and clutching their Kalashnikovs.

I was just finishing my workout when an attendant came up and whispered worriedly that Yeltsin had declared the city in a state of emergency, and that I needed to leave immediately.

"Go straight home and stick to the subways, because the roads are on fire and are being blockaded!"

The bank parking lot was full of tanks and other armored vehicles, and a fresh battalion of soldiers had just arrived. I ducked into a side street and slunk into the metro.

When I got home and turned on the tv to check the news I was greeted by test patterns on all of the government stations and a dubbed American movie, "Death Flight", on the only other one. I called a friend who had a radio and received the latest news-- The riot had moved on to the White House where they had set some floors on fire. Then anti-Yeltsin troops rammed an armed personnel carrier through the first floor of the television station, took over the building and then burned it down.

Monday morning I snuck into my office down the street and notified all employees and our head office in Geneva that we are closed down indefinitely until the emergency finally passes.

Walking back home I could hear the explosions from the tanks still firing on the White House and huge helicopters kept circling overhead. I stuffed my cat and a change of clothes into a duffel bag and left to go ride out the storm with a friend who lives on the outskirts of the city..."

(Move on to Flashback 6:  Moscow)


anno said...

Wow -- this got my pulse racing, and I haven't gotten on the treadmill yet this morning!

And your letters to your parents? I hope they went something like this:

Dear Mom & Dad,

Things have been interesting here, but don't believe everything you read. I am fine. This weekend I will be visiting friends.

More later,

Jen of A2eatwrite said...

I feel so much luckier to have been there in the relatively early days of Gorbachev. You really need to write a book.

Greg said...

Have you every worked as a journalist? You should!

Jenn in Holland said...

Wow, wow, wow. I can't believe this! What an incredible time to have witnessed and come out on top. I don't know if I have that kind of stamina.

in fact, my word verification begins with the letters pus which I take to be an acknowlegement of my full wussiness...

Africakid said...

When I clicked on the photo with the soldiers, their expressions cracked me up! If you're the one taking the picture, one guy's definitely eying you...

Betsy said...

anno: how did you know? have you been talking to my poor mom and dad?

Jen: you know, I think that the timing was different, but also maybe your experience was probably more humane because you weren't in a big city? So you got a lot of the twilight-zone effects without being exposed to big-city dramas. That or maybe it's just Moscow back then that was exceptionally cruel. (Anyway, your job sounds like it was full of drama all its own!)

Greg: the irony is that I was a disillusioned journalism major up until my life-changing summer abroad in Moscow. I really enjoy writing, but am not very inspired or adept when I have to do it under the pressures of weekly deadlines.

Jenn: you know, I'm a complete wuss too. I've realized that I don't deal well with either stress or insecurity. My adventures are fun to write about but weren't always fun to live first-hand. I think I was a mess back then both psychologically and physically.

I much prefer my life now, reading aloud to the kids and cooking good meals. It's very pedestrian but also very good for the soul...

Laurie: I cracked up at that guy's expression too! No, actually I didn't take that photo-- credit goes to a colleague of mine who made me a copy since I didn't have a camera with me when things started to get hairy...

Goofball said...

Hmm the most exciting political thing that happened when I was in Moscow was the big boulevard being closed down for 15 min each time Poetin speeded by (my host family apparently lived on his entry route).

I love Anno's response!! :p

Gardner said...

another very nice entry. Fun to read the on the ground perspective after seeing news reports low these many years ago.