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Troops and tanks

Published Aug. 20, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

As a dozen tanks rolled through Mayakovsky Square, kicking up a cloud of exhaust in the moist evening air, Alla Mikhailovna, in the capital for a visit with her 7-year-old son, stood on the sidewalk and cried. "It is horrible, just horrible," said the 43-year-old geologist from Tashkent, who identified herself with her given name and patronymic, in the Russian fashion, but declined to give her last name. "I am so sad for my country. What will come of this? Where will it end? War? It is just so frightening."

Across this bedraggled city, people struggled through the day, trying to figure out what had happened to them overnight.

They had awakened to find their president mysteriously gone, purportedly for "health reasons," a new State Committee for the State of Emergency in control and military vehicles roaming the city.

As the day wore on, doused by heavy rains, many Muscovites knew no more than they did when they listened to the first terse bulletins on the state-controlled television and radio. But what they knew was enough to make them stiffen with anxiety.

"We woke up to the noise of tanks on the streets," said Slava Ivanov, a 45-year-old driver. "Beyond that, I still don't know anything concretely. Where is Gorbachev? Where is Yeltsin? All I know is nothing good can come from tanks."

Several thousand people turned out to demonstrate against the "putschists" _ as they were calling the new government that ousted Mikhail Gorbachev _ to upbraid the young soldiers sitting in their tank turrets and to rally in defense of the Russian federated republic's government.

As evening fell, barricades made of tree trunks, bathtubs and vehicles were erected around the Russian government buildings on the banks of the Moscow River, as people prepared for an all-night vigil in anticipation of an attack.

But elsewhere, a strange silence seemed to fall on the population as people went about their business _ some with worried looks on their faces, others acting as if nothing more had happened than a change in administration.

With no information, the city seemed to split in two.

"We can't figure it out," said Mikhail Argutinsky, a chauffeur. "It is a putsch, but somebody had to bring things back into order."

His wife, Anna, was not sorry to see Gorbachev gone. "Of course, he is not the only one to blame," she said, "but all I know is before him, we lived better."

By evening when about 25,000 people had already converged outside the Russian government building, long after pictures of protesters swarming over tanks had flashed on screens around the world, Margarita Selvova, a 63-year-old pensioner, emerged from her apartment off Moscow's main Ring Road to ask if and where people had gathered to protest the coup d'etat.

"It is a terrible situation," she said. "It happened in 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over. In 1937, my uncle and my father were shot, and my mother arrested. Now it is happening again, but people can't imagine it. We are a very unhappy nation."

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