When news of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ouster broke just after dawn in Moscow on Monday, it caught the Los Angeles Times staff in far-off positions. The foreign desk in Los Angeles awoke Times correspondent Elizabeth Shogren in her Moscow apartment by telephone at 6:15 a.m. She reached colleague John-Thor Dahlburg, whose apartment still lacks a phone, by calling the steel-toothed watchman at his apartment building and persuading the man to climb 10 flights of stairs to deliver the news. Another Times correspondent , Carey Goldberg , was on feature assignment in the Soviet Far East, seven time zones away, and bureau chief Michael Parks was on vacation in Michigan. Reporter Viktor Grebenshikov, translator Andrei Ostroukh and researcher Steven Gutterman were in Moscow. The following is a diary of their experiences:
MONDAY, AUG. 19
* 6:15 a.m.
SHOGREN: I was awakened from a short, groggy sleep--induced by several glasses of Soviet red wine at a dinner party the night before--by a telephone call from the foreign desk in Los Angeles: Gorbachev is "sick." Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev has taken charge. File a story in two hours.
While racing to the office in my rickety, Soviet-built, red Zhiguli sedan, it never occurs to me that a putsch is under way. I wear flimsy sandals and a summer skirt--hardly the appropriate attire for a coup.
* Later that morning
SHOGREN: Information is hard to come by. I call Gorbachev's press office in the Kremlin. A secretary says she is alone in the office and expects an assistant spokesman in later. Everyone else is on vacation. What about Gorbachev being toppled from power? "What are you talking about?" she asks. "I haven't heard anything about it."
* Monday a fternoon
SHOGREN: Interviews and press conferences now over, an assistant foreign minister grabs me by the arm and whisks me out of the Russian Parliament building with a gaggle of security men on the heels of a very determined Boris N. Yeltsin. The crowd greets the Russian president with shouts of "Yeltsin! Yeltsin!" and "We're with you!" It is the first hint of the huge role public resistance will play in bringing down the coup.
I watch as hundreds of people--the first of hundreds of thousands like them--come running to defend the only elected president Russians have ever known. I bite my lip and tears swell in my eyes as I think of how much braver Russians have become over the three years that I have lived in Moscow and imagine that all the freedoms I watched them fight for and win could be taken away.
GOLDBERG: As our official sedan rolls up to the hotel after a relaxing tour through the wooded hills outside the port city of Nakhodka, something--a certain suspiciously tranquilizing tone in the announcer's voice--makes the driver suddenly turn up the radio. The newscaster announces the takeover by the "State Committee on the Emergency Situtation." "The dictatorship has arrived," Alexander Plotnikov, a Nakhodka official driving with me, says with a twisted smile. Reverting with astonishing speed to the old habits of the paranoid pre-Gorbachev era, he starts to worry aloud about whether he could get in trouble for having been with a foreigner. "And I was supposed to visit the West next week," he says. "I wonder if they'll let me out."
* Later that afternoon
DAHLBERG: "Acting President" Yanayev's first (and, as it turned out, last) appearance in the global spotlight is pathetic, almost insulting to the Soviet and foreign correspondents summoned to hear him. A few minutes after 5 p.m., Yanayev and four of his co-conspirators mount the carpeted stage at the Foreign Ministry Press Center after ringing the building with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to protect themselves.
Here, then, are the new rulers of the Soviet Union, all of whom choose to meet the world attired in suits of varying shades of gray--even Starodubtsev, the supposed envoy of the country's long-suffering, hard-scrabble "peasantry." These are Soviet counterparts of the American "Organization Man"--men who had fought their way up in the party, economic and governmental bureaucracies, men who had the same color limousines (black), the same dachas, the same kinds of offices with prominently displayed portraits of Lenin or Gorbachev. Even, apparently, the same tailors.
Yanayev's hands tremble and he has the sniffles or a bad cold. He had just gone through, he admitted, a "sleepless night." He laughs nervously a few times, showing the yellowed teeth of a heavy smoker. The first question thrown at him cuts to the heart of the issue: "Where is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?" Yanayev says Gorbachev is really very tired, simply worn out by six years of trying to ram through his multifaceted reforms, and that he is now recuperating in a "safe" place.
That and the other lies are so transparently ludicrous, so colossal that as the press conference wears on, Yanayev and his comrades sometimes join in reporters' bursts of laughter at the improbable answers being given by members of the State Emergency Committee. Suddenly, these men who had claimed control of the world's other superpower seem very stupid, very sinister. If they intend to convince people of their competence and honesty, they have badly miscalculated. The junta's debut before the capital's press corps is a disaster.
GOLDBERG: The city of Nakhodka, a sleepy port town, is wrapped in surreal silence; a political earthquake has taken place, and none of the people standing in line for cucumbers, waiting for buses and buying newspapers seem to have noticed.
City Hall is quiet as well, and two council members chatting in a meeting room are unbearably calm. "The whole city is concerned mainly with trying to buy things," says Natalia Lutsenko. "School is starting soon and we have to buy our children clothes. We're not so active in politics anymore, the way we were three or four years ago."
Victor Khodyre is more indignant. "How can they remove the elected president?" he asks. "It shames us in front of the entire world" But he, too, is not deeply touched by the threat to Soviet democracy. "It just ruined my mood," he says.
Like many here, Valentina Matienko, an assistant to Nakhodka's mayor, copes through denial "There is no coup, and there couldn't be," she says.
The mayor, Victor Gnezdilov, appears even less concerned, but gives the impression that he is unworried because he secretly sympathizes with the putsch.
"The main thing is that the Soviet Union must be retained," he says.
Even if a reactionary coup is the only means to do it?
"I'll refrain from comment," he says.
I don't press him. Later, I think of him, though, when Russian President Yeltsin denounces all local politicians whose main goal was to "sit out" this coup on the sidelines.
GREBENSHIKOV: In the crammed fifth-floor Times office in the building that foreigners have dubbed "Sad Sam," the fax machine whirs endlessly.
The putschists, who showed in their earliest decrees how intent they were on muzzling a free press, had forgotten about or underestimated the power of the fax, perhaps because Marx and Lenin had never seen one. As the fax machines in the Times' office and scores of other foreign press bureaus around the city spring to life, familiar mastheads and nameplates of papers like Moscow News and Nezavisimaya Gazeta--both banned by the coup--roll out on shiny paper as they transmit slimmed-down editions over the telephone lines. Anti-coup dispatches pour in from Lithuania, the Ukraine, Sverdlovsk in the Urals.
* Monday Evening
GREBENSHIKOV: Tanks appear in the streets. One young first lieutenant in Pushkin Square, exasperated with incessant questions from people gathered around his troop carrier, bends down to the most strident heckler: "I'll tell you what, we have been wakened at 5 o'clock this morning and told to drive to Moscow. That's all we know, so what do you want of me?"
The lieutenant then stands up and shouts to the entire crowd: "We have no live ammunition. Stop worrying. We are just standing here, that's all."
"They always say that and there always are corpses afterwards," screams an elderly woman waving an oilcloth shopping bag like a banner.
* Later that evening
GREBENSHIKOV: The Yeltsin team is highly jittery. Tension finally explodes into full-scale panic when a quivering Russian Foreign Ministry official phones The Times: "The assault is now under way, we beg you to send all your people to witness this onslaught."
Upon arrival it is immediately clear that nothing of the kind is happening. The Barrikadnaya subway station is not closed and it belches out crowds of people responding to the frantic call for help. Military and militia patrols watch the human streams from the top of the adjoining wall.
The four tanks and one troop carrier that are standing near the building (for some reason 10 are being consistently mentioned, but I make a complete circle around the White House, which is the Russian government building, and find only these four, plus 13 ambulances nearby) have their hatches closed. The crews inside are not responding to shouts and knocks on the armor. The guns have pathetic little bouquets of flowers in them and plastic bags with cookies, watermelon and milk cartons are lying on the vehicles untouched--obviously the offerings of the people to show their goodwill toward the soldiers. "Glory to our tank crews" is written hastily on one tank's external fuel barrel.
TUESDAY, AUG. 20
* Early Morning
PARKS: Although it is not yet midnight Monday in the United States, dawn of the second day of the coup has already come in Moscow. This is the day that the plotters have to get tough if their conspiracy is going to succeed. Are they ready for it? A litmus test: How are communications with Moscow?
If a crackdown is coming, all communications--telephones, telexes, computer networks, radio and television circuits, satellite links--have to be cut to control what the world, and the Soviet Union's own citizens, know about the coup. This raises the foreign correspondent's most dreaded question, "How will we get the story out?"
* That afternoon
GOLDBERG: On the nine-hour flight from Vladivostok to Moscow, there is only one sign of the coup. In the seat ahead of me--one of those special VIP seats with extra legroom--a Navy admiral sits reading the conservative daily Sovietskaya Rossiya, avidly studying the Emergency Committee's decrees and appeal.
Pulling out a pen, he underlines almost the entire text of the junta's explanation of what was wrong with the country and what needs to be done. He seems especially taken with the phrases, "The country has, in essence, become ungovernable," and, 'all demonstrations and marches are banned."
* Later that afternoon
GOLDEBERG: I grab a cab to the White House, the Russian government building, but we can't get within 200 yards. The Ring Road, Moscow's main artery, is blocked by trucks and trolley buses. Several people are crowded around one of the buses reading a Russian government decree. Underfoot, I notice a crumpled piece of paper and unfold it. It is a poster asking in bright red letters: "What is Gorbachev's illness?"
The grounds of the White House, which I had visited so many times before, are unrecognizable, blocked by higgledy-piggledy barricades and crammed with tense, expectant people. It is about 5 p.m., and word has spread that the tanks are on their way to storm the building.
WEDNESDAY, AUG. 21
* Early morning
GOLDBERG: Just after midnight comes a report that shots have rung out near the White House. A computer whiz at the office, whose normally gentle expression has turned ugly and grim, says he has seen two corpses lying bloodied under sheets on the Ring Road in front of the American Embassy.
Up on the Ring Road, the conflict is still under way.
Stories are contradictory about what provoked the incident, but what is happening now is clear: several APCs are trapped in an underpass, blocked on one side by a crew of water trucks and on the other by an absolutely furious crowd made up almost entirely of men. The crowd lines the walls looking down on the underpass and filters toward the APCs through a line of trolley buses that look like they have been blown up by bombs.
After threading my way through the blackened, mangled buses, I can see the soldiers manning the APCs sitting miserably on top, speechless, both confused and defiant. They are surrounded by lecturing civilians accusing them of killing their own people and betraying their country.
The crowd clearly has no intention of letting them go, intent on somehow making them pay for the four people they had killed in that night's clash.
"536," Vitaly Chelyshev, an eyewitness to the incident with blood spattered on his pants legs, keep repeating. "You write that down. It was APC number 536 that killed those boys."
* Later that morning
GOLDBERG: As night deepens and the threat of attack fails to abate, instructions are issued from inside the White House to its defenders. "All those inside: Close the windows, turn off the lights and stay as far as you can from the windows. If they penetrate the windows or doors, shoot without warning."
The civilians standing outside get a lesson in what to do if attackers use gas. "Close your eyes, hold your breath, turn and take a step away to get out of the gas," the man says. The building's leadership begs its defenders a final time for "maximum calm and patience." They wait calmly and patiently. The attack never comes.
PARKS: "We need order," says the Soviet businessman, a managing partner in one of the high-tech companies recently spun off from the country's military-industrial complex as a joint venture with Western partners. "The situation had gotten out of control. We need a strong hand, and Gorbachev was weak."
The businessman, an electrical engineer by training, makes clear that he does not want to see the Soviet Union run by the military nor for it to revert to the pre- perestroika era. What he wants, he says, is for "things to work and work smoothly."
The businessman, flying back to Moscow from a sales trip to London, complains that the coup had been widely "misunderstood."
"We must modernize our country, and all this political debate is paralyzing us," he says. "We must stop the talk and move. We need order, discipline and direction. Gorbachev is too much of a vacillator, too indecisive to handle this crisis. . . .
"This should not be seen as a coup, but as a change in leadership. Yes, it may be outside the Constitution, but the Constitution has not caught up with the new political realities in our country."
At Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, a lieutenant colonel from the KGB's border guards greeting an arriving Soviet delegation holds up his hands as if they are manacled and declares: "We've got them! We've got those bastards!"
Although the reports of the plotters' arrests were premature, the officer's pride was evident. Turning to a foreign correspondent who was also clearing immigration, he says, "Tell the world that in the Soviet Union we want democracy, not juntas."
* Wednesday, 1 p.m.
GUTTERMAN: Paul J. Melling, a partner at the Moscow office of the law firm Baker & McKenzie, calls the events of the past two days the "worst possible thing that could have happened in terms of encouraging foreign business in the U.S.S.R." While he says that virtually all deals currently in the works will be put on hold, he adds that he sees "no indication that anybody is thinking of packing up and leaving," echoing the feeling here that the current situation might not last.
While some companies send their "non-essential personnel" home, other employers say their people will stay unless advised to evacuate by their country's embassy.
* Wednesday, 1:30 pm
GUTTERMAN: Business is bad at Stockmann's hard currency shop in GUM, the government-owned department store on Moscow's Red Square. The Finnish shop's location, excellent in quieter times, becomes a liability now because troops have closed the center of the Soviet capital to traffic.
Olga, a young Russian cashier, expresses fear that the store will be closed for good if the hard-line committee stays in power long. "But," she says, "I still have hopes that this whole thing will end soon."
* Wednesday, 2:30 p.m.
GUTTERMAN: Among those Western businessmen with no plans of leaving is Fran Murphy, director general of an Irish-Soviet joint venture that opened a large hard currency supermarket and pub on Moscow's New Arbat Street last month. Workers are installing an awning over the entrance to the "Irish House," adding their own noise to a city already buzzing angrily in response to the deaths of four protesters near the Russian Parliament building overnight.
Upstairs, on the busy floor of the store, Murphy discusses plans to upgrade equipment at the ruble supermarket. He is optimistic about the future, having heard news of a possible end to the coup. "I see no reason to believe our situation will change," he says, "if things level out."
* Wednesday, 3:30 pm.
GUTTERMAN: "Hamburger, french fries and a Coke to go, please." At the giant McDonald's on Pushkin Square, the largest of the chain's restaurants worldwide and a monument to one of the most successful foreign ventures with the Soviets, it is business as usual. The line outside the fast-food mecca of Moscow is no shorter than usual. "There were fewer people here this morning," one worker confesses, "but it was raining."
It is hard to believe these people live in the same country--and city--as those defending the Russian Parliament against a feared military assault. "One has to eat," one woman explains. Life is so calm at McDonald's, in fact, that Julia, an exchange student from Kansas, remarks: "I love it. It's just like home."
THURSDAY, AUG. 22
GOLDBERG: Oleg Rumyantsev, the lanky, bespectacled young Russian deputy who heads the commission writing the republic's new constitution, looks a bit battered.
His response when I ask why he has stitches in his lip and big chips out of his front teeth: "I was kissing a tank."
In fact, Rumyantsev, who has always seemed most at home with his laptop computer typing in amendments to the constitution, tried to step in Tuesday night when the crowd on the Ring Road surrounded the armored-personnel carriers.
Although he was trying to "calm the hysteria" of the soldiers and the crowd, Rumyantsev says, he got caught up in the fracas and ended up falling into the hatch of one military carrier, banging his mouth inside.
"I got a real taste of the Tamanskaya Tank Division."
* Later Thursday
GOLDBERG: It all seems to be over. Around the Russian White House, only the ashes of bonfires still smolder, and the clean-up crews are yanking down the barricades. A lone bag woman rummages through food, old clothes, plastic and paper left behind by those who had kept a three-night vigil. She looks happy. She has found a whole bag of carrots and several loaves of bread.