When Russians hated development sans freedom...

By Rajiv Shah
It was something that took place exactly two decades ago. Those were the three days that shook the world – and me as an ideologically-driven human being. Perhaps it may also hold relevance to all those who cherish independence and freedom. It was the last-ditch attempt by the authoritarian forces in the Soviet Union to cling to power. It was morning of August 19, 1991. News came that a coup had taken place. It was early in the morning, before 9.00 am. Then, I was representing semi-left Delhi-based daily Patriot in Moscow. The then Soviet chief, Mikhail Gorbachev, already under criticism from the Communist hardline sections for allowing "too much freedom", had been put under house arrest in his outhouse in Crimea. I filed my story starting with "A coup has taken place in the Soviet Union...", factually describing how Gennady Yanayev, then Soviet vice-president, had taken over as acting president backed by hardliner Communists, a section of the top military brass and Soviet partocracy.
Immediately after telexing the story, I moved out. I went via underground metro, one of the finest in the world, with someone very close, to a hospital about 50 km away, where we had an appointment. We reached there in 40 minutes, such was the speed of the metro! My seven-year-old daughter, Hina, had accompanied me. In metro, everyone's lips were, as if, tied. I was immediately reminded of the emergency days in Delhi in 1975. People were dumb-struck, nobody talked. There was an atmosphere of fear. I could sense that. I thought Gorbachev's experiment with perestroika and glasnost had collapsed. Authoritarianism was back with a bang.
It took me about couple of hours to return. On my way back, the mood had already begun to change. People in metro were smiling, talking about what had happened, though sticking to facts. I didn't understand how this could happen in such a short duration. I decided to take a drop at Red Square. It was a festive mood! People were talking with each other, with smiles on their face. Hope had returned. Tanks had been called, but the militarymen had already begun to stop cooperating with the authorities. They were happily standing by, talking in a friendly manner with the people there. Olive branches had been pushed into the mouth of the tanks. Someone spotted my daughter, she had a small "bindi" on her forehead. "Indiski druzya", remarked a militaryman, smiling – "our Indian friends." A young couple came nearer to us, the man lifted my daughter, and put her on a tank. They snapped her photograph. "Lovely", remarked the woman. What a change it was!
I returned to my residence, went to a press conference which the coup leader, Yanayev, was to address. His hands were trembling, he refused to answer questions on Gorbachev's whereabouts. I came back, got a phone call from a top Soviet academic and Indologist, Prof Eric Komarov, a close friend who stayed on way to the Sheremetevo international airport. He began giving me minute-by-minute description on a horde of Soviet troops and tanks approaching from outside into the city. Komarov's phone calls also defied logic. People should be afraid of informing someone on phone, particularly when a coup had taken place, I thought. I concluded, the coup was collapsing, filed another story, saying exactly that, describing the change in atmosphere. In fact, I quoted Komarov as saying that the coup was "destined to collapse" – he wanted me to. Incidentally, it is the same Komarov whose study on Indian political scenario I had reported a couple of years before – he had concluded, some time in mid-1980s, on the basis of his wide travel, interviews and analysis of Indian electoral data, that India's days with one-party rule were numbered, and a multi-polar politics was about to take over. He ever predicted changes in the federal structure, saying India would possibly move towards a confederation few decades later.
That the coup collapsed in three days, on August 23, is by now part of history. Gorbachev returned, but was already powerless. His place had been taken, defacto, by Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. That it also led to the end of the Soviet regime, is also well known. The country collapsed. Russia finally withdrew from the Soviet Union forcing all other provinces that formed part of the Soviet Union to declare independence. It was the start of a new democratic experiment, something which the Russians had not experienced for decades.
But what struck me most that whatever I filed to my paper for three days was sent for screening to the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India, late Indrajeet Gupta. Gupta, I was told later, killed my stories, and sent back for publication something that I had never written – trash appeared for three continuous days in Patriot. The lesson I learned was loud and clear. First of all, freedom and independence should mean different things to different people. And, secondly, allowing ideological superimposition to manipulate facts can prove disastrous. Later, I also came to know how the then Indian ambassador in Moscow, in his early communications to Delhi, also tried to call the coup leader, Yanayev, a "friend of India", only because Yanayev once happened to be a top office-bearer of the Soviet-Indian Friendship Society!
It was truly an extended emergency in those days for the Russians wanting to get out of the Soviet Union. Despite Gorbachev's best efforts towards openness, people appeared to live a state of fear. Wide and strong roads, huge and impressive buildings, extremely well-oiled public transport system, free health and education – all of it together was enough to remind one of the powerful infrastructure the Soviets had created. It might overwhelm an outsider who would visit the country then. However, few could see what lay behind all this. Russians would disdainfully called huge buildings and wide roads "Stalin's creations". They hated development sans freedom. To them, over-centralised Soviet Union was an antidote of freedom. Even then, the ideologically-driven persons, including Indian communists and my Patriot bosses always thought the other way. One has only to recall another incident.
It was just a few months ahead of the coup. The Russian People's Congress – or Parliament – was meeting to pass a resolution to make Russia "free" of the Soviet Union, a protest of sorts against the Soviet leadership. The Soviet militia rushed to surround the People's Congress off the Red Square. Accompanied by a Lmonosov Moscow State University journalism student, I went to the spot to see how the Russian Parliament had been encircled and how people nearby on the Gorky Street reacted. Then an amateur videographer, Manu Kant came with his video camera. We penetrated into the circle, showing my press card. But not before the militia tried showing us the fear of the rifle buts. Someone intervened, and we were allowed in as foreigner journalists. The resolution was passed, only to be declared "null and void" by the Soviet regime. I filed a story saying the first signs of collapse of the Soviet Union had already become visible, and, quoting protesting Russians, I said people wanted nothing but freedom from an authoritarian regime. The story landed late in Delhi when the editors had left.
Next day morning, when I was still sleeping, that old telex ringer woke me up. My editor was online. He was angry why I had filed the story. He said, my story had been taken as lead, but this is not what Patriot readers were interested in. They were interested in keeping the Soviet Union together, and my story gave the wrong impression. He also said, my story differed from news agency copies that had appeared in "other papers". I promptly thanked him for taking the story as lead, but said, what could I do if the country was collapsing and people thought this was the best option to fight against an authoritarian regime? Further, I said, I was the only Indian reporter present on the spot, others had filed their stories based on government-controlled Tass handout. Obviously, my story had to differ. I also told him how his "pro-Soviet newspaper correspondent" was mandhandled by militia with rifle buts, and wondered if he wanted a separate story on it. "No no, enough is enough", was the reply!

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