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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Eyewitness: Inside Yeltsin's bunker
Yeltsin on tank outside White House
Moment of history: Yeltsin stands on tank to defy coup
Tim Whewell reported from inside the besieged White House as the Soviet coup unfolded. He remembers three days of drama as attack seemed imminent and normal life went on hold.

It was the height of the cucumber season, the time when those fat, knobbly vegetables - so much more characterful than our shiny supermarket varieties - finally reach maturity in dacha gardens all over Russia.

Tim Whewell
Tim Whewell: Kept phoneline to London open throughout the drama
In August, a heavy languor hangs over Moscow. The elite depart for their well-guarded holiday homes on the Black Sea. Ordinary citizens wrap cold chicken in plastic bags and head out for one of the little strips of sand beside the muddy waters of the Moscow river.

Things were so quiet on Sunday 18 August 1991 that I finally fulfilled a promise to the BBC's religious department to report on the re-opening of Moscow's Anglican church after 70 years.

A balmy morning of hymn-singing, followed by an afternoon lazing at one of the capital's new, private-owned open-air cafes - they were two experiences which summed up the new opportunities Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika had brought.

Soviet tank tries to get through crowd outside White House
Outside the White House, protesters blocked the paths of tanks
And then, next morning, shortly after dawn, a highly agitated news editor in London shattered my slumbers to ask if I had any idea what had happened to Mr Gorbachev. My none-too-polite response was that I supposed the Soviet leader was happily asleep in bed, as I had been until so rudely interrupted.

But that, of course, was the wrong answer. London always knows best.

And when I switched on Soviet TV and found regular programming replaced by a performance of Swan Lake, I realised at once that we were at the start of something the country's radical pro-democracy politicians had been warning of, largely unheeded, for many months - a coup d'etat.


Did I eat during those three days? I can't remember. Was I scared? I can't remember that either

The three days that followed changed the country, and the world, for ever. And yet looking back, I don't remember how much time I had to speculate about how it might all end.

I spent those three days barely sleeping, in the surreal, sealed world of the White House - the Russian Federation parliament, headquarters of Boris Yeltsin and focus of resistance to the coup.

The normally well-ordered offices of ministers and deputies were taken over by a rag-tag army of "defenders of democracy". They included political activists, journalists, pro-democracy Cossacks in Tsarist-era dress uniforms, even the leather-clad members of Moscow's fiercesome "Night Wolves" bikers' club - a group who knew they had Gorbachev's reforms to thank for their freedom to roar around the city and follow a rebellious lifestyle once considered impermissibly "Western".

In every room there was a tannoy relaying a special in-house radio service rigged up by some of the country's most outspoken broadcasters. The attack might come at any moment, they kept warning us.

Tanks leaving Moscow
Columns of tanks rolled out of Moscow after Yeltsin's victory
Rumours of troop movements around Moscow were feverishly reported, along with triumphant accounts of units which had mutinied rather than follow the orders of the State Emergency Committee, the name adopted by the coup leaders.

Cheering broke out when the tannoys broadcast news of miners in Siberia and other parts of the country striking in support of democracy.

In fact, however, we had very little idea whether the coup would succeed or fail, or how the rest of the country and the world were reacting.

I confined myself almost entirely to reporting what I could see from the window of one room high on the side of the White House. Directly below me was the bridge on which, it was generally believed, the tanks would eventually arrive to intimidate or blast us into submission.

In those days, even in normal times, you couldn't call abroad from an ordinary Soviet phone. And I feared all direct lines out of the country could be cut at any time.


I gripped the receiver in my hand for the best part of two days, convinced that if I ever put it down I might never get through again

I phoned the BBC Moscow bureau and they connected me to Broadcasting House along a special BBC landline.

Having established the connection, I gripped the receiver in my hand for the best part of two days, convinced that if I ever put it down I might never get through again.

When I went to wander round the building or join the "volunteers" manning the makeshift barricades outside the building, I left fellow "defenders" with strict instructions not to hang up. In an extra touch of surrealism, London played Radio 1 down the line to keep it open.

Did I eat during those three days? I can't remember. Was I scared? I can't remember that either. Five years later I went back and asked some of the people I'd shared the room with that same question, and they couldn't answer either. It was as though real life had been suspended and they'd been taking part in a film.


Yeltsin's heroic defence of the White House ensured that he, and not Gorbachev, would now set the pace of change

And in a way, though the eyes of the world had been on us, we were a dramatic sideshow. The fate of the coup, and of Russia wasn't decided around the White House but in the shambolic vodka-fuelled meetings of the Emergency Committee at which the coup leaders' resolve weakened and died.

Too uncertain to carry on in their own names, they hoped to win Gorbachev's backing for a turning back of the clock. When they failed, the game was up. But Yeltsin's heroic defence of the White House ensured that he, and not Gorbachev, would now set the pace of change.

Within days the Communist Party that had ruled the country for 70 years was banned. Four months later, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Nowadays, few journalists in Russia relax in August. The cucumber season has taken on a whole new meaning.

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