"The Event,” a 2015 found-footage documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, opens with black-and-white images of mostly men marching in August 1991 through the streets of Leningrad, in the then Soviet Union, overturning a trailer and grabbing all manner of furniture to erect hastily constructed barricades. Worry was etched on the protesters’ faces.
People had assembled in Leningrad’s central Palace Square and surrounding streets to stop an attempted coup d’état that, they believed, was radiating from Moscow, the USSR’s capital, across the land.
“The Event” is a hopeful but strangely haunting film that I watched last week on Zoom. Hofstra University’s Department of Comparative Literature, Languages and Linguistics and the History Department presented it, with a panel discussion moderated by Dr. Ben Rifkin, a Hofstra professor of Russian.
I wanted to see the film because in August 1991 I was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Bulgaria, a Soviet satellite nation for 45 years, from the end of World War II through 1990, when it finally gained its freedom and turned to democracy. I cannot express the chilling effect the coup attempt had on many Bulgarians, who worried about a sudden return to hardline communism. I wondered what, precisely, had happened in Moscow and other Soviet cities from Aug. 18 to 21, 1991, as the coup unfolded. I had never seen images of it before.
The good people of Leningrad were concerned that Soviet Armed Forces tanks might roll against their city, and a sea of tens of thousands of people rallied, placing themselves in mortal danger to preserve the democratic reforms enacted under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The fear of a possible attack on Leningrad was not irrational. Eight communist hardliners calling themselves the Committee on the State of Emergency, and various factions within the Soviet military, were behind the putsch, seeking to halt the impending breakup of the Soviet Union that would give sovereignty to its 15 outlying republics. Soviet tanks, in fact, rolled into Moscow, where tens of thousands of demonstrators stood in their way. Among them was Boris Yeltsin, the man who succeeded Gorbachev as president of Russia when the Soviet Union dissolved in December 1991.
I was on a train somewhere outside Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, with my then fiancée, Katerina, who was born and raised in Sofia, when we first heard the news of the coup attempt. Katerina’s face turned sullen. What would we do if it succeeded?
Most Americans cannot understand the fear of the then Soviet Union that many, if not most, Eastern Europeans carried with them in the backs of their brains. They risked limb and life to secure their freedoms from the USSR in the late 1980s and early ’90s. They stood in solidarity, marching en masse in their capitals’ squares, demanding sovereignty. Then, seemingly in an instant, all their hard-won reforms appeared to be in jeopardy.
If Bulgaria lost its newly won democratic freedoms to the communists, would the old-school apparatchiks “cleanse” Bulgaria of any American “sympathizers”? In that case, anyone who had had contact with an American like me would have been in grave danger of just disappearing.
These were not wild conspiracy theories. They were valid questions based on nearly five decades of iron-fisted Soviet rule. Katerina and I planned an escape route to the U.S. through Greece if the coup held, which, thankfully, it did not. We were in our mid-20s at the time. We recently celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, living, peacefully, on Long Island for the past 28 years, returning every few years to Sofia. Bulgaria remains a democracy to this day.
The Soviet coup plotters were not especially well organized, according to various reports, and most of the SAF military was not a party to the conspiracy. It’s said that the plotters spent most of the three days of the coup drunk. Seven of the eight organizers were imprisoned, and one committed suicide.
Ilya Vinitsky, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University, was among the panelists last week. He was 22 and living in the Soviet Union at the time of the coup. It was a seminal moment in his life, a point of demarcation — there was life before the coup, and after.
Now he asks his students, “Have you ever felt you lived through a historical moment?”
Yes, I would respond, more than once. Most recently was the disorganized insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, when thousands of pro-Trump rioters besieged our very seat of democracy to try to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election — that is, to attempt to overthrow our nation’s duly elected president, Joe Biden. Having lived through such a coup attempt while in a foreign land, I never imagined one here, particularly not one as violent as that of last January.
Democracy is clearly a fragile thing. It requires an active, engaged citizenry that respects the rule of law. If it is not respected, then it must be enforced.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.