Twenty years ago, on the evening of August 19, 1991, some of the most brazen and important acts of modern-day journalism played out on TV screens across the Soviet Union.
Earlier that day, Soviet airwaves had carried the worst kind of Cold War journalism: docile anchors reading out proclamations and decrees from the State Committee for the State of Emergency—a gang of hardline communists seeking to overthrow the reform-minded Mikhail Gorbachev.
The second of their public statements was called an “Appeal to the Soviet People.” Its opening lines give you the sense of bombast and doom in all of the committee’s messages:
Citizens of the Soviet Union,
We are addressing you at a grave, critical hour for our Fatherland and our peoples. A mortal danger looms large over our great Motherland.
The “mortal danger” was, of course, Mikhail Gorbachev’s effort to shake his country out of seven decades of political repression and economic stupor. Hour after hour, the committee’s statements denouncing Gorbachev’s direction flooded the airwaves. Given Soviet history, and precedents like Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, it wasn’t hard to imagine that, with military might on their side, the hardliners could prevail.
The first publicly televised hint that there could be a different outcome came in the early evening, when the coup leaders held a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. State-run Gosteleradio journalists, whose Moscow headquarters were surrounded by tanks and patrolled by soldiers, dutifully broadcast the event live. A young Russian reporter, Tatiana Malkina, noted later that the questions thrown to the putschists were mostly “flabby.” That is, until Malkina herself was recognized. With cool impudence, she asked: “Could you please say whether or not you understand that last night you carried out a coup d’etat?” A link to the full press conference is here; Malkina’s question is about thirty minutes in.
Zing! A rhetorical question, to be sure, but because of the live transmission, it resonated, nationwide, like a challenge from an entire generation (Malkina had just turned twenty-four that day, and she said later that she was only asking what any of the young journalists at her newspaper would have asked, had they been recognized).
A few hours later Vremya, the nightly national news show, opened with another recitation of the coup proclamations and decrees (the anchors must have memorized them by now). Then, with no warning and in spite of the heavy military presence in the studios, Vremya’s editors segued to a stunning report on anti-coup protests in Moscow, which featured the iconic image of Boris Yeltsin on a tank, views of barricades erected by coup resisters, and a dramatic vow from another young reporter, Sergei Medvedev, that he and his colleagues would report updates on the resistance later—“If we have the chance.”
It was the beginning of the end—the first clear signal that the hardliners might well fail (they did two days later) and that the long-anticipated collapse of Soviet communism might now be within sight (the wait for that was longer, about four months).
When someone reminded me recently that this August would mark the twentieth anniversary of the coup, I was eager to use it as a celebration of the vital role journalism can play in such a dramatic struggle for freedom and democracy. As a professor at Columbia Journalism School, I have told students each year in my spring international media course about the courage of Malkina, Medvedev, and journalists at Internews, Ekho Moskvy, and other news outlets that defied the coup. I was NPR’s Moscow bureau chief at the time, and the actions of the journalists were among the defiant acts I reported on. Together with resistance from Yeltsin, other political and military officials, and thousands of ordinary citizens, they faced down the hardliners, whose effort collapsed on August 21.