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.
The aftermath was stunning. Two decades later I still get chills remembering the post-coup image of Muscovites by the tens of thousands, hailing Yeltsin and chanting proudly the name of their country—not the Soviet Union, though it still technically existed, but “RO-SEE-A, RO-SEE-A.” Seldom have I seen an event unfold in such stark black and white terms; seldom have the white hats won such a joyous victory.
This spring, when I talked with my students about social media’s role in the Arab uprisings, I noted that twenty years earlier Boris Yeltsin’s supporters had used what was then the latest technology—the fax machine—to build resistance, just as Facebook and Twitter were used this year.
Analogies between then and now, lessons learned from 1991, predicted outcomes for the new 2011 revolutions—these all seemed worthy topics for an event tied to that beloved journalistic device of revisiting great historic moments on key anniversaries.
But flaws emerged as soon as I began reaching out to friends and colleagues about how to shape such an event. Which coup do you mean, asked one: the 1991 putsch when Boris Yeltsin was a hero, or the 1993 one when he ordered artillery fired on Russian government offices held by the Parliament he had dissolved? Hmmm. Hard to highlight heroism without also examining the deeply flawed leader that Yeltsin became after the Soviet collapse.
Others said: Interesting idea. But make sure you bring in a big name to get attention. The names Malkina and Medvedev clearly were not what they had in mind. Indeed, the Big Name they suggested was Mikhail Gorbachev. But he was not the hero of 1991, and despite the West’s continued praise for him, opinions on Gorbachev at home range from indifference to hostility.
Then there was the troublesome issue of the press itself. Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, the failed 1991 coup also was the beginning of the end of the journalistic spring fostered by Gorbachev’s glasnost and nurtured by dozens of journalists—mostly young, but some veterans of the Soviet system—whose reporting was often investigative, eloquent and innovative. Glasnost-era programs like Vzglyad and Before and After Midnight were consistently better than almost any TV news programming in America today. And print media provided nearly daily journalistic coups, uncovering dark secrets of the Soviet past and exposing malfeasance in the politics and policy of the day.
The collapse of communism at the end of 1991 meant the Communist Party no longer lavishly subsidized media, which party bosses had used so effectively since Lenin’s day to control information and opinion. But corruption followed, in the form of journalists writing fawning articles for pay. Some major media barons used the press to promote their own views, providing the lesson that capitalist owners are not above media manipulation.
By the time Vladimir Putin came to power, almost a decade after the 1991 coup attempt, the media had so discredited themselves that the public raised little protest when Putin rolled back much of their hard-won freedoms. Those who continue to practice hard-hitting journalism today run the risk of assault or even murder; the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Russia ninth on its impunity list, a roll of countries where those who murder journalists seldom get punished.
“So much happened after that,” sighed a Russian friend who entered journalism just after the 1991 failed coup attempt. “There was one shining moment for journalism. What happened later was a really long story,” he said. “And the ending is not a happy ending yet.”
Okay, but did that really mean that, twenty years later, that brief shining moment didn’t deserve a special celebration? If we considered what happened then, and what has happened since, wouldn’t there be some important lessons from Russia 1991 that are worth examining in light of the Arab uprisings?
Sure, said my Russian journalist friend. “First you are high on that feeling of being liberated. And then harsh reality sets in. Then some people start thinking that maybe things were better before.”
Uh, hadn’t I already read about each of those developments in post-revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt? Is the Arab world, at least those countries that manage to overthrow their autocratic leaders, simply doomed to repeat some version or another of the disappointing post-Soviet story? Is “happily ever after” simply not an option after revolution, whether the Orange or Rose revolutions of Ukraine and Georgia or the breathtaking people power victory in Egypt?
These are questions about larger outcomes than just the future of the Arab media, and I’m sure that dozens of panels, lectures and op-eds will consider them in the coming weeks and months. I hope that some will focus on the media’s role as well; in a sign of hope, Columbia Journalism Review recently described post-revolution Arab media as “warily testing boundaries, adjusting to new realities, and daring to dream of the possibilities.” It’s good that they have moved beyond their role in toppling the autocrats, to consider the far more important role they can play now in helping the post-revolutionary state build strong, transparent, accountable, and democratic institutions.
Such institutions are scarce to nonexistent in post-1991 Russia. So, rather than organizing an event about “lessons learned from the Gorbachev coup,” I probably will take my Russian friend’s suggestion, and simply raise a toast this August to that shining moment in 1991, when Malkina, Medvedev, and quite a few other Russian journalists risked everything to make a difference with their courageous defiance.