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WORLD REPORT EXTRA: The Coup and Beyond : Documentary : Coup Diary: Soviet Paranoia, Anger and Fear : But while historic Moscow face-off was under way, life went on with surprising calmness in other parts of country.

August 23, 1991|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and CAREY GOLDBERG and MICHAEL PARKS and VIKTOR GREBENSHIKOV and ANDREI OSTROUKH and STEVEN GUTTERMAN

When news of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's ouster broke just after dawn in Moscow on Monday, it caught the Los Angeles Times staff in far-off positions. The foreign desk in Los Angeles awoke Times correspondent Elizabeth Shogren in her Moscow apartment by telephone at 6:15 a.m. She reached colleague John-Thor Dahlburg, whose apartment still lacks a phone, by calling the steel-toothed watchman at his apartment building and persuading the man to climb 10 flights of stairs to deliver the news. Another Times correspondent , Carey Goldberg , was on feature assignment in the Soviet Far East, seven time zones away, and bureau chief Michael Parks was on vacation in Michigan. Reporter Viktor Grebenshikov, translator Andrei Ostroukh and researcher Steven Gutterman were in Moscow. The following is a diary of their experiences:

MONDAY, AUG. 19

* 6:15 a.m.

SHOGREN: I was awakened from a short, groggy sleep--induced by several glasses of Soviet red wine at a dinner party the night before--by a telephone call from the foreign desk in Los Angeles: Gorbachev is "sick." Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev has taken charge. File a story in two hours.

While racing to the office in my rickety, Soviet-built, red Zhiguli sedan, it never occurs to me that a putsch is under way. I wear flimsy sandals and a summer skirt--hardly the appropriate attire for a coup.

* Later that morning

SHOGREN: Information is hard to come by. I call Gorbachev's press office in the Kremlin. A secretary says she is alone in the office and expects an assistant spokesman in later. Everyone else is on vacation. What about Gorbachev being toppled from power? "What are you talking about?" she asks. "I haven't heard anything about it."

* Monday a fternoon

SHOGREN: Interviews and press conferences now over, an assistant foreign minister grabs me by the arm and whisks me out of the Russian Parliament building with a gaggle of security men on the heels of a very determined Boris N. Yeltsin. The crowd greets the Russian president with shouts of "Yeltsin! Yeltsin!" and "We're with you!" It is the first hint of the huge role public resistance will play in bringing down the coup.

I watch as hundreds of people--the first of hundreds of thousands like them--come running to defend the only elected president Russians have ever known. I bite my lip and tears swell in my eyes as I think of how much braver Russians have become over the three years that I have lived in Moscow and imagine that all the freedoms I watched them fight for and win could be taken away.

GOLDBERG: As our official sedan rolls up to the hotel after a relaxing tour through the wooded hills outside the port city of Nakhodka, something--a certain suspiciously tranquilizing tone in the announcer's voice--makes the driver suddenly turn up the radio. The newscaster announces the takeover by the "State Committee on the Emergency Situtation." "The dictatorship has arrived," Alexander Plotnikov, a Nakhodka official driving with me, says with a twisted smile. Reverting with astonishing speed to the old habits of the paranoid pre-Gorbachev era, he starts to worry aloud about whether he could get in trouble for having been with a foreigner. "And I was supposed to visit the West next week," he says. "I wonder if they'll let me out."

* Later that afternoon

DAHLBERG: "Acting President" Yanayev's first (and, as it turned out, last) appearance in the global spotlight is pathetic, almost insulting to the Soviet and foreign correspondents summoned to hear him. A few minutes after 5 p.m., Yanayev and four of his co-conspirators mount the carpeted stage at the Foreign Ministry Press Center after ringing the building with tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to protect themselves.

Here, then, are the new rulers of the Soviet Union, all of whom choose to meet the world attired in suits of varying shades of gray--even Starodubtsev, the supposed envoy of the country's long-suffering, hard-scrabble "peasantry." These are Soviet counterparts of the American "Organization Man"--men who had fought their way up in the party, economic and governmental bureaucracies, men who had the same color limousines (black), the same dachas, the same kinds of offices with prominently displayed portraits of Lenin or Gorbachev. Even, apparently, the same tailors.

Yanayev's hands tremble and he has the sniffles or a bad cold. He had just gone through, he admitted, a "sleepless night." He laughs nervously a few times, showing the yellowed teeth of a heavy smoker. The first question thrown at him cuts to the heart of the issue: "Where is Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev?" Yanayev says Gorbachev is really very tired, simply worn out by six years of trying to ram through his multifaceted reforms, and that he is now recuperating in a "safe" place.

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