Quiet moment of glory

August 17, 2011

By Peter Andrews

I woke up on the morning of August 19, 1991 after staying at my friends’ apartment in Warsaw. I was on my way back from holidays in Canada and had just sold my car before departing to the Soviet Union to start my new job at Reuters in Moscow. Previously, I worked for the Associated Press in the then-Soviet Republics of Lithuania and Georgia as well as in Moscow itself where Reuters’ former Chief Picture Editor Gary Kemper and Moscow Chief Photographer Frederique Lengaigne recruited me for Reuters.

A neighbor stopped me on the staircase saying: “Do you know what happened in Moscow?”. There was a military coup and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was overthrown by Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev. It seemed impossible to me, I had just left Moscow two months earlier. Nevertheless, I immediately arranged the first available plane ticket to Moscow. The plane was almost empty and the only people on board were my colleagues from Poland with whom I had spent the previous year working with in Vilnius. The atmosphere on the plane was tense, but full of excitement. The change was happening in front of our eyes, but not the way we were expecting.

Upon landing at the Shermetyevo airport in Moscow I went straight to the Reuters office which was then on the Sadovaya Samotechnaya Ulitsa part of the Sadovoye Koltso in the center of Moscow. We exchanged quick greetings and I was on my way to the White House, a building which then housed the country’s parliament, where everything was happening. The Reuters picture crew already working on site included Sean Ramsey, Michael Samojeden, Genady Galperyn, Grigory Dukor, and Viktor Korotayev.

In those days we were working with film and, as far as I can recall, Frederique was in the office all the time processing our pictures and sending them to the world. The atmosphere was intense and strange as there were thousands of people on the streets of Moscow protesting against the military’s presence in the center of the city. Sean Ramsey was taking incredible risks and getting amazing images, as did the rest of the team. Michael took a great picture the next day of Yeltsin on the balcony of the White House.

Armored vehicles were traveling up and down the center of the city with some trolleybuses burning. The next day was more peaceful but still intense with tanks surrounding the parliament building with hundreds of people walking in between them, putting flowers on the APC’s and waving victory signs. I was amazed to see my picture on the front page of the International Herald Tribune on August 21.

It depicted a soldier sitting on top of a tank, smiling, with flowers next to him. It somehow became a sign that the coup had failed. Boris Yeltsin, who seemed to be supported by the part of the military opposing the hard line generals orchestrating the coup, had emerged as the new leader of the country. The coup was over and so was the Soviet Union as it took only four months to transform into CIS, with all the republics gaining independence.

In many ways it was the moment I was waiting for all my life, having grown up in communist, Soviet-satellite Poland. I had to defect from my homeland and take off to the West in 1981 with the feeling of never being able to return to the place where members of my family lived, including my mother and my brother. But with events like the Polish Solidarity trade union, the Berlin Wall collapse, the Lithuania uprising and the failed Yanayev coup in August 1991, the totalitarian system, that keep millions of people oppressed, had ended. It was my quiet moment of glory.

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