By Izzy Tice
After the August 19 coup attempt, the major newspapers in the Soviet Union ceased publication for several days. Both Moscow News, the oldest Russian newspaper printed in English, and the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, did not publish for two weeks and eight days, respectively. Moscow News published again on September 1, 1991, while Pravda resumed its daily publication on August 31. Both papers focused intensely on what had just happened, publishing notes, or rather disclaimers, from the editors, alluding to the malefaction of the government. The editors of Pravda even emphasized that it “was not [their] fault” that the newspaper skipped a week of printing, but the fault of the government for suspending the publication of news.
Of course, so much happened over the week following the coup, yet surprisingly, neither the newspapers’ front pages immediately delve into a recap of the events that transpired in Moscow. One might expect that after an attempt to overthrow the government there would be some content of the fighting itself, but it seems as though either newspaper desired instead to focus on the aftermath of the missing week. On its front page, Pravda opts for dramatic imagery of the remnants of the coup; The Moscow News features a blown-up photo of two young Muscovites, crouching in the street with a hopeful look in their eyes.
One particularly-striking article lies on the second page of this edition of The Moscow News, written by prolific Soviet and Belorusian author, Vasil Bykov. Entitled “Moscow Buries the Victims”, this opinion piece features a mournful attitude toward the events transpiring in late August, 1991, yet also includes traces of disdain for those whose hands created the bloodshed.
Bykov questions why it took deaths in Moscow for people to finally see the injustices within the Soviet Union. Among the “victims” cited by Bykov are Armenians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Afghans, Croatians, Serbs, and Azerbaijanians, all of whom Bykov regards as “victims of dying communism.” In other words, Bykov considers the deaths among these populations at the hands of Soviet officials and forces to have been last-ditch efforts by the Soviet Union to grasp onto the last vestiges of communism’s power. Yet, there is a strange dynamic within Bykov’s argument, where he does not necessarily place all of the blame on ordinary citizens, but does address their inaction. Essentially, he labels Soviet citizens as bystanders to the offenses of the government and military against the republics and satellite states, such as the tragedy on April 9, 1989 in Tbilisi, Georgia, when an anti-Soviet, pro-independence protest turned deadly. To Bykov, such events were not viewed as important by “regular” Soviet citizens, as they stood idly by, accepting such killings by Soviet forces as their communist duty.
Bykov’s piece is a particularly interesting take on the fall of communism because of his brutal honesty and personal shame for having supported the “beloved party”. As Bykov later explains, this blind support for the communist party’s goals was partly out of fear because it was easier to not pay attention and remain complacent to the deaths of other populations in the Soviet Union. Yet Bykov also states that Soviet citizens were very much aware of these atrocities, only choosing not to care about them until the deaths happened in Moscow itself, as the deaths that came with the coup were the first to directly be considered to be “victims of the bloody tyranny.” Bykov states, “We only shut our eyes and stopped our ears trying to overlook it,” implying the conscious inaction of these Soviet bystanding citizens.
Vasil Bykov’s commentary on the deaths accompanying the August 1991 coup is not only self-critical, but also a call-out to his fellow citizens for simply not considering the actions of the Soviet government as sufficiently terrible enough until it directly affected the citizens of Russia, “rousing indignation” within human consciousness.
Izzy Tice is a senior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Geography.
(1991, August 31). Pravda. Retrieved from https://dlib-eastview-com.proxy.lib.miamioh.edu/browse/doc/21572108
(1991, September 1). Moscow News Digital Archive. Retrieved from https://dlib-eastview-com.proxy.lib.miamioh.edu/browse/doc/49797009
Bykov, V. (1991, September 1). Moscow Buries the Victims. Moscow News.