ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – All was quiet on the evening of Aug. 18, 1991, at Oleg Basilashvili’s dacha in the northern countryside. He describes it today with a flair for the dramatic, but why not? He was — and is — one of Russia’s most respected actors, a beloved figure.
Now 77, he can look back at that evening and bring to mind a lost moment, when so much hope and excitement were in the air. It meant something to be a member of Russia’s intelligentsia back then, to be in the vanguard: Twenty years ago this summer, Basilashvili was also a people’s deputy in the Russian parliament, prominent by virtue of his national popularity, an outspoken advocate of democratic reform.
It was damp and cool that day in 1991. In their country cottage, Basilashvili and his daughter were together reading the poet Joseph Brodsky’s Nobel acceptance speech. Brodsky, also a Leningrader, had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972, settled in the United States, and gone on to win the Nobel in 1987, in a clear slap at the U.S.S.R.’s treatment of its artists and writers.
“To say the least, as long as the state permits itself to interfere with the affairs of literature, literature has the right to interfere with the affairs of the state,” Brodsky said on that stage in Stockholm. “A political system … is by definition a form of the past tense that aspires to impose itself upon the present (and often on the future as well).”
Russia’s particular past tense was about to come to a very dramatic end. As dusk settled — earlier now that it was mid-August, the famous White Nights gone until another summer should come — Basilashvili read in the stillness. Man is not a social animal, Brodsky said. Art brings out the “I.” It was thoughts like these that won him expulsion from the Soviet Union.
The actor noticed how unnaturally quiet everything was. It was strange.
Suddenly they heard a shot. They jumped. It turned out to be a cider bottle exploding in the kitchen. “That was a signal,” he said during a recent interview. It wasn’t really, but today he considers it a harbinger of the end. That evening was when the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev — the coup that would fail and in its failure spell the end of the Soviet Union — had gotten underway.
The next morning it was pouring rain. A stranger knocked at his door. “Are you going to Moscow?” he asked Basilashvili. The actor had heard the news by that point, but he replied that he didn’t know what he would do. Then some friends came to take him into St. Petersburg to get together with Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor. But of course first they had to come in out of the rain and have some tea. When they went back outside, there were four flat tires on their car.
(Slashed tires were something of a hallmark of the coup. Sergei Filatov, an aide to Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, says many of his colleagues woke to discover flat tires. In an earlier era, Soviet security agents would have shot their suspected enemies, but by 1991 they had lost the nerve for that.)
One of Basilashvili’s neighbors said he would lend them his car. It wouldn’t start. They found a potato stuck in the exhaust pipe. They took it out and got the car started. He’s sure it was the stranger who did this.
In St. Petersburg, they went in to see Sobchak, who said, “We’re all right here. Go to Moscow.”
So they got tickets on the overnight train (free because they were people’s deputies) and went. There was plenty of anxiety in their compartment, but it seemed as though all the other passengers were just going about their usual lives. The next morning, at Moscow’s Leningradsky Station, they went to the delegates’ hall and called the White House, where Yeltsin was leading resistance to the coup, for a car. The reply was, “We’d like to send one, but we’re under blockade at the moment.” So they took the subway, and again, it was like a normal day.
Finally they got to the White House. By then the coup was already crumbling. “We had a sleepless night, but we felt we were winners. The people had protected democracy.”
The next day, as Gorbachev was coming back from the Crimea, where he had been held during the coup, Basilashvili and three colleagues got in a car to drive to the Kremlin. The driver stuck a blue light on the roof and roared down a broad street called Novi Arbat. Basilashvili asked why he was driving like that. “Because now I can,” came the reply. That, Basilashvili says, is when he realized that democracy was going to be more complicated than he had thought.
Today, in any case, there’s not much left of Russian democracy, though arrogant officials in cars with blue lights still race from here to there, infuriating other drivers.
The intelligentsia had so much to gain from a reformed Russia and have instead seen their influence and respect dwindle away. Basilashvili left politics and revivified his career on stage and screen. Maybe the problem is that the Soviet collapse was too easy in the end. Yeltsin and his allies thought they could wrench Russia into a new and happier state of being.
“People have to fight for what they need, and not wait for it all to come from above,” Basilashvili says. “But that’s Russia’s history — even during the Yeltsin revolution — and I use that word, revolution — it came from the top. And then we had that power. And it’s both happiness and tragedy.”