This was Mike's email dispatch from the day the White House was attacked and led to Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank that changed Russia forever. I arrived the following week and we sat and drank Stella Artois next to the Sun office and checked out the photo's he took that day.
Another Day in Moscow
On Sunday evening around 6:00pm Yevgeny, one of my Russian friends,
called and said I shouldn't leave my apartment because there was a
civil war going on out on the streets. During the day I had walked
from my apartment, just east of the Kremlin, through the center of the
city to the Irish House supermarket, and everything seemed pretty
normal (for Moscow). Anyway, Yevgeny said that a crowd was heading
for the Ostankina TV building.
So I hung out for a while on my couch, watching some really slow movie
about peasant romance, and then Winnie the Pooh (good Russian
practise), and then an outstanding animation done with Legos (what an
amazing idea!). Suddenly the screen cut out and some editor-type came
"Cevodnya...bil ochen...tizholi dyen. ...Tyzholi, potomu shto...
"Today...was a very...difficult day. ...Difficult, because...
...it is hard to speak--"
and then the screen went blank. I switched to the only working
channel of my TV's eight (no CNN or cable in this joint), and a news
reporter came on saying that Ostankina had been stormed. Then this
station (broadcast from somewhere else in Moscow) played that stupid
airplane-hijacking Love-Boat movie with Mike Brady as the captain (I
never did catch the name, but that it was in Russian didn't seem to
reduce the content I could get from it) interrupted every so often
with little news blurbs, including a pitch from Yuri Gaidar. I could
understand maybe half of all the Russian in these snippets, but the
few clips of fighting at Ostankina were pretty easy to comprehend. I
finally bailed on the whole scene around eleven, after hearing what
the BBC had to say on the shortwave.
I woke up around 6:30 Monday morning with that strange feeling like
the first time as a kid when you find a beehive in your back yard: at
first you were really afraid to go near it, but you went a few steps
closer, nothing happened, and now you just want to walk up and see
what the hell's in the damn thing.
I left my apartment around 7:30, and when I got to the street it
seemed like just another day in Moscow. Business as usual. I got to
the corner and thought: I can just go the the metro and go to work,
or--if I just walk down to the Kremlin and see what's going on at Red
Square, it'll only add twenty minutes to my commute. Hell, I had
taken my backpack instead of that stupid yuppie briefcase, had a
couple of cameras in it, might as well have a look.
About halfway there I heard a few explosive noises, but they could
very well have been a dump truck going over metal plates in the
I got to Red Square and it was basically quiet. At the north end were
the token barricades I'd heard about on the news. As I walked toward
them I heard the unmistakable sound of machine-gun fire. Damn, must
be just around the corner. The only other time in my life I'd ever
heard machine-gun fire was at ROTC boot camp. I made it past the
small throngs at the barricades to the other side of the history
museum, but again, basically nothing was going on. I could hear all
this bloody racket--there \*was\* a war going on somewhere--but couldn't
I thought about getting on the metro and going to work, but then I
thought I'd have a peek at Tverskaya St. (the main street in the
center). It was blocked off, and as I started to walk toward the
Pushkin monument I could see the four huge barriers made of old
crates, park benches, playground monkey-bar sets, etc. Lots of people
were standing around little bonfires, drinking and smoking--kind of
like a vigil at Berkeley except for the vodka. There was an armored
personnel carrier (APC) in front of Pizza Hut (I hope the picture
I got up past the City Council building where there was a large crowd
of Yeltsin supporters waving tri-colors, but again nothing was
happening (relatively). Still lots of war noises.
At this point I figured the war must all be around the White House. I
wasn't sure what to do, but somehow I slid into this flow of people
heading toward the noise and wandered through unfamiliar streets of
Moscow to the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now.
When I got to the American embassy, I joined a crowd of a few hundred
people and watched occaisonal sniper flashes from the back corner of
the White House, which I could see in the distance. Riot police
occasionally pushed us back. After about twenty minutes, I figured
I'd seen as much as I'd be able to, and started to head toward the
metro to go to work.
I got to Noviy Arbat, and there was a huge line of APCs waiting
patiently for action. I stood for a bit, watching the crowd and the
riot police, wondering what everybody was thinking, what they wanted
to see, what they wanted to happen. People seemed nonchalant,
detached. There wasn't really any fear or anxiety, just a passive
feeling of "gee, if they're going to blow up my country's parliament,
I might as well at least go and watch it."
Then the tanks came. About a dozen T-80s, from where I'd just walked.
Ok, I'll get to work a little late...
After I'd shot a half a roll of film--tanks in a line, tanks turning
the corner, tank boys playing with the guns (what a spooky scene, tanks
in the street!)--I started to walk south again on the Garden Ring to
go to the metro.
But then at the next cross street, which leads to the next bridge down
the Moskva from the White House, I decided I just had to go down to
the river and see how everything looked from there. Five minutes
later I could see the front of the White House; now the sounds of
gunfire were rolling down the river and echoing off buildings in a
violent cacophony of death-noise. Mesmerized, I slid again into the
flow of people heading through the parked cars toward the cauldron,
assuming we'd soon reach the police barricade. I felt like I was
going to an AC-DC concert. A few minutes later there was a huge
explosion, which I later learned was the sound of a T-80 battle tank
hurling off its 148mm projectile, and several hundred car alarms went
There was no police barricade. Before I knew it, I'd passed the
burning hulks of two bombed out busses and was standing in a huge
crowd at the base of the bridge in front of the White House, watching
thousands of bullets fly between the building and the half-dozen or so
APCs in front of it. I couldn't believe I was there: how could people
be aloud this close to a bloody war?
I kept going. I pushed through the crowd, and worked my way up \*onto
the bridge\*, several hundred yards in front of the now famous but no
longer white \*House\*. There it was, laid out before me, war as a
spectator sport. Why the hell was I here? Why did I \*want\* to be
here? Who let us here? Someone told me the range of a Kalashnikov
automatic rifle is 2km, and here I am standing on a bridge 200m in
front a building filled with desperate rebels armed with these things.
It didn't seem to bother the hundreds of other people standing around
me, so I pulled out a Canon EOS and started my own shooting.
There were already two very large chunks of stone knocked out of the
House, and next to the smoking remnant of the Meria building and with
the burning busses on the embankment road, the whole picture was
rather grisly. The gunfire stopped for short periods, but mostly just
About fifteen minutes later several bullets ricocheted somewhere
within a few tens of yards of us; we all ducked down behind some
concrete and then ran towards the middle of the bridge. It felt a
\*little\* safer, anyway, behind one of the metal stanchions of the
bridge railing. I ended up this time standing next to couple of
British guys, and we exchanged a few war-watching pleasantries ("Shame
the pub's not open" "Where's the hot-dog stand?" "You'd think they'd
at least put out some porta-potties" etc.)
There were four T-80s on the bridge, and six directly across the river
from the White House (to the left of our priviledged position; the
House was on the right). Through all the noise, I'd assumed the tanks
were firing too; it was difficult to tell what was doing what with the
sound bouncing everywhere. But then, there was an explosion like I've
never experienced in my life: the bridge shook, my heart derailed, the
whole world paused. All the murmuring in the crowd died in a
nanosecond. Under a huge cloud of smoke, \*all\* of the remaining glass
on the upper part of the White House started falling, as if in slow
motion. One of the T-80s had fired.
I was scared. "Man, these boys aren't playing," one of the Brits
mumbled as we crouched meekly behind our railing. After about five
minutes my hands stopped shaking just enough to get my camera aimed at
the House to get ready for the second T-80 blast. Somehow this was a
little different from taking photos of canons firing blanks at Civil
War reenactments I remember going to as a kid.
I stayed around for another half hour or hour (time doesn't seem to
matter much in this situation...) for a third T-80 blast, an ammo
truck hit (the thing blew off like bricks of fire crackers for 15
minutes straight), another gunfight in the distance (which I later
read was at the Itar-TASS building), and another spray of shots into
the crowd where I was standing. This one was more serious--louder and
more shots, and the crowd went a little crazier and started running
off the bridge. They eventually regained confidence and retook their
former positions; I ended up a little farther from the shooting again.
The crowd in general was an interesting phenomenon. I'm not sure what
I would have come up with had I attempted previously to imagine the
scene of several thousand people watching a tank and machine-gun
battle at several hundred yards. I tried to picture a half dozen M1
Abrahms lobbing shells at the Capitol building in Washington, but I
really couldn't do it. There were muted cheers as each tank hit made
another crater in that formerly pretty building, but I wouldn't say
folks were actually \*happy\* about it. I would guess that between the
moments of raw fear and the brief respites of humor during the
inevitable wisecracks, Muscovites must have just wondered what the
hell would happen next, where would it all go from here, what would
the next Another Day in Moscow be like...
Finally I figured I'd taken enough pictures, wouldn't get much more
out of the last few tank shots, and probably wouldn't be able to see
much of the surrender when it finally happened. I walked off the
bridge, jumped in a taxi, and went to work.