Yeltsin on a tank in front of the Parliament Building on August 19th, 1991
On August 19, 1991, two months after Boris Yeltsin's election as president of Russia, a junta led by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov made a nearly-successful effort to suppress the democratic movement that had emerged during the Gorbachev years. The junta announced formation of a "State Emergency Committee" that was "taking supreme power."
Gorbachev, still president, was under house arrest, but president-elect Yeltsin remained free, having taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, a modern building on the Moskva River known, because of its white tiles, as "the White House." First using fax and telephone, then radio and television, Yeltsin summoned the citizens of Moscow to defend democracy. At 1 PM on the day of the coup, Yeltsin stood on one of the tanks the junta had placed around the White House, calling for public resistance. Muscovites streamed by the thousands to the White House, forming a human shield.
The news that ten of the tanks had gone over to the White House defenders quickly became known a defection that encouraged other in the military to side with the democratic movement. Elements of three army divisions sent to storm the White House were now supporting Yeltsin, including the elite Alpha Unit.
Yet the outcome remained in doubt. The junta still had the support of entire armored divisions plus much of the state bureaucracy. If the human shield was attacked, thousands would die.
Part of the credit for preventing a bloodbath that never happened belongs to Patriarch Aleksy, elected in June the year before to lead the Russian Orthodox Church.
One of Yeltsin's first actions had been to appeal to Aleksy for his support, "The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night have made me turn to you," Yeltsin said to Aleksy by radio broadcast. "There is lawlessness inside the country a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation. The laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated...
"At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland, I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church's mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.
All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!"
Aleksy threw his full weight behind Yeltsin and against the coup.
As tanks filed into Red Square, Aleksy was on the other side of the Kremlin walls, in the Cathedral of the Assumption, where he was presiding at the liturgy for the Feast of the Transfiguration.
During the service Aleksy made his first gesture of opposition to the coup. In a litany which ordinarily would have included a prayer for the "authorities" and "the army," he prayed instead "for our country protected by God and its people." All those present, noting the changed text, instantly understood its meaning. Patriarch Aleksy had sided with Russia's infant democracy.
The following morning, Aleksy faxed a letter throughout the country challenging the junta's legality:
"This situation is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. ... In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place.
"We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country.
"We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment, for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise a heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer, begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law."
The words "not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood" were understood by all as an appeal to the army not to obey orders to kill their fellow citizens.
By August 21, most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow. Gorbachev was freed and returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup. On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party.
Yeltsin's role will never be forgotten, and neither should that of Patriarch Aleksy, so often portrayed as a KGB agent.
Jim Forest (making use of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard; Princeton University Press, 2009)
Spring 2009 issue of In Communion / IC 53