The “who couldn’t shoot straight” Communists, who couldn’t shoot straight, will remain forever. Almost thirty years have passed since that August 1991, when an unlikely and clumsy group of coup leaders deluded themselves that they could regain control of the Soviet Union, now transfigured by the perestrojka of Gorbachev, with a military putsch that instead ended up precipitating the collapse of the first socialist state born of the October revolution.
The August coup was a tragic comedy of errors, marked by improvisation, amateurism, superficiality, but above all political autism and the inability to perceive the real country by a band of self-styled vestals of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. But it was also one of those fatal moments that Stefan Zweig talks about, in which history pushes its way and suddenly everything appears possible, overturning every paradigm and projecting new protagonists onto the world stage.
The putsch lasted a few days. The arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Crimea, the tanks on the Kutuzovsky prospect, the state of siege, Boris Yeltsin’s appeal from the turret of a tank to the people of Moscow to take to the streets in defense of Parliament, the crowd on the street, the barricades, the accidental death of three young demonstrators. And then the turning point, the return of Gorbachev hero only for one night, his public humiliation in front of the Russian Parliament, the triumph of Corvo Bianco Yeltsin and the end of the PCUS, the Soviet Communist Party, a prelude to the agony that in just four months it would lead to the end of the USSR in December.
We were young then, with Enrico Franceschini. And as we have often said to ourselves in these thirty years, we will never be able to stop thanking our directors, my “Misha” Stille and his Eugenio Scalfari, for giving us the opportunity to be there, in that city that was very reminiscent of Petrograd by John Reed in Ten days that shook the world, to tell for the «Corriere» and the «Repubblica» that incredible season and precipitate of events. “We’ve been here for twenty years and nothing has ever happened. You have arrived and the country has exploded », Demetrio Volcic, dean and master of Kremlinologists, repeated with a touch of affectionate envy.
But it is not only personal nostalgia and emotion to re-read correspondence and reportages today that my colleague-friend-competitor collected in a precious volume just published by Baldini + Castoldi. Why The End of the Empire. Last trip to the USSR it is the brilliant testimony of an extraordinary event, the event that effectively closed the “short century” in advance, sweeping away its terrible, but comfortable (for us in the West, at least) certainties.
Reread thirty years later Franceschini’s articles still have the freshness of those days. And they return gracefully and verve the characters, the chaos, the confusion, the uncertainties, the miseries but also the hopes, still shining pieces of a great mosaic of which then as today we struggle to discern the meaning, Russia remaining “a rebus hidden in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, ”according to Winston Churchill’s definition.
There are chronicles of the days of the coup, but also the reports of the previous months, when the country goes into agony and “the men with the stars cover Gorbachev’s view”, as Aleksandr Jakovlev, the architect of the perestrojka.
We were with the author on January night in Vilnius, Lithuania, when the tanks of General Pugo, who later committed suicide after the putsch, advanced in the snow against the television tower with paras behind them firing at eye level, overwhelming the young people who opposed them with their bodies. It was a massacre, they killed thirteen people.
Franceschini’s stories are compelling: roulette fever in Moscow casinos, where no chips were used but piles of dirty rubles; the night with the militia hunting for criminals; the restoration of Lenin’s embalmed body, symbol and metaphor of the mummification of the regime; the shortages of food in Moscow which could also produce hilarious results: «There is no bread. But I bought the briocheMy cleaning lady, unaware of Marie Antoinette, said to me one day as she entered the house. Last but not least, the interviews (painful “holes” for myself) with Yeltsin and Gorbachev who had just resigned.
Coming to the epilogue, Franceschini can no longer hide his love for Russia, where he spent seven years (two more than me) and where he has deep affections. His meeting with the poet Evgeny Evtushenko, in Peredelkino, the village of writers, was very beautiful. When asked how big that forest is, he replied: «I don’t know, no one has ever reached the end». The book ends with a bittersweet notation: governed by an autocrat who tramples on dissent and the rule of law, but a dynamic and vibrant society, three decades later Russia has “made many steps forward in terms of economic and social transformations, but also far behind the hopes of that time ». And then Franceschini returns to the lesson of Lev Tolstoy in War and peace: “Time and patience, General Kutuzov repeated to his officers, certain of sooner or later succeeding in defeating Napoleon and liberating Russia.”
Enrico Franceschini’s book The end of the Empire. Last trip to the USSR it is published by Baldini + Castoldi (pages 304, euro 18). Born in Bologna in 1956, Enrico Franceschini, journalist and writer, was for 35 years the foreign correspondent of “Repubblica” from New York, Washington, Moscow, Jerusalem and London, where he currently resides. Among Franceschini’s recent books: In London with Sherlock Holmes (Giulio Perrone Editore, 2020); Low tide (Rizzoli, 2019)
February 5, 2021 (change February 5, 2021 | 08:18)