One Face in the Human Wall: Civil Resistance in Moscow

Yeltsin atop tank in front of the Russia's White House 19 August 1991

by Jim Forest

I met Misha Slonin, a scientist active in the Christian segment of Russia’s democratic movement, just ten days after the collapse of the coup in Moscow. He had been one of the people in the “human wall” around the Belodoma — the White House — the sleek marble building on the Moskva River housing the Russian parliament and governmental apparatus that was under siege during the attempted coup in August.

Brought together by a mutual friend, we met at the Octobrskaya Metro station, crossed Moscow underground, then took one train and then another until there was no trace of urban life. We got off at a village stop and walked into the nearby woods. The area was so green and unspoiled that we might as well have been in the heart of Siberia. Already members of his club had built a fire and were boiling water for tea.

“This is the real life,” Misha exclaimed. “Russians are never happy in cities.”

After helping to cut up a tree that had already been felled we set off to find another so that there would be enough wood to last the night. “Our club is very ecological,” Misha explained. “We have a rule that you cannot be a member if you cut down a living tree.” It took much walking through the woods till we found a tree that was both dead and of the right wood to burn without too much smoke.

Our main activity was sitting on a ring of logs around a fire, drinking tea, singing and telling stories and jokes. (One of the jokes described a sign to be erected at Sheremetyevo Airport: “Will the last immigrant to leave please turn off the light?”)

The group — about 20 people, mainly young adults in their thirties — has been getting together like this three or four times annually, some of the older ones for 15 years. Most are active in the democratic movement. Misha was not the only “veteran of the White House.” Another was a former army major who had been part of the group guarding Boris Yeltsin.

It was mainly because of my questions that several of them talked about the defense of the White House. “The three who died, Ilya [Kruchevski], Vladimir [Usov] and Dmitri [Romar], are a cross section of the country,” said Misha, “one a Jew, one Ukrainian, one Russian. One was an architect, one a worker, one a businessman. One was an Afgansi [veteran of the war in Afghanistan]. It’s symbolic.”

One of the White House defenders Misha introduced me to was an ecstatic man in bright colors and bare feet, Max Nikishim, an Afgansi who told me about going down to Armenia with 25 other Afgansis after the earthquake. “There were already some students who volunteered but we realized it would be a problem for them, having never seen blood. A lot of people were killed in the earthquake. So we did what we could. Then in the end they told us to pick out three people from our group to get medals. We said we didn’t want any medals. What for? We went to help, not to get medals. We went for our souls. Should you get a medal just to be human? Inside yourself you have to decide whether to follow devils or prophets. Should you get a medal for not following devils?” He felt the same about going to the White House.

After returning to Moscow the next morning, I didn’t see Misha again until ten days later when he took me for a walk through parts of central Moscow. A great lover of Russian culture and history, he knew not only what stood where in the modern — city but — more importantwhat and who had been there in the days before so much of Moscow was made ugly. While walking, Misha told parts of his life story.

“It’s only in the last few years that I found my way to religious belief,” he said. “But there was some inspiration in this direction within my family. I had a grandmother who was an unsystematic believer. She believed in God and had a certain saint she prayed to. My other grandmother, an actress, wasn’t religious but she was sure the world was created by God. It was a very literate family. My grandfather read me Pushkin’s stories and poems when I was little. My father loved poetry and music. I think I had a kind of `genetic’ religion — I couldn’t not believe in God. I was never absolutely atheist.”

I asked about political loyalties within his family. “The only Communist was a grandfather in the diplomatic service who was shot during the Great Terror in the 1936 or ’37. Apart from him, I can say that our family was always anti-Communist. I remember how glad we were when Stalin died. Their were no tears in our flat! We read Solzhenitsyn’s books in samizdat. A big event was the radio my father was given as a reward for his work as an engineer — he was quite brilliant and got ahead despite not being a party member. With that radio we listened to the BBC Russian Service and Voice of America. My friends in school thought the same way and we were able to talk openly with each other. None were communist-minded. One is now a priest here in Moscow. He was the one who introduced me to Bulgakov [author of The Master and Margarita]. His books were a big event in my life. There was a definite attraction toward social democracy and much respect for what was happening in Czechoslovakia at the time. In fact I was able to go there and saw for myself what was happening before it was crushed in 1968. I had fallen in love with Prague — the thought of Soviet tanks on its streets was horrible. I always respected everyone with a spiritual life. There was a definite religious feeling. But my main interest was in science and mathematics.”

He graduated from the Moscow University in 1973 and in 1979 received his a doctorate. “Now I am assistant director of a laboratory of the Academy of Sciences. Earning 600 rubles a month, I am rich by Soviet standards, but at the present exchange rate that’s less than $20. I’m married a little more than ten years ago. Tamara and I have a daughter, Julia, nine years old.”

I wondered if he was a political activist at the university. “Not at all, unless you count what we did on the social level. I had no hope for outbreak opposition but, with my friends, I thought something could be done in the long run through cultural activities. We opened an international friendship club, which sounded fine to the authorities, and here we had the chance to learn about other cultures — to eat different kinds of food, enjoy different kinds of music — Armenian, Georgian, and so forth. It gave me a lot. Our simple idea is that people should really know each other. In 1976 we opened the Rhythm Café Club which was especially for jazz and poetry and theater lovers. We did a lot of singing there, just the kind you heard us singing in the woods. But our café didn’t fit in and was closed, along with many other things, in 1981. They were willing to let it go if we put it under outside control but we wouldn’t. So it died. We wouldn’t collaborate. Then in 1985 came Gorbachev, speaking about glasnost and perestroika. I must say that I never expected much from a General Secretary of the Communist Party. In 1986 a friend and I put on a satirical play about what he was saying in Gorky Park. It was a kind of low-key comic protest against the Communist Party and more than a thousand people saw it. Looking back, I realize it wasn’t dangerous but at the time we didn’t know that. We felt so happy to be brave! This set the stage for my religious resurrection.”

While his movement toward religious faith was intertwined with his social development, the decisive event came from taking a fresh look at the Bible. “What finally changed everything was simply reading the New Testament. There were other factors but that was the main one. This was three years ago. It had quite an impact on me. I was terrified how foolish I had been all my life — nearly 40 years in vain! I felt very dirty. I desperately wanted to receive communion but it took time before I cleared away the obstacles. Fortunately, having some friends who were believers, I could talk to them about it. Finally it was clear to me what I was living for. It wasn’t my friends moving me in a certain direction, however. The main thing moving me was the word of God. I didn’t need more than that.”

Why the Orthodox Church? “I found the Protestant churches too strict, too narrow. While working in Poland, I was impressed by the Catholic churches I visited and yet didn’t feel completely at home. I feel at home in Orthodoxy. But the main thing is to see not what church you belong to but to see Christianity as a way of life. And for me this has had big consequences. I can honestly say that since my baptism two years ago, I have forgotten what anger is. Yes, I can get irritated, but it is something else. I feel more self-confident, more centered. Many complexes that used to trouble me are simply gone. And it is not only a change in my life. Both my wife and daughter were baptized. We were able to take this step together.”

I asked about the Christian democratic movement. “There are several Christian democratic parties. Part of what is unique in ours is the emphasis on separation of church and state, similar to the western European model. I don’t think it is good to have a favored church in Russia, even if it is the one I belong to. There is another Christian democratic party oriented toward the Orthodox Church — they want it to have a special place. But we believe this would be bad both for the church and the country. What we believe is that the social structures are good only insofar as they promote the development of the soul and its service to humanity. This is at the heart of what we think of as Christian democracy. It is something not only for Christians but for everyone.”

I asked about the coup and what led him to be among those guarding the White House. “I didn’t decide to do it. I just had to do it. I turned on the radio on the morning of the 19th and there was the news about Gorbachev’s removal. I was in a state of shock. I told Tamara that if I was arrested, she should call Sonia [a friend working at Moscow bureau of the The New York Times], and then I went to my laboratory — the Institute for the Development of Mineral Resources — to see what was happening with my co-workers. Then I went to the office of our Christian Democratic party and we got out a statement saying the self-appointed new Soviet leaders were not a legitimate government and that the only legitimate authority was the government of the Russian Federation. It wasn’t that we were so supportive of Gorbachev — we had lost confidence in him several years ago — but his return was essential. We managed to make a lot of photocopies. And then we went to the White House to hand them out. I went home that night — it seemed clear there wouldn’t be an attack yet. In the morning I stopped in at my laboratory again, where we made more photocopies of the statement, several hundred, and then went back to the White House and, except for a hurried trip home to get fresh clothes and some food in the late afternoon, stayed there right through the night until after dawn when the danger had passed. This was the night when they tried to break through the barricades with tanks and the three were killed. But we weren’t near the place where that happened. Our company was near the northeast corner of the White House. We heard gunfire but we didn’t see what was happening. In the quiet hours we handed out small prayer books and also several thousand newspapers from our party.”

Were there many religious believers there? “Many, although this is a word that means different things to different people. There were all sorts of believers — Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants, Jews, Moslems, and people who believe, like my grandmother, in an unsystematic way. There were people who were baptized that night. There were some priests, for example Father Gleb Yakunin. He was a source of much inspiration. He is a national hero. And we heard over the Russian Federation radio from inside the White House about the declaration by Patriarch Aleksi calling on soldiers not to any obey orders to shed blood.”

He recalled how some people came to give food and stayed though they hadn’t intended to. “One was Mira Tetarina [Misha took pains to write her name in my note book], an old woman who brought tea and ended up staying. She kept her place all through the night. She was very calm even in the hours when the rest of us were very frightened, wondering if we would live to see the dawn.”

He pointed out it wasn’t only the defenders of the White House who were frightened. “The soldiers were scared too. They were mostly young boys who didn’t know what it was all about and who hadn’t had much sleep. They were in a state of shock. I think the three deaths were all accidents. No one wanted to kill anyone. Some of the tank drivers hardly knew how to drive a tank. The soldiers were victims too.”

Was he optimistic about the future? “It is too soon for optimism. The hat has been removed but not the head. The head is still the same old head which is still working in the same old way. There are a lot of believers in communism from the older generation and they aren’t finished trying to have things go their way. They want to defend their privileges, and some are afraid of being punished for what they’ve done in the past. But there is a chance for us. The events at the White House not only changed the way people in other countries look at us but changed the way we look at ourselves.”

Misha had a parting gift for me, a small prayer booklet: “To dear Jim, to remember the spirit that surrounded the White House August 19-22, 1991. This prayer book was there and maybe helped us. I hope that looking at it, you will remember your Moscow friends. Misha, September 10, 1991.”

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Also see “Three Days in August: The Coup That Failed”: