Twenty year ago today I was in Moscow to attend the Congress of Compatriots. I still don't know who invited me and why; I was a Swedish citizen by then, but I guess the Soviet Embassy kept an eye on us expats. The Congress was one of many events that marked the new openness after Gorbachov's ascent to power; a huge gathering of diaspora from all over the world. I wasn't particularly keen to go because I was, as usual, suspicious of anything to do with the official side of my former Motherland, but Staffan was eager, and he wasn't invited. So we went by car, loaded with wheelchairs, Bibles and soft toys because I was at the time involved with charity work in Moscow.
We were placed in the monstrous hotel Russia overlooking the Kremlin, and in the morning, twenty years ago, we went down to breakfast, and then we were meeting one of my contacts who would collect the wheelchairs. We overslept after the long travel the day before and hadn't listened to the news. In the gigantic restaurant, two ladies were talking agitated at the table next to us. We addressed them politely saying that we couldn't help hearing their conversation, so could they please explain what was going on. After half a sentence, we left our breakfast unfunished and rushed to our room. The radio was playing classical music, the TV was showing an old movie, and we knew it was really bad. We were in the middle of a coup d'etat.
My wheelchair contact did turn up, only to say that as a medical doctor he had to be on the barricades in case of casualties. There were tanks in the city centre. We called our friends; they were packing emergency bags and expecting arrests (when it was all over, lists oif people to be arrested were indeed found, and all our friends were on those). We went to a newspaper office where all major dailies, already prohibited by the new authorities, were producing a joint flyer Everywhere we saw people bringing food to people oin barricades.The Congress of Compatriots continued as planned.
If you hear anyone say that they knew from start that it would all end well - that's not true! Everyone was in panic because everyone had their own or their family's memories of the Great Terror of the 1930s. The Swedish Embassy encouraged all Swedish visitors to go home. Many did. We were trying to figure out how many friends' children we would be able to save, and how. The radio was playing classical music, and TV was running old comedies. We listened to world news on our short-wave.
Don't believe foreign correspondents and casual eye-witnesses that claim they were not scared. We all were. But we, the visitors, at least knew that in real emergency we would find shelter in our embassies. Our Russian friends had no protection.
It was on the afternoon of the third day that classical music was interrupted by news from an independent station. The coup was suppressed, Gorbachov was back in Moscow after three days of house arrest. Statues of former KGB generals were pulled down. The Communist Party headquarters was sealed off. The hated regime was overthrown, although we didn't know it yet.
I was there.