Covering the Coup: Looking Back 20 Years

08/21/2011 05:35 pm ET | Updated Oct 21, 2011

Twenty years ago today, I was a summer intern in the Moscow Bureau of NBC News. I'd been living in Russia that summer, working on my doctoral dissertation about Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his use of the press.

I'd awakened along with the rest of the Soviet Union on the morning of August 19th, 1991 to find Swan Lake playing on every channel. Clearly, something was wrong. Very wrong. I ran to the NBC office, where I learned about the coup that was trying to overthrow Gorbachev and return the nation to hardline Communism.

The next three days changed the course of the Soviet Union and, with it, the world.

There are a few things that people who have been writing this week about the 20th anniversary of that failed coup have forgotten. One of them is that Moscow was almost devoid of journalists at the time. There had been a summit meeting earlier that month in Moscow between Gorbachev and then-president George H.W. Bush. The summit had taken a long time to arrange, and so few journalists based in Russia were allowed to take a summer vacation until the summit ended during the first week of August. After the summit, people bolted... and most weren't back in Russia when what's called "the putsch" in Russian started on August 19th.

Moreover, when the coup happened, there was a hurricane hitting the east coast of the United States. Flights were cancelled, meaning that news organizations either had to send in people from Europe, or wait for the storm to end. What it meant is that the skeleton staffs still in Moscow had to do their best to cover the events, working round-the-clock for three days until the coup collapsed. The situation felt overwhelming at times, as rumors circled that the plotters were about to attack the unarmed crowds outside the center of the resistance, the Russian "White House," at any minute.

Another thing that's been forgotten was the state of general paralysis that happened during those three long days. One of my jobs at NBC News was to try to get Soviet politicians to come in to give interviews about what was happening. But almost no one was willing. Everyone seemed to be waiting to see if the coup would succeed or fail before taking a stand or saying anything that might backfire later. It was a clear sign that the coup plotters had very limited support... as did Gorbachev.

I also remember the incredible organization at the White House. Camped out around the building, men had used their military experience to build barricades, organize multiple rings of defense, and build stocks of food and water. They had also devised plans for repelling a military attack on the building, which they thought could be coming at any moment. And yet despite the stress, the mood of the crowd was jubilant, because people were so proud that they were actually doing something to stand up to power. The crowd was incredibly diverse -- grandmothers sat with teenagers, sharing their food and their dreams in a brave act of non-violent protest.

But what stays with me the most about those days was the sense of empowerment and optimism that followed the end of the coup. In the weeks that followed, national pride was incredibly high. Everyday people thought that Russia and the other republics would grow to be great nations, with democracy and freedom for all. People looked toward the future with happy anticipation. The mood was manic, but joyful.

And that's why this anniversary is rather sad for me. Many of the Russians and other Soviet citizens I know feel disappointed in their countries today. They hate the ever-present corruption. They feel like their leaders are out of touch. And many of them are struggling to keep their heads above water as prices for just about everything keep rising dramatically. The oligarchs may feel optimistic, but not so the people I know in the middle class and below.

Of course, it takes more than 20 years to establish a truly healthy democracy, especially in countries like Russia that are large and complex. But I think that a lot of those Soviets who put their lives on the line 20 years ago today hoped that this far out from their struggle, more of the post-Soviet promise would be fulfilled.

Yes, from Tallinn to Tashkent, the stores are full, people are able to travel at will, and free enterprise has blossomed. But the feeling of optimism, the most precious thing of all, has been eaten away by heavy-handed political systems and economic challenges. And 20 years ago, I would have never predicted that.