We were aboard the Fyodor Dostoevsky, in port on the Moscow River, just after returning from an early morning visit to Red Square, where we had been puzzled by why it was completely devoid of visitors. Our guide, Natasha, had queried a lone soldier who said it had been cleared for a movie production. As we were returning to our ship, however, we passed three incoming tanks. Others of our group had seen many more rolling in along other routes. We were put on guard!
Suddenly, our ship was all abuzz as a printed bulletin from Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin was read. A Communist coup d’état was underway, tanks were streaming into Moscow and surrounding the White House. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was under arrest and President Yeltsin, was calling for a national strike. Unknown to us, central television and radio had already been overtaken at 6:00 am, by a self-appointed State Emergency Committee of eight high-ranking Soviet officials, led by KGB Chief Kryuchkov who announced they were taking “supreme power” for themselves.
The Emergency Committee assumed they could use television as was done back in 1985, but had underestimated the influence of glasnost, the policy and slogan for “openness and transparency” proclaimed by Gorbachev in 1986.1 But by 1991 a diversity of ideas, aired on radio and television, was welcomed. On board ship now, we discussed what we should do. Of the 60 Americans and 150 Russians on board, a few decided to leave for the U.S. Embassy and others to new KGB assignments. Ruth and I wrote postcards home. We were staying! It was Monday, August 19, 1991, the Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration.
Tuesday, we left port to begin our 1000-mile journey to explore and support “Christianity & Ecology in Russia.”Some of us who had returned to the Square to take pictures said the assault was taking place at the nearby Russian Parliament — the Russian White House —- near Red Square. They saw people, moving among the tanks, giving New Testaments to all the soldiers, who were climbing down to converse with Bible-giving fellow citizens who were clearly heeding their calling: “Idite po vsemu miru i propoveduyte Yevangeliye vsey tvari.” “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15 RUSV).
Unknown to us, the U. S. Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, was also in Moscow, planning to introduce Mikhail Gorbachev at a meeting of the Library Association. But early Monday he received a call that Gorbachev was ill. “As I left the hotel for my scheduled meetings;” said Billington, “I saw tanks taking up positions outside the Russian parliament, the White House. By the time I returned to my hotel in the afternoon, I heard that among the more surprising indications that not only the Russian people, but the Russian church was turning a corner was the appeal made by Patriarch Aleksi at a time Reformers inside the Russian parliament also sent out teams to talk to the soldiers.” And “The next morning, not knowing if bloodshed and repression would follow, I saw flowers decorating the tanks and watched old women urging the soldiers not to fire at Russian civilians.”2
In a retrospective essay in Theology Today he wrote: “What I want to tell about is the totally ‘unexpected joy’ that I myself had, the unforgettable and humbling experience of sharing during the forty-eight hours in Moscow between the dawn of August 19 and the dawn of August 21,199.” “Nothing could have seemed more unlikely than that a mere 150 armed people, holed up in a single building at the very heart of the world’s vastest and most long-lived land empire, could face down the largest armed force of the modern era. The word used by almost everyone in the motley crowd of resisters around the White House at dawn of the third day to describe their unexpected victory was chudo, a miracle.3
Thus, the distinguished Librarian of Congress and eminent Russian historian, came to be prepared to give a firsthand account of those few dramatic days in his book, Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, Moscow, August 1991.4 Wednesday, on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, the late-night ABC TV news program, he stood “overlooking the scene of the new tri-colored Russian flags fluttering atop some of the retreating tanks.” The coup had failed, and “the sky of Moscow was ablaze with fireworks.”
Four months thereafter, the Soviet Union collapsed, as former republics declared their independence. Billington had beheld about 10 young priests who gave practically nonstop counseling, baptisms, hymn singing, and communion services to the soldiers. And he saw the distribution of 2000 New Testaments to the young would-be attackers and another 2000 to the defenders by the founder of the Russian Bible Society, Father Alexander Borisov, and colleagues. Distinctions between the two groups blurred because of deeper currents that began to run through their souls.
It was a bit eerie to begin our journey at such a time. But it placed the coup in ecological context. A thousand miles of river and wetlands disclosed only two ducks, no herons, no cranes, nor any other wetland birds. In towns and cities were a few House Sparrows, but no doves, no songbirds. Church walls were perforated with bullet holes; weeds and shrubs sprouted from roofs and eaves. Crossing Lake Ladoga, we passed a church steeple projecting above the water, and consulting the captain, I saw his map of the inundated churches he had to avoid.
We sailed …. visiting churches… helping to clean things up…. enjoyed concerts from our Russian musician friends… enjoyed milk products in every form imaginable …and engaged each other in lectures and discussions. A gripping lecture, by Russian physicist, Irena Erevula, told about her homeland and the Volga: “It had an abundance of good fish. Nets once were placed in the tributaries, but not in the river itself, for the purpose of catching fish for human use. Springs flowed into the river; there were trout and sturgeon. The Volga River was itself a teacher of the people; it taught them about water, about enterprise, and about spirit. It taught them the habit of communal acting; it made the people think of themselves as members of community. It was a teaching in which the church played a very important role.
“Only 70 years ago Russia had 110,000 noble estates; of these, 80,000 were in the Volga River basin. There were parks, gardens, orchards, with an emphasis on husbandry. One image of this time is the painting, “Young Girl on the Volga River.” There were 80,000 churches in Russia, with 60,000 of these in the Volga basin. There also were 12,000 monasteries and convents. The meadows were full with cattle. The best cheese was produced in Uglich and Yaroslav. There were Romano sheep in Yaroslav.
“Construction of a cascade of hydropower stations along the Volga River flooded 250 villages, 126,000 yards, 90 cities and settlements, and more than 200 industries. Also flooded were 380 km of railways and 16000 Km of highways. More than 700,000 people had to move due to this flooding with consequent suffering and privation. During the night, we passed the old city of Kalyazin from the 15th Century. It contained the Kalyazin monastery. In 1939 it was destroyed and flooded. Only the St. Nicholas church steeple is left standing in water like a candlestick. Two hundred villages were moved. The flooding also covered the forests which now rot beneath us.
“On the Cosmos grounds we saw Yuri Gagarin. He told us that planet Earth is very small. It is important to protect it from Chernobyl. Chernobyl produces daily destruction; it is eroding our souls. It is most terrible for our culture.”5
Our ship had left Moscow flying the Soviet red flag with its hammer and sickle. At journey’s end we sailed to what we expected to be Leningrad, but now with its name restored to St. Petersburg. And our ship, the Dostoevsky, was flying the national tri-colored flag of Russia! As an eyewitness to all of this, I was wonderfully refreshed in understanding the full meaning of the Great Commission (Mark 16:15): “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” Yes, the Good News is for us indeed. And, because of our faithfulness to Christ, the heart of creation, it also is Good News for every creature. Below is the prayer prayed by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church during that time -a prayer that is appropriate for our time.
May God protect you from the terrible sin of fracticide.
I solemnly warn all my fellow-citizens: The Church does not condone and cannot condone unlawful and violent acts and the shedding of blood. I ask all of you, my dear ones, to do everything possible to prevent the flame of civil war from bursting forth.
Cease at once! I ask soldiers and their officers to remember that no one can set a price on human life and pay it. I ask the Most Holy Mother of God, the Protector of our city, at this time of the Feast of the Transfiguration, not to withdraw Her protection.
Aleksy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia
Moscow, 21 August, 1991. 1:30 a.m.
- Victoria E. Bonnell and Gregory Freidin, “Televorot: The Role of Television Coverage in Russia’s August 1991 Coup,” Slavic Review 52, no. 4 (1993): 810-83, 812.
- James H. Billington and Roger Adelson, “Interview,” The Historian 64, no. 1 (2001): 1-17.
- James H. Billington, “The Church in the World: Unexpected Joy,” Theology Today 52, no. 3 (1995): 382-391, 383.
- James H. Billington, Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, Moscow, August 1991 (New York: Free Press, 1992).
- Transcribed directly from the presentation of Irene Erevula by Calvin B. DeWitt aboard the ship Fyodor Dostoevsky, on the Volga River, Russia, U.S.S.R., August 25, 1991.