On September 11, 1991, then-Wharton and College junior Vladimir Bernstein recounted to the Daily Pennsylvanian what it was like standing amid tanks in front of the Russian parliament protesting a coup.
In mid-August 1991, die-hard communists attempted to oust liberal Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and trigger a return to a strictly communist economy and Soviet isolationism. They placed Gorbachev under house arrest and tanks moved into Moscow.
A native muscovite, Bernstein rushed to Moscow with his friends — they were on vacation in Kiev on August 19 — after hearing about the coup from his father and on Radio Liberty, a U.S.-funded radio program out of West Germany. The Soviet TV stations were blank or showing Swan Lake instead of morning news shows. Bernstein and his friends joined hundreds of protestors amid tanks in front the Russian parliament.
“We felt we had to be there in case they started moving. Tanks were standing their positions with the engines off. They were ready to go anytime,” Bernstein told Daily Pennsylvanian reporter Gayle Meyers.
The tanks did not attack. Instead, in a now famous move, Russian President Boris Yeltsin climbed atop a tank and denounced the coup. Three days later, the coup failed and the tanks left.
Had the coup succeeded and triggered a return to hard-line communism, it would have put an end to Soviet students’ careers at Penn. In the wake of perestroika — a policy of “openness,” which encouraged a warming of relations between the Soviets and the West — Soviet students had been allowed to study abroad. Bernstein was one of the first Soviet students at Penn. If the communist conspirators had succeeded, in all probability students would not have been allowed to return to the United States.
“I thought, ‘This is the end of perestroika, the end of democracy and the end of my studies at Penn,’” Bernstein said.
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