As the world watched hard-line Communists make their last-ditch effort 20 years ago to reclaim control of the fracturing Soviet Union, a young Rabbi Berel Lazar was due to return to Moscow. Lazar, a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who was then rabbi of the Russian capital’s Marina Roscha district, had been in New York attending to his wife and newborn baby. The August coup of 1991 – known popularly as the Putsch – began a day before their scheduled return.

“I got a call from Moscow in the middle of the night Aug. 18,” relates Lazar, today the Chief Rabbi of Russia. “Counselors at our summer camps outside the city were frantic, as everybody was in Moscow at that time. People everywhere were saying it was time to leave.

“They didn’t know whether to go or stay,” continues the rabbi. “They asked me if they should leave, while I was asking myself if I should go back.”

At a time when tanks rolled up to the Russian parliament building and Muscovites with means flooded airline terminals looking for ways out, Jewish institutions throughout the city – which had just started enjoying an era of social reforms instituted by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev – shut their doors. Plagued by visions of 1964, when hardliners abruptly ended the process of de-Stalinization championed under Nikita Khrushchev, and of the earlier October Revolution of 1917, people throughout the city feared the return of violent anti-religious crackdowns and political oppressions.

Lazar frantically wrote into the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and asked what to do. The Rebbe struck an optimistic note with Lazar, echoing messages he sent to Russians on the ground in Moscow. All would be alright, the Rebbe asserted. Jewish institutions should continue operating, summer camps should stay in session, and their American counselors should remain. To Lazar, the Rebbe said that he and his family should return to Russia as planned.

“There was shooting in Moscow, but in the Rebbe’s eyes, there was nothing to worry about,” says Lazar. “Everyone else was sure the coup was going to continue, but the Rebbe encouraged us.”

With Gorbachev holed up in a vacation home in the Crimea under the guard of KGB forces loyal to the coup’s plotters, hardliners declared a state of emergency on Aug. 19. They encountered unexpected resistance in the form of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who, standing atop a tank of a division that declared its loyalty to him, called on citizens to strike and repel the coup.

Gorbachev, who had nearly been forced to resign the presidency, reportedly threatened his political captors. But the tactic was a bluff, according to an interview he recently granted to The Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele.

“If there hadn’t been movement in Moscow, my position would have been left hanging in the air,” says Gorbachev.

Two days later, the plotters and their military forces launched an unsuccessful assault on Yeltsin’s compound at parliament. Three civilians died when they jointed the attempt to block an advancing infantry division inside of a tunnel.

Lazar was in the air at the time.

“Besides for myself, my wife and our two girls, there was just one other person on this flight into Moscow,” says the rabbi. “When we arrived, we of course were the only ones in the arrival hall. And in the departure area, there were thousands of people. Anybody who could get out were trying to flee.”

Russian Jewish children remained in summer camp as the coup raged in Moscow. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Russian Jewish children remained in summer camp as the coup raged in Moscow. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

Emboldened by the Rebbe’s assurances that the climate would improve and his insistence that Jewish life continue, many Jews in the Russian capital ultimately stayed. As it turned out, the coup ended as quickly as it began, and by Aug. 24, order had returned.

Lazar, who just weeks before participated in an unprecedented conference of European Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries in Moscow, today calls the outcome a miracle.

Historians may look at the events of 20 years ago as the turning point in the breakup of the Soviet Union, but for Lazar, the momentous nature of the Putsch lies in its failure to disrupt Jewish life. Despite their initial fear, countless individuals clutched at the Rebbe’s blessings and made a conscious choice to press on.

Lazar points to a wedding that had been scheduled in Moscow the night of his return. When the coup began, the bride and groom – who had just recently become religious – wanted to postpone the nuptials, but when word of the Rebbe’s position spread, they decided to continue.

“There must have been 200 people at that wedding!” exclaims Lazar.

The same spirit could be found in the summer camps, whose kids were just beginning to learn about Judaism, says the rabbi. Their parents had been raised during the darkest days of Communism and as such, had very few connections to Judaism, “but when they heard what the Rebbe said, they all left their kids in camp. The whole experience ended up changing many lives.”

Looking back at the Putsch, Lazar sees the events of 1991 as the final indication that not only would Jewish life continue in Russia, it would be able to thrive. Just several years prior, no one would have dreamed of a delegation of hundreds of bearded rabbis being welcomed at Moscow’s international airport with a broadcast in Russian, English and Hebrew, as what happened in late July 1991. But after the coup, people began to think in terms of expanding Jewish life throughout all of the former Soviet lands.

“People realized that things were not going to go back to the old days,” explains Lazar. “There would be no new repression of religion. The Communists were not coming back.”