'It's an anniversary,' I prompted. 'Ah yes,' said Alexei, a young rock fan, 'four years since the funeral of Viktor Tsoi.' He was referring to the ethnic Korean lead singer of the band Kino who died in a car crash in August 1990. 'No, it's another anniversary,' I said. 'Ah yes,' cried Anna, a pensioner. 'Three years since the coup.' At last I was getting somewhere, I thought. 'What a tragedy that so many people got killed,' she added. I realised she was confused and was thinking about parliament's uprising against President Boris Yeltsin in October 1993, when about 140 people died.
Only Alexander remembered that three years ago yesterday, an Emergency Committee of top Communists sent tanks on to the streets of Moscow in an attempt to roll back Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms and reimpose Soviet order. Alexander was not a Muscovite but a Bulgarian. For East Europeans like him and for people in the West, the coup was a serious matter. They believed they were returning to the Cold War.
But most Russians sat on the fence, waiting to see whether victory would go to the conspirators or to Mr Yeltsin, who with a few thousand followers resisted them on the barricades around the White House. Now, if Russians think about the coup, many recall a grubby little power struggle, not a fight about freedom.
There are some exceptions. Nina Veniaminovna, a nurse, has no doubt that if the Emergency Committee, which included the vice-president, defence minister and head of the KGB, had succeeded, then the Soviet Union would again have become a totalitarian state. 'We would have been back to the 1930s, barbed wire everywhere,' she said.
Ms Veniaminovna believes the three young men who lost their lives trying to hold back the tanks near the White House were heroes. Very unfashionably these days, she thinks the disintegration of the Soviet Union was no bad thing. 'It had to happen. The empire was too big. Nobody was to blame. Not Gorbachev, not Yeltsin, not the coup plotters. The system itself was unviable.' Ms Veniaminovna had better stay away from the various neo-Communist and Russian nationalist rallies planned for this weekend, that far outnumber pro-Yeltsin memorial events.
Today's opposition groups, supported by those who are nostalgic for empire or pinched by Mr Yeltsin's economic reforms, blame Mr Gorbachev for ruining the Soviet Union. They think the coup was a valiant bid to save the superpower. They may not have thought so at the time.
Vasily, Igor and Kamil, three labourers digging a trench, said they had supported Mr Yeltsin in 1991 but hardship had changed their minds. 'I can't feed my kids,' grumbled Igor. Kamil, a Central Asian, said: 'The Moscow police are always checking my papers. Before we lived in one country.'
The opposition has been boosted by this month's acquittal of General Valentin Varennikov, the only 1991 coup plotter to refuse an amnesty and see his trial through to the end. The judges found it technically impossible to convict him of treason on the basis of Soviet-era laws. The opposition take this to mean the coup was justified.
With history being rewritten in Russia, what should people in the West think of the events of three years ago?
It would help if we knew what to think of our erstwhile hero, Mr Gorbachev. When General Varen nikov was acquitted, Mr Gorbachev said the verdict was a blow to democracy. But the court noted that Mr Gorbachev, who was supposedly trapped in his dacha in Crimea, had not made effort to resist the putsch. The implication was that the father of perestroika had become frightened of his own reforms and secretly approved the crackdown.Reuse content