Sometimes you end up on the wrong side of a gun, and you’re not really sure how you got there. While most college graduates think about what they are going to do for the next sixty years of their lives, I was standing on a Soviet tank in the center of Moscow trying to figure out how to survive my next sixty seconds. Somewhere between graduation and my first real job, I ended up impersonating a photojournalist while the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt unfolded around me. With just a camera in hand to defend myself against what seemed like most of the Soviet army, I knew I was putting my life at risk. But this was history!

I looked around, mumbling to myself. That’s it. Yes, there you go…good. Come on out, come on. There you go. A bit more. Come on, show your face so I can take the picture! No…no…don’t look that way—look towards me! That’s it! The smug-looking soldier peered out from the hatch of his tank and glanced at me. I pressed down and took the shot. Unbelievable! I was only three weeks into my journey abroad and my mind was reeling. How could I have known that a side trip to Moscow, away from my tour group in Leningrad, would alter my view of the world? Could this actually be the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union?

Dozens of camouflage-green, idling tanks and countless somber-looking soldiers gathered near the Arbat, a tourist hotspot full of small shops and vendors. Russian citizens milled about, talking to the soldiers, most as surprised to see the tanks as I. From windows high above the street, neatly dressed businessmen in modern office buildings observed the commotion on the thoroughfare. I had put myself in a precarious spot.

Running on adrenaline, I was taking risks I had never dreamed of, and relished every moment. I shifted my feet on the tank to improve my balance. As a former gymnast, muscular and short, I had a low center of gravity, but falling from here would be less than pleasant. Adjusting my oversized, brown plastic glasses to a more comfortable spot on my sloping nose, I peered through the camera lens and snapped photos. Soldiers cleaned their rifles, commanders barked orders, and everyone hustled to their next task. I was concerned that the situation might spiral out of control, but being in the center of the action, I couldn’t make myself leave.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a soldier rush up out of a hatch about ten tanks in front of mine. He was tall with blonde hair, had broad shoulders, and was squinting around for something. I lowered my camera and our eyes met. I looked away, nervous and knowing that I had no explanation for why an awestruck, twenty-two-year-old American with a full head of bushy brown hair was standing on one of the Soviet army’s tanks a few miles from Red Square.

A woman began screaming in Russian. Her shrill voice caught my attention. She was yelling wildly, waving her arms, hollering at me to get down. Soon, more middle-aged onlookers joined her, all trying to warn me. They looked legitimately concerned. Peripherally, I noticed more movement. Crap. The strapping soldier began running towards me, jumping from tank to tank. He seemed to have orders—and it appeared I was his target. Suddenly, the tank I stood on jolted to life. What was happening?

Exhaust fumes filled the air. Tank hatches dropped shut. The approaching soldier yelled something unintelligible, but the scowl on his face spoke volumes.

I grew disoriented in the plumes of smoke, and panicked.