Last days of the USSR

The coup began on a hot Sunday afternoon. Shortly before five o’clock on August 18 1991, five black Volga cars arrived at the gates of Foros, the holiday retreat of the president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Mikhail Gorbachev, on the Black Sea coast of Crimea. No one was expecting them, and the guards did not initially open the gates or remove the chains of tyre puncture spikes lying across the road.

Then General Yuri Plekhanov, the head of the ninth directorate of the KGB, stepped out of the first car. Plekhanov was in charge of protective services at the KGB and the direct boss of the guards surrounding Gorbachev. Instantly, the green metal gates, each emblazoned with a large red star, swung open. For the next few minutes, the cars wound through groves of cypress trees, towards the concrete block-like residence, codenamed “The Dawn Object”.

Gorbachev, as he later told investigating prosecutors, was not expecting the visitors: five high-ranking KGB, army and Communist party officials, plus their bodyguards. He picked up the phone to call his KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov. But the line had been cut. Then he called for the head of his own guards, General Vladimir Medvedev, who, in a black-humoured phrase in his memoir years later, said that he immediately recognised the situation as “a Khrushchev variant”. The former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was removed from power by a putsch while holidaying on the Black Sea in 1964.

During the next 73 hours, played out 20 years ago this weekend, two rival cadres at the top of the Soviet hierarchy fought to wrest control of history. The delegation that arrived at Foros had in fact been sent by Kryuchkov to recruit Gorbachev to the side of eight party bosses and generals who had formed a state emergency committee, known by its clumsy Russian initials “GKChP”, to take temporary control of the Soviet Union. They had made their move because two days later, on August 20, Gorbachev was due to sign a new union treaty that would transform the USSR into a confederation, which many feared would precipitate its disintegration into dozens of independent states. The GKChP’s objective was to persuade Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency, and delay the treaty.

Boris Yeltsin in front of the Russian parliament building

The putsch achieved the opposite effect, of course. Not only did the intervention of the generals fail to hold together the USSR, it ensured the rise of the reformer, Boris Yeltsin, the newly-elected president of the Russian Soviet Republic, to unrivalled dominance in the land. Communist hardliners everywhere were stripped of their legitimacy. In trying to save the union, the leaders of the coup drove a stake through its heart. Four months later, the USSR was no more.

But what exactly happened during those three tense August days remains surprisingly opaque, even today. Despite two decades of analysis – 140 volumes of documents, three investigations, nine trials, and at least a dozen published personal accounts – a full history of the GKChP has stubbornly refused to emerge.

Conspiracies, almost by definition, resist understanding. But many, like Watergate, eventually give themselves up and join the placid world of public fact. The compulsion of ageing men to confess their sins, the opening of secret archives and the arrival of new political regimes, have all taught us to think that the truth comes out in the end.

For those who seek this kind of resolution, the failure of the GKChP has long been characterised as a triumph for democracy over the forces of reaction, people over politburo. It was a pivotal episode in the extraordinary year of 1991, which academics and statesmen now speak of in the same breath as 1789 and 1917: a moment of inflection between the paradigms of totalitarian rule and liberal democracy. In this story, the Soviet coup provides a microcosm: the two systems collided, and one emerged victorious. As Yeltsin said afterwards: “One century ended, the century of fear, and another began.” The image of the ordeal remains Yeltsin standing on a tank, an elected leader facing down the gun.

The only problem with this reading of the putsch is that it doesn’t sit well with the facts. The more one delves into those three days, the more shadowy and shifting they become. The vital, decisive moments had very little to do with democracy, or the march of history; what counted in the crisis was the superior ability to mystify, mislead and manipulate. This was a clash of conspiracies, and the best conspiracy won.

Mikhail Gorbachev

In the chiaroscuro version, there is no greater riddle than the precise role of the two leading characters: Gorbachev and Yeltsin. In the case of Yeltsin, who seems to have been mysteriously informed, in real time, of the communications of various GKChP plotters, how much assistance did he receive from the CIA? As multiple accounts of the dramatic stand-off in Moscow later revealed, Yeltsin’s courage as he clambered up to confront the army was reinforced by the knowledge that nobody would shoot.

As for Gorbachev, was he really – as he has continuously insisted – under house arrest at Foros? Or, as a number of participants in the events allege, was his isolation self-imposed, allowing him to wait and see the outcome before denouncing the coup, which he did on August 21? “If we had won,” claims Vasily Starodubtsev, one of three of the original eight coup plotters alive today, “Gorbachev would simply have come back and sat on his throne, as the legitimate president.”

Today, Gorbachev is venerated as the reformer who broke the back of communism and bowed out of history with the fall of the USSR on Boxing Day 1991. But back in the summer of that year, his main political opponents were no longer the old party hardliners, who he had cultivated in his attempt to survive in power. Since June, his problem had been Yeltsin, elected that month as the new president of the Russian Soviet Republic. Yeltsin came to power with 57 per cent of the vote and carried the charisma of a true, popularly-elected reformer. As the signing of the new union treaty approached, Gorbachev’s attitude was difficult to read: if the Soviet Union collapsed, as the hardliners predicted, he, as its ultimate leader, would be out of a job. If he was looking for a reason not to go ahead, the GKChP appeared at the perfect time.

“We were the arms and hands of Gorbachev, who knew everything,” says Starodubtsev, the former plotter. There is a crease of certainty on his face. We are talking in his office at the state Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. In 1991, Starodubtsev was the leader of the 40-million-strong Peasants’ Union of the USSR. After a spell in prison following the coup, he was elected as a governor of the lush agricultural region of Tula, and is now a parliamentary deputy. White-haired, pushing 80 and hard of hearing, his motivations for joining the coup were not opportunistic; Starodubtsev is a true believer whose desk is overhung with Soviet flags and a portrait of Lenin.

Soviet tanks near Moscow’s central airfield on August 20

A two-hour interview reveals a man unrepentant, but far more interested in talking about the merits of collective farming than revisiting the painful episode. “We made so many mistakes. We did not use the media. We did not issue a call to the people to support us,” says Starodubtsev ruefully. The old conspirator blames “traitors” and the CIA for the failure of the GKChP, but to many the sheer amateurishness of the coup remains one of its most baffling aspects. The portrait that emerges from those days is not of a team of hard-nosed, experienced fanatics, but rather ill-prepared idealists way over their heads.

“It’s not as though we don’t have experience at coups and bloody mutinies – in fact, unfortunately, we are probably ahead of the rest of the planet on this score,” Gorbachev’s bodyguard, General Medvedev, wrote later in his autobiography. “They killed Leon Trotsky in a different hemisphere [Stalin’s political opponent was murdered in Mexico in 1940]. So why couldn’t they arrest Yeltsin, who was their neighbour?”

The questions begin with Gorbachev’s first meeting with the unexpected delegation that arrived that sweltering August afternoon. The official version is that Gorbachev was initially frightened, but, after he was assured that he would not be taken away, he became belligerent and refused to go along with their demands. “You are nothing but adventurists and traitors, and you will pay for this,” Gorbachev later quoted himself as saying.

Raisa Gorbacheva

Gorbachev’s family and aides have always insisted that his unwavering rejection of the plotters meant that he was then placed under house arrest, during which he feared for his life. After the GKChP flew to Moscow to seize power, Gorbachev and his wife Raisa, who died in 1999, were left under guard at Foros. When she was interviewed later by Leonid Proshkin, a senior investigator with the Soviet Prosecutor’s office investigating the coup, Mrs Gorbachev said that she suffered a minor heart attack during their imprisonment. “They were really living in distress,” said Proshkin, adding that the couple refused to eat much for fear of being poisoned.

Illness was the pretext for the crucial press conference the following afternoon, when – as the world watched – Gorbachev’s vice -president, Gennady Yanayev, one of the plotters, announced that he was taking over the leader’s functions. “Mikhail Sergeyevich is now on vacation,” said Yanayev, who could not stop his hands and voice from trembling. “He is undergoing treatment in the south of our country … it is our hope that as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev feels better, he will take up his office again.”

Other accounts of the meeting at Foros present a more nuanced picture. According to Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s former chief of staff and another plotter, who died in 2006, the Soviet leader was furious, but he was also willing to get rid of Yeltsin, at any price. “In the end Gorbachev finally said, ‘To hell with you, do what you want!’ And then gave us some advice about how to impose emergency rule.”

A number of questions surround Gorbachev’s isolation in Foros: did he try to leave, and did he try to make contact with the Russian people to explain his sudden absence? His governmental phone was cut off, but the phone in his car was still working, as was another in the guard house. In fact, there is evidence that Gorbachev called several people during his house arrest, including Nursultan Nazarbayev, the current president of Kazakhstan, who was the country’s Communist party leader in 1991; and Arkady Volsky, one of his advisers, according to Alexander Khinshtein, a parliamentary deputy and historian, in a 2006 account of the coup. “I’m not really sick!” Gorbachev reportedly told his aide, “I’m healthy!”

The precise attitude of Gorbachev’s 32 guards is another matter of debate. None of them was arrested after the coup, and Proshkin, the investigator, found that “they were not for, nor against” the GKChP, despite being threatened by their KGB commander, General Plekhanov. Witnesses contend that Gorbachev had the authority to leave if he wanted to, but Gorbachev denies this. He issued a written order demanding to travel to Moscow but says he received no reply. Three years later, the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court concluded Gorbachev had not been under house arrest because he had not attempted to leave.

In his autobiography, General Medvedev, the head of the bodyguards, went so far as to claim that Gorbachev had a Tupolev-134 aircraft at his disposal throughout his supposed incarceration. “If only Mikhail Gorbachev had wanted to change the situation!” scolded his former boss.

John Dunlop, an American historian and an authority on the 1991 coup, claims that Gorbachev’s inaction puzzled Alexander Yakovlev, one of the Soviet leader’s closest allies for years afterwards. “What I don’t understand is why Gorbachev didn’t just get up and leave,” he quotes Yakovlev saying on a visit to the US in 1996. “The guards would never have attempted to stop him.”

It is unlikely that we will ever know whether Gorbachev was genuinely afraid, or was simply waiting to join the winning side. So long as he remained plausibly incommunicado in Foros, he was in a perfect position: if the coup failed, he had been its victim; if it succeeded, he could take over as leader. “It appears that Gorbachev permitted the coup to go forward while declining to associate himself with it openly,” concluded Dunlop.

Gorbachev has denied these allegations for years, though he declined to be interviewed for this article. Pavel Palazhchenko, his spokesman, cautions against believing the accounts of the coup plotters, who have an interest in discrediting the former leader. In 2006, however, long-whispered questions about Gorbachev’s role burst into the open when he was accused by Yeltsin of being complicit in the coup. After 15 years of publicly backing Gorbachev’s story, an ailing Yeltsin told Russian television: “During the putsch he was informed about everything, and all the while was waiting to see who would win, us or them. In either case he would have joined the victors.”

In response, the Gorbachev Foundation, a think tank set up by the former Soviet leader to promote democracy in Russia, promptly accused Yeltsin of “blackening Gorbachev’s name” in an attempt to deflect attention from his own role in the fall of the USSR. But the spat was never resolved. Yeltsin died soon after the piece was aired.

The rest of the USSR would only learn of the GKChP the day after its quiet arrival at Foros. The Monday morning sun rose on a column of tanks rumbling down Kutuzovsky Prospekt, a broad avenue that leads towards Moscow’s city centre. After broadcasting the committee’s aims at 7am, state radio and TV played endless loops of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

Barricades in Moscow

Without Gorbachev’s explicit support, however, the coup had only military force, which was its undoing. Field Marshal Dmitry Yazov, the defence minister and conspirator who sent in the tanks, later admitted a catalogue of mistakes. “The GKChP was complete improvisation. There were no plans. No one planned to arrest Yeltsin or storm the ‘White House’ [Moscow’s Supreme Soviet building]. We thought the people would understand us and support us. But they all hurled abuse at us for sending tanks into downtown Moscow,” he told an interviewer in 1997.

For a start, there was no way the coup plotters could truly rely on the security forces. The Soviet military’s political loyalties were badly frayed after a series of bloody confrontations against civilian protesters in the previous two years. In 1989, paratroopers had attacked a demonstration in Tbilisi, Georgia, resulting in 20 deaths. In January 1991, 14 civilians died when KGB “Alpha Group” counter-terrorism officers stormed the Lithuanian parliament and TV centre, which had been taken over by protesters. After both of these atrocities, the politicians in charge had laid the blame squarely on military commanders.

This left the army, and even the KGB, with little appetite to get involved in politics, especially in the middle of Moscow. It also left the door open for Yeltsin, the former Communist party chief in the city, who by the summer of 1991 had stolen Gorbachev’s mantle as the USSR’s lead reformer and was busy trying to win parts of the Soviet establishment over to his side. Outspoken and open to the entreaties of the west, Yeltsin embodied the hopes of liberal young Russians who longed to end their country’s global isolation. Every day that summer, his power grew – as long as he could stay in office.

Yeltsin was alive to the dangers he faced. A few weeks before the coup, he approached Pavel Grachev, the commander of the Soviet parachute forces, and asked if his men could be relied upon in case of a putsch. Yeltsin loyalists were also assigned to stay in constant contact with General Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, who was in charge of the air force. Both men proved to be crucial allies.

Boris Yeltsin speaks on top of a tank outside Moscow’s parliament building on August 19. He urged Russians to resist the communist hardliners

Yeltsin arrived in Moscow on the morning of August 19. He had been driven in from his dacha, past a KGB team that had been deployed in the forest to arrest him, but had chosen not to. Towards the end of the afternoon, 24 hours after the cars drew up at Foros, he walked out of the Supreme Soviet building, Moscow’s White House, and climbed on top of a tank that had defected to his side. Addressing the crowd that had come to erect barricades against the GKChP, he said: “I call on all Russians to give a dignified answer to the putschists and demand that the country be returned to normal constitutional order.”

Yeltsin’s appearance, which was shown on state television, turned the coup on its head. Foreign television crews, given the freedom of Moscow, filmed tens of thousands of ordinary Russians who had come out to make sure the country did not slide back into the past. People around the world saw tanks with the tricolour of democratic Russia waving from their turrets.

For all his contacts in the military, over the next 48 hours, Yeltsin seemed to possess an uncanny sense of what the GKChP was going to do next. Three years later, the US journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that America’s intelligence agencies were among his informers. Writing in Atlantic Monthly, Hersh reported that President George HW Bush overruled the advice of the National Security Agency to make sure that Yeltsin knew what the coup plotters were telling their commanders.

“We told Yeltsin in real time what the communications were,” an anonymous US official told Hersh in 1994. Two people from Yeltsin’s entourage at that time declined to confirm this information to the FT, although Yeltsin himself admitted that American diplomats visited him during the two-day siege of the White House. In his autobiography, Yeltsin says that at one point he even considered escaping to the US embassy, although he decided not to, because “people in our country don’t like it when foreigners take too active a role in our affairs”.

After the drama of Monday August 19, Tuesday in Moscow was a day of uneasy stalemate, as protesters manned the barricades and the coup leaders weighed the risk of an all-out military assault. But as night fell, Yeltsin displayed an extraordinary sang-froid. “All sources were reporting that the GKChP had decided to go ahead with the storming of the White House,” he wrote later. According to his press secretary, Pavel Voshchanov, however, Yeltsin spent the night drinking and feasting in the basement. There is no proof that US communication intercepts were the explanation for Yeltsin’s confidence, but he seemed to be optimistic for some reason. “Yeltsin knew that there would be no storming,” claimed General Medvedev, Gorbachev’s guard, in his autobiography, without revealing how Yeltsin supposedly knew this.

Russians gather in Moscow’s Red Square on August 21 to celebrate the failure of the coup

By the early hours of August 21, the only unit the GKChP felt it could rely on was the KGB’s Alpha Group, and it was ordered to attack the White House. But remembering the way they had been set up in Lithuania earlier that year, the commandos chose not to carry out their orders, and as dawn rose, it was clear that the plotters had lost their way. Yazov, the defence minister, ordered the tanks out of Moscow, setting the stage for the denouement the following day, in which Gorbachev emerged from captivity to publicly upbraid the GKChP leaders. In one final, unclear twist, the plotters had gone to join him at Foros after the putsch unraveled. Together, doomed conspirators and triumphant leader boarded the flight back to Moscow, bound for their respective places in the history books.

In its complexity and unknowability – the blend of the sudden and the stage-managed – the August coup was, in many ways, a precursor to the politics of post-communist Russia. Yeltsin’s populist democracy soon gave way to a hardened paternalistic state: two years later, he sent in the tanks against the very parliament he sought to defend in 1991.

Twenty years hence, conspiracy has largely taken the place of politics in Russia: from the rise of Vladimir Putin in 1999 alongside a well-timed military campaign in Chechnya; to the current guessing game between Putin and his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev over the presidential succession. The Kremlin, with its brooding spires, remains the mystery at the centre of Russian life.

Charles Clover is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief. To comment on this article, please e-mail

View Quentin Peel’s audio slideshow on Russia’s failed 1991 coup

How events unfolded

August 18

Gorbachev tries to call Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, for help. But Kryuchkov is leading the coup

August 19

7am: Russian state radio and television broadcast the demands of the GKChP and tanks roll into Moscow

August 19

Raisa Gorbachev, the leader’s wife, claims to have suffered a heart attack during her imprisonment at Foros

August 19

5pm: Gorbachev’s vice president, Gennady Yanayev, announces on television that Gorbachev is ill

August 20

Ordinary Russians man the barricades outside Moscow’s “White House”, with Yeltsin inside

August 20

Gorbachev waits. “He knew everything,” says Vasily Starodubtsev, one of the plotters

August 21

3am: the KGB’s “Alpha Group” is ordered to storm the White House. But it disobeys, and the coup unravels

August 22

Gorbachev emerges from Foros to confront and condemn the GKChP. The plotters are arrested

December 25

Gorbachev resigns as president. The USSR is formally dissolved the next day

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