August 1991: The Coup Plotters Wanted to Weaken Gorbachev but Empowered Yeltsin

It was true that several tens of thousands of Muscovites were at the White House to show solidarity with Yeltsin and defend it. But this was a tiny proportion of the capital’s population. If everyone else was going about their normal business without protest, could the coup have succeeded?

I still remember the trip to Foros on August 21, 1991 as though it happened yesterday. Sitting in the back of the TU-134 that was taking Alexander Rutskoi, Russia’s Vice-President, and Ivan Silayev, Russia’s Prime Minister, to the Crimea to try to rescue Mikhail Gorbachev, I was the only English-speaking reporter on the flight.

We had no idea where we would land. The coup plotters had taken control of Balbek, the military airport in the Crimea usually used by government aircraft. With us in the plane were three dozen heavily-armed airborne troops from Ryazan, just in case it was necessary to storm the airport control tower or indeed the villa where Gorbachev was under house arrest.

A few hours earlier Yeltsin had told the Russian parliament, which was in permanent session in the White House, that he was planning to send a delegation to the Crimea in response to an invitation from Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, to see that Gorbachev was ill. He also announced a little later that some of the plotters had been seen leaving central Moscow for Vnukovo. It was unclear where they were going. Was it to escape from the Soviet Union? Was it to go to Foros to poison, incapacitate, or even kill the Soviet president?

Yeltsin asked the deputies if he had their authorization to arrest them. A huge shout of “Da” went up. I decided to rush to Vnukovo in the hope of witnessing the arrest. At the Vnukovo VIP terminal all was quiet. The gates were closed but an Aeroflot official told me no cars had arrived for some hours. A GAI officer arrived and gave me a completely different story. He said a group of ZILs had arrived about an hour earlier and were now parked on the far side of the terminal. Their occupants had flown off somewhere.

I did not know which of the two to believe, but after waiting about half an hour, I decided to return to central Moscow. I was the only Guardian reporter in town and could not spend the day at Vnukovo on the vague chance of seeing coup plotters being arrested.

On the way back to Moscow about two kilometres from Vnukovo I saw a convoy of black Volgas driving from the city towards the airport. I made a U-turn and followed close behind them. The motorcade drove to the normal passenger side of the airport and right on to the tarmac. Silayev and Rutksoi emerged from the cars. I realised I was not going to see coup plotters being arrested but I had a better option, - to get to Foros and see what condition Gorbachev was in. I raced up the aircraft steps. The only other journalists who followed me on to the flight were two European reporters and a team from Russian TV.

Shortly before reaching the Crimea two hours later we learnt that Balbek was back in safe hands. Gorbachev was somehow in charge again, though exactly how and why was not yet clear to us. But he had given orders for the authorities at Balbek to allow the TU-134 with Rutskoi and Silayev on board to land. The Ryazan troops were no longer needed and they stayed at the airport. We piled into cars and minivans for the 30-minute drive to the presidential villa through olive groves and peach orchards on the slopes above the Black Sea.

On the ground floor of the villa we saw Gorbachev’s daughter, Irina, in a blue-jeans skirt standing in the reception area apparently in a state of shock. She barely turned her head or made eye contact as our group went upstairs. The Soviet president was in his study. He looked elated and euphoric and talked even more volubly than usual.

While the coup was still going on some Russians had claimed Gorbachev was part of the conspiracy. According to their theory, he had remained in Foros to see how things turned out. If the coup succeeded, he would return to Moscow on a red horse to take charge again. If it failed, he would come back on a white horse and thank Yeltsin for co-ordinating the resistance.

Speaking to us in Foros, Gorbachev vigorously denied the accusation. It was impossible to disbelieve him. Gorbachev is no actor and his emotions are always clearly depicted on his face. I had never seen him so delighted and relieved. Here was a man who had obviously just been liberated from a terrible ordeal.

He explained to us how he had resisted demands from the plotters when they appeared uninvited at the villa on Sunday August 18. They wanted him to sign a document declaring he was ill and needed to hand his powers to Soviet Vice-president Gennady Yanayev. By then Gorbachev had tried to use his phone and discovered all his communications were cut. In words that I recorded on my tape recorder he told us he had warned the plotters that he would “finish myself off’ if they got him to sign anything. Whether this suicide threat was just a bluff was of course never put to the test.

The plotters went back to Moscow after telling Gorbachev that his communications would remain cut and he would have to remain in Foros. His villa was surrounded by five rings of troops though within its confines he, his wife and family could live normally. The president continued to insist on having his links to the outside world restored, and he asked the guards to transmit these demands to Moscow.

He issued a new threat. If his demands were refused, he would take extreme measures. In an exclusive interview on the eve of this year’s twentieth anniversary of the coup Gorbachev told me a few days ago that this threat was merely “part of my manoeuvring”. The only measures he could realistically take were political and diplomatic.

On that Wednesday, August 21 1991, Gorbachev was anxious to return to Moscow. After talking for twenty minutes to the group which had helped to liberate him, he went out of the villa to the vehicles and drove back to Balbek with Rutskoi, Silayev and his family.

Transport was in short supply and it took us half an hour to find a minivan to take us to the airport. By the time we got there the VIPs had left in the TU-134. Rutskoi had advised the president not to use his own aircraft, Sovietsky Soyuz, an Il-62, just in case the plotters were still in a position to order air force planes to shoot it down. It was left to the small group of reporters and several minor officials to fly back to Moscow in the official presidential plane. It was more luxurious and more vulnerable.

One minor aspect of the trip - though it felt very major at the time - was that neither I nor the other two foreign reporters could ring our offices to tell them that Gorbachev was free. It was the era before mobile phones. The land-line phones at Foros and Balbek were all connected to the Kremlin switchboard and when we picked them up to try to place a call the operators heard our foreign accents and refused to connect us. So there we were, in possession of exclusive and massively significant news that the coup had collapsed, but we could not tell the world. You can imagine our frustration. It was not until we returned to our offices in Moscow that we could give the news. By that time Gorbachev had already been filmed stepping out of the plane at Vnukovo, and the news of his liberation was “old”.

The drama of the coup’s collapse on its third day could not have been predicted. Indeed, there were times on the second day when I wondered whether it might even have succeeded.

On Monday afternoon Yeltsin had called on Russians to go on a general strike. The news was broadcast on Russian radio as well as on foreign stations like the BBC to which people had access. Early on Tuesday I went to the huge Zil truck and car plant as well as to a smaller machine-tool plant called Ordhzonikidze. They were both close to our apartment on Serpukhovsky Val. Workers were coming in and out and there was no strike.

I asked one worker going into the Ordzhonikidze plant whether he had heard of Yeltsin’s call for a strike. Yes, he said. Were and his workmates thinking of doing what Yeltsin wanted them to do? “It depends”, he said, playing for time. “On what?”, I persisted. “On whether the director asks us to”, came the reply. A strange strike, I thought, when workers first ask the boss if they are allowed to. And where was their resistance to the coup?

My curiosity was still aroused. From a wall-phone at the plant entrance I managed to get through to the director. I asked him the same set of questions that I had asked the worker. The director said he was not going to order his staff to put their tools down. The country needed stability, he argued. It was important for everyone to keep working.

There were other signs of passivity. I had rung various Russian friends in Moscow on Monday evening. Some had gone to the White House to build barricades to protect it, but others were in despair, a few even in tears. They felt the coup would succeed. They said they remembered how hardline colleagues in the Politburo had removed Khrushchev and brought the era of de-Stalinisation to an end in 1964. Now the same was happening to Gorbachev.

It was true that several tens of thousands of Muscovites were at the White House to show solidarity with Yeltsin and defend it. But this was a tiny proportion of the capital’s population. If everyone else was going about their normal business without protest, could the coup have succeeded?

The coup plotters made two major mistakes. One was not to arrest Yeltsin at his dacha at Arkhangelksoye before he went to the White House. The other was to bring troops into central Moscow and threaten to storm the White House. This forced senior army and air force commanders to take sides and decide whether their loyalties were to the coup or to the new forces in Russia around Yeltsin. When these senior men mutinied and refused to obey Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov’s orders, the coup was doomed.

Gorbachev always argued that the coup was always doomed. Perestroika had gone so far that no coup could reverse it, he claimed, even if it had been more intelligently and professionally planned and implemented rather than done in the clumsy improvised manner that Kryuchkov and his fellow-conspirators adopted.

Gorbachev is probably right in his analysis. If the plotters had arrested Yeltsin as well as the Soviet president, they might have been able to hold out longer, perhaps for several weeks, but time was not on their side. Too many people in the Russian elite had their eyes on a more independent system in which the old Soviet institutions would be reduced in power, if not abolished altogether (as actually happened in December 1991). Similarly, too many people - including many in the KGB and other key parts of the old nomenklatura - wanted to move the economy away from state control and ownership to a system in which they could enrich themselves quickly.

The coup was designed to stop the signing of a new Union treaty on August 20, 1991 which would have created a much looser Soviet federation with a weaker centre. In one sense the coup succeeded. The treaty was never signed. But what happened was far worse than anything the plotters wanted.

By threatening to impose force from the Kremlin, the plotters accelerated the centrifugal tendencies, in particular in Ukraine and the Caucasus. (The Baltic republics had already declared independence from the Soviet Union). They also vastly strengthened Yeltsin’s power and prestige.

Yeltsin himself had no understanding of economics, but it was clear to almost everyone that the old centrally-organised system was no longer delivering goods in the quantity and quality that people were willing to accept. The “market Bolsheviks” who had become Yeltsin’s main economic advisers had the field to themselves and they wanted to destroy the old economic system with an immediate liberalisation of prices. A more gradual social-democratic transition from central planning was not on the agenda.

Unwittingly, the coup plotters had achieved the opposite of what they originally intended. By weakening Gorbachev they empowered Yeltsin. Squeezed from the right as well as the left, the Soviet president returned from Foros to a country where the balance of forces had totally changed.

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