By 1992 Russia was being given food aid by its former enemies: a degree of humiliation which people do not easily forget. There are many flaws in the Putin system. But it has restored Russian self respect, and laid the ground for future prosperity and reform.
My wife Jill and I were on holiday in Vologda when we heard from the BBC, early in the morning of Monday 19 August, that Gorbachev had been taken ill, and that a whole bunch of nice people were now running the country until he got better. Some people later claimed that they had foreseen the coup. They did not include Gorbachev himself, the British Joint Intelligence Committee, or me.
We returned immediately to Moscow. The only signs that anything odd was happening were the clumps of tanks guarding every bridge and important building. Jill went straight out to see things for herself and to talk to the people she met.
I sat in my office, trying to work out what was happening. As the day wore on, it became increasingly clear that there was something very odd about the coup. Its leaders seemed to lack guts. They had not arrested the Russian president, Yeltsin, who was defying them from his headquarters in the White House. They had failed to take full control of the television. Clandestine newspapers were denouncing them all over town. People were gathering on the streets. When they appeared on television to explain themselves, their performance was unconvincing, even pathetic. By evening I believed that the coup would probably fail. Even its success, I thought, would be short-lived. Gorbachev had embarked on his domestic reforms because the Soviet political and economic system was collapsing of its own weight. The coup leaders might arrest the decline for a few years, if necessary by reverting to harsh measures of repression. But it would not work. Sooner rather than later reform would have to be resumed. That is what I reported to my government that evening.
But the possibility of bloodshed remained. On the second evening a spokesman at the White House warned all the women and children to leave the area, because he expected an armed assault. Jill had a passionate, though not uncritical, affection for Russia and its people, and she believed it was time for her to stand up for her principles. When she heard that warning, she went straight to the barricades with her Russian friends, and they were on the Kutusovsky Bridge when three young men were killed in the shooting later that night. Ambassador’s wives are not meant to do that sort of thing. But I was very proud of her indeed.
That was the high point of the coup: in the next two days it fizzled out, the tanks were withdrawn, and Gorbachev returned to a country transformed, and now dominated by Yeltsin.
Looking back over twenty years, my judgements have changed little. I admire and honour Gorbachev for what he achieved. His failures were many, but no one man could have carried through the decades-long revolution which Russia needs. And all of us, Russians and foreigners alike, should be grateful that Gorbachev took the initiative in dismantling the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation which went with it.
But I also understood, then and now, why so many of its citizens felt that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe. By 1992 Russia was being given food aid by its former enemies: a degree of humiliation which people do not easily forget. There are many flaws in the Putin system. But it has restored Russian self respect, and laid the ground for future prosperity and reform. As the process goes forward, the rest of us are better employed in keeping our mouths shut, rather that offering advice which is sometimes arrogant and insulting, and often irrelevant or useless.