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Gorbachev & the Coup: An Exchange

In response to:

'The Gorbachev Factor': An Exchange from the March 27, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

Too many writers on the August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union are unable to distinguish the wood from the trees. Amy Knight [NYR, March 27] is among them. It makes no sense to suggest either that Gorbachev was a party to the coup attempt or that he was “hedging his bets.”

Why does Amy Knight prefer the evidence of the military friends of the coup plotter Valentin Varennikov to that of Anatoly Chernyayev who happened to be with Gorbachev when the putsch began on August 18? Chernyayev is a man of proven integrity who, in his diary-based memoirs, is far from uncritical of Gorbachev. Indeed, he wrote a letter of resignation from his post as Gorbachev aide when Soviet troops were responsible for the deaths of fourteen people in Vilnius in January 1991, but eventually decided that this was not the time for all liberals to desert Gorbachev.

Perhaps Amy Knight is as capable of misjudging Chernyayev’s character as she is of misunderstanding Gorbachev’s. But no one who knows Chernyayev could believe that he would wish to weave a web of deception in order to protect a Gorbachev who was conspiring with people to whom he (Chernyayev) was vehemently opposed in order to wipe out all of the positive political achievements of the previous six years.

The idea that Gorbachev would wish to do so is no less ludicrous, but Ms. Knight appears to think that Gorbachev is stupid as well as treacherous and so capable (a) of believing that people who had to resort to such desperate measures to save the Soviet Union from the effects of his reforms would then wish to keep him in office (although that is what they told him in their vain attempt to give the putsch a veneer of constitutionality) and (b) of deciding that the best way of holding on to power was to doublecross both his liberal allies and the putschists.

There is ample evidence from the putschists themselves to confirm Gorbachev’s own account that he sent them packing when they arrived in Foros and attempted to pressurize him into endorsing their emergency rule. Why he should have done this if he were a party to the coup is inexplicable. It meant antagonizing still further the people who, in Ms. Knight’s account, were to be his allies.

And if Gorbachev had been intent on imposing emergency rule, why should he have gone about it in such a madcap way? Amy Knight’s answer is that Gorbachev did not know that the August coup would “end up a fiasco.” Yet Ms. Knight also tells us that the coup failed because the putschists “had no alternative plan for instituting the state of emergency without [Gorbachev].” But it was Gorbachev himself who ensured that the venture would be a fiasco by refusing to cooperate with Baklanov, Boldin, Varennikov, and company when they arrived at Foros on August 18. It was not a matter of changing his position once it became apparent that there would be resistance in Moscow. He took a principled stand against the coup before he knew how Muscovites would react, since it was only the following morning that the putsch began for them and for the rest of the country.

Had Gorbachev wished to introduce emergency rule, he could have done so in less humiliating ways than staying on the Crimean coast while his subordinates imposed their brand of order in Moscow. And a modicum of common sense is all one needs to dismiss the subsequent claim by the putschists that they would have been quite happy for Gorbachev to fly to Moscow (and thus make clear to the world that they had been deceiving everyone with their story about his illness and incapacity).

Archie Brown
St. Antony’s College
Oxford, England

To the Editors:

Jack Matlock’s description of former Soviet President Gorbachev’s role in the August 1991 coup as one wherein he was “fooled…by…many of his lieutenants” is misleading and oversimplifies Gorbachev’s ambiguous role in that event [“Gorbachev: Lingering Mysteries,” NYR, December 19, 1996]. The written evidence as well as my own interviews with key coup plotters and prosecutors suggest that, while Gorbachev did not carefully orchestrate events from Foros, he was hedging his bets and may well have hoped to resume power sometime after August 19 had the coup succeeded.

It is now clear that during the months before the coup Gorbachev actively considered imposing nationwide emergency rule. These were far more than mere discussions of contingency plans such as those that might be used during a nuclear war. Gorbachev partially implemented those plans when he ordered limited military crackdowns in Vilnius and other hotspots. On two occasions (September 1990 and March 1991) he convinced some of the coup plotters that he would go along with their actions in August 1991. Vice President Gennady Yanayev, a junta member, later said he believed there was a good chance Gorbachev would agree:

Knowing Gorbachev, we [the coup plotters] realized that he would agree to take certain measures if we could convince him that these measures were truly essential…. At certain meetings—I remember one in April last year [1991]—President Gorbachev instructed representatives of state authorities to prepare various documents for the introduction of a state of emergency. Many of the clauses that we used in the State Committee for the State of Emergency documents during the night of 19 to 20 August came from those drafts were drawn up at President Gorbachev’s behest….

…[On August 18 the coup plotters] were flying to see Gorbachev, not to isolate him…. They were off to see Gorbachev in the sincere belief that he would understand our arguments…and that Gorbachev would agree to the measures that had been drawn up on his instructions in April…. (“In the Moment of Truth,” Russian Television, July 15, 1992)

Why should we believe Yanayev? For one thing, he was neither a strong supporter nor critic of Gorbachev. He was also present at many of the meetings where the issue of a crackdown was discussed. His description of Gorbachev’s indecisiveness, moreover, squares with descriptions by a wide variety of Gorbachev associates, cronies, and adversaries in 1990 and 1991. It is also shared by the two prosecutors trying the case against the coup plotters.

Lost in these polemics are many tantalizing questions, such as how much the Yeltsin camp knew in advance about hardliners’ preparations for coup. It appears, for example, that Yeltsin was approached by Yanayev aides about a deal to get rid of Gorbachev in February 1991. Other mysteries include the intriguing roles played by General Pavel Grachev and industrialist Yury Skokov as intermediaries between Yeltsin and Kremlin hardliners beginning in January 1991 and the tactics and strategy of the disparate forces supporting Yeltsin on issues such as the future of the Union and the economy. Most tantalizing of all, perhaps, is how a coup/state of emergency prepared and widely discussed in official Moscow for months—well before the famous Matlock warning—could have been so widely ignored.

Dr. Donald N. Jensen
Deputy Director of Broadcasting
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Jr. Jack F. Matlock replies:

There is absolutely no credible evidence that Gorbachev was “hedging his bets” during the Foros episode and those who have advanced this thesis ignore an overwhelming number of consistent and well- attested facts. Of course there were various contingency plans in the Soviet government for introducing a state of emergency, especially from the fall of 1990, and up to a point Gorbachev cooperated with some of them. I describe his actions at that time, and the rationale he gave for them, with such detail in my Autopsy of an Empire that I may have tried the patience of all but the most diligent researchers. But none of this proves that he was complicit in the attempt by Vladimir Kryuchkov and others to force him to impose martial law or step aside while they did so. If he had been “hedging his bets,” as Mr. Jensen suggests, it is impossible to explain his psychological state, and that of his family, following his refusal to authorize the crackdown demanded by the emissaries sent by the coup plotters on August 18, 1991. His fright, and particularly that of his wife, Raisa, was apparent not only to eyewitnesses such as Anatoly Chernyayev, but from the videotape they recorded clandestinely, and from the effect on Raisa Gorbachev’s health, the ravages of which persisted long after the detention at Foros. What did the Gorbachevs possibly have to fear if the whole exercise was a charade? (Their fear, by the way, was most intense when it seemed likely that the attempted coup would succeed, not when it became apparent that it might fail.) If Gorbachev had been hedging his bets, why was it necessary for the coup plotters to remove from Foros the suitcase of devices and codes controlling the release of nuclear weapons—as they did on August 19? Would Gorbachev, a person jealous of his power and position, voluntarily surrender to subordinates the ultimate symbol and instrument of his authority?

If Gorbachev had been hedging his bets, why would the coup plotters seek his forgiveness when their attempt collapsed and admit under oath (as they did in the initial criminal investigation) that they had betrayed him? Why would some, such as Boris Pugo and Sergei Akhromeyev, commit suicide?

I could continue to list many other facts which cannot be reconciled with the allegation that Gorbachev willingly abetted the attempt to seize power from him, but will spare your readers a tedious refutation of what is, at base, an absurdity.

Mr. Jensen asks why we should believe Gennady Yanayev. Inasmuch as he, as Vice President, agreed to join the plotters and illegally assume the powers of the presidency—as he admitted immediately after the attempt failed—I cannot think of any reason we should. But there are compelling reasons not to accept the statement quoted. If, as he said, the plotters did not intend “to isolate Gorbachev,” why did they do so, even before the delegation arrived? It is obvious they did so because they doubted that he would agree with what they proposed. Yanayev may not personally have been privy to the plans for isolating Gorbachev, which had been worked out by KGB chief Kryuchkov (not by those who flew to the Crimea to “persuade” Gorbachev, as Jensen’s interpolation implies), but he, after some hesitation, signed the decree just before midnight on August 18, 1991, and thereby gave the seizure of power some color of legality.

I can understand why those guilty of organizing and participating in the abortive August coup would attempt to mislead the public about their culpability. Nobody wants to go down in history as a traitor, least of all an incompetent one, and some erstwhile conspirators still nurse political ambitions that could be crippled by accurate memories of what happened in 1991. Their motivation for misrepresenting the facts is clear, as is that of some Russian politicians and journalists who, like the Soviet leaders for nearly seventy years, use a false account of history as a tool for political struggle.

What I cannot understand is what possible motivation Western scholars could have for ignoring obvious, well-documented facts and attempting to build an indictment on illogical suspicions, disproved allegations, and transparent attempts by the guilty to misrepresent what happened. Whatever the explanation may be, it can bear no relation to sound scholarship.

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