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The Gorbachev Factor’: An Exchange

In response to:

Gorbachev: Lingering Mysteries from the December 19, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Jack Matlock [“Gorbachev: Lingering Mysteries,” NYR, December 19, 1996] dismisses my recent book Spies Without Cloaks as an example of “unfounded suspicion parading as scholarship” and then castigates me because I supposedly “fell for the lies” circulated by the KGB leadership in my analysis of the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow. Such language seems inappropriate for The New York Review, but it might be explained by the fact that, in Mr. Matlock’s case, the issue goes beyond academics and has clear implications for his own record as a diplomat and policymaker.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Mr. Matlock is hostile to my suggestion that Gorbachev may have been involved in the plans to declare a state of emergency in August 1991. Having pushed, as ambassador to Russia, for unswerving American support of Gorbachev, Matlock has a lot at stake in his claim that Gorbachev was an innocent victim who was repeatedly duped by the KGB. But in treating such a complicated issue as Gorbachev’s role in the coup affair so cavalierly (in a footnote to the text), Mr. Matlock is doing a disservice to the historical record. This episode is crucial to our understanding of Gorbachev and of the complex interplay between the forces of reaction and reform that took place before and after August 1991.

Despite the impression Mr. Matlock may have, I never claimed in my book that Gorbachev set out a scenario in August 1991 that was played through according to plan. On the contrary, I hypothesized that Gorbachev was, as usual, hedging his bets. Gorbachev knew that to declare a state of emergency to prevent the signing of the Union Treaty (a treaty that would have reduced his power as Soviet president dramatically) was a high-risk strategy that could discredit him completely. So he encouraged KGB Chairman Vladimir Kriuchkov and his colleagues to prepare for a state of emergency and then withdrew his support when it was time to put the plans into action, leaving the KGB holding the bag.

Mr. Matlock wrongly claims that Archie Brown “thoroughly refutes” my arguments, which center around the suggestion that Gorbachev was not held captive at Foros, in his book The Gorbachev Factor. In fact, the numerous questions that I raised are barely addressed by Mr. Brown (and not even mentioned on the pages Matlock refers us to). Mr. Brown takes a tack similar to Matlock’s, labelling those who doubt Gorbachev’s veracity as “ludicrous” without discussing their evidence. He makes no reference, for example, to the widely acclaimed study The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (1993), by John Dunlop, who was one of the first Western scholars to question the official version of the coup. Despite the fact that the attempted coup was the greatest crisis in Gorbachev’s career, Brown tells the reader that his lengthy political biography of Gorbachev “is not the place for a detailed history of the coup” and refers us instead to a Russian source, Kremlyovskii zagovor (Kremlin Conspiracy). This book, purportedly based on transcripts of interrogations of the arrested coup plotters, but spiced up with imagined conversations and polemical asides, was put together in late 1991 by the Russian procurator-general and his deputy, the very men who were preparing the state’s case against the accused. Not surprisingly, the authors were subsequently disqualified from the case for publishing these tainted materials (after selling the more sensational bits to the German media) before the case was even tried. Yet Brown takes their version as the definitive one.

Brown apparently did not see the lengthy stenographic report of the Parliamentary Commission to Investigate the Causes of the August Coup, released in February 1992, which gives a very different picture of Gorbachev and the coup attempt. The commission, which had access to KGB and CPSU files, found extensive correspondence between Gorbachev and Kriuchkov on declaring a state of emergency in the country and concluded that Gorbachev had been seriously considering this as an option as far back as 1990. Brown acknowledges that Gorbachev sat in on discussions about emergency rule, but insists (citing only an article by Gorbachev that appeared after the coup) that he always opposed the idea.

Although Brown cites memoirs of Gorbachev’s close associates to bolster his case for Gorbachev’s innocence, he neglects much of the new evidence on the coup that emerged after 1991. Scientific Industrial Union Chairman Arkadii Volskii, for example, has insisted (and Gorbachev has never refuted him) that Gorbachev called him on the telephone well after his lines at Foros were said to be cut. And in August 1994 the military collegium of the Russian Supreme Court court, in a trial of alleged coup plotter Valentin Varennikov, concluded, after hearing dozens of witnesses (including Gorbachev), that: 1) There was no conspiracy against Gorbachev, 2) Gorbachev could have averted the crisis if he had flown to Moscow, and 3) Gorbachev was not cut off from communications and held captive at Foros.

According to Matlock, Brown’s most persuasive evidence in defense of Gorbachev is that Gorbachev would never have knowingly put his wife through the ordeal of being isolated at Foros. But is this not convoluted logic? To say that Gorbachev knew all along of what his hard-line subordinates were planning—and appeared to them to agree with the plans—is not to say that he knew events would turn out as they did. How was he to know that the attempt to institute a state of emergency and prevent the signing of the Union Treaty would end up a fiasco, causing him and his family to go through those tense days of uncertainty in Foros?

Astonishingly, Brown tells us that even Yeltsin “fully accepts in the book written several years after the coup that Gorbachev was a victim of a plot against him….” In fact, Yeltsin is extremely ambivalent about Gorbachev’s role in his book and offers the following as one possible explanation: “Gorbachev knew about the whole situation and the coup was being executed according to a scenario he had prepared. The idea was to have other people do the dirty work to clear Gorbachev’s path, then he could return from vacation to a new country under a state of emergency.” (p. 65)

Both Brown and Matlock, in their efforts to present Gorbachev as still, in 1991, being a well-meaning reformer, perpetuate the myth of the Good Tsar surrounded by evil Rasputins. But they cannot have their cake and eat it too. If KGB Chief Kriuchkov was the clever, calculating eminence grise that they paint him to be, then why did he bungle the coup attempt so badly? Was it not that Kriuchkov counted on Gorbachev until the last moment? This would explain the telephone calls (not mentioned by either Matlock or Brown in their books) between Kriuchkov and Gorbachev on the day the plotters flew down to Foros. Even as the coup attempt began to crumble, Kriuchkov and the other members of the emergency committee continued to hope that Gorbachev would give up his self-imposed exile and fly up to Moscow. They had no alternative plan for instituting the state of emergency without him. As Yeltsin put it in The Struggle for Russia: “The GKChP [emergency committee] had no leader.” (p. 71)

Amy Knight
McLean, Virginia

Jack Matlock replies:

I did not “dismiss” Amy Knight’s book as “unfounded suspicion parading as scholarship.” That phrase was applied only to her allegation that Gorbachev’s forced isolation at his rest house at Foros in the Crimea from August 18 to August 21, 1991, was a myth. In his well-documented The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, John Dunlop mentioned four “riddles” which required further investigation, one of which involved conflicting evidence of the conditions at Foros during the time in question. Dunlop specifically disclaimed any attempt to answer them. He only wished, he wrote, “to indicate avenues which future scholars and journalists…might want to pursue.” (p. 202) These were important questions and, like other researchers, including Archie Brown, I have pursued them and concluded that the evidence is simply not credible that Gorbachev was a witting party to his incarceration. Amy Knight has come to a different conclusion, but in doing so she ignores or dismisses the eyewitness testimony of the only people who were present who were not among the conspirators (most arguably that of Anatoly Chernyayev), and fails to take account of the incongruity of many events with the allegation of Gorbachev’s complicity. (For example, if the conspirators were betrayed by Gorbachev rather than the other way around, it is most difficult to explain why Minister of Interior Boris Pugo and Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev would have committed suicide, or why Minister of Defense Dmitri Yazov would have made the self-incriminating statements he did—and which are available on videotape—immediately after the collapse of the coup attempt.) She also cites as evidence transparent attempts by the conspirators to obscure their culpability after the fact. The military collegium which “exonerated” General Valentin Varennikov was a packed body to which Varennikov appealed with the full knowledge that it would accept even his wildest allegations. Its “judgment” has about as much validity as those of Andrei Vyshinsky’s purge trials of the 1930s. For months before the attempted coup, Varennikov bragged to all and sundry that Gorbachev would either be forced to declare Presidential rule, or would be removed.

Of course, Gorbachev was aware that contingency plans were being made to declare a state of emergency in parts or all of the country. The Ministry of Defense was also doubtless making and revising plans to fight a nuclear war. But just as the latter is no proof that Gorbachev was planning a nuclear war, the former is not credible evidence that Gorbachev had in fact decided to authorize a state of emergency. His entire “turn to the right” in the winter of 1990-1991, which I have characterized as a major strategic error, obviously encouraged KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and other “hard-liners” to believe that he might eventually authorize a crackdown. The delegation which visited him in Foros on August 18 hoped it could persuade him. Gorbachev’s refusal at that point to authorize a crackdown precipitated the abortive effort to take power, an effort which required Gorbachev’s isolation. That, in my considered opinion, is fact, not myth.

The questionable evidence Ms.Knight cites is not strengthened by her distortion of my record. It will come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the advice I gave when I was in public service that I “pushed…for unswerving support of Gorbachev.” (Indeed, some in Washington thought I was too partial to Yeltsin!) Most diplomatic correspondence of the period is still classified, but my first comprehensive recommendations to President Bush have been declassified. On February 22, 1989, I offered the following advice on the subject (89Moscow 4648, paragraphs 7 and 8):

Unfortunately, many observers, giddy from the surprise of seeing rapid change in a society which was closed and seemingly static for so long, are asking the wrong question—and drawing the wrong conclusions. “Perestroika,” they say, is in the US inter-est; Gorbachev is essential to “perestroika”; ergo the US should devise a strategy to “help” Gorbachev.

Even though the first of these propositions is true…, the others are not. Indeed, they contain several highly questionable assumptions: that we know enough about the ins and outs of Soviet politics to “help” individuals effectively; that we should ever identify US national interests with those of individual Soviet political leaders; that concessionary policies would in fact be of assistance in stimulating radical reform. Even more fundamentally, these observers are posing the wrong question. The question should not be how we can help “perestroika” or Gorbachev, but rather how we can promote the interests of the United States. If the pursuit of our goals has the collateral effect of strengthening the position of political leaders who have espoused policies consistent with our own, well and good. But we should be clear in our own minds that our objective is to serve our interests, not theirs.

My position on this point remained the same throughout my tenure. Nor have I ever pictured Gorbachev as the “innocent victim” of evil advisers. He bears full responsibility for the advisers he selected, and for his failure to insure more objective reporting, as I pointed out both in my review of his Memoirs and in my Autopsy on an Empire. Nevertheless, there is no question that Kryuchkov slanted reports to support the policies he favored and did not shrink from fabricating “evidence.” This certainly made it more difficult for Gorbachev to understand the real situation, and while he was not an innocent dupe, at times he was a dupe.

It would be unfortunate if Ms. Knight’s propagandistic treatment of Gorbachev’s alleged role in the August 1991 coup attempt diminished confidence in her scholarship in the rest of her book. She has produced much important information and many keen insights. Why she has chosen to conduct a KGB-style political vendetta against Mikhail Gorbachev, who has plenty of faults without tacking on invented ones, is beyond my comprehension.

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