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The Mysterious End of the Soviet Union

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, 1991, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 345

translated from the Russian by Anna Melyakova and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya
172 pp., available at www.gwu.com/~nsarchiv

Delo GKChP [The Case of the State Committee on a State of Emergency]

by Valentin Varennikov
Moscow: EKSMO, 336 pp., $22.80
PIKO/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Boris Yeltsin gesturing toward Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the Russian parliament in Moscow on August 23, 1991, the day after Gorbachev returned to Moscow following the failure of the coup

With protests against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continuing in the aftermath of his recent victory in the presidential election, the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow seems particularly relevant to our understanding of what is now happening in Russia.1 The failed coup led not only to the disintegration of the Soviet Union—and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s departure from the political scene—four months later but also to Russia’s subsequent evolution into what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “managed democracy.” Had the coup not been attempted, Vladimir Putin, at the time a mid-level KGB officer, would not now be about to begin a third term as Russia’s president, attempting to preserve a corrupt and lawless political system. Was there a possibility in 1991 for things to have turned out differently, perhaps in the direction of democratic reform?

After more than twenty years there are still mysteries surrounding the coup affair, particularly regarding the actions of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The complete story will not be known until Russian archives are opened, which could be a long time. Nonetheless, new sources, in the form of firsthand accounts and interviews such as those discussed here, continue to emerge in Russia, adding much to the picture of the August 1991 events.

Gorbachev, to his great credit, dealt resolutely with the challenges he confronted after coming to power in 1985 in a politically stagnant and economically decrepit country. He made the bold decision to introduce three key policies that had a dramatic impact on the Soviet political and economic system: “new thinking” in foreign affairs, which included a significant rapprochement with the West and the end of Soviet control over Eastern Europe; glasnost, or openness, which gave the press, and Soviet citizens, unprecedented freedom to criticize the Kremlin; and perestroika—market reforms and democratization of the political process, which had been dominated by the Communist Party.

Unfortunately, however, the reforms had unforeseen negative consequences. Gorbachev’s attempt to eliminate central state control over the allocation of consumer goods without replacing it with an effective supply and demand system led to drastic shortages. Production declined dramatically, along with government tax revenues, resulting in a huge budget deficit. To finance the deficit, the authorities printed more rubles, causing a rise in inflation, which in turn aggravated shortages of consumer goods. According to Gorbachev’s chief aide at the time, Anatoly Chernyaev, whose remarkable diary for the year 1991 was only recently translated into English, Gorbachev expressed the fear at the end of March that “in 2–3 months…we will not be able to feed the country.”2

Equally threatening to the Kremlin were the political effects of perestroika. The Communist Party began to rapidly lose its authority, leaving a political and ideological vacuum. Gorbachev’s decision to let Eastern Europe go its own way in 1989, and to allow freedom to express opposition, had given rise to mounting nationalist demands, long suppressed by the KGB (and its predecessors), in several of the republics that formed part of the Soviet Union. In Lithuania, for example, the newly elected parliament declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990.

Tensions between the Soviet central government and its fifteen constituent republics became particularly pressing when Boris Yeltsin rose to the leadership of Russia, the largest and most powerful of the republics. Yeltsin, a former Communist Party boss whom Gorbachev had expelled ignominiously from his job as Moscow Party chief and Politburo member in 1987, had made an amazing comeback as a self-declared liberal democrat. In 1989, he won a seat in the Soviet parliament—the Congress of People’s Deputies—as a representative from Moscow. In the spring of 1990 Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, and in June 1991, after resigning from the Communist Party, he won the presidency of the Russian Republic. Yeltsin was an astute politician with an uncanny ability to gauge the mood of the populace. He began to undermine Gorbachev’s authority by building alliances with the leaders of other republics and by making demands for Russian autonomy that would increase his own political power significantly.

In the face of these enormous challenges, Gorbachev—the courageous innovator—became dangerously indecisive, allowing himself to be buffeted between the forces of left and right, and satisfying no one. In November 1990, after he encouraged his liberal advisers to develop a program for rapid privatization of the economy, he suddenly rejected their proposal, apparently because it would have significantly weakened the powers of the Soviet center in relation to the republics. A month later, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a principal architect of détente with the West, abruptly resigned because of concerns that Gorbachev was influenced too heavily by hard-liners in his government. (Some leading officials in the military had earlier circulated an open letter urging Gorbachev to impose direct rule by the Kremlin in troublesome republics, including Lithuania.) In his dramatic resignation speech to the Soviet parliament, Shevardnadze warned that the Kremlin was moving toward a dictatorship. As he later told a Western reporter, he resigned because he foresaw a military crackdown, which is exactly what happened in Lithuania.

On January 13, 1991, in an apparent effort by the Kremlin to quash Lithuania’s drive for independence, Soviet troops opened fire on civilians in Vilnius, killing fourteen and wounding over six hundred. Gorbachev continues to this day to deny that he authorized the use of force there, but Chernyaev was so shocked by the bloody onslaught that he drafted a letter of resignation to Gorbachev:

You publicly mentioned many times that as long as you are in power, you will not allow armed violence against the people. Let’s say you “didn’t know,” did not give permission to shoot and crush people with tanks that night in Vilnius. But what happened was the result of your policies, your unwillingness to let Lithuania go in good time.3

Chernyaev ended up not sending the letter and remained loyally in his job until Gorbachev was forced to step down in December 1991. But he was increasingly discouraged by Gorbachev’s policies and decisions. On March 20, 1991, Chernyaev complained:

Gorbachev is repeating himself. Words, phrases, examples, trains of thought, arguments that were shocking in 1986 and still impressive in 1988, now sound like standard blather. He is stuck in his discoveries; he hasn’t evolved at all….

The hard-liners in the Kremlin, notably KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov (all of whom Gorbachev had appointed), were also unhappy, mainly because Gorbachev was not addressing the growing political threat from Yeltsin; Yeltsin defied the Kremlin by staging a large pro-democracy rally in Moscow in March 1991, and his election in June to the Russian presidency raised the real possibility that he would use his new position to transfer power from the Soviet center to Russia and the other republics, thus rendering Gorbachev a mere figurehead. Although he had earlier insisted that a union treaty should maintain strong central control over the republics, in April Gorbachev began working with Yeltsin and other republic leaders on a new treaty that would give the republics significant autonomy, particularly in matters of finance, thus threatening the future of the Soviet Union as a political and economic entity.

Gorbachev seemed to be playing both sides against the middle. With his top officials, he repeatedly discussed the possibility of imposing martial law in the country, while at the same time he appeared to cooperate with Yeltsin. On July 19, Gorbachev met secretly with Yeltsin and the leader of the Kazakh Republic, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at Novo-Ogorevo, where he agreed to a union treaty that would strip the Soviet government of many of its powers, including the right to impose federal taxes. He also promised that certain members of his government—Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pavlov, and Minister of Interior Boris Pugo—would be dismissed.

Unknown to Gorbachev, KGB Chief Kryuchkov had taped the conversations and informed his colleagues. Aside from the prospect of their own dismissal, the signing of the union treaty (set for August 20) would, in their view, have meant the demise of the Soviet Union. In a nationwide referendum held in March 1991, close to 75 percent of the voters said they wanted the Soviet Union preserved, as a federation of equal sovereign republics.4 So Kryuchkov and his colleagues felt justified in doing everything they could to persuade Gorbachev to abort the deal he made at Novo-Ogorevo and declare a state of emergency in order to restore political and economic stability.

At a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, including Kryuchkov, on August 3, the day before he left for vacation in Foros, in the Crimea, Gorbachev seemed, without quite saying so, to give them the go-ahead. According to a transcript of the meeting, cited in Valentin Varennikov’s book, Delo GKChP (The Case of the State Committee on a State of Emergency), Gorbachev said: “Emergency measures are needed…. In emergency situations all governments have taken action and will continue to do so, if circumstances call for emergency measures.” He then told them: “I am going on vacation with your permission, so as not to interfere with your work.”5

Gorbachev’s departure at this crucial time struck Russian observers of all political bents as inexplicable. As Nikolai Leonov, a former foreign intelligence official, noted, “Logically, a major political leader does not abandon his post at such a critical moment, when the abolition of a powerful state was on the immediate agenda.”6 Gorbachev later said that he was so exhausted from the stress of governing that he simply had to rest. But it seems more likely that he wanted to avoid blame for a decision to introduce emergency measures that he had encouraged.

On August 18, 1991, a group including Kryuchkov, Pavlov, Yazov, Pugo, and Vice President Gennady Yanayev formed an eight-man “emergency committee” with the intention of introducing martial law in some parts of the country. Judging from the subsequent memoirs of Kryuchkov and his colleagues, this was to be only a temporary measure, designed mainly to prevent the signing of the union treaty. Yanayev, with visibly trembling hands, announced, at a televised press conference on August 19, that Gorbachev was ill and he had assumed the powers of the presidency. The committee ordered Soviet troops and tanks into Moscow, but there was no bloodshed, save the tragic deaths of three young men, later determined to be accidental, who tried to block moving Soviet tanks in the early hours of August 21.

Yeltsin emerged as the hero of these events. He and his allies took over the Russian White House, the headquarters of the Russian government in Moscow, on August 19. They drew a large crowd of supporters, who cheered Yeltsin when he famously mounted one of the tanks that had been sent in by the emergency committee to preserve order but had not been given a command to attack. Within three days, the “coup” was over: the troops had been withdrawn on the orders of Minister of Defense Yazov, the alleged plotters had been arrested by security forces loyal to Yeltsin, and Gorbachev was back in Moscow, about to experience a humiliating loss of his power.

  1. 1

    On the election, see my “Stealing Russia’s Future,” NYRblog, March 8, 2012, at www.nybooks.com/u/d

  2. 2

    Chernyaev’s complete diaries, dating back to 1985, are available in English on the website of the National Security Archive at www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv. 

  3. 3

    Lithuanian prosecutors announced in May 2011 that they intend to question Gorbachev as part of a new probe into the affair. And in November, a former researcher at the Gorbachev Foundation, Pavel Stroilov (who now lives in London), reportedly handed over documents to Lithuanian authorities that implicate Gorbachev directly in the crackdown. 

  4. 4

    It should be pointed out that six of the fifteen republics, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, and the three Baltic republics, boycotted the referendum. The greatest support for the union was in rural areas and in Central Asia. 

  5. 5

    Varennikov, Delo GKChP, p. 259. The transcript was referred to in a speech by the state prosecutor, Arkady Danilov, in July 1994 at the trial of Valentin Varennikov, discussed below. 

  6. 6

    Nikolai Leonov, Krestnyi put’ Rossii [Russia’s Way of the Cross], 1991–2000 (Moscow: Russkii dom, 2002), p. 5. 

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