The (unsuccessful) coup d’état in August 1991 eventually brought about the end of the USSR. As British Ambassador, Rodric Braithwaite was in the thick of the rapidly developing situation and kept a diary. Yesterday we published his entries for the initial days of the coup. In today’s entries the plot thickens and starts unravelling. Photos: Jo Schwartz (www.joschwartz.com).
Wednesday, 21 August
I wake at 6 o'clock to find the rain is still pouring down in buckets: not the weather for mass demonstrations. To this extent God is on the side of the junta.
Radio Ekho Moskvy is still on the air, after an attempt (according to Sergei Buntman, the announcer) by another station during the night to occupy its air space. The White House is as yet unstormed, and the crowds of defenders are still camping around it. Buntman appeals to Moscovites to relieve them so that they can go home to rest. He goes on to say that the armoured column which broke through the first barricade crushed three people to death and wounded others with machine gun fire. Yet for some reason the column then halted and failed to press home an attack. The BBC correspondent inside the White House later reports that the first armoured vehicle was set on fire by an Afghan veteran with a Molotov cocktail. He was then shot, and one of the soldiers died in the blaze.
The radio rebroadcasts a statement by Alexander Rutskoi [Vice President of RSFSR] attacking the junta and calling on Russians to stand up and be counted. [Poet Yevgeni] Yevtushenko unburdens himself of a piece of manufactured emotion and appeals to the shades of Pushkin and Tolstoy (who but the Russians would broadcast poetry on such an occasion?), and Bakatin and Primakov, in their capacity as members of (Gorbachev's) National Security Council, call for the reinstatement of the President. Buntman reads out a list of the Russian towns and regions which have expressed their support for Yeltsin, and reminds listeners that the Russian Parliament is due to meet at 11 a.m. to agree on an ultimatum calling for the dissolution of the Emergency Committee, to which other Republics will be invited to subscribe.
The BBC reports exchanges during the night between Yeltsin's Chief of Staff, Gennady Burbulis, and Kryuchkov. Burbulis was reassured by Kryuchkov, after two telephone calls, that the White House would not be attacked. Burbulis also spoke to Yanayev, who seemed to be out of touch with events. It is further evidence that the junta is fraying at the edges.
For the first time ever, [our maid] Liuda starts talking about politics when she brings me breakfast. She says that there are fewer troops on the streets this morning, and her journey to work was unobstructed. She thinks the junta's arbitrary assumption of power is a disgrace. They have no right to do it, and they won't succeed. I point out that other dictators have taken power in Russia in the past. She says that in those days ordinary people did not understand what was going on, and really believed that they were building a radiant future. Now they know better: they themselves had elected the Russian President and the Russian parliament, and they would not give them up. She is convinced that the order by the RSFSR Minister of Defence, annulling Kalinin's curfew, has the greater force, and that there is no need to observe a curfew in Moscow.
London are happy I should call on Yeltsin. I decide to go to there for today's extraordinary session of the Russian Parliament. Guy Spindler will try to negotiate for me to see Yeltsin as well. If the putsch leaders still manage to come out on top, they will no doubt hold it against me. But I won't care very much: Russia won't be much fun to live in, and I will be able to leave a bit earlier next spring and do some travelling before I start my next job with the Prime Minister.
On the way Sasha tells me he was defending the White House all last night, in command of a number of platoons. He says that a squad of Afghan veterans was sent out to suppress a sniper on one of the buildings overlooking the White House, who they were afraid would try to pick off some of the tanks crews loyal to Yeltsin. He thinks their mission was successful. What a long way he has come since the days when he used to say that he was one of the little folk, and couldn't be expected to do anything about his country's politics!
"London are happy I should call on Yeltsin. I decide to go to there for today's extraordinary session of the Russian Parliament. Guy Spindler will try to negotiate for me to see Yeltsin as well. If the putsch leaders still manage to come out on top, they will no doubt hold it against me. But I won't care very much: Russia won't be much fun to live in, and I will be able to leave a bit earlier next spring and do some travelling before I start my next job with the Prime Minister. "
The barricades are more substantial than they were last night, though none would stop a determined tank. Inside the White House there are numerous smart militiamen and rather less smart civilians (many in bits and pieces of the uniforms they wore in Afghanistan). They are armed with submachine guns: I don't see anything more sophisticated.
More than half of the deputies have dared to come to the session. It has not been boycotted by any particular group: the Communists are there. The galleries are packed with journalists. The Swedish ambassador is there too: he always gets everywhere, even though on this occasion I had hoped to outsmart him.
The session is opened by Deputy Khasbulatov, who calls for silence for last night's dead. His style is very aggressive, and he gets particular applause when he calls for the guilty to be punished. He then demands that Pravda and the other newspapers which supported the coup be nationalised. There are voices of criticism from the floor about his dealings yesterday with Lukyanov. He says that Lukyanov was the only half way constitutional interlocutor who still remained in office. Together with Silayev and Rutskoi he had presented Lukyanov with very tough demands: a meeting within 24 hours with Gorbachev; a health examination of Gorbachev by a team including WHO and other foreign observers; his immediate return to power; the freeing of press and TV; the dissolution of the Emergency Committee; and the restoration of all communications cut on Monday. A deputy asks whether the conspirators are to be tried. He says that follows logically. The meeting, he says, started badly. But in the end Lukyanov seemed to accept their demands. He agreed that the troops should be withdrawn; but said that the military refused to discuss the matter. Khasbulatov comments that he was not naive enough to believe much of what Lukyanov said: "The cynicism of those people knows no limits. Such dishonesty is possible only in our Soviet society".
He says that the Emergency Committee has attempted to take the Russian Government for granted, and to ignore their decisions and decrees. "We have spent a year teaching Gorbachev to take us seriously. Do we now have to start over again with Yanayev?"
Yeltsin delivers a tough and well-structured speech. He points out that the conspirators failed to recruit even a single democrat to give them respectability. He has set up a shadow government o replace him if he is arrested. But he claims that elements of three divisions of the occupying troops now support him. The paratroopers from Tula crossed to defend the White House instead of storming it, and their general, Lebed, has been in the White House. He has appointed new commanders of the Moscow and Leningrad Military Districts, and appointed Major General Kobiets as his Defence Minister. (Kobiets, a handsome fleshy man, is standing in full uniform in a corner of the podium). The Patriarch Aleksi issued a strong statement of support during the night. The British Prime Minister and Mrs Thatcher have also rung through their support.
After listing the decrees he has issued, a long list including a number of radical economic measures, Yeltsin says that Gorbachev is blocked in his dacha in the Crimea: two attempts at breakout have failed. He himself has been in touch with Kryuchkov, who has offered to come to the session, and then fly down with Yeltsin to see Gorbachev. He asks the session if he should go. "No", they roar unanimously. He then suggests that Silayev and Rutskoi should go, with a medical team and foreign journalists and diplomats to observe.
"Yeltsin delivers a tough and well-structured speech. He points out that the conspirators failed to recruit even a single democrat to give them respectability. He has set up a shadow government o replace him if he is arrested. But he claims that elements of three divisions of the occupying troops now support him."
Silayev and the deputies accept this proposal. I wonder whether it makes sense for the Russians to risk losing both to a KGB plot: but the presence of foreigners will help.
Silayev then announces that the conspirators are reported to be on their way to Vnukovo. Their plan appears to be to fly to the Crimea and to leave Moscow at the mercy of the troops. Yeltsin immediately orders the Russian KGB to arrest them.
I then attend a press conference given by Kunadze, one of the deputy foreign ministers. He describes last night's violence. Groups of deputies had tried to persuade a column of six APCs to stop advancing along the inner ring road. They had narrowly escaped being crushed. The vehicles had then been trapped in the underpass where the road goes under Kalinin Prospect. Three civilians, two military, and a US journalist had been killed: either crushed to death, shot, or burned when the last vehicle was set on fire by a Molotov cocktail. (These figures later turn out to be inaccurate: the final count seems to be three civilians, one soldier, and no journalists). Oleg Rumyantsev, the Social Democrat deputy, negotiated the soldiers' surrender on discretion: they were at risk of lynching. The vehicles, and the prisoners who included a General Smirnov, were taken in triumph to the White House.
But the defenders still expected an assault. There were 40 - 50,000 people ringing the building, deployed in six cordons - more than the previous day. There were ten tanks and ten APCs as well: not a serious military force, but enough to provide vital psychological support. A number of other military units had given assurances that they would not shoot. But it was only after Kryuchkov had been contacted in the small hours that the defenders began to relax. The troops now appeared to be withdrawing.
As I listen to the press conference, an Orthodox hymn swells up on the square outside, which is now packed with thousands and thousands of people.
The Prime Minister rings as I get back to the Embassy: he is fascinated with every detail. We are cut off in mid sentence. Throughout we have had great difficulty with telephoning and telegraphing to London: our modern equipment - naturally - keeps breaking down. Ted Grayson, our lone communicator, is having to work flat out night and day: his newly-arrived support had to go home again last Saturday because his mother had died.
Confusion has broken out about the proposal that diplomats should accompany Silayev to the Crimea. The plane is taking off in half an hour. The Secretary of State wants me to stay in Moscow. I rush off to Vnukovo with Geoff Murrell to put him on the plane. For mile after mile we pass armoured vehicles driving at great speed out of the city: some twenty miles of tanks, roaring along and grinding up the muddy roads. One has gone off the road and the soldiers are trying to haul it back. Smoke and dust hang like a fog over the road. There are more tanks and military vehicles laagered in the fields to both sides. It is a dramatic sight, a sight of great power, and something I don't suppose I shall ever see again. It is also a tribute to the ability of the Soviet staff to deploy huge masses of armour at great speed. But it is also a humiliated army in retreat: Afghanistan, East Germany, now this. Nothing could be more damaging to the prestige of the generals: so many Dukes of York.
I get into an absurd and entirely Russian argument with the security guard on the airport gate. He denies that there is any flight. The other excellencies arrive in dribs and drabs and mill about ineffectively. Finally we gather that the plane has gone without us. The guard apologises with a laugh: "It isn't every day we have a coup d'état." The whole affair wastes about three hours.
[Deputy Prime Minister] Shcherbakov has been trying throughout the day to get the G7 ambassadors to attend a meeting to discuss some economic technicality. We duck out. Later in the evening he gives a press conference which is shown on the TV. His attempt to distance himself from the coup leaders is unconvincing and he is cross-examined mercilessly by the journalists. He has run out of bounce, and he looks very like a man without a future.
The Vremya news programme is as boring as ever: the only amusing bit is the shots of desperate diplomats at the airport, which must seem either incomprehensible or irrelevant to the Russian viewer.
I have just got to sleep when someone rings to ask if I know the telephone number of the Kremlin. It turns out the following day that the Prime Minister wants to telephone Gorbachev when he gets back, and the Cabinet Office have lost the number of the hot line.
At 1.45 I get another call. Gorbachev is due back in half an hour, and the European ambassadors are going out to the airport to meet him. I drive myself out to Vnukovo. Another wild goose chase: we are not allowed in, and merely see his motorcade sweep out of the other gate. Pure Lawrence Durrell.
Marx was right after all: what begins as tragedy is repeated as farce.
Thursday, 22 August
I get up at crack of dawn to write a telegram commenting on the third and last day of the coup.
Gill and I go to the White House to observe the session of the Supreme Soviet. Yeltsin, Khasbulatov, Kobiets (the impressive Colonel General whom Yeltsin has made Russian Defence Minister, and who organised the defence of the White House), and others speak in the hour of victory. There is immense pride in their achievement, in the end of the seventy-year old nightmare, and above all in the rebirth of Russia.
Yeltsin lists the decrees he is issuing - which go well beyond the limits of his powers as Russian President and trespass on those of the Union government as he stakes out his claim to power in victory. He proposes to sack the local government authorities in the Russian Federation who failed to support him. The other speakers - all of whom were risking their lives over the last three days - are also understandably bitter about the coup leaders, the collaborators, those who failed to oppose the coup, and those who are now trying to claim that they too fought valiantly. One speaker demands that the Russian Communist deputies who opposed the calling of yesterday's emergency session be stripped of their mandates. Khasbulatov demands that the Communist Party hand over its property. Silayev calls Lukyanov, "the ideologist of the putsch". There are unpleasant undertones of a witch hunt, like the one which happened in France after the Liberation. There is wide criticism of Gorbachev for appointing the people who later betrayed him. The rumour spreads - and later turns out to be true - that Internal Affairs Minister Pugo has shot himself.
"Yeltsin makes his victory speech: Russia is born again; Russia has saved the world. The crowd shout "Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya!" They jeer the conspirators and some shout "Shoot them". They call for Gorbachev to resign."
Silayev suggests that the St George's Cross, the Imperial Russian equivalent of the VC, be revived to honour the courage of those who stood up for Russia in the last three days. Deputies demand that the flag of Soviet Russia be replaced by the old Russian tricolour. There is a growing feeling of Russian chauvinism which does not bode too well for the future.
We go out on to the terrace overlooking the square outside the Russian Parliament. Tens of thousands of people are streaming in to join those already there. We congratulate [top Yeltsin aide] Ryzhov and [Gorbachev adviser] Ambartsumov on their victory, and I give [Gorbachev’s economic aide Stanislav] Shatalin a great big hug. Yeltsin makes his victory speech: Russia is born again; Russia has saved the world. The crowd shout "Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya! Ros-si-ya!" They jeer the conspirators and some shout "Shoot them". They call for Gorbachev to resign. They cheer when Yeltsin announces that the square is to be renamed "The Square of Russian Freedom". Yeltsin smirks when Moscow mayor Gavriil Popov proposes that he be awarded the medal of "Hero of the Soviet Union" (what an irony!). Shevarnadze suggests that those who were killed on Tuesday night be buried in the Kremlin wall: "We can dig up some of those who are already there to make way for them". The atmosphere of vengefulness and Russian nationalism continues to grow.
I hear from the Embassy that Laptiev [Chairman of the Council of the Union of USSR Supreme Soviet] is ready to see me, so we depart before Yeltsin has finished his speech. Before I set off for the Kremlin, Stephen Wall rings from No 10 to ask what is going on and to get my help in setting up the Prime Minister's phone call to Gorbachev. He reveals that Major spoke yesterday to Shevarnadze, Yeltsin and Yakovlev. I say it would have been nice if we'd been told. He admits that he has made a note of the calls, and apologises for not having telegraphed it: they have been very busy over the last few days in London. Ho, ho.
Laptiev is his usual friendly self. He talks to me for an hour and a half about the course and implications of the coup. The trigger had (as we had thought) been the imminent signature of the Union Treaty. Representatives of the Junta had flown to the Crimea on Sunday to present Gorbachev with an ultimatum. They included Varennikov (the Commander of the Ground Forces, who had been active in the Lithuanian events in January), Boldin, the head of Gorbachev's personal secretariat, and Plekhanov, the senior KGB official responsible for organising Gorbachev's bodyguard ("Nu, vy znaete ego - tot malenki, ostronosenki") [You know the one – small, with a sharp nose]. The group had flown back to Moscow on Monday to confer with Prime Minister Pavlov (whose subsequent illness was genuine). Varennikov had then flown to Kiev to do a deal with Kravchuk [effective leader of Ukraine]: the junta would leave the Ukraine alone if Kravchuk refrained from criticising them. Hence Kravchuk's highly ambiguous performance on TV on Monday evening.
The junta had begun to realise that they faced failure when the crowd around the White House continued to increase, and it became clear that none of the military units in Moscow could be relied on to storm the building. Yeltsin's call for a general strike had also had an effect, though in practice few workers had yet come out. The main thing was that the conspirators had genuinely believed that ordinary people wanted an "iron hand": the basis for the coup collapsed when this turned out to be wrong.
Lukyanov, Ivashko, Yazov and Kryuchkov flew to the Crimea yesterday afternoon to persuade Gorbachev to do a deal. He had refused to see them until after Silayev and the others had arrived. The coup leaders were now all under arrest except Pugo (dead) and Yanaev, Starodubtsev, and Baklanov, who enjoyed parliamentary immunity but were nevertheless helping the police with their enquiries.
Laptiev says that Lukyanov - whom he has never liked or trusted - behaved highly ambiguously, failed to answer questions satisfactorily at yesterday's meeting of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and has been suspended. Laptiev thinks that "chief ideologist of the coup" is a pretty good description of him. Laptiev has assumed his functions for the time being.
Laptiev agrees that the main issues now are the new appointments which will have to be made; the relations between the two Presidents; the Union Treaty; and the economy. The junta, he remarks, had taken all Gorbachev's power and dropped it. Yeltsin was now picking up as much as he could. Gorbachev would be damaged by the accusation that it was he who had appointed the plotters. He would now be weaker in relation to Yeltsin. But he would remain more than a symbolic figure: Russia was used to centralism, the other Republics would see him as a counterweight to Russia, and he would reacquire some of his former powers.
The coup probably signed the death warrant of the CPSU: it had played no overt role, but all the leaders had been Central Committee members. The KGB would have to be reorganised. It should be split up and put under civilian control. Not all the KGB had supported the coup.
I ask Laptiev why the conspirators didn't cut off the telephones more effectively. He says that foreigners always laugh about the number of telephones top people in the Soviet Union have on their desks (gesturing towards his own). The reason is that the technology is so primitive that there are a number of special networks: for Gorbachev, for the KGB, for the Central Committee, and so on. It isn't possible to cut them all off at once: one more reason why the coup failed.
Laptiev asks me to pass his profound gratitude to the Prime Minister, whose statements made a far more favourable impression than Mitterrand's.
He spends some time telling me about his interview attacking the junta which failed to appear when Komsomolskaya Pravda was banned on Monday along with the other liberal newspapers, and about his contacts during the coup with Yakovlev and others of Yeltsin's allies. He clearly wants to convince me that he was on the right side throughout. I have little doubt this was so: he is a decent liberal man, if not a natural hero. I would like to have done half so well myself. His daughter was on the barricades for all three days.
I ring Vitali Pavlov, Sobchak's Executive Assistant, to ask him to pass on my best wishes and congratulations. He tells me that Sobchak returned to Leningrad from Moscow at 3 p.m on Monday. He went straight to the headquarters of Samsonov, the Leningrad Military District commander, who had already appeared on TV twice that day to announce that he supported the coup and was introducing a state of emergency in the city. Sobchak barged through Samsonov's guard into his office, and by the time he emerged Samsonov had swung round to support him. He then went to the Mariinsky Palace to address a hurriedly summoned session of Lensoviet [the city council]. He told them that Gorbachev had been arrested by "criminals" - the first opponent of the junta so to describe them. He summoned the local leaders of the OMON [special purpose police unit], militia, and Karkov, the KGB, and bent them to his will. He then addressed the crowd outside the building. Showing a calm he didn't feel, he told the people of Leningrad to maintain order, refrain from interfering with public transport, erect no barricades, and above all to avoid any conflict with the armed forces. Later that day he addressed the people of Leningrad on TV - again he was the first opponent of the junta to do so.
On Tuesday he read out all Yeltsin's decrees to a mass meeting in front of the Winter Palace, and asked everyone to observe them.
Vitali is very proud of his boss, with justification. I ask him to send our warmest congratulations, and our sympathy to [his wife] Ludmila Borisovna, who must have been worried stiff.
Sobchak looks more and more like a statesman of the highest calibre. If Gorbachev has to go, Sobchak would be an excellent successor. I would feel easier if he were there to exercise some restraint over Yeltsin.
The Twelve Ambassadors are summoned to see on Gorbachev - mainly as compensation, I suspect, for the runaround we were given yesterday. I give Chernyaev a big hug as I come in, and slip him a note suggesting that now is a good moment to release Mrs Gordievskaya [wife of KGB agent Oleg Gordievsky, who escaped to Britain]and her kids with a minimum of fuss.
We give a champagne party for the Russian staff: I congratulate them on their victory, unique in Russian history. Olga Dimitrieva [Embassy Russian teacher] tells how she upbraided the soldiers in the tanks. She was in a state of nervous collapse when she came in to see Gill yesterday. Her husband and son were on the barricades.
I call on Alexander Yakovlev. He is cheerful and more relaxed than usual. He too is critical of Gorbachev for his choice of advisers. He and others had warned Gorbachev often enough against appointing such people as Kravchenko [head of State Committee on TV and Radio], Yanayev, and Yazov. I speculate that those people were forced on him by the reactionaries whom had always had to take into account in pushing his reforms forward. He says that may have been so: perhaps there were unseen pressures from the Party apparatus.
I ask Yakovlev what will happen to the KGB. He thinks it will have to be brought under civilian control: if it goes on being headed by one of its own professionals it will continue to act as a force on its own. It should also be broken up. The part directed against the Soviet people should be disbanded. The foreign and counterintelligence parts should be split, so that they can control one another: after all the Israelis have five different intelligence services, and seem to manage all right. He sees nothing against having a foreign intelligence service - all countries do - though as an ex-ambassador he can say from experience that most foreign intelligence is useless. I say that - as a still serving ambassador - he won't expect me to be able to agree with him, though I do think that the importance of intelligence is exaggerated.
"Gorbachev's Press conference is broadcast in full. An honourable performance, very human. He describes the pressures he was under while he was in isolation: the plotters were out to break him psychologically… But he makes his usual mistake of talking to much when it comes to the questions. He falls into two particular traps. He refuses to distance himself from Communist Party, which he says he still hopes to reform from within; and he refuses to explain why he had insisted on appointing to high office the men who subsequently betrayed him."
Yakovlev says that the crowd are already breaking the windows of the Central Committee building on Staraya Ploshchad: he disapproves. As we drive back to the Embassy, I wonder to Geoff Murrell how long it will be before the Muscovites tear down the statue of Iron Feliks [Dzerzhinsky, first director of the Cheka, secret police] in front of the Lubyanka.
Gill and I spend the evening watching TV. Gorbachev's Press conference is broadcast in full. An honourable performance, very human. He describes the pressures he was under while he was in isolation: the plotters were out to break him psychologically. But his bodyguard found an old radio and were able to rig it up to receive the BBC (another irony: the General Secretary having to listen to the BBC to keep himself informed. What would Brezhnev have said?). He feared for his family. His daughter was in shock and Raisa was quite seriously ill. He looks as though he should be able to command the human sympathy of his audience. But he makes his usual mistake of talking to much when it comes to the questions. He falls into two particular traps. He refuses to distance himself from Communist Party, which he says he still hopes to reform from within; and he refuses to explain why he had insisted on appointing to high office the men who subsequently betrayed him. It is a badly judged performance, which will have reduced - perhaps greatly - his chances of reestablishing his political dominance. One can make allowances for the fact that he is still in a state of shock and ignorance. But he looks Bourbonesque: learned nothing, forgotten nothing. He will have to adapt quickly if he is not to loose his influence to Yeltsin even more rapidly than would otherwise have happened inevitably over time.
We spend the next two hours watching the new Russian TV Channel. They show a recorded statement by Gorbachev. Because he is not exposed to questioning the net result is better.
There is then a lengthy interview with Rutskoi. He describes in fascinating detail his flight with Silayev and others to rescue Gorbachev. He was armed, and had a picked team of parachute officers to act as an assault team if necessary. In the event they got to Gorbachev without difficulty. Raisa was on the edge of a heart attack. One detail: in the first hours, when Gorbachev thought he might be killed or reduced with drugs to a vegetable, he recorded a farewell message to the Soviet people, which he and his family managed to secrete. Rutskoi says that the message would be a historic document if it were ever published. He was uncertain of the situation even when the plane returned to Moscow in the middle of the night of 21/22 August. He had given orders to a subordinate to wait on the runway at Vnukovo: if there were a trap, the man was to fire a burst into the air, and the plane with Gorbachev would immediately take off again. In the circumstances it isn't surprising that all the European diplomats seemed like an unnecessary complication at the airport. Rutskoi is viciously scathing about the people who came to meet the plane: people trying to persuade Gorbachev that they were really on his side all along. He attacks Bessmertnykh and Moiseyev in particular.
The evening ends with the firework display which Yeltsin promised the people on the Parliament square this morning: the noisiest I've ever heard.
Part 1 is here
Part 3 is here