The dog days of the Soviet Union (3): the plot fails


The 1991 coup attempt completely disintegrates with the tragic deaths of three young men and the continuing irresistible rise of Boris Yeltsin. openDemocracy Russia presents the last 2 entries of Rodric Braithwaite’s diary.

Rodric Braithwaite
22 August 2011

Friday, 23 August

I wake early in the morning most depressed: cowardly and incompetent. In the last week tens of thousands of ordinary people have risked their life for their principles, and their leaders have shown will, courage, and stamina, of which I have been entirely incapable. If I had been a senior Soviet official, instead of a mere voyeur, I would probably have gone the way of Bessmertnykh and the other collaborators. Of course my feelings aren't of any importance against the measure of what has happened this week. But it isn't a pleasant feeling. Gill at least had the guts to get food and water to one or two people on the barricades.

The BBC reports that the crowds pulled down the statue of Dzerzhinsky last night: so at least one of my predictions has come through very quickly.

Rüütel, the President of Estonia, calls. As he is waiting to come into my office, [FCO Political Director] John Weston rings to say that London is thinking hard about how best to help the Balts. He reads out a tortured phrase which is to go in an article the Foreign Secretary is publishing on Sunday. This is meant to express encouragement and to mark an advance on our traditional formula about not accepting the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union in 1940. The difference is almost invisible to the naked eye.

"Rüütel [The President of Estonia) then comes in. He asks - in very bad Russian - for Britain to recognise the independence of the Baltic States immediately. He believes that this will make it harder for the extremists in the Russian minority population, the army, and the KGB, to launch a provocation in the Baltic states."

I point out that Bush has already told the press that he recognises Baltic independence, and that there will be a race to send Western ambassadors the Baltic states: we will get left behind if we are not careful. Of course I would be glad of a change of policy which would at last make it possible for me to go to the Baltic States. None of this gives me much to say to Rüütel.

Rüütel then comes in. He asks - in very bad Russian - for Britain to recognise the independence of the Baltic States immediately. He believes that this will make it harder for the extremists in the Russian minority population, the army, and the KGB, to launch a provocation in the Baltic states. He is worried about Russian chauvinism too. He believes that the present moment of confusion favours the Balts. If matters are delayed, the Russians will change their minds over their previous support for Baltic independence. I assure him that even at this minute the British government are considering what they can best do. After he has left, I tell [Head of Political Section] David Manning to get to the three capitals as soon as he can. He will leave this evening or tomorrow morning.

John Weston rings again: the Foreign Secretary wants [Deputy Head of Mission] David Logan or me to go immediately to the Baltic States. I say Manning is already planning to go. But Weston's instruction is inconsistent. Logan has been there often. But for me to go would represent a distinct change in British policy: hitherto HMG has refused to allow successive British ambassadors to visit the Baltic States because that would constitute recognition of the Soviet takeover. I am happy to go, provided the FCO have worked out what is actually involved. John tells me sharply to do as the Secretary of State says. I reply that I'm too near retirement to assume that the Secretary of State always knows what he is talking about. Anyway it is evident that the FCO has not done its homework properly. John rings off in a rage. When he rings back, I point out that if I go away now, I shall be out of Moscow for 48 hours: the Secretary of State might on reflection think I ought to be here at the centre, as he had ruled when I wanted to go to the Crimea with Silayev on Wednesday. Surely it makes more sense for me to remain here, and for David Manning to go to the Baltic States, as I have already planned, bringing a message from the Prime Minister. John calms down, says he will think further, and that we will get instructions.


The August coup lasted only three days, but set in motion the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. The period of perestroika was finally over. A new Russia, one led by Boris Yeltsin, had entered an unpredictable period of economic and social transformation.

At lunch [Guardian journalist] Jonathan Steele describes how he managed to get on Rutskoi's plane for the rescue flight to the Crimea. I am relieved that there was a Brit on the plane as well as the No 2 in the French Embassy, who got there by a splendid combination of judgment and luck.

Sasha Motov [Embassy driver] is full of panicky stories about the dangers of a comeback by the plotters and their supporters. He wants them all to be routed out and punished. It is people who think like him who will provide the emotional raw material for a witch-hunt.

I call on Fyodorov, Deputy Foreign Minister of the RSFSR, in his scruffy back street office. He says that Yeltsin was most grateful for the Prime Minister's support - though it was Mrs Thatcher's telephone call that gave him the greatest pleasure. The Foreign Ministry will recommend that Yeltsin see the Prime Minister when he drops in on Moscow on his way to Peking on 1 September.  I ask if the Russian government recognises Baltic independence. He says that Yeltsin has already recognised their sovereignty. That's not the same, I reply. Independence is something that will have to be discussed with the Balts in detail, he says. A shifty reply, and one that lends some colour to Rüütel 's suspicions.

Fyodorov says that despite Bessmertnykh's claim that he was ill and out of action during the coup, his signature has been found on documents issued in its support. He should have been sent to trial, not allowed to resign. All the Deputy Ministers in the Foreign Ministry have been sacked along with him.

The television in Fyodorov's office begins to show Gorbachev's speech to the Russian Parliament. He looks more in command of himself than yesterday. He is properly respectful of Yeltsin. The deputies treat him with a mixture of respect, sympathy, and hostility. Yeltsin is reasonably courteous, though it is clear who is boss, at least in this assembly. The questioning is brutal and abrasive: one deputy asks Gorbachev to agree that Socialism should be proscribed and the Communist Party banned as a criminal organisation. He answers that the banning of parties and political opinions is not compatible with democracy and pluralism: a fair answer, but not one that wins him any friends. Yeltsin gives him a summary of the Cabinet meeting on Monday and invites (orders?) him to read it out. In answer to a direct question from Pavlov, almost all the Ministers said they would support the putsch. It is the death knell of the old government and of the old system.

"The questioning is brutal and abrasive: one deputy asks Gorbachev to agree that Socialism should be proscribed and the Communist Party banned as a criminal organisation. He answers that the banning of parties and political opinions is not compatible with democracy and pluralism: a fair answer, but not one that wins him any friends."

Overall Gorbachev performs with dignity and aplomb: a good performance for someone who must still be worn out, and who in normal times has found it very difficult to handle criticism. But he has little choice: Rip Van Winkle waking up in a world unrecognisably different from the one in which he went to sleep last Saturday.

Back in the Embassy, Richard Bridge has just come from the Staraya Ploshchad. The Central Committee building has been taken over, on the orders of  Mayor Popov, allegedly with the approval of Yeltsin and Gorbachev (though if the last is true, it means that Gorbachev is already having to change his position very quickly). The people inside were allowed to leave through a comparatively good-humoured gauntlet. One theory is that the Russian Foreign Ministry will move in.

As the evening falls I look across the river to see the Russian tricolour flying over the Kremlin.

Saturday, 24 August

I drive off for breakfast with Bob Strauss, the new American Ambassador. The statue of Kalinin has been removed from its place on Kalinin Prospect. Someone has written "Iron Maiden" on the plinth. I'm told that this is the name of an English rock group. The Central Committee building is quiet with a notice on the door: "This building is sealed". Yesterday's scrawl on the statue of Marx: "Proletarians of the world, unite - against the Communists" has been replaced. It now reads simply: "Forgive me". There are two red flags floating over the Kremlin: but the hammers and sickles are missing.

Gill, Julian, David, Sophie and I join the funeral gathering on Manege Square to honour the three young defenders of the Russian Parliament who were killed on Tuesday night:

  • Dmitri Komar, 23. A Russian who served as a paratrooper in Afghanistan and was decorated there. Crushed. 
  • Ilya Krichevsky, 28. Jewish. Architect. Served in a tank regiment before joining an architectural institute. Shot.
  • Vladimir Usov, 37. Russian. Accountant. Married with one daughter. Crushed.

There are said to be a million people there. Armenians and Azerbaidjanis, Georgians and Lithuanians, march with their flags to commemorate the people that they too have lost. A couple of Orthodox priests carry the portrait of Nicholas II and a banner dedicated to Nicholas the Martyr. Others are carrying icons: it makes the procession look like a tableau drawn from Repin's "Krestny Khod" [Religious Procession]. There is a small group of scruffy ruffians wearing the uniform of the Tsar's cossacks: they look like typical Black Hundreds from the pogroms. Michael Gavin of the Cheshire Homes is carrying a Union Jack he has been given by Igor, one of the young Russians who work for him, who got it because he is a member of the BBC's rock music fan club. The ambassadors of the European Community march gallantly but uncertainly: they don't know what their role is, or where they should march compatible with their own dignity and that of the great organisation they represent. I tell them I think it's a pity we can't march under the Community flag.

Stamp 2
stamp 3

Soviet stamps mark the three young men who were killed defending the Russian parliament on Tuesday 20th August, 1991

Mostly it is the ordinary people of Moscow who are there, serious but full of pride in their victory. People swap their experiences on the barricades. Those who weren't there explain why they were unfortunately prevented. Many criticise Gorbachev for his misjudgments and indecisiveness. They think that his political days are numbered. But they also recognise that it was he who launched the whole process. They all think the Communist Party is finished; but there is a welcome absence of vengefulness or Russian chauvinism. A surprising number of them talk about the prospects that have now opened for them to start up their own businesses: it would be ironic if the last revolution of the twentieth century was a revolution in favour of free enterprise.

Gorbachev's funeral speech outside the Kremlin is dignified and mercifully brief; Konstantin says later that he was subjected to more hostile questioning in his car as he left. Elena Bonner (Sakharov's widow) makes a moving and emotional appeal for tolerance which is the more effective because her voice has usually been raised in passionate denunciation. Bob Strauss quotes Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death"). An Afghan veteran recites some of his poetry. An Orthodox choir sings magnificently: the bass is worthy of "Boris" [Godunov, Mussorgsky opera]. A Rabbi intones the kaddish in memory of the Jewish boy killed: it will be harder now for Russia's antisemites - the pseudo-Cossacks and others - to claim that the Jews are always Russia's enemies.

"Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, tells me with great emotion that Russia will never forget the support she received from Britain and its Prime Minister in the moment of crisis."

Throughout the speeches an elderly officer in a crumpled uniform stands alone before the coffins, crossing himself and bowing.   

Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, tells me with great emotion that Russia will never forget the support she received from Britain and its Prime Minister in the moment of crisis. Yeltsin has already been informed that Gill helped to distribute food to the defenders of the White House through much of the night that they had feared assault. He is satisfactorily sour about the French.  

I get talking to a plump bearded man in his thirties. He was a career officer in a chemical warfare unit, and is now a specialist in the history of the Imperial officer corps at the turn of the century. He was on the barricades for three nights, and gives me a miniature Russian flag which he picked up there to pin on my suit (later the Belgian ambassador points out that I've pinned it on upside down). A woman who will only give her name as "Ludmila" offers to send me a set of the leaflets which were put out by the defenders of the White House. A little old man insists on repeats out of date political jokes, and is told to shut up and show more respect for the dead.

We stop at the White House for an address by Yeltsin. We are too far away to see him, but the TV later shows that his bodyguard is holding a bulletproof shield in front of him: people are still nervous that someone will try a counter coup, or at least a provocation.

The ships in the river lower their (Russian) flags and sound their sirens as the procession with the coffins moves along the embankment.

The day is warm and dry. The crowd is slow and orderly. The marshals are courteous and don't hector us. Disciplined files of people of all ages link hands to split the crowd into manageable groups. The marshals warn us when there are tramlines coming, so that we shan't trip up. We feel far safer than we did during the Sakharov funeral, when the bungling militia proved so incompetent. It is another example of how well ordinary Russians can organise themselves if they get a chance.

The procession reaches the cemetery. We are too far away to see the ceremony, so we walk back to the car after seven hours on the streets.

Back in the Embassy, Stephen Wall rings about rumours that Gorbachev has banned the Party and resigned from the Secretary Generalship. The Prime Minister is at Lord's and wants an instant judgment in case he has to comment. I say I've heard nothing, having been out all day, but if the agencies confirm the news, the Prime Minister should welcome it.

The Daily Mail ring: they have a photograph of Gill manning the barricades and want an interview. The photo is of a youngish woman in sneakers on a tank waving a flag: not her. She tells them what it was like.

Michael Gavin comes to supper with Igor Garashchenko and Andrei Grobov, the two young men who were helping him to carry the Union Jack. We all agree that this week has seemed wholly unreal.

The boring announcers on Vremya who read out the conspirators' decrees on Monday are now reading out Yeltsin's decrees in the same deadpan way. Yeltsin has said that Russia recognises the independence of Latvia and Estonia.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

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