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The dog days of the Soviet Union: the coup

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The (unsuccessful) coup d’état in August 1991 eventually brought about the end of the USSR. Rodric Braithwaite was British Ambassador at the time. He kept a diary and has kindly allowed openDemocracy Russia to publish the entries for those eventful 5 days.

Rodric Braithwaite
18 August 2011

Sunday, 18 August

Councillor J P Sainsbury, the Lord Mayor of Cardiff, comes to lunch with his wife and Roger Paine, his Chief Executive. They are full of sensible ideas for developing the twinning relationship between Cardiff and Lugansk (formerly Voroshilovgrad) in the Ukraine. They have had a woman from the Lugansk Gorkom [district party committee] in Cardiff to learn about setting up small businesses, and they are proposing to send advisers to Lugansk for a total of 250 man-days in the first instance. It is just the sort of practical collaboration that is needed. We ask them to keep in touch.

In the afternoon we set off on our trip to the Northern monasteries and the wooden villages around Kargopol, about which we heard so much when we were in Archangel two years ago. At the airport, the plane for Vologda moves off just as we drive up to it from the VIP lounge. The Embassy driver Konstantin is convinced that they have deliberately left us behind. But we manage to get instead on to a flight to Cherepovets. It is about 135 kilometres from Vologda and [the other Embassy driver] Sasha (whom we have sent ahead) will drive to collect us.

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Manezh Square in central Moscow was a focal point for
demonstrations in those August days

The pilot of the plane, Alexander Pavlovich Tikhomirov, and the young flight controller at the primitive airport at Cherepovets feel very guilty at the way Aeroflot has mucked us about, so they sit and chat until Sasha arrives. They are charming, great enthusiasts for the Russian Northern countryside: forest, animals, mushrooms. Tikhomirov has been flying aeroplanes for thirteen years, but says he has never driven a car and doesn't know how to.

Sasha arrives in company with Oleg Petrovich Bobrik, the commercial director of a "small business" called "Sodeistvie" which is employed by the City Council to develop Vologda's links with foreign tourism and business. He is knowledgeable and interesting about the local history. But after a while he starts trying to convince us that we should not go to Kargopol. The roads are appalling and the locals are hostile. Sasha tells us later that much of the road is indeed a dirt track, and that it is a very rough area because many of the inhabitants are ex-convicts from the numerous camps which used to be in the area. Indeed some dubious looking people tried to force him off the road as he was driving to Cherepovets. I tell Oleg we will refine our plans tomorrow. There are plenty of other places to go to even if we abandon Kargopol.

We get to bed at about midnight in the unimpressive Sovmod hotel Oktyabrskaya.

Monday 19 August

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Coup instigators Alexander Tizyakov, Vasily Starodubtsev,  Boris Pugo, Gennady Yanayev and Oleg Baklanov announce Gorbachev's "illness" and the imposition of a State of Emergency. Pugo would later commit suicide.

We wake up to hear the 8 o'clock BBC news reporting a TASS announcement that Gorbachev's health prevents him from exercising his duties, that Vice President Yanayev is taking over, and that a six-month state of emergency has been declared.

 "In a way I am not surprised: I had always wondered whether I would one day be called back from leave or a trip because Gorbachev had been overthrown or assassinated."

The timing is presumably connected with tomorrow's planned opening for signature of the Union Treaty. Gorbachev - who is on holiday in the Crimea - was to have returned today for the ceremonies. August has of course been the classic time for the reactionaries to move against Gorbachev, though this time they appear to have done it in massive style after the failure of their constitutional coup a couple of months ago. They have adopted some of the tactics of last January: they have set up a Committee on the State of Emergency whose members include [Prime Minister]Pavlov, [Internal Affairs Minister] Pugo, [Defence Minister] Yazov and [KGB chairman] Kryuchkov. [Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet Anatoly] Lukyanov seems to be hovering sympathetically in the wings.

In a way I am not surprised: I had always wondered whether I would one day be called back from leave or a trip because Gorbachev had been overthrown or assassinated.

Later in the morning the BBC reports that the RSFSR Supreme Soviet - which was in any case to have met today to discuss the Union Treaty - will now discuss the coup. The coup leaders will be tempted to suppress the meeting, so this could be the first test of their determination, and of the willingness of the liberals to oppose them: whether this is the beginning of a new dictatorship, or of civil war; or the last doomed stand of the reactionaries.

I ring [Head of Political Section] David Manning in Moscow to tell him we will get the midday plane to Moscow. He says that Moscow is normal: no troops to speak of on the streets, and people on their way to work. Sasha has difficulty in getting the tickets: the Gorkom are all at sixes and sevens. No doubt they are trying to work out what is involved in a state of emergency, who is in charge, what they themselves are supposed to do, and whether they should refuse to do it. On the way to the airport Oleg takes us to the Vologda kremlin and the old wooden centre of the town. They are remarkably unspoiled: the view along the river is very Russian, unchanged since the nineteenth century, and at the same time it has not been all prettied up like Suzdal.

Oleg is naturally upset about the coup, but critical of Gorbachev for dithering for so long. We tell him we will be back to continue our tour when the troubles are over. Tikhomirov, last night's pilot, makes a point of coming up to us at the airport to say goodbye. A very nice man.

Julie Bell, my new Private Secretary, comes with Konstantin to the airport, bringing a sheaf of Embassy reporting telegrams to the airport. There is the text of the Emergency Committee's "Decree No 1", which bans parties and orders the people and the economy to behave themselves. Meanwhile [RSFSR President] Yeltsin has already denounced the decisions of the Emergency Committee, said its decrees have no validity on Russian soil, told the soldiers not to obey them, and called for a general strike.

Konstantin is convinced that yesterday's incident at the airport was a deliberate attempt to prevent us from leaving Moscow on the eve of the coup. He swears that the airport official with whom he was arguing had a portrait of Stalin over his desk.

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Barricades on Kutuzovsky prospekt

As we drive in from Bykovo airport, we pass a column of about a hundred military vehicles stopped on the Novoryazanskoe Shosse. Forty of them are armoured personnel carriers and there are a few light tanks and lorries towing canvas-covered shapes which could be guns. Konstantin says they are paratroopers. The soldiers are lolling about and looking quite unmilitary. A little further on an armoured personnel carrier is on its own, broken down. I am reminded of descriptions of the scenes on the roads into Prague in August 1968. As we get to Red Square we stop to look at three heavy tanks opposite the Spassky Gate. One has a text of Yeltsin's appeal pasted on the back. Either the soldiers haven't seen it, or they don't care. Three more tanks are outside the Rossiya Hotel.

Our boys on the streets report meetings reported in the early afternoon on Manezh Square and outside the RSFSR Building. People are building flimsy barricades. [My wife] Gill and her new social secretary, Ann Brown, go out to look around. They come back a couple of hours later: the troops and the people are talking to one another, friendly and relaxed.

It is rumoured that Mossoviet [the City Council building] has been taken over by paratroopers. Peter Jones, the military attache, reports later that this is not so: a block was put on the building, but has since been withdrawn.

There are several stories that soldiers and armoured vehicles have joined the crowd supporting Yeltsin at the Russian Parliament. One of our people saw two APCs drive up to the building to the cheers of the people.

I make several attempts to ring [Gorbachev’s senior foreign policy aide Anatoly] Chernyaev at home and in the office: his phone doesn't work. [German ambassador] Klaus Blech tells me later that he has driven past the Central Committee building on Staraya Ploshchad: there are no cars and no signs of activity. In all the previous turning points of Soviet history, notably the ousting of Khrushchev, the Party headquarters has been the hub of activity. It is a measure of the decline of the party that it seems to have such a minor role even in this right wing coup. Nobody has bothered to tell us whether Gorbachev has been succeeded as General Secretary. We seem definitely to be still in the post-Communist era. I suppose that is good news as far as it goes.

Gill and I watch the evening news programme, Vremya. It is a very strange mixture. There is a rerun of the press conference in the afternoon, at which the new leadership tried to explain their position. A young journalist from Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Tanya Malkina, asked them if they realised that they had just attempted an anti-constitutional coup d'état; and another asked Yanayev what he thought of Yeltsin's call for a nation-wide strike (thus enlightening millions of Soviet citizens who didn't know Yeltsin had said any such thing). Gill remarks afterwards that the Yanayev and Co. look like a lot of Muppets. There is the usual grim woman reading the decrees of the Emergency Committee (including "Decree no 2", which bans all the independent newspapers, including presumably Ogonek, Moscow News, and Nezavisimaya Gazeta), and a message from the Committee chiding Yeltsin, as if he was a naughty boy, for his remarks earlier in the day. General Kalinin, in charge of the emergency regime in Moscow, announces that there is no need for a curfew as yet, and that the troops won't hurt anyone if they are left in peace. But there are also shots of the demonstrations in Leningrad, on Moscow’s Manezh Square and outside the RSFSR building, including Yeltsin denouncing the actions of the Committee, a shot of a tank with the Russian flag on it, another of a soldier waving an empty magazine and saying that he will in no circumstances shoot on the crowd, and interviews with men building barricades and saying that they are determined to defend the RSFSR Supreme Soviet which they themselves elected. The impression is confused, as if the new leadership were unsure of themselves and hoped they could win without having to be too ruthless or go too far.

By midnight all is quiet.

No doubt people will ask why we never predicted the coup. The answer is that the possibility of a coup has always been endemic, but that coups are by their nature unpredictable. I wrote in a telegram of 30 January 1989:

"Even the improbable fifth scenario ['The Russian nationalists (perhaps with the military) take over, and attempt to reassert traditional values, national discipline, and imperial power (notably in the republics'] cannot be entirely ruled out. It may have been something like this that Yakovlev had in mind when he spoke in Perm on 16 December of the threat of 'an aggressive and vengeful conservatism, celebrating its victory.' Solzhenitsyn propagates a respectable version of this conservative nationalism. It is propagated by an intellectually bankrupt combination of Russian chauvinists and anti-Semites. They appeal to popular sentiment, to some leading intellectuals, and perhaps to some in the military. Their ascendancy would be nasty and brutish: the revelations of glasnost by no means rule out a return to repression or even bloodshed. But for the time being it is not a serious risk."

But the reactionaries will be unable to make the economy work by decree, any more than Canute could make the tide flow back. So economy will go from bad to worse, perhaps after a brief lurch for the better as people work harder under the influence of fear. That is on the assumption that the reactionaries can make their will prevail. After this first day, that is still not yet entirely clear.

Tuesday, 20 August

[Embassy staff members] Guy Spindler and Richard Astle report from the White House, the Russian Parliament, where they have been last night and early this morning. A column of armoured vehicles has joined the troops supporting Yeltsin. There are now about forty APVs and seven heavy tanks there. They are from the Taman Division and a parachute unit from Ryazan. The soldiers seem quite clear that they are there to support Yeltsin and Russia. Some were led in by their officers. Some of the soldiers claim that a whole regiment of the Taman division has now come out for Yeltsin. There are firm reports from those in the building that they have been joined by a Major General Lebed, also from Ryazan. The barricades are becoming more solid as Mossoviet brings its earthmovers into play. It looks more and more as if the coup leaders made a major error by not arresting Yeltsin right at the beginning.

"After lunch I meet the British business community to outline our view of the situation. I tell them that we can't predict the outcome of the coup. There could still be bloodshed. But our present feeling is that the conspirators have made a serious mistake by not acting more ruthlessly."

The situation in the media is also confused. Izvestiya did not at first come out; the printers struck when they were prevented from printing Yeltsin's appeal, and in the end the message was carried. And even Pravda has reports of Yeltsin's statements, the scenes on the streets, and the foreign criticism. It also has the full text of yesterday's statement by the Committee on Constitutional Supervision, which was also carried on Vremya. The Committee say that the State of Emergency will only be legal if it secures a two thirds majority in the Supreme Soviet, which Yanayev has now called for 26 August. So despite the press clamp down the people have been given all the information they need to make up their minds.

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Barricades near the Russian White House

In the morning, Klaus Blech tells the four ambassadors that he has heard on German radio that Genscher has instructed him to call on Yeltsin, [Foreign Minister] Shevarnadze and Alexander Yakovlev. He is now trying to fix up meetings. He says that General Varennikov, the Commander of the Ground Forces, came back from leave yesterday. This is odd, since one would have expected Varennikov to be closely involved in the operational planning of the coup, especially since he was one of those who signed the "patriotic" appeal a few weeks ago. An American woman political officer says they have rumours of 7-8 arrests of "democrats". She is unable to give the source, and I remark that it is improbable that our people, who are continually in the White House, would have heard nothing if the rumours were true. The Frenchman says that General Lebed has issued a statement saying that his troops will not fire on the people. He says it is also rumoured that Yazov claims that he never agreed that his name should go on the Emergency Proclamation. If true, it means he thinks the coup will fail. But the Frenchman is unable to say why he thinks it may be true.

Sasha has seen no troops on his drive down from Vologda. He thinks that "these samozvantsy" [Rn. imposters] - the Emergency Committee - will not be long in office.

[Head of Embassy Internal Political section] Geoff Murrell reports that Rair Simonyan was optimistic over lunch that the coup would peter out. He was surprised that Yazov's name figured on the Emergency Proclamation: Yazov is a loyal officer who was unlikely to go against Gorbachev. This lends some credence to the French rumour.

At lunchtime I recommend that I should be instructed to call on Yeltsin; [Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary] Stephen Wall agrees. He asks us to help set up a telephone call between Yeltsin and the Prime Minister. My people start to arrange it.

After lunch I meet the British business community to outline our view of the situation. I tell them that we can't predict the outcome of the coup. There could still be bloodshed. But our present feeling is that the conspirators have made a serious mistake by not acting more ruthlessly. They now seem to be losing the initiative to Yeltsin and the democrats, our advice at the moment is that they should keep their people in place, especially those in remote - and therefore safe - construction sites. But I cannot of course predict the future: anything could happen, from the collapse of the coup through inanition to a bloody civil war.

As I go downstairs again just before five p.m. we begin getting phone calls from the Russian Parliament and elsewhere that they are expecting an attack imminently. The independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, which was banned yesterday, has come back on the air today: it broadcasts an order by [deputy mayor of Moscow] Stankevich, who is inside the parliament building, that all women and children are to leave it.

I drive to the Ukraina Hotel with Geoff Murrell and others. The Kutuzovsky Bridge is blockaded with tanks flying Russian and Ukrainian flags. There are people wandering along the bridge, and cars parked all along the embankment opposite the Russian Parliament. We walk across there. There is a barricade at the other end of the bridge, some cranes are being brought along the embankment from the North, and there are a couple more tanks. The parachutists and their APVs have gone. There are ambulances in clutches, waiting. Mobile toilets are being used both as part of the barricades and for their proper purpose. Groups of people are standing in knots listening to the radio. A young man jumps on a tank with a loudhailer. He says: "Foreigners are taking photographs and asking questions: where are your weapons? How are you going to fight the troops? But we aren't going to fight the troops. The troops are our friends and countrymen. We are going to greet them and reason with them." He gets a cheer when he tells the crowd that the Ryazan Airborne Academy has come out in their favour, and claims that the soldiers have formed into groups to meet the incoming troops and persuade them not to fire.

We go round the back of the building: Guy Spindler says that there were perhaps 200,000 people meeting there earlier in the afternoon. There are still a lot of people, milling about aimlessly, some of them building flimsy barricades out of park railings, bits of tree, and climbing frame from children's playgrounds. Cobblestones have been dug up in the classical revolutionary fashion. There is no sign of organisation and no sign of serious preparation for resistance. The place is rife with rumours: that a column of tanks is on the way; that there will be an assault from the air; that gas will be used. The people seem cheerful despite the drizzling rain. But it is hard to imagine them resisting an even halfway serious assault. The most they could achieve is to become martyrs.

Geoff and I then walk back to Manezh Square. It is blocked off by troop transporters. The crews are standing around and sitting on their vehicles. They are mostly very small - less than 5'6"; and look very young about 16 or 17, though I suppose they must be a bit older than that. Quite a few of them are wearing badges with the Russian flag. They look confused and unhappy. A woman asks one of them what he thinks he is doing. He says that they were told in the middle of Sunday night that they were going on a training exercise. They did not take an unusual amount of food or ammunition with them. It was only when they arrived in Moscow that they heard that President Gorbachev was ill, and that they were there to preserve order. He gets more and more unhappy as the conversation develops and finally breaks it off, saying that his nerves are fraying. Someone then puts a radio on his APC. It is broadcasting Yeltsin's appeal to the soldiers not to sully the glory of Russian arms by shedding Russian blood (the kind of rhetoric that Gorbachev was incapable of).

A few yards further on a youngish man in a grey three-piece tweed suit is defending the army against the criticism of another group of civilians. "Aren't you ashamed of attacking Soviet power? Aren't you afraid of being arrested?" "Look at him", a woman says scornfully, "the last surviving remnant of Soviet power".

The young recruits have no officers near to support them against these attacks on their morale. But a few more yards away a young captain is arguing with a civilian about the shortage of sausage. The officer denies he has any privileges. Indeed he has a worse time than the civilian: his duties prevent him from taking time off to queue in the shops.

We hear some shouting. A youngish man in a suit runs up, crying: "Everyone to the White House! Everyone to the barricades!" As we move off people start drifting up Kalinin Prospect towards the Russian Parliament.

We walk home across the Bolshoi Kamenny Most [bridge near British Embassy]. Tanks guard the approaches, and there is an assault bulldozer which could sweep the barricades around the Parliament away in the twinkling of an eye.

"Fax reports put out by the Russian press agencies say that support for the junta is crumbling throughout the country: Nazarbaev [Kazakhstan], Kravchuk [Ukraine], and the Belorussians have now come out against them, and the Leningrad naval base has announced its support for city mayor Anatoly Sobchak."

Back in the Embassy they tell me that Stankevich has broadcast the details of Gorbachev's arrest on Russian radio. The operation was organised by Colonel General Maltsev of the Anti Aircraft Forces. Chernyaev and [Gorbachev adviser] Shahnazarov and his son were arrested at the same time. No wonder I couldn't get through to Chernyaev yesterday. My heart feels sick.

Vremya is quite different in tone from last night. It is little more than a stream of announcements. A number of black marketeers have been arrested, including several from joint ventures. There will be more foreign currency for individual foreign travel. An uneasy General Kalinin announces that a curfew will be imposed in Moscow from 2100 hrs to 0500 hrs, starting tonight. Pavlov has been taken ill and replaced by Deputy Prime Minister Dolguzhiev. A youngish man with the look of a working class writer appeals to soldiers and civilians to be nice to one another, and deplores the rude language which Yeltsin has used in public to describe the junta.

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Yeltsin climbs on to a tank to deliver his famous speech: 
"Your commanders have ordered you to storm the White
House and to arrest me. But I as the elected President of
Russia give you the order to turn your tanks and not to
fight against your own people" 

Gill rings from our friends the Senokosovs. She has been out walking and met them by the Ukraina Hotel. She has gone back to them for the night because of the curfew. She was outside the White House when the Prime Minister's telephone message to Yeltsin was announced and got a cheer. According to Radio Russia, she says, [Presidential Council members] Bakatin and Primakov are in the Russian Parliament with Yeltsin - uncharacteristically brave for Primakov, but perhaps I am doing him an injustice. Fax reports put out by the Russian press agencies say that support for the junta is crumbling throughout the country: Nazarbaev [Kazakhstan], Kravchuk [Ukraine], and the Belorussians have now come out against them, and the Leningrad naval base has announced its support for city mayor Anatoly Sobchak. CNN is reporting rumours that Kryuchkov and Yazov have resigned, and that Moiseyev is now Defence Minister. It would be good to think that the hard men are fraying at the edges, though Moiseyev is likely to be more ruthless and effective than Yazov. The rumours are later denied by the Ministry of Defence. But in any case, as Gill says, the junta risk losing the initiative if they do not move tonight. It could be their last opportunity to assert themselves decisively.

As I go to bed after midnight, the Embassy is getting phone calls about sporadic small arms fire around the Russian Parliament. I get up again when I hear on the Russian radio that a dozen tanks and some twenty APVs have moved past the US Embassy, towards the White House, and over the first barricade; and that one person has been killed and several wounded in the shooting. A faxed report from the Russian Parliament says that they are expecting an infiltration attack by special duties officers of the KGB. Inside the Russian Parliament are 300 armed militia, 300 Afghan veterans, and a number of unarmed students. When we report this to the Resident Clerk he says that the Prime Minister wants me to tell Yeltsin that we have reason to believe he will be attacked during the night. I get through by phone with no difficulty to Sukhanov, Yeltsin's assistant. The quality of the line is the best I've yet experienced in Moscow - he sounds as clear as if he is in the next room. He doesn't seem very appreciative of the PM's message. Admittedly it has arrived too late, and wouldn't have been much practical use anyway; but it is a genuine gesture of solidarity. He says that he knows the armoured vehicles are on the move. But he can't see them from the White House, and doesn't have any details of the shooting. But Yeltsin's supporters are getting ready to defend themselves. He agrees I may ring him again if I need to. He will do the same.

It is nearly two o'clock by the time I get to bed.

Part 2 is here

Part 3 is here

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