Military history

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In the winter months of early 1991, nearly six years after the Politburo had chosen him as a younger, energetic standard-bearer who could save the party and state, Gorbachev, approaching his sixtieth birthday, felt exhausted. His attempt to create real, competitive politics gave rise to a potent rival, Boris Yeltsin, who became a rallying point for many who opposed Gorbachev, the establishment and the party. Nationalities long suffocated inside the Soviet Union began to awaken, with aspirations for independence, something Gorbachev had never foreseen.

Gorbachev’s perestroika, or restructuring—which began with a goal of rejuvenating socialism, and later was aimed at creating a hybrid of socialism and capitalism—was never a full-throated drive to free markets. Gorbachev had experimented with capitalism, and given permission for the first private entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses, known as the cooperatives. But shortages, disruption and hardship spread across the country. A catastrophic drop in oil extraction, along with low oil prices, took a heavy toll; foreign currency reserves were almost exhausted, and a lack of commercial credits made imports almost impossible. Flour was rationed. Gorbachev announced at a meeting of the Security Council one day in the spring that, in two or three months, the government would no longer be able to feed the country.1 And his halting half-steps away from the centrally planned economy led to demands, championed by Yeltsin, for a more radical leap to the free market.

“There were already bread lines in Moscow like those for sausage two years before,” Chernyaev recalled. “I took a car on Saturday and drove all around Moscow. Bread stores were closed or absolutely empty—not figuratively, but literally!”2 He wrote in his diary on March 31, “I don’t think Moscow has seen anything like this in all its history—even in the hungriest years.” And, he added, “on that day, certainly, nothing remained of the image of Gorbachev.”3

The aggrieved losers in this vortex of change began to resist. They included the military, which felt humiliated as soldiers and tanks retreated from Europe, only to discover they were almost destitute at home; the party elite, which lost its monopoly on power; and the security agencies, primarily the KGB, who saw themselves as guardians of a power structure under siege and a country near disintegration. Gorbachev attempted to buy time. He tried to satisfy the disillusioned old guard while hanging on to the allies of perestroika, the progressive intellectuals, but he could not do both, and succeeded at neither. The progressives abandoned him for Yeltsin, a more promising agent of change. The hard-liners pushed Gorbachev to use force, and declare a state of emergency to reassert control in the old Soviet tradition. A coterie of the hardliners, from the KGB, the military and the party, would soon take matters into their own hands.

In earlier years, Gorbachev and Reagan, in a courageous break with the past, managed to slow the speeding locomotive of the Cold War arms race. After some hesitation, Bush also realized Gorbachev was a man to do business with, a negotiating partner, an anchor in a stormy sea.

Then the anchor broke loose. Gorbachev lost control.

Very early on the morning of Sunday, January 13, Soviet tanks, led by members of Alpha Group, an elite KGB special forces unit, attacked pro-independence demonstrators at the television tower in Vilnius, Lithuania. The troops opened fire and killed more than a dozen people in a massacre that caused a wave of apprehension and revulsion. The assault had been secretly orchestrated in Moscow by the hardliners around Gorbachev, perhaps in expectation that Gorbachev would have no choice but to order a crackdown and state of emergency. On the night of the assault, Kremlin records showed the hard-liners met in the office of Gorbachev’s chief of staff, Valery Boldin, from 7:15 P.M. until 2:30 A.M., shortly after the shooting began.4

The day after the Vilnius massacre, speaking to parliament, Gorbachev insisted he had known nothing about the violence until it was over, “when they woke me up.” He blamed independence leaders in Lithuania for provoking it. His comments didn’t answer the central question: either Gorbachev, as commander in chief, was in control of his own security forces or he wasn’t. Both were disturbing possibilities. Liberals who had been at Gorbachev’s side, appalled by the use of force, quit the party, including the entire editorial board of Moscow News, a leading voice of perestroika, which published a devastating joint statement from the intellectuals. Chernyaev wrote in his diary on January 14 that Gorbachev’s address to parliament was “a disorganized, confusing speech full of rambling digressions …”5

“I was in complete despair,” said Chernyaev, perhaps Gorbachev’s most loyal adviser. He wrote a letter of resignation, admonishing Gorbachev that “…you chained yourself to policies that you can only continue by force. And so you contradict your own philosophy.” The hard-liners were “pathetic and shameful,” Chernyaev said. “They discredit you, making the center look ridiculous. And you’re following their logic, which is basically the code of the streets—you beat me up … so now I’ll call my big brother and you’ll get it!”

“You’re losing the most important thing that we’ve gained from new thinking—trust,” he wrote. “You’ll never be trusted again, no matter what you do.” Chernyaev reminisced about his partnership with Gorbachev “the great innovator and father of perestroika.” But “now I don’t recognize or understand him.”6

However, Chernyaev never gave Gorbachev the letter, and did not resign. In the days that followed, Gorbachev did not order more repression, as the hard-liners hoped he would. But at the same time, Chernyaev said, Gorbachev never figured out that his public appeals to reason and negotiation could not halt the Baltic secession. It was all but inevitable.

The American and British biological weapons team departed the Soviet Union on the weekend of January 19–20, even more worried than when they arrived. In late January and February, the teams met in Washington to go over their notes and write a report. On March 5, the new British prime minister, John Major, told Gorbachev of his concerns about the biological warfare program during a tête-à-tête meeting in Moscow. On March 25, Baker again raised it in papers sent to Gorbachev that outlined concerns raised by the January visits.7 Neither Major nor Baker said a word about it in public.

When Pasechnik’s revelations were first made, the rationale for keeping it secret was to avoid creating problems for Gorbachev. Now Gorbachev’s situation was far more vulnerable. A new strategic arms treaty, years in the making, was finally nearing completion. If details of a massive Soviet biological weapons program and blatant violation of earlier treaty commitments became public, it would swiftly wreck any chance for Senate ratification.

On April 5, Braithwaite, the British ambassador, came to see Chernyaev, this time with a formal, written message from Major, a detailed, damning and very accurate list of findings based on the outcome of the January visits.8 On May 11, Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh delivered an answer to Baker’s papers from March, continuing the cover-up on every point.

In late May, Margaret Thatcher, now out of office, visited Gorbachev in the Kremlin. After a dinner with him, she returned to the British ambassador’s residence, where Braithwaite was waiting, along with the American ambassador, Matlock, whom Thatcher had invited. With an after-dinner drink in her hand, Thatcher settled into a chair in Braithwaite’s study, turned to Matlock and said, “Please get a message to my friend George,” meaning the president.

“We’ve got to help Mikhail,” she pleaded. “Of course, you Americans can’t and shouldn’t have to do it all yourselves, but George will have to lead the effort, just as he did with Kuwait.” She paused, Matlock recalled, and then explained why she felt so strongly. “Just a few years back, Ron and I would have given the world to get what has already happened here.” She wanted Bush to invite Gorbachev to the Group of 7 summit in London in July and deliver a massive Western aid package. Matlock hesitated. The Soviet economy was a shambles, and pouring aid into it might be a waste, he said. Thatcher glared. “You’re talking like a diplomat!” she responded. “Just finding excuses for doing nothing. Why can’t you think like a statesman? We need a political decision to support this process, which is so much in everyone’s interest.”

Matlock sent Thatcher’s message to Bush that night. Then he wrote in his own journal, “I think that Mrs. Thatcher is right.”9

On June 17, Valentin Pavlov, the prime minister and one of the hardliners who had planned the Vilnius attack, asked the Supreme Soviet to give him extraordinary powers that were granted only to the president. He did not tell Gorbachev beforehand. It was a daring power grab, but Gorbachev reacted only with a statement that he hadn’t endorsed the proposal. In a closed meeting of the assembly, other hardliners at the center of the gathering storm—KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo—also backed Pavlov’s move.

Matlock was surprised at Gorbachev’s timidity. Why didn’t he fire these appointees trying to usurp his power? On June 20, Matlock had coffee with Gavriil Popov, a close ally of Yeltsin who had just been elected mayor of Moscow on the shoulders of the growing democratic movement. When they were alone in the library at Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, Popov took out a sheet of paper, scribbled a note and handed it to Matlock. In a large, uneven Russian scrawl, it said:



Yeltsin was at that moment in the United States.

Matlock then wrote on the same sheet:


Popov wrote on the paper and shoved it back to Matlock:


   Popov took the paper back when Matlock had read it, tore it into small pieces and put them in his pocket.10

Matlock sent an urgent message to Washington for Bush, who was to meet with Yeltsin at the White House later that day. Within hours, Matlock was instructed to take a warning to Gorbachev. About 8:20 Moscow, early evening but still broad daylight at this time of year, Matlock arrived at Gorbachev’s office. Chernyaev was present. Gorbachev greeted him as “Comrade Ambassador!” and lavished praise on Matlock, which made him uncomfortable. Matlock sat at the long table in Gorbachev’s office facing the window, with Gorbachev and Chernyaev on the other side.

“Mr. President,” Matlock said, “President Bush has asked me to notify you of a report we have received which we find greatly disturbing, although we cannot confirm it. It is based on more than rumor but less than hard information. It is that there is an effort under way to remove you, and it could happen at any time, even this week.”

Matlock did not name his source. He was trying to convey that the information was not from intelligence sources, but that was just what Chernyaev and Gorbachev assumed he was saying. On his notepad, Chernyaev wrote, “American services” had given the warning the coup would be the next day.11

Both Gorbachev and Chernyaev laughed. Matlock recalled that Gorbachev then grew serious. “Tell President Bush I am touched. I have felt for some time that we are partners, and now he has proved it. Thank him for his concern. He has done just what a friend should do. But tell him not to worry. I have everything well in hand. You’ll see tomorrow.”

According to Chernyaev, Gorbachev also said, “It’s a hundred percent improbable.”12

After Matlock spoke, Gorbachev lapsed into a soliloquy, saying that things were unsettled, Pavlov was inexperienced and had realized the mistake of his power grab earlier in the week, Yeltsin was being more cooperative, a new union treaty would soon be signed and Gorbachev’s visit to the London summit would be a further step into the world economy.

Looking back, Matlock said later that Gorbachev may have wrongly interpreted what he was saying, and assumed he was referring to the reactionary forces in parliament as the source of trouble. Chernyaev’s notes confirm Gorbachev mistakenly thought Matlock was referring to the parliamentary hard-liners, not Kryuchkov of the KGB and Yazov from the military.

The next day Pavlov’s power-grab proposal was defeated in parliament. Talking to reporters afterward, Gorbachev was flanked by a grim Yazov, Pugo and Kryuchkov, and said, with a large grin, “The ‘coup’ is over.”13 But Matlock was not sanguine about Gorbachev. “He was the one with the most to lose, and yet he was acting like a somnambulist, wandering around oblivious to his surroundings.” In fact, Gorbachev got warnings from other sources, too. Just after Matlock left, Gorbachev told Chernyaev that he’d received a warning the day before from his special envoy, Yevgeny Primakov.

“Beware!” Primakov had insisted. “You’re trusting the KGB and your security service too much. Are you sure you are safe?”

Gorbachev replied, “What a chicken! I told him, ‘Zhenya, calm down. You of all people shouldn’t yield to panic.’”14

Two nights after Matlock’s warning, Bush phoned Gorbachev, who brushed off the chances of a coup.

“A thousand percent impossible,” he said.15

On June 21, Valery Yarynich walked into a small conference room with a single wood table on the upper floors of the Institute for World Economy and International Relations, a prestigious Soviet research institute in Moscow. Yarynich was the expert on communications who had worked many years in the Strategic Rocket Forces. He worked on Perimeter, the semiautomatic system for launching a retaliatory nuclear strike. Perimeter was still ultra-secret. After Perimeter was finally put into operation in 1985, Yarynich served during the Gorbachev years at a think tank inside the military’s General Staff headquarters in Moscow, where he concluded, based on mathematical models, that deterrence could be guaranteed with far fewer nuclear weapons.

Yarynich was invited to the conference room to participate in a meeting between Russian and American civilian experts on the problems of command and control of nuclear forces. Such a meeting would have been unheard of in earlier years, but in the atmosphere of greater openness, it was possible to talk about subjects that had long been strictly offlimits. Waiting in the conference room was one of the foremost civilian experts in the United States on nuclear command and control, Bruce Blair, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think tank. Blair came in a coat and tie, and carried a small notebook. He had a lot of questions. During service in the Air Force, he spent two years as a Minuteman missile launch officer in the early 1970s, working shifts in underground silos. Subsequently, he carried out top-secret research on the vulnerability of American command and control of nuclear weapons for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. At Brookings, Blair wrote a book about American nuclear systems, Strategic Command and Control. For his next book, Blair had been searching, since 1987, for clues about Soviet command and control. While Blair had valuable sources in the United States, it was excruciatingly difficult to learn the truth in the Soviet Union; anything about nuclear command and control was top secret. Often, Blair gathered fragments of information but could not figure out the larger picture. Day after frustrating day, in countless smoke-filled rooms, he conducted interviews. When he met with Yarynich in the conference room, Blair realized he had finally connected with a real expert, someone who shared Blair’s depth of knowledge about launch systems and procedures. Yarynich emphasized that he was speaking only for himself, not for his superiors. “He’s here on his own, a confidential meeting,” Blair wrote in his notebook. He also noted that Yarynich was from the Center for Operational and Strategic Research in the General Staff, a specialist on command and control. However, Blair didn’t write down Yarynich’s name; in his view it was still too sensitive.

Blair found it took hours and hours of conversation to extract anything useful from Soviet military officers. But Yarynich was surprisingly assertive; he seemed to be “someone who had a lot on his mind.” Yarynich told Blair a Kremlin leader might have only two to four minutes to make a decision about retaliation if warned of a missile attack. The Soviet leader might have to make a decision in the dangerous situation known as “launch on warning,” in other words, firing off nuclear missiles based entirely on a warning. If a false warning, it could be a disastrous decision. Blair took careful notes.

From his American sources, Blair had heard of a Soviet system called the Dead Hand, a computer-driven machine that would, in the event the Soviet leadership were wiped out, launch a retaliatory attack without human hands on the button. When Blair asked about it, Yarynich responded that there was no Dead Hand in the Russian system. Blair wrote those words in his notebook. But Yarynich was careful to tell Blair something else, too. There was no automatic Dead Hand, but there was a semiautomatic system of some kind. Blair didn’t fully comprehend that day what Yarynich was telling him, but some details were in his notes. He didn’t connect the dots, at first.16

A year and a half had passed since Pasechnik’s defection. Gorbachev had been the recipient of repeated, specific complaints from the Americans and British about Biopreparat. The latest came in a letter June 19 from Bush to Gorbachev, which once again asserted that the Soviet Union had a large-scale biological weapons program and called for another meeting of experts.17 Gorbachev wrote back to Bush in mid-July. His letter pledged to keep up the spirit of “frank dialogue” between them. But Gorbachev was not forthcoming. He followed the script of the Soviet cover-up—deny the weapons program, proclaim a desire for openness and refer to the narrow line between offensive and defensive biological research.

Soon after sending Bush the letter, Gorbachev joined leaders of the Western industrial democracies in London, as Thatcher had urged. On July 17, Gorbachev met Bush at Winfield House, a mansion in Regent’s Park used as the official American ambassador’s residence. Gorbachev made an appeal to Bush for economic assistance, but Bush felt the Soviet Union was not ready.18 After lunch, Bush and Gorbachev sat alone, with only interpreters and aides, to again take up the thorny issue of biological weapons. “Gorbachev categorically denied all the accusations,” Chernyaev said. According to Chernyaev, an exchange between Bush and Gorbachev followed:

Bush: Mikhail, I received your letter. I don’t know what’s going on; either we’re misinterpreting things, or your people are doing something wrong or misunderstanding something…Our specialists continue to alarm us … It’s hard for me to figure it out.

Gorbachev: George, I have figured it out. I can tell you with confidence: we aren’t making biological weapons … I asked for a report on this matter. The report is ready, it’s been signed by Minister of Defense Yazov and other people. I told you the essence of this report, its main conclusions. I suggest we finish with this.

Bush: Let’s do that. If our people are mistaken, or misleading us, they’re in trouble. But we need clarity. Maybe another meeting of experts would help.

Chernyaev said he, too, was concerned about being misled. “And I broached it in a memo to Gorbachev: Did he know himself exactly where matters stood, was he sure he wasn’t being misled as had happened with the Krasnoyarsk radar station and in some other cases?” Gorbachev replied that he was confident. “I know!”19

Nearly five years after Reykjavik, the United States and the Soviet Union finally agreed on a treaty to reduce the most dangerous strategic nuclear weapons. But the agreement, more than seven hundred pages long, was not as sweeping as Reagan and Gorbachev had envisioned at Reykjavik. Instead of the elimination of all ballistic missiles, or 50 percent fewer nuclear warheads, the treaty left the two superpowers with forces about 30 percent lower. Each had plenty of firepower: even after the treaty, the two countries would be allowed a total of eighteen thousand nuclear warheads. There were some notable gains: the agreement sliced deeply into the largest Soviet missiles. The number of SS-18s would be cut in half, to 154, and stringent new compliance measures would be imposed to prevent cheating—including twelve types of on-site inspections.20

When Bush and Gorbachev signed the agreement in St. Vladimir’s Hall at the Kremlin on the afternoon of July 31, there was almost no trace of the old dispute over the Strategic Defense Initiative, the single issue on which the Reykjavik summit foundered. Gorbachev, who had protested so long and so loudly about weapons in space, did not mention it once. Bush noted it only in passing. Gorbachev had been urged to build a Soviet Star Wars machine by the military-industrial complex. He did not. Gorbachev had also been urged to build a massive retaliatory missile force—the “asymmetric response”—to overwhelm the American defensive shield. He did not. One of Gorbachev’s greatest accomplishments was in the things he did not do.

An argument was often made in later years that it was the Strategic Defense Initiative that bankrupted the Soviet Union. It is true that Reagan’s vision gave Soviet leaders a fright—it symbolized the unbridled nature of American ambitions and technological superiority. But in the end, Reagan did not build it. The Soviet Union did not build one either. Gorbachev was determined to avoid an arms race in space, and Soviet technology could not possibly have met the challenge. The early plans for a Soviet “Star Wars” never reached fruition. The Soviet system bankrupted itself, and by late 1991, the end was near. When Gorbachev and Bush signed the strategic arms treaty, the Soviet economy was imploding, sucking oxygen out of everything, including the military-industrial complex. The fabled design bureaus and defense factories ran out of cash, and gradually ground to a halt. The powerful riptide of the economy pulled everything down with it.

On August 3, the eve of his annual vacation, Gorbachev offered some private, candid thoughts to Chernyaev. Chernyaev remembers him sitting on the wing of an armchair. “I’m tired as hell, Tolya,” he said. “And tomorrow, right before I leave, I have another government meeting. The harvest, transportation, debts, communications, no money, the market falling apart.” He added, “Everywhere you look, things are in a bad way.” Gorbachev brightened when he remembered the agreement with Yeltsin July 23 on a new union treaty. Gorbachev and Yeltsin had discussed replacing some of the hard-liners, including Yazov, the defense minister, and Kryuchkov, the KGB chief, as they restructured the highest levels of government. Gorbachev planned to formally sign the new union treaty on August 20 at a Kremlin ceremony. “But his overall mood was still dark,” Chernyaev recalled.

“Oh, Tolya,” Gorbachev said, “everything has become so petty, vulgar, provincial. You look at it and think, to hell with it all! But who would I leave it to? I’m so tired.”21

Gorbachev took Chernyaev with him on the holiday to Foros in the Crimea. After lunch on Sunday, August 18, Gorbachev went to work on his speech about the new union treaty. He planned to fly back to Moscow on Monday for the ceremony on Tuesday. The treaty would radically decentralize the Soviet Union by giving the republics broad new powers, including control over their own resources.

On Sunday, the hard-liners swung into action.22

On the grounds of Gorbachev’s resort compound, code-named Zarya, or Dawn, duty officers stood by with a suitcase for command of the Soviet nuclear forces. The suitcase was known as the chemodanchik, or little suitcase, and formally called the Cheget. It connected to a special communications network, Kavkaz, that would enable the Soviet leader to authorize the launching of nuclear weapons. There was also a small portfolio with written codes. In the Soviet command and control system, as it stood in 1991, three leaders—the president, the defense minister and the chief of the General Staff—would have to give a permission to launch. All three were accompanied by the Cheget suitcases. This permission would be passed simultaneously to the General Staff headquarters in Moscow and the three commanders-in-chief: of land-based rockets, naval and air forces. Once permission was given, the actual launch order would be issued by the General Staff to the three commanders-in-chief. Thus, Gorbachev’s suitcase was not a nuclear button but a communications link for monitoring and decision making. There was also the option of switching on the secret Perimeter system. The nuclear suitcase and Perimeter were put into operation shortly before Gorbachev took office. Akhromeyev had played a key role in making sure the modernized system was on duty and ready. But Gorbachev regarded the whole apparatus with disdain. He abhorred the thought of nuclear war.

At the Zarya compound, nine duty officers worked shifts in groups of three, two operators and one officer, squeezed into small rooms in a guest house about one hundred yards from Gorbachev’s lodge. The doors were always closed, and they took turns leaving for meals. When off duty, they left the compound and bunked several miles away at an isolated military lodge, which had only a local phone and no communications.

At 4:30 P.M. on Sunday, Gorbachev talked over the phone with Georgi Shakhnazarov, one of his leading advisers, who was at a nearby compound, about the forthcoming speech.

At 4:32 P.M., Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Kirillov, the commander of the nuclear watch, was startled by a signal from his equipment that all communications links were down. The television in his room went off too. The only working line was a radio-phone connected to a government phone exchange in Mukholatka, a nearby small town. Kirillov called there and asked to be connected to the commanders in Moscow. They said it was impossible, they had no communications with anyone. At 4:35 P.M., another duty officer called Mukholatka and asked why there was no line to Moscow. “Accident,” he was told.

Ten meters away, in the same building as the duty officers, Chernyaev was in his small room, with the windows closed and the air-conditioning running. An assistant interrupted him to say a high-level delegation had arrived unexpectedly from Moscow and was entering Gorbachev’s building. “Something strange is going on,” the assistant said. “Did you know they cut off communications?” Chernyaev immediately picked up the phone to call Moscow. All three receivers at his desk—to the government exchange, the satellite line and the ordinary internal phone for the compound—were dead.

At 4:40 P.M., Kirillov was summoned out of the duty officers’ room. In the hall, he saw General Valentin Varennikov, commander of Soviet ground forces, standing with several other men. Varennikov asked about the status of the communications. Kirillov said the lines were dead. “That’s the way it should be,” Varennikov said, adding that it would remain so for twenty-four hours and that the president knew about it.

Kirillov went back to the room and continued to try to get in touch with Moscow. The government exchange at Mukholatka stopped answering altogether.

The Soviet nuclear forces were cut off from their civilian commander.

At 4:40 P.M., Gorbachev, wearing shorts and a sweater in his study, was interrupted by his chief bodyguard, Vladimir Medvedev, who said a group had come from Moscow, demanding to see him immediately. Gorbachev rarely invited visitors to his working vacation, and was baffled how they had penetrated the tight security around him. Medvedev said they had been let in by Lieutenant General Yuri Plekhanov, chief of the 9th Main Directorate of the KGB, responsible for Gorbachev’s overall protection. One by one, Gorbachev picked up the phones at his desk—the government line, the satellite line, the internal line and the city line. All dead. Finally, he picked up the red phone to the strategic nuclear forces. Silent. Gorbachev found Raisa, who was reading a newspaper on the veranda, told her what was happening and to expect the worst. She was shaken but remained cool, he recalled. They went into the nearby bedroom and called in their daughter, Irina, and her husband, Anatoly, and explained. They all knew Russia’s terrible history of leaders assassinated, imprisoned and exiled. The last reformer, Khrushchev, had been forced from office. “You must know,” Gorbachev told his family, “that I will not give in to any kind of blackmail, nor to any threats of pressure and will not retreat from the positions I have taken.”23 Raisa said, “It’s up to you to make a decision, but I am with you whatever may happen.”

When Gorbachev climbed the stairs to his second-floor study, he saw the visitors had already entered the small room. They were Varennikov, who had been in charge of troops in Vilnius; Boldin, Gorbachev’s trusted chief of staff; Oleg Shenin, a Politburo member; and Oleg Baklanov, the party secretary for the military-industrial complex. Plekhanov was also with them, but Gorbachev threw him out.

Gorbachev demanded, “Who sent you?”

“The committee,” they said.

“What committee?”

“The committee set up to deal with the emergency situation in the country.”

“Who set it up?” Gorbachev insisted. “I didn’t create it and the Supreme Soviet didn’t create it. Who created it?”

Baklanov said the committee—which became known as the State Committee for the Emergency Situation, known by its Russian acronym GKChP—was established because the country was sliding toward disaster. Baklanov added, “You must sign a decree on the declaration of a state of emergency.” The visitors demanded Gorbachev hand over his powers to the vice president, Gennady Yanayev. Baklanov said Yeltsin had been arrested, then corrected himself and said Yeltsin will be arrested. He also suggested that perhaps Gorbachev’s health had deteriorated terribly. He told Gorbachev that other members of the committee included Yazov, the defense minister; Pugo, the interior minister; Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB; Pavlov, the prime minister; and Yanayev. Most of them had been present in Boldin’s office before the Vilnius crackdown in January. Gorbachev seethed at the personal treachery. “I had promoted all these people—and now they were betraying me!” He refused to sign anything, and told the delegation of plotters to go to hell. Varennikov demanded Gorbachev’s resignation. Gorbachev insulted him by pretending not to remember his name. “Oh yes,” he said. “Valentin Ivanovich, is it?”

Gorbachev said he would not resign.

Boldin, Gorbachev’s longtime chief of staff, said, “Mikhail Sergeyevich, you don’t understand what the situation in the country is.” Gorbachev shot back, “Shut up, you prick! How dare you give me lectures about the situation in the country!”24

Gorbachev swore at them as they left.

For the next three days, Gorbachev and his family were effectively prisoners of their own compound, tormented and sleepless. Gorbachev feared Baklanov’s statement about his health meant they might poison him, so the family and staff refused to accept food from outside and lived off compound supplies. Raisa took charge of looking out for their safety. Gorbachev strolled openly around the compound to show anyone who saw him that he was healthy. Armed guards had appeared at the garage, gates to the compound and the helicopter pad. The exit road was blocked by trucks. They listened to a tiny Sony transistor radio, and heard on the BBC that in Moscow the coup plotters had announced Gorbachev was ill and his duties taken by Yanayev. Gorbachev’s own security detail managed to rig up a television antenna and they saw a press conference in Moscow at which Yanayev appeared drunk. They heard that Yeltsin had called on people to resist the coup. “I was sure, quite convinced that the whole business could not continue for long—they would not get away with it,” Gorbachev said. He and Chernyaev walked outside, where they could not be bugged. Gorbachev called the plotters “agents of suicide” and “scoundrels.” Gorbachev found it hard to believe Yazov and Kryuchkov had betrayed him.

On Monday, August 19, Chernyaev found Gorbachev resting his back, lying on the bed, writing in a notebook. Chernyaev sat down next to him and began swearing about all that had happened in the last day. Gorbachev looked at him sadly, he recalled, and said, “Yes, this may not end well. But you know, in this case, I have faith in Yeltsin. He won’t give in to them, he won’t compromise. But that means blood.” Later in the day, Gorbachev, Chernyaev and Raisa huddled in a small pavilion at the beach, a place they hoped did not have KGB bugs. Raisa tore a few sheets of clean paper from a notebook and gave them to Chernyaev with a pencil. Gorbachev dictated a statement of demands for the outside world: turn on the phones and give me back the plane to return to Moscow and to work. In the middle of the night, they drew the curtains. With help from Irina and Anatoly, Gorbachev made a videotape denouncing the coup plotters. Raisa wrote in her diary, “Whatever happens to us, the people should know the truth about the fate of the President.” They took apart the videocassette and cut the tape into four pieces using manicure scissors. Each piece of tape was wrapped in paper and sealed with tape, hidden around the house until they could smuggle them out. The cassette was reassembled so it would not show that it had been taken apart.

In Moscow on Monday morning at 8 A.M., Colonel Viktor Boldyrev, commander of the division in the General Staff that oversaw the nuclear system, was ordered by his superiors to bring the chemodanchik and the nuclear suitcase duty officers back to Moscow. Boldyrev replied that there was no way to communicate with them. The lines were still down.

In Foros, at 9 A.M., the next regular shift of duty officers for the nuclear suitcase showed up at Gorbachev’s gate. They had been isolated at the military lodge and had no idea what had happened. At the gate, they were informed their passes were no longer valid. A radio played broadcasts from the GKChP. After an hour, they were told to go back.

Boldyrev finally got through to Foros, with help from the KGB, and instructed all the duty officers to return to Moscow with the nuclear suitcase. That afternoon, at 2 P.M., the officers gathered up their equipment—including the president’s Cheget and the portfolio with the codes—and boarded a jeep for the airfield. They flew back to Moscow on Gorbachev’s plane, the one that was supposed to bring him to the Kremlin for a ceremony signing the new union treaty on Tuesday. The duty officers were met in Moscow by representatives of the General Staff, who took the suitcase.25

Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian republic, the largest of the internal Soviet republics, in June. Combative and iron willed, he rallied the people of Moscow against the plotters. At his dacha on the morning of August 19, Yeltsin and a few allies wrote a statement of resistance. Then he donned a bulletproof vest under his suit, and sped into town. Tanks were rolling toward the nineteen-story building on the banks of the Moscow River known as the Russian White House, where Yeltsin had his offices. Yeltsin walked out of the White House toward a mass of people who had come to defend the building. As journalist Michael Dobbs recalled, “A roar went up from the crowd when they spotted the towering figure of the Russian president striding purposefully down the ceremonial steps in front of the White House.” Yeltsin climbed up Tank No. 110 of the Taman Division and read out his statement. “The use of force is absolutely unacceptable,” he declared. “We are absolutely sure that our compatriots will not permit the tyranny and lawlessness of the putschists, who have lost all sense of shame and honor, to be confirmed. We appeal to military personnel to display their high sense of civil courage and refuse to participate in the reactionary coup.”26

The coup attempt collapsed Wednesday, August 21. Tanks and troops were poised for action on the streets of Moscow, but the KGB’s crack special forces troops, who were supposed to attack the White House, refused to do so.

Gorbachev lost control of the nuclear suitcase, but the nuclear commanders in the military kept their cool. At least one of the three who would have to launch an attack, Air Force General Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, was openly against the putsch. He recalled in his memoir that he told Yazov that the other two commanders-in-chief, of the rocket forces and the naval forces, also backed him. Most likely, they would not have followed any orders from the clownish coup plotters.27 Yarynich, who knew well the workings of nuclear command and control, was inside the defense ministry during the days of the coup. “The vast number of people in the military were awaiting positive changes in the country, sympathized with the changes, and did not fall into a panic,” he said. “The military understood the danger of rocking the boat in this storm, and did everything to prevent the boat from keeling over.”28

As Gorbachev flew triumphantly back to Moscow, Chernyaev recalled a sense of euphoria on the plane. But when Gorbachev landed at Vnukovo Airport at 2 A.M., August 22, it became clear the tension had taken a terrible toll on his family. On the last day in Foros, Raisa had suffered a small stroke. In the car from the airport, Gorbachev’s daughter Irina suffered a nervous breakdown, throwing herself on the seat in wracking sobs as her husband, Anatoly, tried to console her.

“I have come back from Foros to another country, and I myself am a different man now,” Gorbachev declared. But Gorbachev did not realize how deeply the country had been transformed in those three days. The old system—the party and state that shaped his life and that he had led to glasnost and perestroika—was now dead. Gorbachev later admitted, “At the time I was not yet fully aware of the extent of the tragedy.” Perhaps shell-shocked or preoccupied with his family’s trauma, Gorbachev fumbled. He did not go directly to the White House, where crowds were waiting, nor to the huge victory demonstration the next day. He was unaware of how people had changed, wanting a complete break with the old system. Gorbachev told a press conference August 22 that the Communist Party remained a “progressive force,” despite the betrayal of its bosses. Two days later, under pressure from Yeltsin, he retreated, resigning as general secretary of the party and calling for dissolution of the Central Committee. Yeltsin suspended actions of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was still president, but the country was rapidly disintegrating as the republics asserted independence, some before and some after the coup attempt.29

Chernyaev was working in the offices of the Central Committee on Old Square one day right after the coup when he heard the public address system urgently instruct everyone to leave immediately. He ignored the announcement and worked on for several hours. Then, when he reached the door to leave, he saw crowds outside. For his personal safety, he was evacuated through an underground tunnel to the Kremlin. The offices of the Central Committee were turned over to the Moscow city government as thousands cheered. The party heaved its last breath.

Sergei Akhromeyev, who had come to those same Central Committee offices six years earlier and promised to work with Gorbachev, who had been through so much with Gorbachev on arms control, pulling troops out of Afghanistan, revising the military doctrine and negotiating at Reykjavik, was despondent. He did not know about the coup attempt in advance, but once it began, he flew back to Moscow from his vacation and helped prepare the military for the assault on the White House that never came. Akhromeyev was not one of the original coup plotters, but he gave them an assist. After the putsch collapsed, Akhromeyev hanged himself by a white nylon cord in his Kremlin office. He left a note on his desk.

I cannot live when my motherland is dying and everything that I ever believed in is being destroyed. My age and previous life give me the right to leave this life. I fought to the end.30

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