President Gorbachev had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but gave his acceptance speech in Oslo on 5 June 1991, twenty-five years ago. In it he warned that, if perestroika fails, the prospect of entering a new peaceful period of history will vanish, at least for the foreseeable future. The message was received, but not acted upon. Gorbachev had embarked on perestroika; it was up to him and his ministers to see that it did not fail. Outside the Soviet Union, his Peace Prize was acclaimed, and the consequences of his constructive actions were apparent everywhere. In June 1991 Soviet troops completed their withdrawal from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and Hungarians cheered as the last Soviet tanks left. At the same time, both Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact were formally dissolved.
Two sets of arms negotiations remained as unfinished business between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev: START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe). The CFE agreement set limits to the number of conventional arms – tanks, artillery, aircraft – allowed between the Atlantic and the Urals. It effectively ended the military division of the continent. It had been signed in Paris the previous November, 1990, but the following summer some CFE points of interpretation were still giving trouble. The Soviets sought to exclude naval units from the count, insisting that they might need them for internal purposes in the Baltic and Black seas. The United States argued that everything should be counted, and it was not until June 1991 in Vienna that the final text was installed, the culmination of two years of negotiation. Below are some of the thousands of tanks which were put up for sale as the CFE agreement came into force. These armaments had helped keep the peace, but in the end only the junkyard awaited them.
START’s broad objective was also quite clear: the reduction of long-range strategic weapons. Achieving this was complicated. Should the two sides reduce the number of warheads or the number of missile types carrying the warheads? The Soviets had two new missile types in development, so they wanted to download warheads instead. The US was against this, and the Soviets were negotiating against a clock that was ticking away the continued existence of the USSR. Eventually, just minutes before Bush and Gorbachev were due to meet in London, on 17 July, minor concessions produced a text acceptable to both sides of the table. A fortnight later, on 31 July, the two presidents signed START 1 in Moscow. The two superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear warheads and bombs to below nine thousand, including 1,500 delivery vehicles. Thus began a new sequence of strategic arms reduction agreements.
Meanwhile, within the new Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin had become its President on 12 June, elected by a landslide. He received 57% of the eighty million voted cast, becoming Russia’s first ever democratically elected leader. However, the Soviet Union, including Russia, was desperate to receive American economic aid; it was no longer its strength as a nuclear superpower which posed a threat to world peace, but its economic weakness. Gorbachev calculated that the US would recognise this and, in a ‘Grand Bargain’ offer massive dollar aid – say, twenty billion a year over five years – to do for the Soviet Union what the Marshall Plan had done for Western Europe after the Second World War. A group of Soviet and American academics tried to sell this plan to the two governments. Some of Gorbachev’s colleagues denounced this ‘Grand Bargain’ as a Western conspiracy, but, in any case the US was not interested – the USSR was a poor credit risk and President Bush had no backing in Washington for bailing out the rival system.
The climax of Gorbachev’s attempts to get American aid in propping up the ruble and in stocking Soviet shelves with consumer goods came in London on 17 July at the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, the world’s financial top table. His problem remained that of convincing the US that he was serious about moving directly to a free market economy, as Boris Yeltsin had sought to do when he had proclaimed himself a free marketeer on a visit to Washington. At the G7 meeting, Gorbachev was unconvincing, and left empty-handed.
After the START 1 summit in Moscow on 31 July, George Bush kept his promise to visit Ukraine, and went on to Kiev. The Ukrainians were looking for US support in their attempt to break away from Moscow and declare independence. Bush perceived how perilous Gorbachev’s position really was. In June the ‘old guard’ Communists had been foiled in their attempt to oust him by passing resolutions in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the so-called ‘constitutional coup’. The CIA was now warning of a hard-line coup to dislodge him from power, this time using force. The warning was passed on to Gorbachev, who ignored it. Bush didn’t want to do anything to make matters worse. In Kiev he denounced the grim consequences of “suicidal nationalism.” Croatia and Slovenia, having left the Yugoslav federation, were already at war. The Ukrainians were disappointed. Bush’s speech went down even less well in the United States, where the president’s own right-wing critics picked up a journalist’s verdict and damned it as Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech.
Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), The Cold War. London: Bantham Press.
The Failed Coup that ended Communist Rule
In August, holiday-time, Gorbachev went to his villa at Foros on the Black Sea. In June the old-guard Communists had tried, unsuccessfully, to unseat him by constitutional means in the Congress of People’s Deputies. Now they attempted to remove him by force. In Moscow, early in the morning of 19 August, as Gorbachev’s holiday was drawing to a close, radio and tv began broadcasting a statement by the State Committee for the State of Emergency. It claimed that the President was ill and unable to perform his duties; Vice-President Yanayev had assumed the powers of the Presidency, and a state of emergency had been declared. It was a coup, but to the ordinary citizens of Moscow and Leningrad, this was, as yet, unclear. Information about Gorbachev’s whereabouts and state of health was hard to come by. The television schedule kept changing, with the ballet Swan Lake replacing the usual diet of news bulletins.
The true story was that the previous day, Sunday 18th August, a delegation from Moscow had arrived at the seaside villa to see Gorbachev. Before they were admitted, he tried to telephone out, but the phone lines had already been cut. At sea, naval craft manoeuvred menacingly near the shore. The conspirators pushed their way in: Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev’s deputy at the Defence Council; Party Secretary Oleg Shenin; Deputy Defence Minister General Valentin Varennikov; Gorbachev’s Chief of Staff, Valery Boldin. They tried to force the President to approve the declaration of a state of emergency, to resign and to hand over his authority to Yanayev. Gorbachev refused, for to do otherwise would have legitimised the plot. They put him under house arrest, cut off from communication with the outside world, and left.
The plotters included several other members of the government: Prime Minister Pavlov; KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov; Interior Minister Pugo; Minister of Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov. Most of them had been urging Gorbachev for months to impose emergency rule. Now they imposed it themselves, and hoped he would go along with it. He had underestimated their strength; they had underestimated their his determination to resist. His refusal to give in was brave, but the real struggle was to be in Moscow.
In every Moscow ministry and in the republics, every civil servant had to make up his or her mind what to do. Most temporised and waited to see how things would turn out. Enough of them, together with those in the military and the KGB refused to obey orders from the Emergency Committee to ensure that the coup would not succeed. Gorbachev’s insistence on moving towards democracy was paying off. Resistance was led from the White House, the seat of the Russian Parliament, by Boris Yeltsin. Usually at odds with Gorbachev, stood firm. He denounced the coup and those behind it, rallying support for legitimate government and a liberal future rather than a return to the dark ages of totalitarian tyranny. He called for a general strike, so that those who had the courage to support him went to the White House, ringed by troops and tanks, to declare their support. Eduard Shevardnadze was one of the first to arrive.
President Bush was also on holiday in Kennebunkport in Maine, where he had gone to bed on the Sunday night of Gorbachev’s ‘arrest’. When the telephone rang with the news from Moscow, he faced a classic diplomatic dilemma as to what he would say in his statement early the next day. It was agreed that he would talk to the press early the next morning, and he met them at eight, praising Gorbachev as a “historic figure”, hedging on Yanayev and stopping short of outright denunciation when he called the seizure of power “extra-constitutional.” He insisted that the US reaction would aim not to “over-excite the American people or the world… we will conduct our diplomacy in a prudent fashion, not driven by excess.” It was not much more than wait and see.
At Foros, the Gorbachevs were listening to events in Moscow on the BBC World Service, using a transistor radio which their captors had failed to confiscate. Raisa recorded her indignation in her diary at the reporting on state television. Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was reported to have appealed to the people of his republic “to remain calm and cool and maintain public order. She noted that there was “not a word about the ousting of the President of the USSR.” Her husband sent a message to Yanayev: Cancel what you’ve done and convene the Congress of People’s Deputies or the USSR’s Supreme Soviet.
On the night of 20 August, the first blood was spilt. Three young men were killed by armoured personnel carriers moving towards the White House in support of the coup. Had the Emergency Committee been more resolute, many more lives would certainly have been lost. They were hesitant, however, unsure of themselves and their supporters, perhaps even of their cause. The coup had already failed, but in the rest of eastern Europe and beyond, this had not become clear. In Hungary, many families were away from home at their weekend houses, enjoying St Stephen’s Day, the national holiday and listening occasionally to their transistors, dreading the prospect that the recently withdrawn Soviet troops would soon be rolling back into their country, as they had done in 1956. I remember being on holiday with my father-in-law, who was firm in his view that this was more than a possibility if the coup succeeded.
It was announced the following day that a delegation would be permitted to leave Moscow for the Crimea to see for themselves that Gorbachev was gravely ill. At Foros this caused alarm. The couple was already boiling all the food they were given in case of poisoning. Would the plotters now try to make to make their statements come true and somehow bring about Gorbachev’s death? Meanwhile, back in Moscow, crowds surrounded the Russian Parliament building, where Boris Yeltsin led the resistance against the unconstitutional coup (pictured above). The delegation, which actually wanted to negotiate, reached Foros at 5 p.m. and asked to see Gorbachev. It included Kryuchkov, Yazov, Baklanov, and Anatoli Lukyanov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev refused to see them until proper communications were restored. At 5:45 p.m., the telephones were reconnected. Gorbachev rang Yeltsin who said:
Mikhail Sergeyevich, my dear man, are you alive? We have been holding firm here for forty-eight hours.
Shortly afterwards, a Russian delegation arrived, led by Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s Vice-President, to bring Gorbachev and his family back to Moscow. Without packing, they prepared to leave. Later, Kryuchkov wrote to Gorbachev, expressing remorse; Yazov, with his excellent military record, confessed that he had made an ass of himself; Lukyanov had no good answer to Gorbachev’s question: “Why did you not exercise your own constitutional powers?” In Moscow, Yanayev took to the bottle; Pugo shot his wife and then himself when the loyalists came to arrest him; Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, Gorbachev’s military advisor, also committed suicide. He left a note stating, “everything I have worked for is being destroyed.” Bessmertnykh, who had been careful not to commit himself either way, had to resign. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow on 22 August, he made a spontaneous statement:
I have come back from Foros to another country, and I myself am a different man now.
However, the restored President soon gave the impression that he thought things could carry on as before, even reaffirming his belief in the Communist Party and its renewal. This was not what many in Moscow needed to hear as, on 23 August, Gorbachev was first jeered in the Russian Parliament and then humiliated when Yeltsin, without warning, put into his hand a set of minutes he had not seen before and forced him to read them out loud on live television. The document implicated his own Communist colleagues in the coup against him. Yeltsin was now in charge in Moscow and both Russian viewers and US diplomats watching these pictures knew that Gorbachev was finished, destroyed by a failed coup.
By this time, Gorbachev had also lost power away from Moscow, in the republics. On the 20 and 21 August, Estonia and Latvia declared independence, joining Lithuania, which had declared its freedom from the USSR in 1990, which it now reaffirmed. The republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, and Armenia, all followed suit soon after. On 24 August, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, disbanding the Central Committee. On 29 August, the Soviet Communist Party effectively dissolved itself. After seven decades, Soviet Communism, as an ideology and a political organism, was on its death-bed. Meanwhile, the Russian tricolour was paraded in mourning for those few who died during the failed coup.
Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers.