Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Part III
So to review, it''s Aug. 18th, 1991 and Gorbachev is vacationing
in the Crimea when a delegation of the coup leaders appears at
[The coup leaders (back in Moscow) are Vice President
Yanayev, Defense Minister Yazov, Prime Minister Pavlov,
Interior Minister Pugo, Supreme Soviet Chairman Lukyanov, and
KGB Chief Kryuchokov. *All of these were leaders of the
U.S.S.R. Other names to be mentioned were leaders of the
Russian Federation. Remember, the republics were attempting to
gain more independence from the Soviet government and
Gorbachev was to be flying back to Moscow to sign a new treaty
granting the republics much of what they sought. This was the
trigger to the coup leaders who didn''t want to give up their
So the delegation met with Gorby and asked him to back down.
He refused. They then flew back to Moscow, drinking along the
way. Gorbachev was particularly upset at the list of the coup
plotters that he had been handed. As we''ve discussed before in
previous installments, he naively thought they were loyalists.
Back in Moscow, Vice President Yanayev suddenly didn''t want
to sign the document creating the Emergency Committee and
making him the new president. Some of the Committee
members said Gorbachev was sick (he wasn''t). Finally, Yanayev
signed the State of Emergency. Foreign Minister Bessmertnykh
arrived and didn''t believe the report that Gorby was ill. [He
then disappears for the balance of the adventure]. It was around
then that the coup leaders realized they had no real plan.
It''s now early in the morning of August 19th. Yanayev, very
drunk, took power at 4:00 a.m. Marshal Yazov ordered a
heightened state of alert for all the military units. Prime Minister
Pavlov, who had stayed up most of the night drinking with
Yanayev, was losing control of himself. Around 7:00 a.m. a
doctor was summoned to his dacha and found him hysterically
That morning, Boris Yeltsin was at his home near Moscow. He
had been warned of the coup attempt. Leningrad Mayor
Sobchak, staying in Moscow, made it untouched to Yeltsin''s
place. Sobchak, an extremely popular figure in Leningrad and
Yeltsin loyalist, was on the arrest list with Yeltsin. Yeltsin
strapped on a bulletproof vest and then his suit and headed for
the "White House," the massive Parliament building. It would
be used as a barricade, an oasis and symbol of democratic
resistance, as well as a place to communicate with the outside
world by whatever means possible. Yeltsin and his allies began
broadcasting from a makeshift radio station inside the White
House. Then Foreign Minister (of the Russian Federation)
Andrei Kozyrev was dispatched to Paris to seek Western support
and establish a Russian government abroad if resistance was
4 hours after tanks arrived in the streets of Moscow, the people
were laughing at the soldiers. After noon, Yeltsin clambered on
to one tank and made his historic appeal to the citizens of Russia
to return the country to normal constitutional development. Then
a retired general clambered on and said not a hand will be raised
against the people. Vice President (of Russia) Rutskoi, an
Afghan war hero, appealed to the army not to act against their
comrades. Ten tanks then turned their guns away from the White
House. They were now ready to defend it.
Yeltsin went on the radio. "Soldiers and officers of the army, the
KGB, and the troops of the Interior Ministry! Countrymen! The
country is faced with the threat of terror. At this difficult hour of
decision remember that you have taken an oath to your people,
and your weapons cannot be turned against the people. You can
erect a throne of bayonets but you cannot sit on it for long. The
days of the conspirators are numbered...clouds of terror and
dictatorship are gathering over Russia, but this night will not be
eternal and our long-suffering people will find freedom once
again, and for good. Soldiers, I believe at this tragic hour you
will make the right decision. The honor of Russian arms will not
be covered with the blood of the people."
In Leningrad Sobchak returned to find that the local military
commander had taken charge but there were no troops in the
street. Sobchak confronted the commander and forced him to
back down. It was all so easy.
Meanwhile at Izvestia, the largest newspaper in the U.S.S.R,
there was war. The printers demanded that Yeltsin''s appeal to
the people be printed. The editors said no. A worker said "You
can shoot us but we''re not going to put this paper out without
Yeltsin''s statement." Another said, "We voted for Yeltsin! You
can publish the statements of the committee but we insist on
Yeltsin''s statement as well." A standoff ensued but in the end,
20 hours late, Izvestia appeared on the streets of every city and
village of the Soviet Union. The Emergency Committee''s
proclamations blared out from page one. Yeltsin''s appeal to
resist the coup was on page two.
In the early evening of the 19th, the junta called a press
conference. But the press was merciless against them,
particularly Yanayev, the new president. They laughed at him.
Yanayev was half-drunk and his performance was pitiful.
Yeltsin set up a shadow government outside of his home city in
the Urals if the White House was captured. They went to work
sending faxes and telexes calling on local organizations and
governments around the U.S.S.R. to resist. The people were
increasingly with Yeltsin.
Pavlov, the prime minister, convened a meeting of the
government''s ministers. They all agreed that their Emergency
Committee was the only way to hold onto their last vestiges of
privilege. But when Pavlov called Defense Minister Yazov,
Yazov could tell Pavlov was, you guessed it, drunk.
One of Moscow''s new television stations was taken over by the
junta but a young reporter somehow managed to get on the air a
piece showing Yeltsin on the tank (reassuring the people that
Yeltsin was still alive and resisting). Boris Pugo, the interior
minister, was furious. "The story on Moscow was treacherous.
You will answer for this." Later Yanayev called, too, but he
didn''t seem to know what to talk about so the producer prodded
him. "(Yes), I saw it, it was a good balanced report." "But they
said I would be punished for it," said the producer. "Who are they?
From the Central Committee? F--- ''em," said the drunk
Now it''s August 20th. Yeltsin and his group were holed up in the
White House and supporters were coming from all over. The
famous cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, held an AK-47 outside of
Yeltsin''s office. A crowd of about 10,000 was milling about
outside. The crowds were key to Yeltsin''s success. He needed
to prove he had popular support.
The crowd grew to 100,000 and Yeltsin made another speech
whereby he blasted Yazov and Pugo in an incredibly gutsy
performance. The poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko took to the mike
and the crowd loved it.
Meanwhile Yanayev was on the phone winning support from
Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Fidel Castro. But
support for the resistance was pouring in from all over. And
what of Gorby? He kept demanding to be allowed to speak to
the people but his captors said nyet.
So no one knew for certain if the White House would be stormed
the evening of the 20th. The coup leaders had set up every
possible elite unit to rush it but they had no idea the dissension
that existed within the units. General Alexander Lebed said that
there would be heavy casualties if they stormed the White House.
Yazov called for more troops but didn''t follow up. Later Lebed
and the KGB toured the barricades. They were toys and could
have been smashed easily. But Lebed held off. On the Russian
army side (Yeltsin supporters) they planned to bomb the Kremlin
if the Emergency Committee stormed the White House.
And just like that it was over. Kryuchkov said there was massive
support for the coup. Yanayev said no there wasn''t. Yazov
ordered the troops back to their barracks and by the morning of
the 21st the first tanks turned around. The soldiers acted as if
they had won a great victory and they had; they didn''t shoot at
their brothers and sisters. Construction crews along the way
stopped work and applauded the retreating troops.
Yanayev, the man who was to be president, drank himself silly in
his office. Meanwhile, the putsch leaders and Yeltsin''s
representatives flew to the Crimea (on separate planes) to meet
with Gorbachev. [Yeltsin was afraid of a trap and sent his vice
president, Rutskoi]. Gorby only met with the Russians, not
Kryuchkov or Yazov. The Russians, including Yevgeny
Primakov (a Gorby loyalist) informed Mikhail that Yeltsin had
been the real hero and the coup leaders were Gorby''s own
people. Gorby took the Russian plane home, not his presidential
Next week, the aftermath.
[I have relied, once again, heavily on David Remnick''s "Lenin''s
Tomb." Remnick, in turn, relied on information gleaned from
the trials of the coup leaders as well as personal interviews. The
quotes are accurate.]