It's 28 Years Since the USSR Collapsed. Do We Know What Really Happened?

On 25 December it was 28 years since Mikhail Gorbachev went on Soviet television to announce that he was stepping down as President of the Soviet Union – for the simple reason that the Soviet Union no longer existed. A key moment in the collapse of the country was the so-called “coup” that had taken place in August 1991. But was it really a coup? Nearly three decades later, are we any closer to knowing exactly what happened from August to December?

Mikhail Gorbachev made history on 25 December 1991 by becoming the first leader of Russia or the Soviet Union to voluntarily step down. Or did he? Does it count as a voluntary resignation if those around you have conspired to break up the country of which you are leader, leaving you with a title but no country?

This was the position Gorbachev found himself in. After three and a half turbulent months following an attempt by hard-liners in the Soviet leadership to seize power from Gorbachev, the leaders of the three Slav republics of the USSR, Russia, Ukraine and Belarussia (as Belarus was still called), had signed an agreement to form the Commonwealth of Independent States on the ashes of the Soviet Union.

The Belovezha Accords were signed on 8 December 1991. But even the way in which they were signed is disputed. One version has it that the three Slav Presidents – Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarussia – chose the venue, the state dacha near Viskuli in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belarussia, because if the announcement of the signing caused an uprising they could quickly flee to the West.

Also, it is said that when the three Presidents gathered with their prime ministers on the night of 7 December, in true Slav fashion they launched into a night of drinking, so that when they signed the agreements the next day they were barely sober. All three presidents denied the story. Nonetheless, this gained added relevance in 2014 when Russian troops invaded Crimea and claimed it for Moscow. Did President Kravchuk mean to give Crimea to Russia as part of the Belovezha Accords? As it was, Russia’s seizure of Crimea violated the Accords.

Did the signing of the Belovezha Accords mark the end of the USSR? Fifteen republics had already been reduced to twelve in September, when the three Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania left the Union into which they had been unwillingly incorporated after the Second World War; but the 12-nation state still continued as the Soviet Union. All but one (Georgia) of the remaining Soviet republics rushed to join the new independent “commonwealth”, fearing economic collapse now that the Soviet umbilical cord had been cut. These eight republics signed the Alma-Ata Protocol to the Accords on 21 December. So is that the date on which the Soviet Union collapsed?

The date generally accepted is 25 December, when Gorbachev made the aforementioned TV address to the nation. After all, Gorbachev remained in control of the Kremlin up until this point and Soviet institutions continued to exist. It was only after Gorbachev’s speech that the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin, to be replaced by the Russian tricolour.

How had the once mighty (militarily, if never economically) Soviet Union been reduced to this? True, the ideology of Communism had few true believers left in the USSR ever since living standards in the country had been declining from the early 1970s. Propaganda slogans were one thing, but the reality of people’s lives was very different. An essential word in everyone’s vocabulary was defitsit, “shortage”, the only thing which was in plentiful supply in the USSR.

Internationally, Communism had taken even greater blows. In the twentieth century’s year of revolutions, 1989, the “brotherly” states of Eastern Europe had one by one thrown off the shackles of the Communist system which had been imposed by the USSR post-War. Unlike in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, Gorbachev had refused to act as his predecessors had done, and refused to send in Soviet troops to keep these countries in the socialist camp.

In the Soviet Union itself calls for independence were growing in republics which more and more demanded an end to rule from Moscow. Here, however, troops were used to quell demonstrations, in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltic States. There was a palpable tension throughout the country; and it came to a head in August 1991.

Gorbachev was on holiday in the Crimea and was due to return to Moscow on Monday 19 August and the following day sign a Union Treaty with the 15 republics, laying out a new relationship with Moscow. Ironically, as it was to prove, the hardliners believed that this agreement would lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union, so were determined to prevent it from happening.

At 0600 Moscow time on 19 August, Russians awoke to a message from “the State Committee for the State of Emergency” (GKChP), saying that Gorbachev had been taken ill, the Committee was taking over the running of the country and a state of emergency had been declared. The GKChP did not use the word “coup” or “putsch”, but their actions were quickly branded as such by the media, Soviet and foreign.

If it was a coup, the members of the GKChP should have written a handbook on how not to organise one. Since an election in June 1991 Russia was in the odd situation of having both a Soviet President (Gorbachev) and a Russian President (Yeltsin); and fearing that Yeltsin – who had earned a reputation as a reformer – would oppose them the GKChP sent a squad to arrest him at his government dacha outside Moscow, where, as usual, he had been spending the weekend. The squad arrived after the time when Yeltsin would have normally left for Moscow. In these abnormal times he had already been alerted to what was going on so had long left by the time the squad arrived.

The GKChP ordered tanks from the elite Kantemirovsky Division, based just outside Moscow, into the centre of the city as a show of strength and in particular to surround the White House, the home of the Russian (not Soviet) government. But the conscript soldiers had not been told why they were driving into Moscow, so the tank drivers were obediently stopping when they came to red traffic lights. This is a coup? In the most memorable scene of the day, Yeltsin was soon to be seen climbing on the decks of one of the tanks outside the White House and calling for a general strike. What kind of coup is it where your leading opponent is making such a declaration?

“Coup” turned to farce when the GKChP gave a press conference. The Chairman of the Committee, Gennady Yanaev, mumbled incoherently, all the while his shaking hands betraying that he was suffering an almighty hangover. His countrymen knew the condition well; but do you really try to seize power after a bellyful of vodka?

Vodka was to play another role in the confused events of 19-21 August. In an interview I took in 1994 with Pavel Voshchanov, at the time of the August events President Yeltsin’s Press Secretary, I was given an interesting picture of the state of affairs on the night of Tuesday 20 August. We know that an order had been sent by the Head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, for the KGB’s crack Alpha squad to storm the White House using underground tunnels which linked the building with nearby locations. (Kryuchkov was to rescind the order before it could be carried out.) Even without knowing these details the atmosphere in and around the White House that night was tense.

Voshchanov told me how he was in a basement room in the building preparing various documents for Yeltsin to sign. He was well aware that outside thousands of Russians had gathered, ready to die if they had to for this new Russian democracy. He left the room to take the documents to the neighbouring room for Yeltsin to sign. On the threshold he was almost knocked down by two hefty security guards half guiding, half carrying Yeltsin out of the room. Yeltsin was too drunk even to stand by himself; and certainly in no fit state to sign documents.

Two others from Yeltsin’s inner circle were in a similar condition. It occurred to Voshchanov that if those crowds on the streets could see this, what kind of democracy would they think they were defending?

But it’s not only for reasons of gross incompetence on the part of the GKChP or drunken behaviour by the Russian President and his staff that the description of those events in August 1991 as a “coup” doesn’t fit well.

In the 1990s I interviewed three of the men closely involved with the GKChP: Soviet Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, a member of the Committee; Anatoly Lukyanov, Chairman of the USSR Supreme Soviet; and General Valentin Varennikov, C-in-C Soviet Ground Forces and a Deputy Defence Minister. (All three men are now dead. Pavlov died in March 2003; Lukyanov in January 2019; and Varennikov in May 2009.)

Each man was bitter about what had happened and each gave a compelling argument for having acted the way they did. Pavlov maintained that Gorbachev knew all along what their plan was and had given it his tacit approval. Had they succeeded, he said, Gorbachev would have returned to Moscow having “recovered” from his illness and resumed his place as the country’s President. Pavlov told me bluntly: “Gorbachev betrayed us.”

Lukyanov was dismissive of the claims Gorbachev made when he returned from Crimea that all communications to the presidential retreat in Foros had been cut, and that he and those around him had relied for information on “an old radio” he and his team had found in the house. I was interviewing Lukyanov in the study of his palatial Moscow apartment. “To get in here,” he commented, you had to come through three solid doors – and this is just my apartment.” (Not a typical Moscow apartment, true, but his inner sanctum nonetheless.) “Can you imagine what the security is like in the presidential dacha in Foros? It’s nonsense to suggest that anyone who simply cut a few wires and break off all communication with the outside world. And as for finding ‘an old radio’! Nothing in that palace is old!”

General Varennikov had been sent to Kiev on Sunday 18 August to prepare the Ukrainian leadership for what was coming. As a military man he was convinced that he had carried out his duties correctly and that he had helped avoid a very serious situation. Occasionally after an interview the way a phrase has been said stays in your head. I can still see the serious look on Varennikov’s face and hear the way in which he told me that if he and the Committee hadn’t done what they did, what the risk was to the country: “…и тогда будет… гражданская война!” (“…and then there would have been…civil war!” In his southern Russian accent the last two words were particularly pronounced, with the soft “g” sound coming across more like an “h”: hrazhdanskaya voina!)

So were these simply three embittered individuals trying to justify their place in history? Perhaps we’ll never know for sure. I discussed the events of August 1991 with Gorbachev, too. He, of course, dismissed Pavlov’s claims that he was in on the conspiracy. But did he really receive news of what was happening back in Moscow from an old radio receiver?

Whether or not that was true, the BBC was quick to use the idea in its own way. When he talked about this on his return to Moscow Gorbachev said that they had used this radio to listen to the BBC World Service and Radio Liberty, and that the BBC was best of all. What he meant – as he later confirmed to me – was that the clearest signal was that of the BBC. BBC bosses, however, used the words, “the BBC was best of all” as if it were a ringing endorsement of BBC journalism.

So was there a coup in Moscow in August 1991? Or just a badly organised plot, leaving Gorbachev to emerge as the wronged party? Whatever the plan was, he didn’t emerge unscathed. By refusing to condemn the Communist Party when he returned to Moscow he failed to appreciate the popular mood, which was certainly another factor in the eventual collapse of the USSR in December. As with so many other areas of its history, such as the Civil War of 1918-1921 and the crimes committed under Stalin, Russia has yet to come to terms with what happened. It may take a few more generations before rational Russian heads can make sense of it all.


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