For the first time, Boris Yeltsin's right-hand man tells the inside story of the coup that killed glasnost -- and changed the world.

"That scum!" Boris Yeltsin fumed. "It's a coup. We can't let them get away with it."

It was the morning of Aug. 19, 1991, and the Russian president was standing at the door of his dacha in Arkhangelskoe, a compound of small country houses outside Moscow where the top Russian government officials lived. I had raced over from my own house nearby, after a friend called from Moscow, frantic and nearly hysterical, insisting that I turn on the radio. There had been a coup; Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been removed from power.

Five minutes later I was at Yeltsin's dacha, an unassuming two-story yellow brick building, where a small group of his closest associates soon gathered. In addition to me (at the time, his secretary of state), there was Ivan Silayev, the head of the Russian cabinet; Ruslan Khasbulatov, the acting chairman of the Supreme Soviet; Mikhail Poltoranin, the minister of press and mass information; Sergei Shakhrai, the state councilor; and Viktor Yaroshenko, the minister of foreign economic relations. Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of Leningrad, and Yuri Luzhkov, the deputy mayor of Moscow, arrived not long after. Everyone crowded into Yeltsin's small living room.

For months we had half-expected something like this. By the summer of 1991, the Soviet Union was falling apart at the seams. The economy was imploding, the deficit was ballooning, hard currency and gold reserves had been decimated, and Gorbachev's stopgap reforms had only exacerbated the crisis. The notion of a "Soviet people," unified under the banner of socialism, was collapsing along with it. Legislatures in the republics, which had already demanded greater freedoms within the USSR, began calling for independence. By the spring of 1991, five republics -- Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- had declared it officially. In Russia, democratic forces wanted an end to Soviet totalitarian rule. Our aim was not to allow the chaotic dissolution of the USSR, but to transform it into a confederation that would afford each republic considerable self-determination under its aegis.

We had been moving in this direction for several years. Yeltsin and the other democratic candidates had been elected to the Russian parliament in 1990 with the goal of securing more legally protected rights and freedoms, as well as a market economy, and Yeltsin had been elected president of Russia in June 1991 with almost 60 percent of the vote. But while we were secure in our popular mandate, we were utterly powerless to deal with the greatest threat to Russia: economic collapse. More than 93 percent of the economy, by our estimation, was controlled by the Soviet government. Yeltsin and those of us in his circle of closest associates soon came to believe that unless we were to content ourselves with being nothing more than a ceremonial body, we had to change the legal and economic bases of the union itself.

Gorbachev and a small group of Soviet reformers had accepted this, too. We began to work together on a new union treaty that would transform the Soviet Union into a confederation of sovereign states with a limited central government. Yeltsin planned to sign the controversial pact on Aug. 20.

As we milled about Yeltsin's living room on the morning of Aug. 19, it was instantly clear to us that the coup was an eleventh-hour attempt to prevent the treaty from being signed the next day. But that was the only thing that was clear. Americans watching the events unfold live on CNN knew more about what was going on in Russia than we Russians did; the news anchors in Moscow simply read a formal statement issued by the coup plotters' hastily appointed "Emergency Committee." Information arrived at the dacha in bits and pieces, by phone from friends and colleagues in Moscow and around Russia. One friend called to say that all the news programs had been canceled, another to tell us that tanks and armored cars were approaching the city. We had no idea whether Gorbachev -- whose relationship with Yeltsin had been marked by suspicion -- was being held against his will or was in some way complicit with the plotters.

The simple fact of our continued freedom was inexplicable. Successful coups don't happen in stages; a more practiced group of plotters would have had all of us under lock and key the moment tanks and troops entered the capital city. We realized how vulnerable we were. The only lever we had was the office of the presidency and our legitimacy as the elected government of Russia. We quickly decided to draft a public appeal. Khasbulatov, Poltoranin, and I wrote on scraps of paper as the others called out phrases. Someone brought in an old typewriter, and Yeltsin's 31-year-old daughter Tatyana pecked out the address with one finger. Yeltsin's wife Naina and other daughter Lena hovered about as well, alternately worried for him and furious at the situation.

We stopped our work only when Yeltsin was on the phone with someone, and then we'd all listen to his side of the conversation. One of his first calls was to Gen. Pavel Grachev, the commander of airborne troops in the Soviet Army, whom Yeltsin had met a few weeks earlier on a ceremonial visit to review his soldiers. The two men had instantly formed a rapport. On the phone, Yeltsin told the general our position. "Can I count on your support?" he asked. "Comrade President," Grachev replied, "it will be hard for me, but I'll try to do whatever I can."

Yeltsin also called Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev and Ukrainian party chief Leonid Kravchuk, heads of the largest and most influential republics. The conversations were brief: "Did you hear?" "We heard." Nazarbayev said that he had to think about it. Kravchuk said he supported us, but had to convene the Presidium, Ukraine's highest legislature, before acting.

We finished our appeal by 9 a.m. In our statement, we called the actions of the Emergency Committee "a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup d'état." We demanded that Gorbachev be allowed to appear in Moscow at a special session of the congress. We called on local Russian authorities to follow the laws and decrees of the Russian president, and we asked the military to refrain from participating in the coup and for citizens to take part in a general strike. We wrote that we were certain the world would condemn this unlawful action. The text finished, we began faxing it to the outside world.

With the appeal sent, we left the compound for the White House, the seat of the republican government and parliament in Moscow; the dacha was simply too vulnerable and difficult to defend. We headed into the city in separate cars and by different routes. I rode with Yeltsin and a security detail of two men. The road into the city was clear; on the way we even joked about whether to give Yeltsin a gun, but in the end he refused, saying, "That's what the security detail is for." When we arrived at the White House there were still not any police or tanks, but there were already a few clusters of supporters, foreign diplomats, and journalists who had heard about our appeal.

The White House was now ground zero of the resistance to the putschists. In short order we dispatched Andrei Kozyrev, the newly appointed Russian foreign minister, to various Western capitals with a personal letter from Yeltsin. Outside, people came from train stations and airports, from distant towns and cities, and joined Muscovites by the walls of the White House, where they began building barricades. At first they were rudimentary things, piled up out of whatever materials were at hand. But by evening our supporters were constructing more formidable emplacements out of trolley buses, cars, and construction materials, blocking off all approaches to the building.

On the afternoon of the first day, we were in Yeltsin's office discussing our plans when an aide rushed in and told us that some of the soldiers had gotten out of their tanks in front of the building to talk to people. Yeltsin jumped up and said, "I'm going out there."

I objected. "You can't do it," I told him. "It's an enormous risk. We have no idea what the putschists might be doing. It's too dangerous."

Yeltsin didn't listen to me. He told someone to grab him a copy of the appeal and headed out of the office. We all ran after him. Outside, to the horror of his security guards, he clambered onto a tank in front of the White House to read the appeal. Not sure what else to do, we all jumped up after him. The crowd had grown to about 30,000 people by then, and they filled the square with cheering. Out in the throng, camera shutters snapped. We had not yet won the war, but as the picture of Yeltsin on the tank swept across the world's front pages, we had at least won the battle of symbols.

Just before midnight, half a dozen Army tanks formally joined our side, maneuvering into place to defend the White House. Inside, we worked through the night, monitoring for troop movements in the city and maintaining contact with our allies and supporters throughout the country. Yeltsin, always fastidious, stayed in his suit and tie. Journalists, aides, and a few deputies took catnaps on couches. It was a long and uncertain night.

The initial statements from key Western leaders whose support we had sought were tepid and diplomatic; they all seemed to think the coup was a fait accompli. But support built over the second day thanks to Kozyrev, diplomats in Moscow, and Yeltsin himself, who tirelessly worked the phones. The Americans even offered to provide an escape route for Yeltsin and the government through the U.S. Embassy, located across the street from the White House. We were a little startled by the plan, which had never occurred to us. We thanked them, but declined the offer.

On the second night I sat awake in my office. We had learned from various informants that the putschists were planning to storm the White House at 3 a.m., dropping down on the roof by helicopter while ground troops cut through the crowd -- now numbering nearly 100,000 -- in front of the building. Tanks and personnel carriers had already taken up defensive positions throughout the city. Three young men had been killed trying to stop a column of tanks not far from the White House. There were reports that more tanks were on their way. At the insistence of his security detail, Yeltsin had reluctantly taken cover in the building's basement.

When the hour of the expected attack arrived, I picked up the phone. First I tried calling Gennady Yanayev, Gorbachev's vice president and the civilian leader of the coup, in the Kremlin, without any luck. Next I called Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB, who our intelligence suggested was in charge of the tanks. I didn't want to show any sign of vulnerability, so when he answered I began forcefully: "Don't you see that you don't have a chance?" I said, and demanded that he call the troops back.

Kryuchkov denied it all. Nothing was happening, he insisted; people were just scaring us. Then he grew enraged. "Just who is going to pay to repair the streets that were pulled up to build barricades?" he shouted. He launched into a long tirade about us democrats, accusing us of supporting extremists and getting the crowd outside the White House drunk. It was unbelievable: It was the middle of the night, with tanks advancing on the White House and three young men already dead, and here was the man in charge of it all, berating me for my ideology and upbraiding me for "bringing in a bunch of rabble-rousers" to the White House. I was taken aback. I told him that those who sent in the troops were responsible for the deaths of the men and demanded again that he halt their advance.

Kryuchkov calmed down a bit and said he'd look into it, while still insisting that our information was all wrong. But the reports continued to come in, and I called him back around 5 a.m., demanding an answer. He told me that he had checked and that no armored vehicles were moving toward the White House.

This time he was telling the truth. The tanks had been halted -- not, however, because the putschists had come to their senses, but because too many commanders in the military and KGB had refused to carry out their orders. Among them was Grachev, the general Yeltsin had called on Aug. 19; the intelligence he provided us on the conspirators' plans and his ultimate refusal to carry out orders were among the determining factors in the coup's ultimate failure and our survival. The president could, in fact, count on him.

By 8 a.m. tanks began to leave the city. Gorbachev returned to Moscow that evening, but he didn't come home -- he arrived in another country. The center of power was now in the White House with Yeltsin, not in the Kremlin. There was no longer any chance of a new union treaty. Within weeks, the union government and Communist Party collapsed and the republics scattered.

The failure of the August coup was both ironic and tragic. In taking the extraordinary measures they believed were necessary to hold the union together, the putschists ensured its destruction. Without the coup, the union would likely have endured, albeit in a form that might have eventually resembled the European Union more than the old Soviet Union. But the three-day standoff in Moscow exploded that possibility.

A gradual transformation of the Soviet Union would have been manageable; the instant collapse caused by the coup was disastrous. The coup was the political Chernobyl of the Soviet totalitarian empire. Like the meltdown of a faulty nuclear reactor, the failed putsch blew the country apart, scattering the radioactive remnants of the Soviet system throughout the country. Within a month, the communist elites at every level had new jobs in state administrations and legislatures. They filled the ministries and threw themselves into business. The very people who had fought against the sweeping political and economic reforms we desperately needed were now running the organizations, businesses, and branches of government that were supposed to carry them out.

But it wasn't just people who were scattered by the explosion. The body of an empire may collapse and the soul of its ideology may be cast aside, but its spirit lives on. In today's Russia it persists in the revival of the belief in Stalin as a great leader, in the manipulated nostalgia for the false stability and power of the Soviet period, in xenophobia and intolerance, in the lack of respect for civil and human rights, in rampant corruption, in the imperial manner and mindset of some of our leaders and many of our citizens.

This is the poisonous legacy of those three days in August 20 years ago. It is worth revisiting the story now, not least because the putsch's radioactive fallout has colored Russia's memory of the putsch itself. The coup attempt deprived us of the opportunity to evolve gradually, to gain practical experience, to root out the vestiges of imperial thinking and behavior. It spoiled the promise of a democratic Russia before it had even begun.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Gennady Burbulis is visible in profile at far right of photo.

Photo by Oleg Klimov


The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev

A cautionary tale about what happens when you fail to see the revolution coming.

See a slideshow about Gorby's life in the limelight

In the most notable of the many photographs snapped at the gala held to mark his 80th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev seems shorter and rounder than he did in his prime, back when he was one of the most important people in the world. He is inscrutable, only half-smiling; he also looks disheveled, and perhaps unsure of himself. Those impressions may of course be exaggerated by the fact that in this particular picture, the onetime general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has his arm around Sharon Stone. Stone is wearing a slinky, champagne-colored dress and bright red lipstick. She is grinning widely. In heels, she is a good 6 inches taller than Gorbachev, which certainly takes away from his aura of authority.

But then, it has been a very long time since Gorbachev actually had an aura of authority. In fact, everything about his garish birthday party screamed "B-list celebrity." Stone hasn't starred in a hit movie for a good while; neither has Kevin Spacey, who co-hosted the event alongside her. Also in attendance were Goldie Hawn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ted Turner, Shirley Bassey, and, I'm sorry to say, Lech Walesa. The gala was ostensibly a fundraiser for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation, which helps raise money for the care of children with cancer. But mostly the evening served to underline the strangeness of Gorbachev's fate. Here was the man who had launched glasnost and perestroika, who had presided over the dismantling of the Soviet empire and then the Soviet Union itself, one of the founding statesmen of modern Russia -- and yet his birthday gala was held in the Royal Albert Hall, in London, among people who hardly knew him.

This was not an accident: Twenty years after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia is ambivalent, at best, about Gorbachev. Far from being hailed as a hero, he is mostly remembered as a disastrous leader, if he is remembered at all. Yes, he launched a new era of openness with previously unthinkable freedoms in the 1980s, but in Russia he is also held responsible for the economic collapse of the 1990s. Most Russians don't thank him for ending the Soviet empire either. On the contrary, the current Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, has described the dismantling of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. An opinion poll released in March, at the time of his birthday, showed that some 20 percent of Russians feel actively hostile toward Gorbachev, 47 percent of Russians "don't care about him at all," and only 5 percent admire him. And this was an improvement: Another poll, in 2005, found active hostility toward him in 45 percent of Russians. The word "perestroika" in Russia today has almost purely negative connotations.

In London and Washington, Gorbachev's reputation is of course more positive. He is regarded with affection -- he was invited to Ronald Reagan's funeral and to George H.W. Bush's own 80th birthday party -- and frequently hailed as a "symbol" of peace and the Cold War's welcome end. But he tends to be paid rather bland and even inappropriate compliments. At his birthday party, Paul Anka sang a duet with a Soviet-era rock musician. The chorus: "One day we'll recall, he was changing the world for us all." Stone then lauded him with a rhetorical question: "Where would Russia be if it weren't reaping the benefits of a free democracy?" I wish I'd been there to see the embarrassment on the faces of the spectators at the Royal Albert Hall -- for Russia has not actually reaped the benefits of free democracy, as every Russian in the room knew perfectly well. Even Gorbachev himself recently described Russian democracy as a sham: "We have institutions, but they don't work. We have laws, but they must be enforced."

Of course, Gorbachev is not to blame for the absence of political transparency in today's Kremlin, the weakness of political parties, the return of the former KGB as a source of influence and power, or the violence that Russian authorities intermittently use against dissenters of all kinds. The true causes of the 1990s economic collapse -- low oil prices, 70 years of bad economic policy, and the rapacious greed of the communist-educated Russian elite -- were not his doing either. Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, bears far more responsibility for Russia's corrupt economy, and Putin is surely more to blame for Russia's stagnant politics.

In fact, Gorbachev did not intend for things to end up the way they did. But then, Gorbachev never set out to become one of the founding fathers of modern Russia either. He was a reformer, not a revolutionary; his intention, when he became leader of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985, was to revitalize the Soviet Union, not undo it. He knew that the system was stagnant. But he didn't understand why. Instead of abolishing central planning or calling for price reform, he announced a drastic anti-alcohol campaign: Perhaps if the workers drank less, they would produce more. Two months after taking power, he put restrictions on the sale of alcohol, raised the drinking age, and ordered cuts in production. The result: enormous losses to the Soviet budget and dramatic shortages of products, such as sugar, that people began using to brew vodka illegally at home.

Only after this campaign failed -- and only after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster brought home to him the real dangers of secrecy in an advanced industrial society -- did Gorbachev make his second attempt at reform. Like the anti-alcohol campaign, glasnost, or openness, was originally meant to promote economic efficiency. Open discussion of the Soviet Union's problems would, Gorbachev believed, strengthen communism. He certainly never intended his policy to change the USSR's economic system in any profound way. On the contrary, not long after taking power, he told a group of party economists, "Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers, but about the ship, and the ship is socialism."

Of course, Gorbachev later wound up changing his ideas, in economics and many other areas. Indeed, this pattern would repeat itself many times. Determined to save central planning, he told people to talk openly about it -- as a result of which they concluded that it didn't work. Determined to save communism, he let people criticize it -- as a result of which they decided they wanted capitalism. Determined to save the Soviet empire, he gave Eastern Europeans more freedom -- which they used to wriggle out of the empire's grasp as quickly as possible. He never understood the depth of cynicism in his own country or the depth of anti-communism in the Soviet satellite states. He never understood how rotten the central bureaucracies had become or how amoral the bureaucrats. He always seemed surprised by the consequences of his actions. In the end he wound up racing to catch up with history, rather than making it himself.

In fact, all of Gorbachev's most significant and most radical decisions were the ones he did not make. He did not order the East Germans to shoot at people crossing the Berlin Wall. He did not launch a war to prevent the defection of the Baltic states. He did not stop the breakup of the Soviet Union or prevent Yeltsin's rise to power. The end of communism certainly could have been far bloodier, and if someone else had been in charge it might have been. For his refusal to use violence, Gorbachev deserves Anka's corny serenade.

But because he did not understand what was happening, Gorbachev also did not prepare his compatriots for major political and economic change. He did not help design democratic institutions, and he did not lay the foundations for an orderly economic reform. Instead, he tried to hold on to power until the very last moment -- to preserve the Soviet Union until it was too late. As a result, he did not politically survive its collapse. Since leaving office he has tried three times to found new political parties. All have flopped.

Timing is everything in politics, as we are learning once again this year with the political upheavals in the Middle East. If Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had called for free elections a year ago, he would be remembered as a magnanimous statesman. If Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi had graciously abdicated in favor of his son Saif al-Islam, he would right now be the toast of every boardroom in Europe. If Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had only started planning his retirement a little earlier, he'd be living quietly in a suburb of Tunis, not evading an Interpol arrest warrant in Saudi Arabia.

By the same token, if Gorbachev had carefully planned the dismantling of the Soviet Union from 1988, instead of angrily accepting it only after the fact in 1991, his birthday this year might have been celebrated by grateful Russians, instead of American actresses mouthing platitudes. As we will also learn in the Middle East, an orderly transition from dictatorship to democracy has two crucial elements: an elite willing to hand over power, and an alternative elite organized enough to accept it. Thanks partly to the reluctant and shambolic nature of Gorbachev's final years in power, Russia had neither.

It may well be that he could act no differently. Gorbachev knew nothing of real democracy, and even less of free market economics. Brought up and educated in Soviet culture, he was simply unable to think his way out of that system. He didn't prevent change, and he didn't shoot the people who finally made change happen. But at such a historic moment, ignorance is no excuse.

Ian Gavan/Getty Images