"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.
In August 1991, Soviet hardlines held Mikhail Gorbachev captive in a last-ditch effort to save the Soviet empire. His foreign policy advisor tells the story.
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.