On Aug. 18, 1991, four Soviet government officials arrived at Zarya, Mikhail Gorbachev's dacha at the Crimean coastal retreat of Foros, where the Soviet president was on vacation, and informed him that he was under house arrest. A coup d'état was under way, led by a group of hard-liners in the Soviet civilian and security leadership who were trying to stop Gorbachev from signing the Union Treaty, an agreement that would cede more authority to the Soviet Union's constituent republics; the hard-liners were convinced that it could only lead to the union's dissolution.
The putsch lasted for three days and failed, taking the entire Soviet Union down with it. Russians and the international community rallied around Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who stood up to the coup plotters in a dramatic confrontation in Moscow. (For the inside story of Yeltsin's stand, see Gennady Burbulis's "Meltdown," in the July/August 2011 issue of Foreign Policy.) Meanwhile in Foros, Gorbachev, his family, and his closest advisors struggled to find out what was happening and get their message out to the outside world.
Among the members of Gorbachev's inner circle present at Foros was Anatoly Chernyaev, the Soviet leader's 70-year-old foreign-policy advisor, who wrote the first insider's account of the incident in his diary the day after the coup collapsed. The following excerpt comes from the first English translation of Chernyaev's diary, translated by Anna Melyakova and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and published online in May.
Mikhail Gorbachev (also referred to in Chernyaev's diary as "M.S." or "Mikhail Sergeyevich"), president of the Soviet Union
Raisa Gorbacheva (also referred to as "R.M." or "Raisa Maksimovna"), Gorbachev's wife
Irina Virganskaya ( "Ira"), Gorbachev's daughter
Anatoly Virgansky ("Tolya"), Virganskaya's husband at the time
Olga Lanina, Gorbachev's assistant
Tamara Aleksandrova ("Tamara Alekseyevna"), Chernyaev's assistant
The coup plotters and accomplices:
Valery Boldin, Gorbachev's chief of staff
Oleg Baklanov, member of the Soviet Defense Council
Oleg Shenin, chief of Gorbachev's Communist Party staff
Valentin Varennikov, deputy defense minister and commander in chief of land forces in the Soviet Army
Vyacheslav Generalov, officer in Gorbachev's personal KGB detail
Yury Plekhanov, head of KGB security services
Around 5 p.m. [on Aug. 18], Olga [Lanina] ran into my office, saying, "Anatoly Sergeyevich [Chernyaev], what's going on? [Valery] Boldin is here, together with [Oleg] Baklanov and [Oleg] Shenin, and another general, tall and in glasses -- I don't know him." (Later we found out it was [Valentin] Varennikov.) I looked out my door.... There was a congregation of cars at the entrance to our building, all of them with antennas, some with emergency lights ... and a crowd of drivers and security personnel. I looked out the window facing M.S.'s house and saw a gloomy Plekhanov walking down the path. From a distance, I could see Boldin on the balcony.
Olga said, "Anatoly Sergeyevich, something is going on here.... You know that communication lines have been disconnected?" I picked up the receiver.... The first, second, third, including the secure line -- silence. We started guessing. Aloud, I brainstormed that there might be some new power plant accident (because Baklanov was among those present); recently there was a report of some failures at the Tiraspol power plants and on one of the Chernobyl blocks.
The phone lines were disconnected completely.
Earlier, when we were on the way to the office, Olga asked to be released early, around 5 p.m., so she could go for a swim, etc. Now, the car did not arrive to get her. I told the driver to pick me up at 6:30, but he did not come for me either. I asked the security guard on duty to get whoever was in charge to explain to me what was going on.
About 10 minutes later, Vyacheslav Vladimirovich Generalov showed up. We became well acquainted during Gorbachev's trips abroad, where he usually was in charge of security. He is very polite. He asked Olga to leave us alone and took a seat. "Anatoly Sergeyevich, don't get me wrong. They left me in charge here. I have orders not to let anyone out. Even if I allowed you to leave the premises, you would be immediately detained by the border guards: There is a triple semicircle [of guards] from one seashore to the other. The road to Sevastopol-Yalta is closed off around here. You can see, there are three ships already at sea...."