On Sunday, Aug. 18, the plotters made their move, placing Gorbachev under house arrest at his Crimean vacation dacha. By Monday, when the coup leaders were issuing emergency orders, Shebarshin had decided that the entire affair was nothing more than a fuzzy-headed attempt to roll back the clock. He followed Kryuchkov's orders to set his FCD resources to spying on Moscow and sent the FCD's crack paramilitary unit to the KGB Club in central Moscow. But he told the unit's leader not to accept orders from anyone but himself. He had decided that the coup would fail and that the costs of that failure would be high.
By Wednesday, Shebarshin knew he had made the right calculation. Had the coup plotters moved resolutely and ruthlessly at the outset, he told me, he would have followed Kryuchkov's orders to deploy the paramilitary team against the holdouts in the White House. But the plot's slapstick execution was apparent by Wednesday, and Shebarshin ordered his elite force to stand down. At that point, Shebarshin and a number of other KGB senior officers simply stopped returning the plotters' calls. Shebarshin had called the shot accurately -- not because he was morally or philosophically against the attempt to oust Gorbachev, but because he read the balance of power correctly.
By Thursday, it was all over. Shebarshin thought himself lucky, he later told me, but then reminded himself of what he called Pascal's dictum: Don't call a man lucky while he's still alive; in the best of cases, things are just going his way.
Early that morning, he received a call summoning him to the Kremlin's Walnut Room to meet with Gorbachev. The meeting was brief. Gorbachev appointed him acting chairman of the KGB and ordered him to assemble his deputies to investigate who knew what and when. Shebarshin told me later that he had felt uncomfortable -- that he had somehow suppressed his personal extreme distaste for Gorbachev when he found himself in the man's presence, instead succumbing to the thought that he, Leonid Shebarshin, son of a shoemaker, had become head of the KGB. People are weak, he would say. It's all about vanity.
The only work done at the KGB's headquarters on the day Shebarshin was in control was to secure the old prison against the mobs clamoring in front of it in Moscow's Dzerzhinsky Square, as the impact of the failed coup spilled over into an increasingly belligerent Moscow population. By the end of the night, the KGB facade had been defaced, and the bronze statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky had been hauled down -- an unthinkable challenge to the state. By the next afternoon, Vadim Bakatin had been appointed chairman of the KGB. Shebarshin was told he would continue as vice chairman and head of the FCD, but he submitted his resignation from the KGB less than a month later. There had been no pressure to resign; vanity simply had its limits, he told me.
Shebarshin later told me in a letter that while emptying out his personal safe during the coup attempt -- after he had destroyed all even remotely incriminating papers -- he had cleaned and oiled his service pistol, a Makarov 9 mm semiautomatic. He described the gun as a "simple, dependable item whose mass fits nicely into the palm of one's hand."
"The lead content of a single round of ammunition," he wrote, "was the equivalent of a person's life, any life, whether worthy or pitiful."
I have no idea whether the Makarov he described to me so poignantly was the same weapon with which he ended his life, though I suspect it was.