Twenty years ago this weekend, a group of Communist Party Politburo members and Soviet government officials attempted a coup d’état. They created an unconstitutional “committee on the state of emergency,” isolated the Soviet president and removed him from power.
The events of that August were the result of fierce political struggle during the final stretch in our efforts to reform the Soviet Union.
During the years of perestroika, major changes transformed our country. The people supported glasnost; free, contested elections; and the beginning of the transition to market economics. But the bureaucracies of the Communist Party and the government eventually saw in those changes threats to their position.
Changes on such a scale in a country that is so vast, multi-ethnic, militarized and totalitarian were not easy. Admittedly, we leaders of perestroika made our share of mistakes. We acted too late to reform the Communist Party, which became a brake on perestroika instead of being its engine; its bodies launched an attack on me as its general secretary that reached its peak at the party’s central committee meeting in April 1991. The attack became so vicious that I announced my resignation.
The announcement surprised the organizers of the campaign against me, who thought they could force me to approve emergency measures to resolve the severe problems that we faced in the process of reforms. After meeting for several hours, the Politburo asked me to withdraw my resignation and return to the session. I now think I made a mistake agreeing to their request. I should have gone all the way, since attempts to oust me, in one form or another, were ongoing.
In July, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov and Vladimir Kryuchkov, chairman of the KGB, addressed the legislature, calling for emergency measures and for transferring some powers of the president to the prime minister. They did it in my absence: I was at a meeting at the president’s official residence of the commission preparing the new Union Treaty between the Soviet republics.
The next day I told the legislature that I was against “emergency solutions,” and its members supported me.
In an open political fight, the opponents of perestroika lost. People had become citizens; they supported change even when the going got tough. We had prepared an anti-crisis economic program, which all the republics, including the Baltic states, were ready to implement. The draft Union Treaty was to be signed on Aug. 20. A special congress of the party was scheduled to convene in the fall, and it was likely to divide the party between reformers and conservatives.
We planned, after the Union Treaty was signed, to conduct elections, and we were planning major changes in the Soviet Union’s leadership. I discussed this with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan right before leaving for a brief vacation in the Crimea in early August.
I was burned out from months of tough battles, but I underestimated the resistance of reactionary forces. I should have postponed my vacation.
On Aug. 18, I spoke by phone with my assistants and with Yeltsin to finalize details of the treaty ceremony. I was planning to fly to Moscow on Aug. 19 to attend the signing, but an uninvited group showed up at my residence. Minutes before the delegation of the coup plotters arrived, all my phones — the city line, official telephones and the strategic communications line — went dead. I was totally isolated. It became clear that my opponents in the Politburo and the government had chosen the path of a coup d’état.
I told my family that the situation posed grave dangers to our country and ourselves and that I did not know how things might end. I said that I would not agree to any collusion with those people. My wife, Raisa, and our family said that they would stand by me come what may.
The delegation demanded that I temporarily cede my powers to Vice President Gennady Yanayev or resign. I categorically refused and demanded a convening of the Congress of People’s Deputies or a session of the Supreme Soviet.
Some have alleged that I was trying to wait it out, hoping to win regardless of how things went; these allegations are false and slanderous.
My reply to the coup plotters dealt the first blow to their plans. Equally important was the fact that they were unable to intimidate the people. Our society had learned to resist, to protest and make demands. President Yeltsin took a strong stand, condemning the putsch and calling the actions of the plotters a coup d’état. I appreciated and praised Yeltsin’s actions during those days.
Participants in the conspiracy said, and some still say, that they wanted to save our union. But, as I said from the start, they ended up destroying the country. Although the coup collapsed three days later, it damaged the principle of a common state, speeding the republics’ “run on the Union” — a process that Russia’s leaders had initiated long before the putsch. One after another, the republics began declaring independence.
The situation we faced was indeed grave. But we were able to convene the Congress of People’s Deputies, which approved preparation of another draft of the Union Treaty, based on the concept of a confederative state. We ran into all kinds of problems, but we soon had a new draft and began presenting it to the republics.
Once again, the prospect existed that we could work together to end the crisis. Had it not been for the collusion of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, meeting at Belovezhskaya Pushcha, the new treaty could have been signed before the end of 1991. The union, which would have been known as the Union of Sovereign States, would have been saved — in a different form, and with much greater rights to the republics.
Had that happened, I am convinced that economic reforms would then have been less painful, the collapse of industrial production would have been avoided and the dangerous decline in Russians’ living standards would not have occurred.
Over the past 20 years, Russia has gone through many hardships. The price of freedom turned out to be much higher, and the road to it much more difficult, than what we assumed when we embarked on that path. Even now, we are only halfway to stable democracy. But we have no other course.
The coming years must become a period of faster movement forward. To make it happen, we must unite all those in our society who support further political, economic, social and cultural change in Russia.
I believe it is possible. The opportunity is at hand, and we must not miss it.
The writer, the former president of the Soviet Union, heads the International Foundation for Socio-Economic and Political Studies, a Moscow-based think tank.