In hindsight, even the timing seems screamingly obvious. Gorbachev had designated Tuesday, Aug. 20, for the ceremonial signing of a new union treaty with the presidents of the Russian and Kazakh republics; other republics were expected to sign later. The treaty would transfer so many powers -- over taxes, natural resources, even the state security apparatus -- to the republics as to make restoring ironfisted Kremlin control of the whole country impossible. Moreover, a new national Cabinet would have been named by representatives of the republics. Some of the eventual coup leaders, including KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo, would almost certainly have lost their jobs. The plotters could not afford to let that treaty go into effect.
Yet Gorbachev by his own testimony was totally unprepared. To some scholars and Soviet officials that appears so odd as to suggest that the President himself had staged a Potemkin coup to win domestic and foreign sympathy. But that seems farfetched. More probably, the very volume and intensity of coup talk had dulled his political antennae; the cry of wolf was sounding old and tired. Alexander Yakovlev, a close adviser, claimed after it was all over that he had even given Gorbachev the names of some likely -- and, as it turned out actual -- plotters. The President, according to Yakovlev, had scoffed that they "lack the courage to stage a coup."
As late as 4 p.m. Sunday, working at his Crimean vacation retreat at Foros on the speech he intended to give at the treaty signing, Gorbachev telephoned Georgi Shakhnazarov, an aide and friend, who was vacationing nearby. They chatted briefly; Shakhnazarov heard nothing to indicate that his boss was in any way troubled. Less than an hour later, however, at 10 minutes to 5, the head of Gorbachev's security guards entered the President's office and, as Gorbachev later recounted the story, announced that "a group of people" was demanding to see him. Who were they, asked Gorbachev, and why had they been let into the house? They were accompanied by Yuri Plekhanov, the chief of the state security-guard organization, said Gorbachev's man; that was all he knew. Gorbachev picked up a phone to call Moscow. "It didn't work. I lifted the second ((phone)), the third, the fourth, the fifth. Nothing." All his communications had been cut.
Instantly realizing what might be up, Gorbachev went to another room, called in his wife, daughter and son-in-law and warned them that his visitors might "attempt to arrest me or take me away somewhere." Returning to his office, he found that the delegation had already bulled its way in. There were four besides Plekhanov. Gorbachev initially named only one: Valeri Boldin, his own chief of staff. It was as if John Sununu had joined a coup against George Bush. The others were finally identified as Oleg Baklanov, deputy chairman of the National Defense Council and in effect leader of the military-industrial complex; a Communist Party hack named Oleg Shenin; and General Valentin Varennikov. In the name of the so-called State Committee for the State of Emergency, the visitors demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree proclaiming an emergency and turning over all his powers to Vice President Gennadi Yanayev. Gorbachev's reply: "Go to hell."
By then, a special detachment of KGB troops had surrounded his vacation house. Just in case Gorbachev somehow got out and tried to return to Moscow, KGB units drove tractors across the runway of the nearby airport to prevent Gorbachev's TU-134 presidential jet from taking off.
Roughly 12 hours passed before the outside world knew anything. But at 6 a.m. Monday, TASS, the Soviet news agency, reported falsely that Gorbachev was ill and had yielded his powers temporarily to Yanayev. An hour later, TASS announced the formation of the eight-member State Committee for the State of Emergency, ostensibly headed by Yanayev. Actually, this gray and ineffectual apparatchik was only a figurehead; the real power probably was held by Kryuchkov, Pugo and Yazov, plus possibly lesser-known figures. Some of Russian republic president Boris Yeltsin's aides later fingered Baklanov as the chief plotter. The committee announced that it would rule by decree for six months, and began setting up some of the machinery of dictatorship. All newspapers except for nine pro-coup sheets were ordered to stop publishing, political parties were suspended and protest demonstrations banned. Muscovites going to work or to shop Monday morning had to maneuver around troops, tanks and armored personnel carriers that were moving to cordon off or seize key installations.
Yet it was obvious even that early that the coup was ill planned and curiously halfhearted. The plotters neglected to carry out that sine qua non of successful coups: the immediate arrest of popular potential enemies before they could begin organizing a resistance. In particular, the failure to make sure that Yeltsin was taken into custody (there were some reports that an attempt at an arrest was made, but botched) was fatal. Inexplicably, the putschists did not even pull the plug on the communications of anyone except Gorbachev. Bush and other foreign leaders were amazed at how easily they could get through by telephone to Yeltsin; he in turn seems to have had no difficulty coordinating action with other coup opponents across the country.
Most successful coup organizers also begin by moving reliable troops into key positions. Yet U.S. intelligence analysts, poring early Monday over satellite pictures taken during the previous two days, detected no evidence of any unusual troop movements. The Soviet plotters used troops and equipment that happened to be on hand in Moscow and other cities and gave the soldiers only the vaguest idea of what they were supposed to be doing. In Moscow some seemed to think they were participating in an odd sort of parade or drill.
Far from being prepared to crush opposition, the troops were obviously under orders to avoid confrontation if possible and above all not to shoot. Citizens shouted "Fascist!" or worse at the troops, scrawled swastikas in the dirt on tanks parked outside the Russian Parliament Building, climbed aboard armored personnel carriers to argue with the commanders and urge them to turn back -- all with impunity. When the coup leaders decreed a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., the soldiers made no attempt to enforce it.
In Leningrad troops based inside the city stayed in their barracks throughout the coup. Armored assault units headquartered nearby at one point started moving on the old czarist capital, but reformist Mayor Anatoli Sobchak -- another leader the coup conspirators foolishly left at large -- persuaded the tankmen to halt outside the city.
Why were the coup plotters so inept and halfhearted? Simple incompetence might be one answer; several were party or government hacks who had never displayed much imagination or initiative. They may have thought that the economic collapse that had made Gorbachev wildly unpopular, coupled with a long Russian tradition of submissiveness to authority, would win the populace to their side without any need for bloodshed. They may even have been corrupted, so to speak, by the new atmosphere of democracy and legalism -- at least to the extent of feeling a need to give their coup a cloak of constitutionalism, which in turn prevented them from acting with the ruthlessness a successful coup generally requires. Alternatively, some American officials think the plotters were not so much inept as unable to round up enough support to flaunt any more muscle than they did.
There were many indications that an early and decisive use of force might have carried the day. According to British sources, heads of government and foreign ministers of the major Western powers had agreed during a long series of very secret talks on a coordinated policy to oppose any Soviet coup attempt. But though all of them condemned the coup, some initially hinted that they might eventually live with it. On Monday morning Bush asserted that "coups can fail" but at the same time voiced hope that Yanayev too might turn out to be a reformer. French President Francois Mitterrand on Monday night treated the coup as a fait accompli.
Within the U.S.S.R. many powerful figures who wound up opposing the coup were initially noncommittal, stayed conspicuously out of sight or played highly ambiguous roles. Alexander Dzasokhov, a secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, tried to paint the party as a resolute opponent of the conspirators. "From the very beginning of the coup," he said, the committee secretariat "kept trying to get in touch with the state Emergency Committee and demanded that they see Gorbachev." In fact, though, Nursultan Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan, says the Central Committee on Monday secretly urged local party organizations to support the junta.
Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh came down with a vaguely defined illness, one of several seeming cases of "coup flu." (Symptoms: cold feet and a weakening of the backbone.) After initially cabling Soviet ambassadors around the world to put a "good face" on the coup, Bessmertnykh climbed out of his sickbed to denounce the plot only after it was falling apart -- too late, as it turned out, to keep from getting fired. General Mikhail Moiseyev, Chief of the Soviet General Staff, was perhaps conveniently on vacation in the Crimea when the coup began. But some of his subordinates claimed he wrote out the orders for the troops to occupy key points in Moscow -- as well as the orders for them to go back to their barracks when the coup was palpably failing.
Even the indomitable Yeltsin reportedly had a moment of irresolution. On Monday morning he hurried to the Russian republic headquarters -- nicknamed the White House because of its marble facade -- and was quickly joined by other coup opponents. One of them, former Soviet Interior Minister Vadim Bakhatin, says they urged Yeltsin to proclaim himself in command of all army and KGB units on Russian republic soil. Bakhatin recounts that Yeltsin was reluctant; he feared that such an order would split the army and perhaps start a bloody civil war. Bakhatin and others, however, convinced Yeltsin that if no one exercising constitutional authority was willing to countermand orders from the junta, the army might eventually if reluctantly invade the White House and arrest them all, and the coup would succeed.
From then on, Yeltsin never wavered. At 12:30 p.m. Monday he clambered atop an armored truck outside the White House to announce the decree assuming command. He denounced the coup as illegal and unconstitutional and called for a general strike to thwart it. In retrospect, that was the first and perhaps the biggest turning point. Yeltsin had made it obvious that the coup would face determined resistance; his appearance helped inspire protest demonstrations throughout the country. At the time, however, its significance was not entirely apparent. No more than about 200 Muscovites had gathered outside the Russian republic building to see and hear his fiery performance. But as word spread, the crowd grew and grew until it eventually numbered in the tens of thousands.
At 5 p.m. Monday the conspirators finally called a press conference to introduce themselves. Their performance was a disaster. Far from coming across as a take-charge group, they appeared nervous and half apologetic. They gave a preposterous excuse for assuming authority (Gorbachev was too tired and ill to retain command); stressed that the coup was a constitutional devolution of authority to Yanayev, although it clearly was not; and proclaimed a highly dubious devotion to continued reform. Junta member Vasili Starodubtsev sniffled continually, and Yanayev seemed twitchy. As Gorbachev later commented, "They said I was sick, but they were the ones whose hands were shaking."
Gorbachev apparently was listening if not watching. His security guards stayed with him at the Foros dacha, scrounged up some old radio receivers that had been forgotten but not discarded, and set up a jury-rigged antenna so they could monitor foreign radio coverage of the coup. Gorbachev later praised the reporting of the British Broadcasting Corp., Radio Liberty and Voice of America -- without seeming to recognize the irony that all three networks had been jammed by the Soviet government not so very long ago. Though he said he had been subjected to intense "psychological pressure," this apparently consisted of isolation rather than any actual interference with his activities. The President spent part of his time drafting an angry condemnation of the coup, and was so incensed at the reports of his illness that he made four videotapes of himself (he did not say how he got hold of a camera) to prove he was not sick at all. Fearing that the worst might happen to him, he also recorded his last will and testament. Gorbachev's wife Raisa was apparently quite shaken by the experience. She was later reported to have suffered some paralysis of her left hand and was said to be receiving medical treatment.
In the outside world, the tide was beginning to turn. By Tuesday morning the Western powers had got their act together and unanimously, though separately, proclaimed a clear line: no normal relations with the Soviet Union until legitimate authority was restored, and a quick and indefinite cutoff of most of the economic aid that the U.S.S.R. desperately needs.
Coal miners in Siberia and the far north left their pits. Resolutions condemning the Emergency Committee were passed in communities from Sakhalin Island in the far east to Petrozavodsk, near the border with Finland. In Leningrad tens of thousands gathered in front of the Winter Palace, which Lenin's forces had stormed to begin the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
In Moscow resistance organizers had fanned out across the city Monday night to post leaflets in subway stations calling for a mass demonstration at noon Tuesday. From a second-floor balcony of the Russian republic building, speaker after speaker led a throng of up to 150,000 Muscovites in chants of "We will win!" Shouted Yeltsin: "We will hold out as long as we have to, to remove this junta from power." Bush telephoned on Tuesday morning to encourage that ( determination by making it clear that the putschists would get no foreign support.
Tuesday afternoon brought one telltale indication that the junta was losing what grip it had established. After obediently reporting all the pronouncements of the so-called Emergency Committee and little else, TASS suddenly began interspersing them with reports of the burgeoning resistance. For example, it let Soviet citizens know that Aleksei II, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and a signer of a December appeal for a law-and-order crackdown, had come out against the coup.
Tension nonetheless built toward a climax Tuesday night. It was obvious that the junta could no longer prevail unless it began using deadly force, starting with an armed assault on Yeltsin's White House. All afternoon and evening, loudspeakers blared warnings that tanks were rolling toward the building and 60 planes filled with paratroopers were preparing for an airborne assault. Thousands of people worked through the night building barricades to deter an attack, supplemented by human chains of unarmed protesters. At the foot of the main staircase, an organizer with a megaphone called, "All courageous men who are willing to defend the building, please come forward!" About 90 men -- the forerunners of many, many more -- formed up in three rows on the stairs. An Orthodox priest in full regalia read the Lord's Prayer to them.
Just before midnight, short bursts of gunfire did echo from nearby streets. It was not, however, the start of an assault but a confused scuffle between tanks and protesters around a trolleybus barricade. Three demonstrators were left dead -- the only casualties in Moscow of the coup.
Otherwise, nothing happened. During the daylight hours Tuesday, Ruslan Khasbulatov, first deputy chairman of the supreme soviet of the Russian Federation and a close Yeltsin adviser, was on the phone to KGB chief Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Yazov. He asked them point-blank if the junta planned to storm the White House. "Yazov did not deny it," he reported. Late Tuesday night and again Wednesday morning, Gennadi Burbulis, another Yeltsin aide, spoke twice more with Kryuchkov. Finally Kryuchkov promised, "You can sleep soundly." There would be no shoot-out.
Why not? Reports within the Soviet Union and from Western intelligence sources differed in detail, but agreed in essence: the armed forces would not carry out any order to attack. One story was that senior army commanders had met secretly Tuesday night and decided they would not storm the White House or countenance any firing at civilians.
Some troops sent to menace the Russian republic headquarters turned to defending it instead. By agreement with Yeltsin, Major General Alexander Lebed, a commander of airborne troops, on Tuesday afternoon ordered the tanks and armored personnel carriers from his Tula division parked around the building to turn their turrets around so that they could not fire at Yeltsin's headquarters; no ammunition was distributed to the vehicles' crews. In effect, the tanks and APCs became part of the barricades protecting the building. Some American officials believe that the junta did intend to storm the building but Lebed's virtual defection derailed its plans. Another version, not necessarily contradictory, was that Colonel General Gennadi Shaposhnikov, commander of the Soviet air force, and Lieut. General Pavel Grachev, chief of the airborne troops, flatly refused to order an attack on the White House. That story gained credence at week's end when Shaposhnikov was appointed Defense Minister, with Grachev his chief deputy.
Wednesday morning there was a seemingly ominous flurry of military activity. Soviet troops in Lithuania and Estonia took control of several radio and TV stations; in Moscow paratroopers shut down an independent radio station that had resumed broadcasting the day before. But those actions quickly turned out to be the plotters' last gasp. The failure to storm the White House on Tuesday made clear that the junta would not or could not resort to the serious bloodshed that by then would have been necessary to crush resistance. By Wednesday the plotters evidently concluded that the jig was up, and the coup fell apart with astonishing speed.
At 2:15 p.m., Yeltsin announced to the Russian parliament that some of the conspirators were running to Vnukovo Airport to get out of town. A delegation headed by Yeltsin's vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, chased after them to arrest them. One hour earlier, TASS announced that the Defense Ministry had ordered all troops to clear out of Moscow, and this order was happily obeyed. Bystanders cheered as soldiers, some waving prerevolutionary Russian flags, rode atop armored vehicles on their way back to bases. The order to clear out, in fact, came from Gorbachev. For two days he had demanded that his captors let him phone Moscow again and supply a plane so that he could return to the capital; his requests were ignored. But on Wednesday he was suddenly allowed to use the phone once more. He called General Moiseyev, who by then was back in Moscow, and Moiseyev passed on the order to the Defense Ministry.
After two days of isolation, Gorbachev was suddenly again besieged by visitors from Moscow, this time competing for his favor. How many conspirators tried to flee the capital on Wednesday is still not entirely clear. Pugo, for example, was originally rumored to be aboard a plane headed for Central Asia, but in fact was soon admitted to a Moscow hospital with gunshot wounds, apparently self-inflicted, from which he died. Kryuchkov and Yazov, however, did get to Vnukovo Airport ahead of their pursuers from Yeltsin's headquarters, and hopped a plane for Gorbachev's resort. They were accompanied by Anatoli Lukyanov, chairman of the Soviet parliament. Though he is an old friend and law-school classmate of Gorbachev's, Lukyanov played at best an ambiguous role in the coup; he was not a member of the Emergency Committee but has been accused by some of Yeltsin's aides of being the mastermind behind the whole plot. Hard on their heels, Rutskoi and his avengers also took off for the Crimea -- taking care to bring guns.
Possibly Kryuchkov and Yazov hoped to negotiate with Gorbachev an end to the coup that would preserve some of their power. Or maybe they simply intended to beg for forgiveness and leniency. Rutskoi and his friends, however, feared they might want to kill the Soviet President. The thought that some of the plotters might try to execute him in a last attempt to save the coup occurred to Gorbachev as well. One of his first calls on Wednesday was to the chief of his personal guard at the Kremlin, working out arrangements to guarantee his safety on a return to Moscow.
When Kryuchkov and Yazov arrived at his dacha, Gorbachev refused to see them; he demanded that they be arrested (Lukyanov was not arrested but was suspended from his job pending an investigation). Rutskoi and his gun-toting party, who got to the dacha shortly after, were delighted to do that job. They frisked both Kryuchkov and Yazov; Kryuchkov offered no resistance, but the Defense Minister grumbled (neither was armed). Even then Rutskoi and his companions were worried that other plotters might try something. "We told the airport to prepare two planes to mislead the scoundrels," Rutskoi later said on Soviet television.
All this took so long that Gorbachev did not get back to Moscow until 2:15 a.m. Thursday. Stepping off the plane, he looked haggard and drawn but flashed a relieved smile, rather like the released hostage that he was. In theory, at least, he was back in full command. In fact, he faced gigantic tasks of rounding up the plotters, alleviating the economic and social chaos that had given the excuse for the coup, and working out a modus vivendi with Yeltsin. As for the surviving plotters, all of whom had been arrested by week's end, they were facing not only treason trials but also the knowledge that their mismanaged coup had intensified the move toward democracy and decentralization they had tried to stop. The three days that shook the world were over.