Gorbachev Coup - 23 August 1991
They called the Russian Revolution of 1917, the 10 days that shook the world. This counter revolution took only 60 hours to shake the world because the whole world saw every minute of it from the start. In other words, it failed, I think mainly because of something new that the eight plotters had not taken into account – satellite broadcasting. If that sounds glib or vague, let us go back to the beginning and recall not so much how we felt as it went along, but why we ordinary people by the millions of five continents were able to make their feelings known.
Monday morning, the pull of a knob and we're on to the source, which for the next three days will be the ever-present source of the news for the great and the presidents and the PMs and the tyrants and the not so great in 80-odd countries. Atlanta, Georgia's 24-hour cable news service, CNN. The first vivid image in our 60-hour picture show was of six men sitting in a row, I must say they did look boringly like one of those old group pictures of the Politburo – grave, grey bulky in in their cardboard Sunday suits. We didn't need to be told that they were hard-liners. So these were the baddies? Not necessarily so.
Mr Yanayev, who was evidently in charge speaking for the new emergency government … wasn't he the one for whom Mr Gobachev pleaded with the party, he wanted him more than anybody for his vice president – the same man. Well, one of the first things Mr Yanayev said was that, "Soviet policies were unchanged, profound reforms would continue and in particular the business investments that foreigners, the West mostly, had made would be honoured. The camera roamed slowly across the faces of the new men and they turned out to be all good friends, great allies of Mr Gorbachev.
Even so, these emergency governors turned suspect when Mr Yanayev reverted to the oldest, the most discredited gag in the Communist Party book of etiquette. When you arrest somebody or liquidate him you announce that he's ill, so Mr Gobachev was under medical care, very tired, it would take some time before he'd recover and be able, possibly, said Mr Yanayev with a grey, poker face, possibly return to assume his office. Mr Yanyev was noticeably a very nervous head of state and no wonder, for unlike the newspaper readers of 1917, who a day late heard from St Petersburg or Moscow only what the revolutionaries wanted them to read.
We didn't have to stay listening to Mr Yanayev's pompous assertions of general calm and smallest transition. There all of a sudden, we saw Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank before an immense crowd already barricading his parliament building with their modesties just guessed that there were 100, 150,000 of them all milling around cheering, chatting while the tanks moved closer. This could have been the first downward step, by which I mean the failure of the junta to arrest Mr Yeltsin the night before, to move in hundreds of tanks and soldiers and then announce the coup later.
At any rate, a sign that this rebellion was going to be like no other was the small fact that while the tanks were rumbling into the city in formation, private motor cars were going by and on the fringes of the crowd, we saw people shopping or having shopped on their way home or off to the square to see the show. This was a new thing in a crowd in a communist country; they were open, relaxed, not afraid.
Yeltsin's loud declaration that this was an outlaw government, a junta that he would defy was the cue for the leaders of the Western world to rush to declare their support of Mr Yeltsin and for the new leaders of the Baltic Republics who have craved independence to proclaim it. And of course, we saw them all, the plotters had neglected also to smother CNN, so Mr Bush and Mr Major, Monsieur Mitterrand, Mrs Thatcher, we saw huge protesting crowds in Leningrad and the Baltic capitals.
And the next morning, my goodness, even in Prague and Belgrade, if any of the eight plotters had taken time out to look at television and see and hear the thunder of condemnation that rattled around the world, they must have guessed that the game was up. Why had they been so inept, so naive was the question that began to preoccupy the reporters and experts from all over and so to engage us. Not only had they not arrested and silenced Yeltsin, TASS, the government's own paper, had printed his appeal for resistance and the plea of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church – a figure restored in the new Soviet Union to his old immense prestige – his plea to the soldiers everywhere to restrain themselves … which brought up the military experts and reporters who had been told that the military based near Moscow would be greatly supplemented by thousands of Muzaks(?) and Asian troops who would have no compunction about shooting Russians, but the Asian troops never appeared.
What we saw was the advanced guard, about three divisions – they could have flown in 20 more out of 200. And mostly it seemed from the many close-ups we saw very green troops. CNN showed them joking, arguing, singing with the troops and Soviet television came on to say "this was a sign that the people welcomed the troops just the way the Viennese welcomed Hitler and that they were not there to assault anybody ridiculous, but to protect the normal traffic of life". Well, it was an early sign to us that these young troops were the ones least likely to fire on their fellow countrymen.
Tuesday on the tube was fascinating. CNN spent hours showing scenes and people around the city all leading to the evening conclusion that things were calm. On the contrary at least, one of our networks coming to the evening of the prospect of a brilliant coverage of this dramatic story found that calmness is hard to dramatise in pictures, so they showed the one tank that was set on fire, the one army transport that was being bounced and said in a tense voiceover that things were tense. Before the evening though, there was a rash of fact and rumour and hoped-for fact. The fact, another junta blunder that Yeltsin's defiant statement had been sent to all the 16 republics on fax.
The comical rumour of the day, was that now four of the eight conspirators were ill, but in the end immense relief for all of us. Mr Yeltsin had connected with Mr Bush and told him "that the military threat was not scotched but waning rapidly", he also declared that the eight conspirators, or by now loonies in a Frank Capra movie, would very likely face criminal proceedings. The courage of Yeltsin, the simple truth that his stand unhesitatingly from the first moment had broken the coup was now parroted by all the western leaders and by any other politician who could get in on the tribute in front of a camera.
Shortly after noon on Wednesday, Mr Bush at last talked with Mr Gorbachev who said "he was now in complete control and on his way back to Moscow".
I must say that Mr Gorbachev's Moscow press conference was an ordeal I doubt he'd like to suffer again. The new confidence of the crowd defending Yeltsin, the freedom from fear, had passed over to the press, noticeably to the Soviet reporters and they found themselves for the first time I suppose in the 70-year history of the Soviet press, free to ask tough challenging embarrassing questions. Nobody mentioned that before the coup, Mr Gorbachev's popularity in the polls throughout the union was between, wait for it, six and 10%, which might well have given the junta its confidence to strike, but he was asked why he'd chosen these eight men as allies? He'd made a mistake, he would learn from it. And what had he to say to the greatly respected Mr Shevardnadze’s astonishing remark that he hoped Mr Gorbachev was a victim of the plot and not an instigator. Mr Gorbachev could not respond correctly in the presence of ladies.
At the end of it, there was little doubt that Mr Gorbachev was a victim, but also that the coup had been unwittingly encouraged by his ideological backing and filling, his refusal to quit the Communist Party but hope merely to reform it from within. And among the body of the party undoubtedly there was the memory, which my television never recalled of that day last March when Mr Gobachev ordered 50,000 troops and armoured units into Moscow to try and stop a public rally for Boris Yeltsin, it failed, a prevision of the August failure. Mr Yeltsin won't forget that nor will the Muscovites.
The consensus on Thursday seemed to be that the Gorbachev era is over and that, if he's lucky, he will dwindle into a sort on constitutional monarch. When the ecstasy is over, the Soviet's foreign debt with still be appalling, inflation will still be well over 100%. The treaty of union between the republics that is just going to be signed will still be a recipe for fiscal chaos with the republics raising the monies and the central government distributing them. Imagine Middlesex and Yorkshire having to raise the budget for parliament. The huge ethnic minority problems of the republics will still seethe; Russia still cannot eat without the Ukraine. Most of all and over that vast land there will still be too little bread and soap; it seems to me that the possibility of a civil war is still very real.
But, in the meantime, we have to admit that we have been present at one of the most momentous episodes in the political history of the world and we must rejoice that the fearful institution of the KGB and its military, which through 70 years could effectively cower an entire nation was mocked and defeated by the new found gall, the chutzpah, the nerve, the cheek of the common people of Moscow, qualities of openness that they were encouraged to feel and express by nobody but Mr Gorbachev.
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