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Russia: Gorbachev Looks Back At Coup Ten Years After

  • Francesca Mereu

The most enduring image of Russia's August 1991 putsch is Boris Yeltsin climbing atop a tank in open defiance of the coup-plotters and a return to the Soviet system. But it is the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev that paved the way for that moment, and which will likely grant him -- and not Yeltsin -- a lasting legacy as one of the major figures in 20th-century history. Gorbachev today visited RFE/RL's Moscow bureau, where he discussed the failed coup, his growing popularity at home, and why President Vladimir Putin, unlike Yeltsin, has earned his support. Correspondent Francesca Mereu reports.

Moscow, 17 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Seventy-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev may be one of the least-loved political figures in contemporary Russia. But his legacy is undeniable. As the Soviet leader who ushered in unprecedented political and economic change in his country, he will long be remembered as the man who paved the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the birth of democratic reform in Russia.

In the three tumultuous days of the failed August 1991 coup, it was his political successor, Boris Yeltsin, who held the spotlight as Gorbachev sat, helpless and hopelessly far from events, under house arrest at his Black Sea villa. But Gorbachev had already made his mark, instituting the policies of glasnost and perestroika -- literally "openness" and "rebuilding" -- that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet regime.

Many have blamed Gorbachev's indecisive shifts between full-speed democratic reform and cautious conservatism for laying the groundwork the coup, which came as a union treaty granting greater independence to the Soviet republics was about to be signed. Gorbachev has himself conceded that he did not do enough to keep the USSR together, or to reform the Communist Party while there was still time. But, he adds, he was working against considerable adversity, with hard-liners resisting change even long before the coup:

"[They tried to stop me] during the 1989 elections, they tried [to halt] the reforms. During the 28th [Party] Congress they were not able to stop a democratic project that was meant to help the reforms to go further and to strengthen freedom and democratic institutions and the future transition to a social-oriented market economy. Do you remember the Congress? It was terrible, but they didn't succeed in [stopping the reforms]."

Looking back to August 1991, Gorbachev says the coup's failure was largely due to a combination of arrogance and bad planning on the part of the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP) -- the eight fellow communists who had risen to power under his reign, only to betray him:

"They had too much self-confidence. [They knew] that the country was lining up [for food], that discontent with Gorbachev was high. It was difficult to buy bread in the shops. [For that reason the GKChP] were sure that people would support them. They held back [food] supplies. The kept 150 trains [full of food] around Moscow to make the supply situation worse. They counted on that working. They said they were going to give people land. But I think they were just adventurers."

Gorbachev, who has repeatedly criticized the calamitous effect of Boris Yeltsin's reforms on the Russian economy, has adopted a surprisingly softer stance on Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin. Putin, he says, has inherited a heavy burden and is worthy of support:

"[Putin] inherited chaos [from Yeltsin]. Nobody was listening to the president, and nobody was fulfilling his commands. [In the regions] you had a kind of governors' feudalism, and here [in Moscow] you had something incomprehensible. And furthermore, [Putin inherited] poverty. The situation had no easy exit. He needed to stabilize the state, make laws to help businesses develop, make laws defending private property, decrease taxes, enact judicial reforms so that the courts could work."

Gorbachev goes on to call Putin a democratic leader, and says Russians need not fear a return to dictatorship under his rule:

"I believe him. I don't think [Putin] is a person that can install a dictatorship. He himself thinks that it is impossible now to install a dictatorship. But I do think he needs to talk [to the public] more. I think that he organizes too few press conferences and he only meets with the nomenklatura."

Gorbachev, whose popularity abroad far exceeds his standing at home, has nonetheless begun a political re-emergence of sorts. Public sympathy following the 1999 death of his wife Raisa did much to raise his profile in Russia, and Putin has openly sought his counsel. Gorbachev himself says he has always felt welcome among the Russian public:

"I go and talk [with people]. Wherever I go, [people] are very interested [in me and what I have to say.] Sometimes, I answer their questions for two or three hours. Even in Yeltsin's time [the interest was high]."

Recalling a trip to Bashkirstan, where he spoke at a university, Gorbachev said the next day a local journalist wrote that the hall was so packed that "only the university's chandeliers were empty."