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Russia: Former U.S. Ambassador Assesses The Coup's Legacy

Ambassador Matlock presenting a book in Moscow in November 2005 (ITAR-TASS) NEW YORK, August 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Jack Matlock was U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 until 1991. He left Moscow just a week before the August 1991 coup attempt. RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yury Zhigalkin spoke with Matlock about his recollections of those turbulent times.

RFE/RL: How did you first hear about the coup attempt and what did you think?

Jack Matlock: I heard about it the morning of August 19. We were on my wife's farm, and my first thought was that it would probably fail. I felt that the people who were announced as running it, it would appear, had not prepared things adequately. I thought there would be resistance and, in my judgment, they were not the sort of people who would put down the resistance ruthlessly. Or, if they tried to put it down, I thought the armed forces and others would probably not follow the orders. I thought that society had moved to the point that it was no longer acceptable, even in the, you might say, power structures, to put down a popular uprising.

RFE/RL: You left your post in Moscow just a week before. Did you have any indications that this scenario could take place or was it just out of the blue?

A photo gallery presentation of the August 1991 events (Flash required)

MORE: Coverage of the coup from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian.

Matlock: I had been told confidentially in June by the then mayor of Moscow -- he actually wrote it in notes as we sat and talked about other things -- that a putsch was being prepared. And he named four people who, in fact, were involved later. He did this to get a message to [Russian Soviet Republic President Boris] Yeltsin, who was then in Washington. When Yeltsin was given the information, he said we must warn [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev. And we tried to do so, but without naming the people involved. I think he misunderstood the warning, didn't take it seriously.

But when I heard that the coup had occurred and the people who were clearly behind it -- because they were on the committee that announced it was taking control -- this came not as a total surprise. But, at the same time, I didn't believe these people were capable of running the country and I thought that, particularly in Moscow, there would be sufficient opposition that, unless they were willing to enter into a bloody civil war, they could not prevail. And I didn't think they were willing to enter into that. And the first time I was interviewed on television the evening of August 19, I said, "This is not a done deal. I'm not at all sure this is going to hold."

RFE/RL: Did you detect any real worries in world capitals that the plotters might succeed?

Matlock: I think that most people looking from the outside thought they had succeeded. Because I think most people didn't understand the degree of change that had occurred in the Soviet Union at that time. The Soviet Union was not the Soviet Union that it had been five years before or even two years before. It had changed very rapidly. I had been privileged to be there and witness these changes. You know, most people -- including our governments -- didn't really grasp that.

So, if people, think that tragedy was caused in their lives by the breakup of the Soviet Union, then the coup brought it about. It was not going to preserve it.

Now, the American government, I think at the top they understood that this could happen. For one thing, I was reporting these various things to them. But, on the other hand, we didn't want to make predictions because, for one thing, one couldn't predict for sure what was going to happen. Second, if we had started predicting -- even in our intelligence reports -- that there might be a coup, this would have leaked and this would have influenced the situation in a negative way. So, there were very good reasons for not trying to predict this. But understanding there was the possibility that's there, understanding that even if it happened, it might not succeed, was not as widespread.

RFE/RL: What had principally changed in Russia that led them to be defeated?

Matlock: I don't think you can select a single one, but mainly, I think, Gorbachev's opening up created the feeling that the system had to change, that it had not produced what it was supposed to, and that they people who wanted to put the clamps down wanted to turn back to the past. And that had to be resisted.

RFE/RL: Today, 15 years after this event, how would you assess the coup?

Matlock: I think that without that attempted coup d'etat, the Soviet Union in some form would have lasted much longer. So, if people, think that tragedy was caused in their lives by the breakup of the Soviet Union, then the coup brought it about. It was not going to preserve it. I think that's one thing.

Boris Yeltsin leading a demonstration in Moscow on August 22, 1991 (TASS)

Second, I would say it was not the breakup of the Soviet Union that has caused so much the distress that people have felt. It was the inability of the system to change from one system, which was getting nowhere, to a different one. And this is a very difficult process, one without clear historical precedent. But I'm sure that there would have been some sort of union -- not of all 15 republics. One of the things that had to be understood was that they really had to let the three Baltic countries regain their independence because trying to hold them was putting a stress on the whole system. Second, there were certain other things that needed to be done. Gradually, Gorbachev was beginning to do them, although I think he no longer had the full support of the power structures, he couldn't control them anymore. And it was these structures that turned against him, thinking that they could bring back the past, when the possibility of doing so had passed.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that history might have turned out somewhat differently had they succeeded? The Soviet Union could have survived.

Matlock: Not if the coup had succeeded, no. If it had succeeded, they would have broken away much faster. Good gracious, if that coup had held a few more days, they would have had a civil war. It would have looked like Yugoslavia. Is that what people wanted? No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying if there had not been the coup, the Soviet Union could have been preserved for longer -- I didn't say forever or even for very long -- longer in some form. But that's only if they had not attempted the coup.

RFE/RL: Today we may basically say that it was for the better that the coup happened, that it was defeated, and that Russia is moving somewhere.

Matlock: It is certainly for the better that it was defeated. I think the whole area would be better off today, possibly -- one can never be certain of these things -- if the coup had never occurred. If the coup attempt had never occurred and if the democratization process, which was going forward, had been allowed to proceed. Then one would have had, I think, a less disruptive democratization than occurred. In many ways, the Soviet Union, in the middle of 1991, with all the problems it was having, was freer than most of the successor states are today. That's the fact of the matter.

RFE/RL: What is your feeling about Russia's direction today?

Matlock: I think that economically there have been a number of encouraging changes. I think that the stability and confidence that has returned is a positive thing. I think there are negative signs from the standpoint of Russia's future. But I would say these are matters for Russians to decide and not matters for outsiders to try to teach lessons, because I think every country has to find its own way in its own way.

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