Prague, 20 August 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Five years ago this week, the world held its breath as a coup unfolded in the streets of Moscow. Seizing on President Mikhail Gorbachevs summer absence from Moscow, eight of the Soviet leaders most trusted ministers attempted to take control of the government.
Within three days, the poorly-planned putsch collapsed and Gorbachev was returned to the Kremlin. But an era had abruptly ended. Power had slipped from the hands of the Soviet leader. The Soviet Union, which the coup plotters had desperately tried to save, was dead.
Aleksandr Yakovlev, former Gorbachev adviser and long-time Kremlin insider, recalled those dramatic days and drew some conclusions for RFE/RL last week in an exclusive interview.
Yakovlev remains one of Gorbachevs few political friends. Unlike most Russians, he is more than willing to give the last Soviet president his due, noting that without his reforms, "there would have been no other politicians of a democratic Russia, including Yeltsin himself."
Yakovlev says that Yeltsin and the other newly-empowered "democrats" treated Gorbachev with a "lack of dignity" during the Soviet presidents last months at the head of a collapsing empire. Yet, Yakovlev admits that the failed coup ultimately speeded up reform. Had the hardliners in Gorbachevs entourage not tried and failed to torpedo perestroika so recklessly, reforms would have dragged on for much longer, "maybe several years," says Yakovlev.
That is the paradox of hindsight. Yakovlev spent months warning Gorbachev of a possible coup and says it was probably a good thing the Soviet leader did not heed his calls.
Yakovlev was by no means the only person to warn Gorbachev of an impending putsch. Gorbachev, in an interview with RFE/RL, said even U.S. President George Bush called to warn him of the rumors, which had been relayed by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Yakovlev recalls that Gorbachev rejected all warnings with the phrase, "they have neither the brains nor the bravery to launch a coup."
What Gorbachev did not realize was that the coup plotters were not a few timid, isolated individuals, but many of those in his innermost circle. Gorbachevs hubris caused him to experience a deep personal tragedy, according to Yakovlev.
Yakovlev says the realization that his closest friends and advisers had betrayed him hit Gorbachev hardest of all. KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, who had assured Gorbachev that the Soviet people continued to love and respect him, Supreme Soviet chairman and childhood friend Anatoly Lukyanov and Gorbachevs personal bodyguards -- all turned against Gorbachev.
Yakovlev says he sensed on the coups very first morning, August 19, that the whole affair was organized more like an "operetta" than a serious military operation. Yakovlev says former KGB general Oleg Kalugin called him at four in the morning to warn him that the army and special services were preparing a putsch.
It was not until two hours later that Tass first carried an announcement by Vice President Gennady Yanayev, who announced he was taking over as acting Soviet president due to Gorbachevs sudden poor health. An hour and a half later, a state of emergency was finally declared and Tass said an eight-man commitee consisting of many of Gorbachevs leading ministers was taking over the government. Yakovlev says two KGB cars pulled up to his house at that time. Fearing arrest, Yakovlev says he telephoned Russian Federation security minister Viktor Barannikov, who sent over Russian security police loyal to Boris Yeltsin. Yakovlev says that as soon as Barranikovs men pulled up, the KGB cars left the scene. Yakovlev says that by that time, the whole thing had turned into a "game -- the fear had gone."
Yeltsins leadership against the putschists and the refusal of Russias political and security administration to go along with the coup led to its rapid unraveling. Three people died in subsequent clashes near the Moscow White House as Yeltsin loyalists clashed with Soviet military troops. But the desperate coup plotters were already finished.
Yakovlev was one of Gorbachevs harshest critics in the final hours of the coup, telling French television in Moscow on August 21 that Gorbachev had been guilty of surrounding himself with a "team of traitors."
Yakovlev, who had seen the writing on the wall, resigned from the Soviet Communist Partys Central Commitee as well as from the Party itself before the coup. He has remained close to the Kremlin, serving as chairman of Boris Yeltsins commission on rehabilitating victims of political repression. He is also the chairman of Russian public televisions board of directors, which monitors the station on behalf of the Yeltsin government.
Gorbachev, in his interview with RFE/RL last week, concluded by saying, "five years ago, we all lost." Yakovlev, though he reserves an honored place in history for his former boss, sums it up quite differently.