The Kremlin Plot

A year later, what is left to say about a failed coup in a defunct country? A great deal, it turns out. The Soviet Union is gone, but communist hard-liners are still trying to rewrite the history of their machinations. Most of the key figures accused of trying to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev are still awaiting trial in a Moscow prison. In letters and interviews, they have issued a stream of excuses for what they did, gilding their own motivations and trying to tarnish Gorbachev. The top investigator of the coup, Russia's Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov, worries that "the people don't know the real truth."

Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former KGB chief, says the plotters were only trying to "preserve the union." Anatoly Lukyanov, former chairman of the Soviet Parliament, claims Gorbachev knew about the coup in advance, "and he took not a single step to block it." "It was not a putsch," insists Gennady Yanayev, the former Soviet vice president who headed the State Committee for the State of Emergency, which briefly took over from Gorbachev; he also insists that he was merely "an official front" for the real coup makers. Only Dmitry Yazov, the once-burly defense minister who has lost 50 pounds in prison, disparages his own motives. "I was an old fool ... to get involved in this adventure," he says.

Russian law gives defendants time to examine the evidence, so Stepankov does not expect a verdict until the end of next year. But he cannot wait to present his case in court. He and his deputy Yevgeny Lisov have compiled a book called "The Kremlin Plot: The Investigators' Version," which is to be published by the Russian magazine Ogonyok and is excerpted here. Pieced together from various sources, including prisoner interrogations and secret documents, Stepankov's dossier presents an inside account of what happened in August 1991. Such disclosures in a U.S. court case could be grounds for dismissal of the charges. In Russia the rules are not so clear. But Stepankov's action does raise questions about his motives. He told NEWSWEEK that he wanted to counter the plotters' public version of events, since "public opinion might influence the verdict." He may also have simply been in the market for hard currency. In any event, his chronicle is sure to spark controversy in Russia and around the world. Here is his account.

Vladimir Kryuchkov was an Andropov man; that was why Gorbachev chose the 64-year-old man as his KGB chief After all, Gorbachev himself was a protege of Yuri Andropov. But there was a tremendous difference between Andropov's two disciples. Kryuchkov always opposed "opportunism." He was proud of having defended socialism in Hungary in 1956. Gorbachev told the whole world that what happened in Hungary was a crime. Kryuchkov took part in the 1968 invasion in Czechoslovakia. Gorbachev apologized to the people of Czechoslovakia for the Soviet Communist Party's "interference in internal affairs." Kryuchkov welcomed the construction of the Berlin wall and did all he could to keep it intact. Gorbachev destroyed it. Kryuchkov rejoiced over the invasion in Afghanistan. Gorbachev described the Afghan war as a "historic mistake."

The phrase the KGB chief began to use was, "Gorbachev is not reacting adequately to events"-hinting, in effect, that the president was out of his mind. To Kryuchkov, Gorbachev was a madman. He had destroyed a system that assured him of loyalty, respect, financial security. What person in his right mind would cut the tree branch on which he was sitting?

[Kryuchkov was not alone in his concern. Other hard-liners--Yazov, Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, as well as military-industrial chief Oleg Baklanov and Politburo chief Oleg Shenin--were also worried by what they saw as Gorbachev's passivity in the face of the Soviet Union's increasing instability. Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh supported Gorbachev, if weakly. It was Russian President Boris Yeltsin-who had tried to push Gorbachev in the other direction, toward faster reform-who was the plotters' fiercest foe.]

Kryuchkov put Gorbachev-and anyone who came in contact with him-under constant surveillance. The KGB even tapped the telephone of Raisa Gorbacheva's hairdresser. The KGB assigned a number to everyone in the family: Gorbachev was 110, Raisa Maksimovna, 111. His daughter, son-in-law and grandson also had numbers. Here is an excerpt from the KGB logbook for Aug. 17, 1991: "12:40 p.m.-111 leaves home. 5:45 p.m.-111 on the beach. 6:20 p.m.-112 [Gorbachev's son-in-law] leaves swimming pool. 6:24 p.m.-111 leaves beach."

The KGB monopolized all the channels through which information came to Gorbachev, giving Kryuchkov considerable power to influence him. For example, Gorbachev feared the prospect of a sudden change,to a market economy. He was afraid that people would not endure the "shock therapy" and would take to the streets, plunging the country into chaos. The people who surrounded Gorbachev skillfully played up these fears. Reports saying that the West, including the United States, thought the "500 days" program was unrealistic and "out of touch with real life" piled up on the president's desk. Gorbachev was also continually told that Yeltsin and his followers would never support him-and that Yeltsin's real goal was to take Gorbachev's place.

The stream of distorted information had its effect. On March 27, 1991 on the eve of the Extraordinary Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation, at which the Communist faction planned to depose Yeltsin from his post of chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, troops were brought into Moscow. The blame for the saber-rattling was put on Prime Minister Pavlov. But Gorbachev himself had sanctioned the troop deployment. Why.? Because Kryuchkov and Interior Minister Pugo told him they had "irrefutable proof" that pro-Yeltsin demonstrators would storm the Kremlin.

Two months before the coup, the hard-liners tried to strip Gorbachev of some of his key powers. He held them off, but didn't remove them from office. A few days later, Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh told investigators, he received a tip that the troublemakers were still a threat. Bessmertnykh's testimony:

On June 20, 1991, we finished a round of talks with [Secretary of State Jim] Baker at the American residence in Berlin and I went back to my embassy. Baker rang me up and said that he would very much like to see me, urgently. I was surprised, because we had just talked.

I tell him: "Jim, what's the matter? What's happened?"

He hesitates: "It's something very urgent. I'd like to meet you very much."

I said that I had a meeting. Perhaps he could come over and we could talk. He: "It's a somewhat delicate matter. If I go a lot of cars will follow with guards and there'll be a lot of commotion in town. The press will be on to us. If you can, I'll wait for you at the hotel where I am staying, but please let everything be quiet." I say: "Is it really that urgent? I have a scheduled meeting." He replies: "If I were you I would perhaps put off all my affairs and come over."

I asked the Soviet ambassador to give me a car without a siren, guards or motorcycles in order to leave the Soviet Embassy. I arrived at the hotel fairly quickly. I brought with me the chief of the U.S.A. and Canada Department at the Soviet Foreign Ministry, in case I needed an expert. But Baker said he would prefer to talk to me privately. So only the two of us remained in the room.

Baker says: "I've just received a report from Washington. I understand it may come from intelligence sources. It seems there may be an attempt to depose Gorbachev. It's a highly delicate matter and we need to convey this information somehow. According to our information, Pavlov, Yazov and Kryuchkov will take part in the ouster." Baker mentioned somebody else, too, but I am sure he named those three. "It's urgent," he says. "It must be brought to Gorbachev's attention."

He asked me if a direct and secure line of communication with the president was available. I said no, especially when such persons were involved. I said that I doubted the authenticity of what had been reported to him and that it must be a misunderstanding of some sort. "No," says Baker. "You never know. He must be warned."

I replied that if there is really something behind it, then I simply don't have a secure communications line; the embassy only has [a line], but it is controlled by the KGB. Baker then suggested that the information be conveyed through the American Embassy in Moscow. Baker says: "Then we'll ask Ambassador [Jack] Matlock. He is already being contacted. You call [Gorbachev's assistant AnatoIy] Chernyayev and ask him to arrange a meeting quickly. This way Gorbachev will get the information. This is absolutely reliable and nobody will intercept anything."

I returned from Berlin to Moscow on June 22. The entire leadership of the country that day attended the laying of the wreaths on the Grave of the Unknown Soldier. After the ceremony Mikhail Sergeyevich invited me to his office. When we entered the office I asked about the information that Matlock had conveyed to him. Mikhail Sergeyevich told me he had received the information. He thanked me for telling him everything and said that he had had a tough talk with those guys.

If Gorbachev thought his tough talk was the last word, he was wrong. At 4 p.m. on Aug. 17 [the day before the coup started] the plotters met at a secret KGB location code-named "ABC" on the outskirts of Moscow. Kryuchkov entertained guests there. [Hard-liners] Yazov, Shenin, Baklanov and Pugo were among those who came to ABC to enjoy the sauna. The high walls and the tight security enabled them to relax and to discuss even the most delicate subjects. Still, Kryuchkov left the critical conversation until they were outside. On a round table in a small summer house about a hundred meters from the main building stood a bottle of vodka, a bottle of whisky and light snacks. Yazov, Shenin and Pavlov chose vodka. The others followed Kryuchkov and took whisky.

The conversation began with a spiteful remark to Pavlov that he would be removed after the 20th. "I am ready to resign at any moment," he countered in his usual brash way, and went on to bemoan the state of the country. "The situation is catastrophic," he said. "The country is facing famine. It is in total chaos. Nobody wants to carry out orders. The crop harvest is disorganized. Machines are idle because they have no spare parts, no fuel. The only hope is a state of emergency."

"I regularly brief Gorbachev on the difficult situation," Kryuchkov started his usual litany. "But he is not reacting adequately. He cuts me short and changes the subject. He does not trust my information. . ." Kryuchkov concluded by proposing to set up an emergency committee. A delegation should be sent to Gorbachev. Let him hand over power to the committee. If he refuses have him stay in the Crimea. Announce that he's ill. [Vice President] Yanayev assumes the presidency, which can be legitimized by the Supreme Soviet.

No sooner did the exchange of opinions begin than they ran out of vodka. [Intelligence official] Yegorov was sent for more vodka and snacks. When he returned to the summer house the men were discussing who would fly to the Crimea. Shenin and Baklanov, Yegorov gathered from the conversation, had already agreed to go. Yazov suggested that Valery Boldin should be sent to Gorbachev as the person closest to the president, quipping, "You too, Brutus?"

"I'll go if necessary," Boldin responded.

Pavlov insisted that people who represented real power-the army and the KGB-should go to Gorbachev.

"Yazov and I can't go, we have to be in Moscow," Kryuchkov said.

Initially it was decided that the chief of the general staff, Gen. Mikhail Moiseyev, would go on behalf of the army, but then they decided he wouldn't be able to "influence" Gorbachev; he was replaced by the decisive and loudmouthed Gen. Valentin Varennikov, commander of Soviet ground troops. From the KGB, Kryuchkov sent Yuri Plekhanov, chief of the Ninth Directorate [which protects government officials]. Yazov proposed to coordinate the actions of the army, the KGB and the Interior Ministry.

"The participation of the Interior Ministry is not yet certain," Kryuchkov said. "Pugo does not know anything yet."

"And Yanayev? [Parliament chairman] Lukyanov? [Foreign Minister] Bessmertnykh?" Pavlov asked.

"They must be notified of our decision."

"Yanayev does not know yet" said Shenin "but I'll talk to him. He will agree. Lukyanov, on the other hand, is of two minds. He says that Gorbachev has forbidden him to show up in Moscow before his return. We must have Lukyanov here. . ."

At 6:15, when all the questions had been covered, Yazov and the military left ABC. The others accepted Kryuchkov's invitation and stayed for dinner.

The morning of the coup, Aug. 19, unfolded differently for each man involved. At 5:01 Kryuchkov ordered his deputy, Valery Lebedev, to send blank administrative arrest warrants to Col. Gen. Nikolai Kalinin, commander of the Moscow Military District. At 9 a.m., after the leadership discussed what the KGB should do under the state of emergency, Kryuchkov headed for the Kremlin to attend the first meeting of the State Committee for the State of Emergency.

Yazov's day began after 4 a.m., when he commanded the troops to begin moving on Moscow at 7. At 9:28 Yazov signed a coded message ordering all Soviet troops on high-alert. "Kryuchkov rang me up," Yazov recalled. "He said he couldn't find anyone. I asked him who he was looking for. Pavlov, Yanayev, Baklanov-nobody could be reached. 'Where could they be?' I asked him. 'They were boozing at Yanayev's until morning,' he replied."

At Pavlov's dacha that morning, the telephone was ringing nonstop. But the prime minister didn't answer. "At around 7 a.m. a prime minister's guard called me and asked me to come urgently," testified Dmitry Sakharov, a physician at the Kremlin Hospital. "He said Pavlov was very unwell. I came over. Pavlov was drunk. But this was no ordinary, simple intoxication. He was on the point of hysteria. I proceeded to give him attention. . ."

On the morning of Aug. 19, Boris Yeltsin was at his dacha at Arkhangelskoye. After his usual exercises, he switched on the TV. The announcer was saying: "The holding of rallies, street processions, demonstrations and strikes shall be forbidden. When necessary a curfew and patrol shall be introduced . . ." The Russian president had come in at the middle of the text. But the message was clear. He listened to the end of the state of emergency resolution and to Yanayev's decree assuming ;,he Soviet presidency.

"A little after 7 a.m. I rang up Yanayev," Yeltsin told investigators. "I was told that he had been working all night and was now resting. While the government communication line was still working I demanded to be put through to Gorbachev. After I persevered, I was told that Foros [Gorbachev's dacha] decided, after all, not to talk to me. This was said after a certain pause. And it occurred to me that the operator had gone to ask for her instructions."

The plan called for Yeltsin to be sent to the Defense Ministry hunting lodge at Zavidovo, on the border between the Moscow and Tver provinces. But the mission to Foros, the talk with Gorbachev, the emergency committee delegation's return to Moscow and the conferences in the Kremlin took much more time than expected. Events were lagging several hours behind schedule. It would have been awkward to arrest Yeltsin in broad daylight.

Parliament chairman Lukyanov's decision to back the emergency committee prompted the plotters to adjust their tactics. Once they were satisfied that Lukyanov would get Parliament to approve the transfer of presidential powers to Yanayev, the hard-liners agreed to give the conspiracy a cover of legitimacy. Kremlin doctors were told to draw u a medical report that would convince everyone that Gorbachev could not fulfill his duties. Yeltsin, by opposing Yanayev-and nobody doubted that he would start making trouble-would appear to be a lawbreaker, and he could then be dealt with. The Yeltsin theme cropped up again at the first meeting of the emergency committee at the Kremlin. From then on there was no getting away from it. The thought of yeltsin haunted them. Whatever they were discussing, whatever they were doing-the nagging, persistent thought of Yeltsin was there.

At midday on Aug. 20 [the third day of the coup] the cream of Soviet generals gathered in the office of Vladimir Achalov, a deputy defense minister. Their plan called for concerted action by the army, the KGB and the Interior Ministry. The roles were clearly assigned. The "Alpha" group was to blast away the doors with grenade launchers and storm its way to the fifth floor [of the White House, the Russian Parliament building] to Yeltsin's office,and arrest him. The "Beta" group would suppress pockets of resistance. The "Wave" group would divide into groups of 10 with other KGB forces in Moscow, and take care of infiltration: finding out the identities of people and making arrests, including the entire leadership of Russia. Cameramen would film the defenders firing back so that it would be possible to claim later that they had opened fire. Passages through the barricades were to be made by special vehicles and three tank companies were to deafen the defenders by firing their guns. Air support was to be provided by a squadron of helicopter gunships.

At the height of the discussion Gen. Aleksandr Lebed entered the room. He had just been near the Supreme Soviet building and he was visibly upset. "There is a huge crowd," he said. "They are building barricades. There will be heavy casualties. There are many armed men in the White House."

"You are a general and you have to be an optimist," General Varennikov cut him short. "This is no time for being pessimistic."

The evening meeting of the emergency committee made it clear that the "legitimate" scenario of the conspiracy had collapsed. "Yanayev asked the leaders of the [conservative] Soyuz parliamentary group who were invited to the meeting what chance there was of gaining a two-thirds majority at the Supreme Soviet," [Gorbachev aide Aleksandr Gorkovluk told investigators. "They replied that if people see that the emergency committee has started delivering on its promises, then one could count on success. If that did not happen there was no hope."

The committee members shifted their glum gaze to Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Doguzhiyev, who had taken over as the head of government because of Pavlov's illness. Doguzhiyev knew there was nothing behind the committee's promises "to improve life." Urged to do something to convince the populace that the new government was as good as its word, he said he no longer held himself responsible for carrying out the order and proceeded to describe the true state of affairs. Testified Yazov: "Doguzhiyev was commenting on the economic situation, papers in hand: we don't have this, we don't have that, and we have only a few days' reserves of that. Credits have been cut off. You want something for children? We have nothing for children." The committee had only one hope left: brute force.

On Aug. 20 the mood in the Alpha group was tense, as was usual before a combat assignment. That day Alpha commander Karpukhin held several briefings with his personnel detailing the group's role in the operation. Anatoly Savelyev, an Alpha old-timer, was furious that his group was being pushed around. Any minor official to send the group to face bullets. And now here was another messy assignment. It was to use arms against the deputies, the government of Russia. Although it was against the rules to tell rank-and-file servicemen about the coming operation, Savelyev called a meeting of his section.

"They want to smear us in blood," he said to his hushed team. "Each of you is free to act as his conscience prompts him. I for one will not storm the White House."

Before the Defense Ministry Collegium meeting at 8 a.m. [on day four], Yazov talked to Kryuchkov. Deputy Defense Minister Achalov was there. "It was a tough conversation. Yazov was saying into the telephone, 'I am pulling out of the game ... I won't go to any of your meetings anymore'."

The morning session of the emergency committee was short. Alarmed by Yazov's stand, the conspirators arrived at the Defense Ministry within an hour. Yazov had nothing comforting to tell them. He said that the Defense Ministry Collegium had voted for the withdrawal of the troops. Unless army units were removed new clashes could not be avoided.

"Somebody remembered about Lukyanov and said his opinion should be sought," Yazov told investigators. "I told Kryuchkov,'You know the whereabouts of everyone. Ring him up.'In short, we all quarreled among ourselves ... When Lukyanov came I told him that I had decided to go to Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev]. Kryuchkov said that he had agreed with Yeltsin to address a session of the Supreme Soviet of Russia. I told him: 'You can ahead and speak, but we will fly to Gorbachev. Just write a note for Gorbachev's communications to be switched on.'Kryuchkov replied:'I am flying with you'."

Interior Minister Pugo, meanwhile, was left behind. Yazov told investigators what happened. His testimony:

I know Pugo as a very cautious man, he doesn't rush headlong into an adventure ... I Let me tell you frankly, I did not respect him because of his caution, his indecision, his shirking of responsibility. I disliked him. It even seemed strange to me that Pugo came along [to the coup plotters' meeting] and did not object. Boris Karlovich [Pugo] did not say no when he was invited to join the emergency committee, although he must have known that this meant direct complicity in a government coup. It was one thing to demand emergency powers, and it was quite another thing to seize these emergency powers by force, betraying the legitimate president.

On the morning of Aug. 22 we didn't even know where Pugo was. He was not in his office, he was not at his dacha and nobody answered the phone in his city apartment. Suddenly Viktor Yerin, first deputy interior minister of Russia, said, "We've been calling Pugo's home over the Kremlin telephone and it's been probably cut off. Let's use the city exchange." Viktor Ivanchenko, then chief of the Russian KGB, got Pugo's number and rang him up. Boris Karlovich himself answered the call. Ivanchenko introduced himself and, very politely, asked if he would like to meet us. Pugo agreed. He was talking in a calm and absolutely normal tone. It was a 15-minute drive to Pugo's place in Ryleyev Street. We were surprised therefore when nobody answered the doorbell. We rang again, and then knocked: there was no answer. Eventually the door was opened by an old man. He turned out to be Pugo's father-in-law.

In the bedroom there were two beds. On one of them Pugo lay on his back. His arms were stretched along his body, his eyes closed, his mouth and right temple were covered in blood. On the bedside table we saw a Walther pistol. Pugo's wife, Valentina Ivanovna, was sitting on the floor. She was awash in blood, her face was purple and swollen. Valentina Ivanovna was still alive and conscious when we came. She reacted to our questions, but she could not answer and her head and hands moved in a slow and horrible way as if she were trying to get up. The doctors, who were quick on the spot, confirmed that Pugo was dead, and giving urgent aid to Valentina Ivanovna, whisked her off to a hospital, where she died after an operation. Pugo had fired two shots: first at his wife, then at himself. She left a note: "My dears. I can't live any longer. Don't be harsh in judging us. Take care of Grandpa. Mama."

After his arrest, Kryuchkov wrote to President Gorbachev from his cell: Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich!

I am constantly tormented by an immense feeling of shame-heavy, oppressive and persistent. Allow me to explain just a few things to you.

When you were out of communication, I thought how hard it must have been on you, Raisa Maksimovna and the family and the thought filled me with horror and despair. What a cruel thing politics is. Confound it! But of course politics is not to blame. The last time I talked to you on the phone on [Aug. 18] surely must have felt from my voice and the substance of the talk that something was wrong. I am still convinced of this. Brief reports of your stay in the crimea, your worries about the country,your restraint(I know what it must have cost you) illuminated your image. It was as if I felt your eyes upon me. These are harrowing memories.

I ask your forgiveness for this pain and suffering on a purely human level. I cannot count on your reply or acknowledgment, but the very fact that I am appealing to you is worth something.

Mikhail Sergeyevich, when all this was conceived, our only concern was to help the country. As for you, nobody contemplated a break with you. We hoped to find a basis for cooperation and work with B. N. Yeltsin. Incidentally, no actions were taken in regard to B. N. Yeltsin and the members of the Russian leadership. That was ruled out. If need be, a minimal number of people-up to 20 persons-were to be temporarily detained. But this was not done because it was felt to be unnecessary. It was stated that in the event of a confrontation with the population, operations were to be immediately suspended. No bloodshed. A tragic accident occurred when an army patrol vehicle was driving along the Sadovoye Ring. The investigation will confirm this.

We came to you determined to report and to call off the operation . . . Already in the Crimea we realized that you would not forgive us and that we could be detained. We decided to entrust our fate to the president. Troops started to pull out of Moscow on the morning of the day of our trip to you. There was simply no need for troops in Moscow. Our main concern and condition was to avoid excesses, especially casualties. To this end we maintained various contacts. I for one had ... repeated contacts with B. N. Yeltsin.

I am aware of realities, and my position as a prisoner, and my hope for a meeting with you is very faint. But please consider sending your personal representative to meet and talk to me.

With profound respect and hopes,

V. Kryuchkov, Aug. 25,1991