Category Archives: USSR

Bush’s & Putin’s Response to the Coup

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle p. 146:

By Tuesday morning, August 20, George Bush, who initially had stopped short of condemning the coup committee—on Scowcroft’s advice he had called their action extra-constitutional rather than illegitimate so as not to burn their bridges with the coup leaders—had got a better idea of what was happening. He managed to get through to Yeltsin. “Boris, my friend,” cried the U.S. president. Yeltsin was overwhelmed. “I am extremely glad to hear from you!” he shouted in response. “We expect an attack, but your call will help us.” “We’re praying for you,” said Bush.

From a balcony at the Russian White House, protected by lead shields held by Korzhakov and another bodyguard, Yeltsin read out a second statement. In it he called on soldiers and police to disobey the orders of Yazov and Pugo but not to seek confrontation.

In St. Petersburg Mayor Sobchak confronted troop commanders and persuaded them not to enter the city. At his side opposing the putsch was his special assistant, KGB officer Vladimir Putin. “Sobchak and I practically moved into the city council,” Putin recounted years later. “We drove to the Kirov Factory and to other plants to speak to the workers. But we were nervous. We even passed out pistols, though I left my service revolver in the safe. People everywhere supported us.”

Putin was concerned that his behavior as a KGB officer could be considered a crime of office if the plotters won. He expressed this fear to his boss, and Sobchak called Kryuchkov on his behalf. Astonishingly the mayor was able to get the chief organizer of the putsch on the phone to discuss such a matter of minor consequence given the scale of events—that Putin was resigning from the KGB forthwith.

Kryuchkov by now seemed to realize his mistake in not securing the arrest of Yeltsin. Public opposition was consolidating around the Russian president. The emergency committee was falling apart. Pavlov and Bessmertnykh had disappeared. Yanayev was drinking himself into a stupor. The defenders of the White House now included many high-profile personalities, including Politburo veteran Alexander Yakovlev, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner. Shevardnadze was also there, asking aloud if Gorbachev himself was implicated in the coup.

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Arresting Gorbachev, August 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 140-141:

Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs had been ordered from a factory in Pskov, and Lefortovo prison made ready for an influx of detainees.

The coup got under way the next day, Sunday, August 18, with the house arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev. A military plane provided by Yazov landed at the Belbek military base near Foros at 5 p.m. after a two-hour flight from Moscow. On board were Baklanov, Shenin, Boldin, and another enthusiastic putschist, General Valentin Varennikov. The four men represented the pillars of the Soviet establishment. Baklanov, with broad earnest face and furrowed brow, was head of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex. Shenin, prematurely bald with large domed forehead, was the Politburo member responsible for party organization. Boldin, besides being Gorbachev’s chief of staff, was a senior member of the Central Committee. Varennikov, in large rimless glasses with a thin moustache and lank hair combed over in Hitler style, was commander of Soviet land forces.

The delegation was driven by KGB officers in two Zil limousines to the state dacha with marble walls and orange-tiled roof, where the Gorbachevs were spending the last day of their two-week summer vacation. They were joined inside the compound gate by another plotter, General Yury Plekhanov, the stolid unsmiling head of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, who represented a fifth pillar of Soviet power, the security organs. Plekhanov deployed new guards around the perimeter of the dacha, ordered the head of Gorbachev’s security to return to Moscow and put men with automatic weapons outside the garage so none of Gorbachev’s party could get to the cars or use the radio telephones in the automobiles.

The president was in his second-floor office dressed in shorts and a pullover, reading the text of the speech he would give to launch the new Union in Moscow in two days’ time. In it he had written a warning: “If we turn back now, our children will never forgive us such ignorance and irresponsibility.”

In a guesthouse on the dacha compound, Colonel Vladimir Kirillov, one of the two plainclothes officers in charge of the nuclear suitcase, was watching television when the screen went blank. An emergency light on the chemodanchik started blinking. This was it—a nuclear alert! He picked up his radio telephone with a direct link to government communications. He was told there had been an accident and not to worry. At 4:32 p.m. he lost contact with his controller in Moscow, KGB general Viktor Boldyrev. General Varennikov appeared at the door. “How are your communications?” he asked. “There aren’t any,” replied the colonel. “That’s how it should be,” said Varennikov. He assured him that contacts would be restored within twenty-four hours.

At 4:50 p.m. the head of Gorbachev’s bodyguard interrupted the president to say that a group of people had arrived to speak with him. Gorbachev was not expecting anyone. Somewhat alarmed, he picked up a receiver to call Kryuchkov in Moscow. The line was dead. All four telephones on his desk and the internal phone were no longer working. In an outer office Anatoly Chernyaev suddenly realized that his government line, satellite link, and internal telephone were all down.

He guessed immediately what was up.

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Yeltsin’s Foreign vs. Domestic Popularity

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 106-108:

Fearful of the gathering momentum towards the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev organized a referendum throughout the USSR to restore popular support for stability and a new union treaty. It asked for a yes or no to the question “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” (emphasis in the original). The referendum was held on March 16. Six of the fifteen Soviet republics had become so independent-minded they boycotted the poll, but in the remaining nine, 76 percent of voters responded yes. Gorbachev took this majority as a mandate to negotiate a new union treaty that would give republics a measure of sovereignty but preserve the Union of which he was president.

Yeltsin cleverly turned the plebiscite to his advantage. On the referendum paper distributed in Russia he added an extra question: Do you support the idea of a directly elected president for Russia? The voters gave their approval. The Russian congress agreed to hold the first free presidential election in Russia, on June 12, 1991.

Though his popularity swelled at home, Yeltsin found to his dismay that his high profile in Moscow did not impress world leaders. Dignitaries who arrived in Russia on fact-finding missions came with perceptions of an unstable and vodka-loving bully. On the other hand, they liked Gorbachev personally and felt protective towards him. When Yeltsin asked U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to call on him during such a visit to the Soviet president in mid-March, Baker saw it as an effort to “drive Gorbachev up the wall.” The American declined after consulting Gorbachev, who “naturally went through the roof” and raved about how unstable Yeltsin was and how he would use populist rhetoric to become a dictator. Gorbachev displayed similar childishness, forbidding his associates to attend a dinner Baker hosted at the embassy in protest at the presence of some of Yeltsin’s team.

The effete British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd took a dislike to the ponderous, blunt-talking nonconformist when they met in Moscow. He suggested to Ambassador Braithwaite as they left the meeting that the Russian was a dangerous man barely under control. Still, Braithwaite concluded that Yeltsin’s analysis was correct and that Gorbachev was by now “living almost entirely in cloud-cuckoo land.” Richard Nixon, visiting Moscow as an unofficial envoy of the White House, cursed the media for giving him the impression of Yeltsin as an “incompetent, disloyal boob.” Yeltsin might not have the “grace and ivory-tower polish of Gorbachev,” he reported to Bush on his return to the United States, “but he inspires the people nevertheless.”

Yeltsin went to France, where he believed he would at least be respected by the democratic parliamentarians of Europe. He got an unpleasant surprise. Le Monde lectured him that in Europe “only one Russian is recognized—Gorbachev.” He was greeted with an “icy shower” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where Jean-Pierre Cot, chairman of the group of socialists, reproached him publicly as a demagogue and an irresponsible politician for opposing Gorbachev, “with whom we feel more assured.” These remarks caused outrage among ordinary Russians—even Pravda called them an insult—and only served to increase Yeltsin’s popularity.

The Russian populist returned home chastened by the “terrible blow” of Western reaction. But there was a surprise in store for him. Gorbachev invited him to a meeting of the heads of all the Soviet Union’s republics at a dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, and what the Soviet leader had to say to him there, Yeltsin found, “exceeded all my expectations.”

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Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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Russia’s Vote for Sovereignty, 1990

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 87-89:

There was a whiff of cordite in the air as the confrontation with Gorbachev sharpened. Yeltsin and his staff began acquiring weapons for personal protection, helped by sympathizers in the Soviet defense and interior ministries. Within a year, he later reckoned, his security directorate had collected sixty assault rifles, a hundred pistols, two bulletproof jackets, and five Austrian walkie-talkies.

Though leader of a country almost twice the size of the United States, Yeltsin had little power. He could not raise taxes. He had no army. He was unable to speak to the people on state television, which was still controlled by the Kremlin. Glasnost had not advanced to the point at which political opponents of the USSR leadership could command time on the airwaves. The Russian Supreme Soviet remained what it had always been—a decoration, part of a Soviet-era fiction that republics governed themselves, whereas in reality they had no control over people or resources.

Yeltsin and his deputies were determined to change that. They hoped to take some power away from the center and establish enough sovereignty to get Russia out of its economic crisis. He proposed that Russia’s laws should be made superior to Soviet laws and take precedence in the territory of Russia, a popular move even with the conservative Russian deputies. “There were numerous options,” Yeltsin recounted, “but we had only one—to win!”

On June 12, 1990, the parliament adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty of the RSFSR by a vote of 907 votes to 13 against and 9 abstentions. The vote was greeted by a standing ovation. The date would be celebrated in the future as Russia Day. Yeltsin would reflect in time that “as soon as the word sovereignty resounded in the air, the clock of history once again began ticking and all attempts to stop it were doomed. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming.”

All over the USSR in the weeks that followed, other republics took their cue from Russia and proclaimed their sovereignty in a wave of nationalism. In many republics the campaign for greater independence was supported not just by nationalists but by hard-line members of the communist nomenklatura, who fretted about Gorbachev’s reform policies and aimed to grab power for themselves.

Gorbachev’s perestroika had by now created a situation in which the USSR could be preserved only by a new union treaty or by military force.

The immensity of what was happening gave Yeltsin “a bad case of the shakes.” The system could no longer crush him openly, he believed, but “it was quite capable of quietly eating us, bit by bit.” It could sabotage his actions, and him. Gorbachev still controlled the KGB, the interior ministry, the foreign ministry, the Central Bank, state television, and other instruments of control. He was commander of the armed forces, the ultimate arbiter in a physical struggle for power.

But Gorbachev was losing the people. By mid-summer 1990, most Russians had stopped paying heed to his speeches. Life was not improving. After five years waiting for a “crucial turning point” that was never reached, people were dismissing his lectures as mnogo slov (“so many words,” “a lot of hot air”). Behind his back party secretaries were calling him Narciss, the Narcissist. (Gorbachev’s secretaries termed Yeltsin “Brevno,” or The Log, the Russian equivalent of “thick as a plank.”) The shops and liquor stores were still empty.

When Gorbachev made a typically long-winded address to the Twenty-eighth Congress of the Communist Party in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on July 2, 1990, almost nobody was listening.

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Gorbachev Begins His Last Day in Office

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 8-10:

Known by the security people as the wolfichantze (wolfs lair), the presidential dacha is serviced by a staff of several cooks, maids, drivers, and bodyguards, all of whom have their quarters on the lower floor or in outbuildings. It has several living rooms with enormous fireplaces, a vast dining room, a conference room, a clinic staffed with medical personnel, spacious bathrooms on each floor, a cinema, and a swimming pool. Everywhere there is marble paneling, parquet floors, woven Uzbek carpets, and crystal chandeliers. Outside large gardens and a helicopter landing area have been carved out of the 164 acres of woodland. The surrounding area is noted for its pristine air, wooded hills, and views over the wide, curving Moscow River.

For more than half a century Soviet leaders have occupied elegant homes along the western reaches of the river. This area has been the favored retreat of the Moscow elite since the seventeenth century, when Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich expressly forbade the construction of any production facilities. Stalin lived in a two-story mansion on a high bank in Kuntsevo, closer to the city. Known as Blizhnyaya Dacha (“nearby dacha”), it was hidden in a twelve-acre wood with a double-perimeter fence and at one time was protected by eight camouflaged 30-millimeter antiaircraft guns and a special unit of three hundred interior ministry troops. At Gorbachev’s dacha there is a military command post, facilities for the nuclear button and its operators, and a special garage containing an escape vehicle with a base as strong as a military tank.

Every previous Soviet leader but one left their dachas surrounded by wreaths of flowers. Stalin passed away in his country house while continuing to exercise his powers, and those who followed him—Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—all expired while still in charge of the communist superpower. Only Stalin’s immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer like Gorbachev, had his political career brought to a sudden end when he was ousted from power in 1964 for, as Pravda put it, “decisions and actions divorced from reality.”

Today Gorbachev will suffer the same fate as Khrushchev. He will depart from the dacha as president of the Soviet Union. When he returns in the evening, he will be Gospodin (“Mister”) Gorbachev, a pensioner, age sixty—ten years younger than Khrushchev was when he was kicked out.

At around 9:30 a.m. Gorbachev takes his leave of Zakharka, as he fondly calls Raisa (he once saw a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Venetsianov of a woman of that name who bore a resemblance to Raisa). He goes down the wooden stairs, past the pictures hanging on the staircase walls, among them a multicolored owl drawn in childish hand, sent to Raisa as a memento by a young admirer. At the bottom of the stairs was, until recently, a little dollhouse with a toboggan next to it, a reminder of plans for New Year’s festivities with the grandchildren, eleven-year-old Kseniya and four-year-old Nastya; the family will now have to celebrate elsewhere. He spends a minute at the cloakroom on the right of the large hallway to change his slippers for outdoor shoes, then dons a fine rust-colored scarf, grey overcoat, and fur hat, and leaves through the double glass doors, carrying his resignation speech in a thin, soft leather document case.

Outside in the bright morning light his driver holds open the front passenger door of his official stretch limousine, a Zil-41047, one of a fleet built for party and state use only. Gorbachev climbs into the leather seat beside him. He always sits in the front.

Two colonels in plainclothes emerge from their temporary ground-floor lodgings with the little suitcase that accompanies the president everywhere. They climb into a black Volga sedan to follow the Zil into Moscow. It will be their last ride with this particular custodian of the chemodanchik, the case holding the communications equipment to launch a nuclear strike.

With a swish of tires, the bullet-proof limousine—in reality an armored vehicle finished off as a luxury sedan—moves around the curving drive and out through a gate in the high, green wooden fence, where a policeman gives a salute, and onto Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway. The heavy automobile proceeds for the first five miles under an arch of overhanging snow-clad fir trees with police cars in front and behind flashing their blue lights. It ponderously negotiates the frequent bends that were installed to prevent potential assassins from taking aim at Soviet officials on their way to and from the Kremlin. Recently some of the state mansions have been sold to foreigners by cash-strapped government departments, and many of the once-ubiquitous police posts have disappeared.

The convoy speeds up as it comes to Kutuzovsky Prospekt. It races for five miles along the center lane reserved for official cavalcades, zooms past enormous, solid Stalin-era apartment blocks, and hurtles underneath Moscow’s Triumphal Arch and across the Moscow River into the heart of the Russian capital. The elongated black car hardly slackens speed as it cruises along New Arbat, its pensive occupant unseen behind the darkened windows.

The seventh and last Soviet leader plans to explain on television this evening that he dismantled the totalitarian regime and brought them freedom, glasnost, political pluralism, democracy, and an end to the Cold War. For doing so, he is praised and admired throughout the world.

But here in Russia he is the subject of harsh criticism for his failure to improve the lot of the citizens. Few of the bleary-eyed shoppers slipping and sliding on the dirty, compacted snow outside food stores will shed tears at his departure from office. They judge him through the prism of empty shop windows.

Gorbachev knows that. He has even repeated to foreign dignitaries a popular anecdote against himself, about a man in a long line for vodka who leaves in frustration, telling everyone he is going to the Kremlin to shoot Gorbachev, only to return later complaining, “There’s a longer line there.”

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Operation Yo-Yo, Korea, 1950

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 71-72:

The troopships of X Corps departed Inchon in mid-October and sailed down the coast through the Yellow Sea. The convoy of more than seventy vessels passed Kunsan and Mokpo and rounded the peninsular horn, swerving through a confusion of coastal islands and then turning into the Korea Strait. From the railings, off the port side, the men could see the liberated siege grounds of Pusan, site of so much brutal fighting only a little over a month earlier. Then the transports turned into the stormy Sea of Japan and worked their way up the east coast, past Yeongdeok and Samcheok, past Donghae and Yangyang. Finally they crossed into North Korean waters and steamed for Wonsan, a port city of 75,000 people tucked into a large bay a little more than a hundred miles north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

But as they approached Wonsan, to the men’s consternation, the ships turned around and started sailing back down the coast for Pusan. No one seemed to know why. Had their orders changed? Was the war over? Were they going home? Then the ships turned around once again, resuming their northward crawl—only to be followed by yet another turn. The Marines and soldiers of X Corps, crammed into their vessels, didn’t understand what was happening.

Eventually the word sifted through the ranks: The North Koreans, working with Russian experts, had mined the waters off Wonsan. Having anticipated that the U.N. forces might land here, they had gone out into the harbor in diverse local craft—barges, junks, tugboats, fishing sampans—and sown the waters with explosives, mostly Russian-made. The harbor was infested: Thousands of contact mines and magnetic mines bobbed just beneath the surface.

So American minesweepers, along with teams of Navy frogmen, were brought in to clear the approaches to the harbor. More than two dozen of these peculiar vessels went to work, often with helicopters buzzing overhead to serve as spotters. Minesweepers had elaborate wire structures, extending far out from the bows, that were equipped with various floats, depressors, and cutters strong enough to sever the steel cables that often moored mines to the seabed. The sweepers plied the harbor, clearing one long channel at a time, even as North Korean artillery shelled them from shore.

It was tedious but also perilous work: On October 10, two American minesweepers missed their quarry and were blown apart. Twelve men died in the explosions, and dozens more were wounded. A week later, a South Korean minesweeper was also destroyed. The men found one mine—also Russian-made—that had a particularly diabolical design. A dozen ships could pass over it without incident, but the thirteenth ship would cause it to detonate. “It took a curious sort of mind to come up with a notion like that,” wrote one Marine, wondering if the number thirteen had a “sinister connotation for Russians as it did in the States.”

Given the dangers in the harbor, the X Corps landing obviously would have to be delayed until the sweepers had completed their painstaking task. And so the troopships churned back and forth along the coast—changing direction every twelve hours. The Marines dubbed this endless backtracking the “Sail to Nowhere” and “Operation Yo-Yo.” For nearly two weeks, they remained at sea with little to do but watch the dull landforms slide by. As food supplies dwindled, the galleys served mustard sandwiches, glops of fish-head chowder, and other highly dubious fare. Joe Owen, of the Seventh Marine Regiment, called it an “ordeal of misery and sickness, malaise and dreariness. The holds stank of unwashed bodies and sweaty clothes.” As one Marine account put it, “Never did time die a harder death.”

What made their seaborne imprisonment more difficult to take was their discovery, by radio, that Wonsan had already been pacified. Republic of Korea troops, working their way overland from Seoul, had arrived in Wonsan and quelled all enemy resistance there. The First Marine Air Wing had set up shop at a nearby airfield, and planeload after planeload of men and supplies had safely landed. The zone around Wonsan was deemed so peaceful, in fact, that the entertainer Bob Hope had already dropped in to perform one of his USO comedy routines for the aviators—during the show, he boasted of how he and his dancing girls had beaten the famed leathernecks ashore.

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