The KGB major was on vacation in the Russian countryside in August 1991 when he woke up to a radio broadcast announcing a state of national emergency. The bulletin contained something else: a secret code phrase for intelligence officers, summoning them back to their posts immediately.
On Aug. 19, 1991, a group of eight senior hard-line Communist leaders, including the KGB chairman, had seized power from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, declaring that Gorbachev was unable to continue as head of the party due to illness.
In fact, Gorbachev was under arrest and the “Gang of Eight” intended to roll back his reformist policies of glasnost and perestroika, which they believed had set the Soviet Union on a path of disaster.
For a few days, the fate of the superpower hung in the balance.
When KGB Maj. Valery Shiryayev arrived in Moscow and got on the phone, his supervisor was anything but enthusiastic about the coup. “These are people who have no idea what they’re doing,” he declared to the major. “They’re doomed, and the coup will be over in two days.”
Shiryayev’s boss turned out to be right.
As the 25th anniversary of the August Coup draws near this Friday, journalists have talked to participants and witnesses of those critical days when Muscovites turned out to defend the spirit of democracy that Gorbachev had unleashed, and many Soviet officers defied their orders and sided with the people, ensuring that that the plotters failed.
Nevertheless, the Aug. 19 failed coup was a turning point in modern Russian history.
It set in motion the dissolution of the Soviet Union and provided a moment of glory for Boris Yeltsin, at the time the president of the Russian constituent republic within the USSR, who is remembered for climbing atop a tank to defy the coup. Overshadowing Gorbachev as the man of the moment, Yeltsin emerged the indisputable leader of a new Russia and eventually became its first democratically elected president.
Today’s president, Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 1999, owes his position to the failed coup, but he would come to mourn the Soviet empire’s collapse that followed as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.
In the summer of 1991, Gorbachev was making a last-ditch effort to hold the Soviet Union together by approving a plan to recognize the sovereignty of Russia and the other 14 Soviet republics in exchange for preserving a central Soviet government.
With the treaty set to be signed on Aug. 20, the plotters decided to act. Led by KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, they put the vacationing Soviet president under house arrest in Crimea.
As hundreds of armored vehicles began to roll toward Moscow on the plotters’ orders, Yeltsin, his security chief Alexander Korzhakov and his closest advisers got into their cars and headed for the seat of his Russian government, a tall modern building known as the White House. On the way, they overtook one tank after another.
Korzhakov recalled how their mood changed when Yeltsin’s staff saw crowds of supporters of the legitimate government around the White House: “At this point everyone began to feel calm and confident that the people, Muscovites, were on our side.”
Among the protesters that day was an 18-year-old geology student, Leonid Ragozin, who ignored his parents’ pleas not to go to the barricades.
“When I got to the White House, I saw all those people, thousands and thousands of people who were standing in lines, making human shields,” he said.
Ragozin said it was raining heavily, yet hundreds of people were walking around with tea kettles and pots of food to sustain the protesters.
The coup leaders had ordered newspapers not to print and put a gag on television, meaning for Yeltsin it was nearly impossible to get his message of defiance out.
When Dmitry Sokolov, Yeltsin’s personal photographer and employee of the state news agency TASS, took pictures of the tanks outside the White House the TASS photo desk told him: “Why do we need them? We have pictures of the State Emergency Committee.”
It was Yeltsin who pushed him to find a foreign news organization that would get the pictures out, Sokolov recalled.
Some of the protesters tried to talk to crews of the tanks that had rumbled to the White House. One of these conversations persuaded an officer and the crews of the six tanks under his command to switch sides.
Maj. Sergei Yevdokimov’s battalion had been wakened at 6 a.m. and ordered to head to Moscow. Nobody knew what a tank battalion was supposed to be doing in the heart of the nation’s capital and Yevdokimov suspected something was wrong.
“When we arrived at the White House and found out what was happening, I decided I would not do anything that could cause loss of life,” he said.
Later, Yeltsin’s right-hand man, Alexander Rutskoi, asked him about the plotters, Yevdokimov said. “Do you realize they are criminals? Will you help us?” Rutskoi asked.
“I do. I will,” Yevdokimov replied, despite the risk of prison.
Across Moscow, KGB staff faced a similar dilemma. Shiryayev had reported to work, but since he was formally on vacation he did not have to go out and arrest pro-reform lawmakers as his colleagues had been ordered to do.
They did not do it, however. Instead, they invented ways to evade the orders, he recalled.
“We soon found people who had a birthday on that day and just got drunk. This was a purely Russian solution,” Shiryayev said. “How can they punish you for drinking on duty? They can reprimand you, they can fire you, lower your military rank, they could destroy your career — but this won’t send you to prison.”
Shiryayev said dozens of his colleagues got drunk, called in sick or spent hours outside the building smoking and drinking tea rather than participating in the coup.
“Everyone realized this was a catastrophe. We were asked to obey absolutely unlawful orders that could have led to a civil war in Russia,” he said.
Within two days, it was clear that headquarters employees were not obeying their boss, the KGB chairman Kryuchkov. Yeltsin received a phone call from the plotters, who said they were calling off the troops and sending for Gorbachev.
Shiryayev recalled seeing the stooped figure of Kryuchkov hurrying across the inner courtyard at KGB headquarters into his black limousine and driving away. Smokers in the courtyard shouted, “Scumbag, are you happy now?” and pelted him with cigarette butts.
Shiryayev resigned from the KGB in 1994 and is now deputy director at Novaya Gazeta, a rare independent Russian newspaper.
Kryuchkov was arrested, along with six other coup plotters, but all were amnestied in 1994 and some later returned to government service. The eighth plotter committed suicide before he could be arrested.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and a new Russia was born.
Under Putin, the Russian political system has taken a clear turn back toward authoritarian rule. He also has tried to restore elements of the old empire, by recentralizing power, restoring control over the media, rebuilding the military and reclaiming a global role.
Those who remember the August 1991 crisis, however, say the totalitarian state of old is gone for good.
“The current political regime is repressive, but freedom is not only about voting for political parties,” said Ragozin, now a freelance journalist. “It’s about being able to choose your lifestyle, about being able to travel, choose your profession. That was largely absent in the Soviet Union, which was a truly totalitarian state.”
Anniversaries of the coup attempt over the years have become low-key occasions, in sharp contrast to the shows of might that Russia puts on for Victory Day, which celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. This year, however, the anniversary will be marked with a series of events in Moscow, including lectures, concerts and exhibitions.
Fate took a curious twist for some of those who helped defeat the coup. Yeltsin resigned suddenly on New Year’s Eve of 1999, catastrophically unpopular by then.
A bodyguard who stood next to him on the tank, Viktor Zolotov, was recently appointed chief of the National Guard, a powerful new security agency created by Putin for dispersing anti-government protests.
Yeltsin fired Korzhakov in 1996 during his re-election campaign. He later won election to Russia’s parliament, but has since retired.
Yevdokimov, the tank commander, received no hero’s welcome when he returned to his home base outside Moscow and was soon sent to work in an enlistment office.
“There was talk around me, ‘You violated your oath’ and things like that. But I thought those who sided with the coup broke their oath,” he said. “I stayed true to my oath. The president was illegally ousted.”