August 19, 2016

25 Years After the Moscow Putsch: What Did Events Look Like from Within the KGB?

The head of the KGB press service believes that Mikhail Gorbachev betrayed everyone.

“With nothing to do, our people simply killed time. Some played chess, some watched TV. Everything was clear, no words were needed.” This is how Aleksandr Mikhailov, the first and last head of the powerful security agency’s press service, describes in an interview with Diplomaatia the sentiments at KGB headquarters during the attempted coup d’état 25 years ago that proved fatal to the Soviet Union. Mikhailov, who retired from the position of major-general in the present-day FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) in 2008, is currently a member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.
Q: In the summer of 1991 you were working as the head of the KGB’s press service. The KGB was a very closed and covert organisation, so in retrospect, this position seems rather strange. What were your responsibilities in this position before the putsch?
A: Officially we were the press service of the KGB in the government of the Soviet Union in Moscow. It was the pride and joy of Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB [1988–91]. Kryuchkov saw that in new circumstances [meaning the changes initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev within the Soviet Union—JP] the KGB could not exist as it had done before. The aim was to increase the openness of the security agency and to explain our goals and functions to the population.
That sounds like a hollow promise.
Nowadays many find it hard to believe, but that is how it was. A year before, in 1990, for the first time in the Soviet Union, a law on the national security authorities was passed that included the principle that the rights of citizens have a higher priority than the rights of the state (before that, the KGB worked under a regulation approved in 1954 by the Soviet Union’s Central Committee of the Communist Party and Council of Ministers). Name another country where the security agency has been given a similar obligation! [Laughs.] In other words, by the summer of 1991, the KGB had become used to living by the new rules. In line with my job responsibilities, I had access to a lot of material, but the most important thing was that my colleagues and I were able to observe public opinion as we were in constant communication with the press, popular movements and parties. We had a good idea of all the processes that went on back then, but most importantly we became aware of two main issues. Firstly, that things could not go on the same way any longer and, secondly, that something needed to be done … The country was going downhill. Separatist sentiment was growing in the republics. Dissatisfaction with local authorities and the central government in Moscow was gaining the dimensions of an unavoidable catastrophe. Dangerous and turbulent zones existed not only within society as a whole, but also among the upper echelons of power, who had completely lost their heads in the gathering storm. Yet it was clear [in the KGB] that force would not work.
If we go back in time and look at these events from a distance, did even the KGB have enough power by the summer of 1991 to stop these processes which, according to its own analysis, led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union?
To answer that question, we need to go further back. In 1986 in Kazakhstan, Dinmukhamed Konayev, the long-time first secretary of the Communist Party, was removed from power [he led the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic for a total of 25 years—JP] and was replaced by Gennady Kolbin, the department head of the Ulyanovsk Oblast Communist Party. This brought about massive riots in Kazakhstan on 17–18 December 1986. The riots were violently suppressed with the help of the army and militia. [Major riots took place in Alma-Ata, the then capital of the Kazakh SSR, where up to 150 youths, who made up the majority of the protesters, were killed. The exact number of dead is unknown to this day. In the Union republics, a native resident was always appointed as the first secretary of the Communist Party, but the Kremlin wanted to curb the absolute nepotism in Soviet Kazakhstan and appointed a Russian, which caused Kazakhs to protest violently.—JP] The event is rarely remembered today, but it happened after Perestroika had begun. And what changed after that? The processes became more profound and the economy continued its downturn. Subsequent events in Tbilisi [Soviet armed forces killed 20 civilians in April 1989], Baku [Soviet armed forces entered the city in January 1990, and 135 civilians and soldiers were killed] and Vilnius [in January 1991 Soviet armed forces killed 14 civilians] only revealed the inadequacy of trying to resolve things by force, after leaving political issues unresolved. The KGB was the first to realise that. Yet the authorities pretended that nothing serious was going on.
How did things feel inside KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square in the summer of 1991?
To understand that, we need to go back in time again. The first difficulties over the KGB’s world-view started after the 19th Conference of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1988. It was an extremely symbolic event, where for the first time a fair discussion was held about the Soviet Union’s fate and problems, including ideological ones. It was broadcast live. Many KGB employees watched the broadcast because it was crucial to know where they were headed and what was going to happen. Many even brought radios to the canteen. Lunches became the stage for arguments. Opinion was so divided that some people moved to other tables.
It was clear to us that it was a fight for power between [Boris] Yeltsin and Gorbachev. It was presented as a variety of opinions. Gorbachev irritated everyone. By then it had become clear that he was a narcissist who basked in his political popularity. Western politicians chimed in because Gorbachev’s part in the disintegration of the country was blatantly obvious. Of course, he only gained momentum from this. Meanwhile, you could sense there would be problems with Yeltsin. Initially, however, internal sentiment within the KGB had come so far that the collective had split into two: proponents of Yeltsin and proponents of Gorbachev. Obviously this was a conditional split. In truth, it was a division between supporters of revolutionary and evolutionary development. But it was a catastrophe for the security agency! The Party Committee had lost all power over the sentiment within the KGB.
How did the changes in society and the split among KGB officers affect its work?
The biggest problems occurred in operational work. Beforehand, the distinction between “us” and “them” was clear, but with the state reforms everything was in disorder. When the sixth paragraph of the Constitution of the Soviet Union about the leading role of the Communist Party and ideology was annulled, it left the KGB without its so-called employer. After all, the KGB was referred to as the party’s armed wing. Where were we supposed to report to about our problems and risk assessments? Gorbachev simply did not want to listen to us anymore.
Let us move on to the events of the putsch. Hindsight is always 20-20. Looking back, were there any other events in the summer of 1991 that we can now say presaged the attempted coup in Moscow?
No, honestly, there were not. But why do you keep using the word “coup”? Only a commander of armed forces can organise a coup to overthrow legal power. However, if a state authority is formed [the State Committee on the State of Emergency, which led the putsch and declared itself as the highest power in the Soviet Union on 18 August 1991—JP] that included the highest state officials with the president [Gorbachev] being aware of it, then …
So you also support the version of the story in which Gorbachev was well aware of the putsch and approved of it? [This is a very widely known version that was mostly spread by the members of the State Committee, but also by Boris Yeltsin.—JP]
I have now come to the conclusion that the committee’s actions were sanctioned by Gorbachev. As much as he tries to deny it and play the victim, it is obvious to everyone that Kryuchkov, Yazov [Dmitry Yazov, the then defence minister of the Soviet Union] or Yanayev [Gennady Yanayev, the then vice president of the Soviet Union] would not have taken any steps without his permission. Gorbachev played his game with both Yeltsin and the committee. The committee was also in constant contact with Yeltsin. How is that a coup d’état? Yeltsin simply played along. [Kryuchkov, Yazov and Yanayev were arrested on 22 August 1991 and charged with treason. They were released after a year and a half in pre-trial detention. In 1994, the Russian Duma granted them amnesty.—JP]
Here is a telling detail for you. We all know that August is the month for holidays. A significant number of officers from the KGB and the [Soviet] Ministry of Internal Affairs were on holiday and none of them were called back [during the putsch]! Moreover, we learned about the formation of the State Committee on the State of Emergency through the media. In subunits everyone carried on with their existing duties. Life in the regions [KGB departments] became non-existent. They only received one secret message from Moscow and even that told them nothing. Usually, messages worded like that were sent out before national holidays. Only a small group of central officers were given the details. Otherwise our service continued as usual, with the exception of the acceleration during the night of 20–21 August. One thing in particular bewildered me about those days in Moscow: they built barricades in front of the White House [then the location of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR which, under the leadership of Yeltsin—the then president of that republic—was against the putsch—JP), while in Tverskaya people stood in kilometre-long queues to the McDonald’s.
Who headed the State Committee? Kryuchkov?
Gorbachev played the leading role. The others were only a decoration that he wanted to eliminate. Kryuchkov had a powerful structure, which never got any assignments, but if it had, it would have completed them.
How strong was Kryuchkov’s authority in the KGB before the putsch?
There is no point in talking about the authority of the security agency’s leader who was forced to answer to someone who was essentially a traitor leading the country. Gorbachev betrayed everyone. Naturally, Kryuchkov had all the information about the processes going on in the country and reported them back to Gorbachev. Kryuchkov’s main mission at this critical time was to maintain Russia’s security agency. Even after all the investigations, only a few generals left the new structure of the Russian Ministry of State Security. Nothing like this ever happened in any of the other socialist countries, not even in former republics of the USSR. The security agencies of those countries were very carefully purged of old personnel. We know the result of that.
How did the KGB officers in the Lubyanka react to the establishment of the State Committee?
Half-heartedly. First of all, there was no real purpose [to it]. Secondly, everything was already at a standstill by the evening of 19 August. Thirdly, a huge mistake was made—the armed forces were brought in. The professionals in the KGB immediately saw how irrational that was. When armed force units do not receive an order for 30–40 minutes, the army is paralysed. The same goes for the security agency. And we did not receive any other orders besides the previously mentioned message. The situation was particularly complicated in [the KGB departments in] the oblasts and Union republics. There they answered to their leaders, but the leaders themselves had no idea what to do.
So, seen from KGB headquarters, the putsch seemed hopeless from the start?
Entirely. All the events took place near the Moscow White House. In the rest of Moscow, people continued with their lives. At six in the evening, which was the official end of our working day, all the central officers and the officers in the Moscow government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs left for home. Everyone waited for an explanation or an order, but we received neither. Our unit was supposed to have a meeting at seven, but it was cancelled because our superior was with Kryuchkov. With nothing to do, our people simply killed time. Some played chess, some watched TV. There were no messages from the regions either. Only the KGB department in Krasnopresnenskaya [where the Moscow White House was located—JP] reported on the situation periodically. The reaction in the regions was different, by the way. In some of them, people saluted in support, but most department leaders waited to see where things were going. Conformity, in other words.
So you simply sat in your offices in the Lubyanka and waited? Did you at least discuss amongst yourselves how it might end?
Of course we talked about it. However, you could only discuss the reality, but the reality was depressing because the KGB management got into this mess, but set no tasks for their subordinates. We did not curse our management very much amongst ourselves. Everything was clear, no words were needed. The operational work still went on, naturally. For example, on 22 August, despite the putsch, we completed a big operation called “Carousel” in Leningrad, where we intercepted a huge batch of narcotics hidden in a consignment of canned meat. It was a ton of cocaine, which was intended to be taken to Germany. If I remember correctly, ten people were arrested in the Soviet Union and 25 more in Germany.
But what happened in KGB headquarters on 21 August? You mentioned that date before.
The night of 20–21 August was the most dramatic day of all in the Lubyanka. I was in the office of one of our government leader’s deputies, when he received a call and was notified that three people had died on the Garden Ring. “Well, that’s it …” he said. And we realised then that there would be no further developments. At about four in the morning, our government leader, who was also Kyuchkov’s deputy, came out of the KGB chairman’s office and announced: “You can all go home!” That night they decided that the military needed to be withdrawn from Moscow. By the way, those three young men died for nothing, because they were blocking tanks that had already been ordered to leave the city; they weren’t entering it! Entirely meaningless deaths, but their blood put a stop to events. [These three deaths officially remain the only victims of the putsch.—JP]
But what did the KGB officers do on those long days of the putsch, after realising that it would not be successful? What did you do in the Lubyanka? Drown your boredom in vodka?
You shouldn’t think that there was panic inside the Lubyanka. There was anxiety and a sense of the unknown. After all, it was clear that a different life was about to begin. And yes, we did drink vodka to relieve the stress. We blamed the ineffective leaders of the country, cursed Gorbachev and Yeltsin. You have total power, but you cannot resolve the simple problem of how to get rid of the adventurist Yeltsin! Yeltsin himself ended up being much more determined when he let them fire on the parliament of his own country on air.
But what happened in the Lubyanka in the first days after the putsch? Chaos? Did they start burning documents or moving them? Did many files and other documents went missing at that time?
Of course they burnt them. What else—[leave them] so that the provocateurs and crooks would get access to our material? Too much [KGB information] got into the media anyway. And what did that do? It only made the public even more restless. Luckily, the authorities promptly realised this and closed the [KGB] archives again. When it comes to burning, officers tried to destroy documents that could harm specific individuals. And rightly so. Everything was done according to procedure—the actions, the orders.
There has been a lot of talk about Yeltsin’s role in the failure of the putsch and his famous appearance on the tank in front of the White House; and about the leaders of army units who refused to act on the verbal orders of the putschists. In your opinion, what other events played an important role during the putsch?
A verbal order is not an order to an army man. And none of them even knew which orders to give—they had no plan! When it comes to Yeltsin and his role, it was all a big mystery. He was well aware that there would not be any attack [on the White House]! He knew that there was no threat to him, his people or the White House. Kryuchkov personally assured him of that. But Yeltsin took advantage of it, and fuelled the tensions to increase his authority by using the hysteria among the population. Do you remember the American movie Wag The Dog? Yeltsin’s actions are a great example of exactly that.
Still, why was the putsch planned so poorly?
When you have a traitor leading a complicated and highly responsible mission, then surely nothing can go right. Gorbachev wanted to get rid of Yeltsin with the help of his comrades, or alternatively form an alliance with Yeltsin to get rid of his comrades. Only, this time, the boomerang came back and Gorbachev was the one who disappeared into nothing.
What kind of predictions did the KGB make about the future of the Soviet Union after the failure of the putsch?
Predictions existed even before the putsch. We saw that adventurists wanted to rise to power in the Union republics. The Soviet Union had a common constitution, but the authorities in the republics lived by their own laws. Corruption was rife, large landowners ruled in the east, nepotism flourished everywhere. It stuck in their throats that central power prevented them from stealing at will. In fact, a lot of strange things went on in the Soviet Union. How was it possible to assimilate Estonia and Turkmenia? What did they have in common? Or Ukraine—where they eat pig’s fat and drink horilka—and Muslim republics, where pig’s fat and alcohol were forbidden? In other words, it was clear that everything would lead to disintegration. Let us pretend that the Belavezha Accords [the agreement between the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to form the Commonwealth of Independent States, which essentially marked the end of the Soviet Union—JP] had not happened. What would have changed? Gorbachev had no authority; Yeltsin was not capable of forming anything new. The entire process would have only been longer and more painful. In reality, Moscow did not lead anything anymore, in August [1991] or afterwards.
So the KGB understood everything. But when did the KGB seriously start working to retain its organisation and people in the new country after the disintegration of the Soviet Union?
I think that by 1994 the FSK [the KGB’s successor—the Federal Counterintelligence Service, which was renamed the FSB in 1995] had already re-established their positions.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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