Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse
Communist hardliners staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago, and the Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards. Previously unknown documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show just how desperate the last Soviet leader was as he fought to retain power — and how he begged Germany for money to save his country.
Two decades ago, the Soviet Union broke apart. “The world can sigh in relief. The idol of communism … has collapsed,” Russian leader Boris Yeltsin said of the unfolding event. He had just chased Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last Soviet president, out of office. Gorbachev, who just before the final whistle had also been the leader of the Communist Party, had attempted to reform the country for six years until he was finally ousted in a putsch by his own party. Why did he fail? Explanations can be found in documents that Gorbachev took with him after leaving the Kremlin that he now holds in his own archive. SPIEGEL obtained a larger part of these documents from a Russian historian and has reprinted excerpts. In a series, SPIEGEL reports on the rise of the reformer and the myths surrounding the 80 year old, his relationship to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and issues relating to the collapse of the Soviet Union. SPIEGEL also interviewed Gorbachev.
There is one moment — a single decision — that some people still hold against Mikhail Gorbachev today, 20 years later.
Gorbachev, the last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and last president of the Soviet Union, his wife and his closest confidants had survived the attempted coup by the KGB, the military leadership and the interior minister. They returned to Moscow from their house arrest at Gorbachev’s vacation home in the Crimean resort of Foros. Their plane landed in the capital at 2:15 a.m., local time, on August 22, 1991.
For the last three days, some 60,000 people had been holding out in front of the Russian White House, the parliamentary seat of the Russian Soviet Republic, which had become the bastion of Gorbachev’s supporters. When they heard on the radio that he had been released from house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula, they cheered and chanted “President, President,” and waited for an appearance by the then 60-year-old Gorbachev.
But Gorbachev, who was only released because the leaders of the coup had become afraid of their own people and did not venture to storm the White House, shocked his jubilant fellow Russians. Instead of asking to be taken from the airport directly to his supporters, and instead of savoring the moment of victory and celebrating the defeat of the plotters, he ordered his driver to take him out to his dacha. He spent the rest of the night at home, and drove to work at the Kremlin the next morning.
By today’s standards, it was a PR gaffe beyond compare. But the three days of house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula didn’t just confuse the country, it also upset Gorbachev’s inner balance — and especially that of his wife, Raisa Maximovna Gorbachova.
Erasing the Past …