The fall of the Soviet Union and end of communism in Russia caught the world by surprise twenty years ago. In a Q&A, Ambassador James F. Collins, the most senior American diplomat in Russia at the time, describes how the United States responded as history unfolded and reflects on the personal diplomacy between the Cold War foes as an August 1991 coup ultimately led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in December.
Three minutes after seven in the morning on August 19, I got a phone call from Ed Salazar, one of my political officers, asking if I had been listening to the radio. The radio had just broadcast the news that Mikhail Gorbachev had given up his office as president of the Soviet Union to Gennady Yanayev and that they had formed a committee on what they called an “extraordinary situation” and that Mr. Gorbachev was at rest in his dacha down in Foros in the Crimea.
Everybody assumed this meant they were trying to remove Gorbachev. This was the middle of the night in Washington, and so I suppose the initial government reaction from the United States was that of the embassy. Our own initial reaction was a degree of shock, because no one frankly expected this. There was also a degree of uncertainty about just what was going on because the announcement was made and nothing happened for a couple of hours. There were no military personnel to be seen—nobody showed up for a couple of hours. There were no tanks on the streets until later that morning. So nobody quite understood what was going on except what was on the radio and the fact that they had been making these announcements.
At the embassy, we gathered and tried to make sense of this. I pulled together all of the key members of my staff and we made one decision: at least until instructed otherwise, we would not recognize in any form—by our actions or by our statements—any change in the status of the Russian government. In other words, we wouldn’t recognize what the people who were saying they were in charge were proclaiming. And that we would have nothing to do with them except for the protection of American citizens and the safety and security of American citizens and property.
So that was where we were. We called everyone in Washington as they started to wake up and nobody said we were wrong. As the day wore on and events unfolded, we felt at the embassy that it was wise for the United States government to take no action other than what we’d done as it wasn’t at all clear where this was going to go. By this time, it was clear that Boris Yeltsin had not been captured and he was taking a position on the events which was in essence that they amounted to an unconstitutional act and that as President of the Russian Federation he does not recognize the change.
There was something of a standoff that began this whole process over the next two days of watching the people in Moscow, the Russian White House, and the people around Mr. Yeltsin setting up barricades, defying the authorities, challenging the authorities to act against them, and so forth.
The embassy was a very different thing from what it is today. At that time, the American embassy had no Russian employees; the total staff was 254 people. It was very much a Cold War institution and there was a high degree of concern about the security of the embassy. This didn’t mean physical security, but mostly whether intelligence could be gathered without information leaking out or if we could control our environment.
So when the coup came in 1991, there were relatively few of us. We were physically about 200 yards from the building in which Mr. Yeltsin set up his headquarters. During the coup, we ended up inside the barricades that were erected to protect the White House. There was one way out through an ally that one could almost get a vehicle through. And in that sense, we were very much a part of one side of what was going on. We were not off in any remote way.
So there was a lot of concern about security. In particular, I had these 200 employees plus families living mostly with us there in the embassy building. I had to worry about whether or not they were going to be safe because if there was any military action against the White House, almost inevitably people would’ve sought refuge in the embassy and there would have been no way to control the situation. So security was a big concern.
We also had the great problem of a very limited ability to get around to see what was going on. First of all, we didn’t have that many people. Second, it was rather difficult to figure out what exactly was happening; it was very chaotic because everybody had an opinion and everybody had different information. You could talk to two people and get five opinions about what was happening and who was doing what.
At the same time, there was a certain unreal or surreal quality about everything that was going on because, even though there was a lot of activity between the embassy and the Kremlin, in the rest of the city everything was going on like nothing had happened. People went to work, the bakeries baked bread, the metros ran, the television wasn’t playing the usual programming but it was on.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon on the August 19, I was called over to Yeltsin’s offices to receive a message for President Bush. And the message essentially was, “We are standing to protect the constitution of the Soviet Union against an effort to overthrow its legitimate president” and in essence, “We look for your support.” I had to convey that back to Washington.
When I got back to the embassy, I actually found that President Bush had called already. He wanted to know how we were doing and what I thought. I gave him the gist of what I had as the message, but I also said that I didn’t believe the U.S. government should assume that this coup was going to succeed and therefore we should act accordingly.
That was the role of the embassy. I think on the ground we had a better feel for the uncertainties than anyone outside because outside people are dependent on visuals and statements and so forth. But it just seemed to us, particularly having watched some of the leaders in action, notably Mr. Yanayev in a famous press conference in which he was shaking, that it didn’t strike us as a very clear outcome at all or that anything was inevitable. It was very much up in the air about what was going to happen. And Mr. Yeltsin was very forceful, he was clear in what he was saying and what he was articulating and he was not giving up.
It seemed to us an important moment in which on the ground you had a certain feel for things. And I suppose the most important feeling, in a way, was that the public was in essence saying to the people conducting this political effort, “What are you doing?” The young men in the tanks and the armored personnel carriers were meeting old ladies who were giving them flowers or and asking why they were doing this.
In the end, it sort of evaporated really—the coup didn’t have the support it needed. I think the leaders were not sure they could count on their own security and military personnel to kill enough people in Moscow to succeed—and that’s what it would’ve taken. So at that point, I suppose you can say the Soviet Union had come a long way from the days of Joseph Stalin.
At this point, telephone communications were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today—we had one or two secure telephones in the whole building. We had a direct line to Washington and were able to have regular contact with them, but it was a much different world of communications.
One of the most interesting things about the set of events was that one of the great impacts on the events themselves and the way they were perceived came from CNN. CNN’s office and journalists were broadcasting throughout this period, both to the world and internally in the Soviet Union.
Now, not everybody spoke English, not everybody had CNN, but most of the leaderships did. And we know that, at least in certain cases, the leaderships in other provinces and other republics were watching CNN to find out what it looked like on the ground. They were getting one set of orders or descriptions of reality from the people leading the coup and they were also watching CNN—the two stories often didn’t jive. That probably had impact as well.
So communications were evolving and played a role in the way things were done. I’ve always believed that the people who planned these series of events thought that they could do exactly what they had done when they removed Nikita Khrushchev in the 1964, but the world had changed. A lot.
In 1991, as we watched the Soviet Union from the embassy in Moscow, it was very clear that the reform period of Mr. Gorbachev was coming under great challenge. In the course of the year, the Baltic States and Georgia had already declared their independence and other states were talking about sovereignty in different amounts; in June 1990, the Russian Federation had proclaimed its sovereignty.
So this sort of coming apart process was already in some sense underway. At the same time, in March 1991, there was a referendum in which most of the 15 states endorsed maintaining the Soviet Union, but under a new structure.
It was clearly under strain—there were great problems. But frankly, as we watched from the embassy, the Soviet government functioned. It continued to develop its foreign policy, it continued to have a military structure that was cohesive, and it seemed to be structuring its economic reforms at a national level.
So the mood was not one of “flying apart.” It was rather that the large bulk of the country continued to want to see some way in which it could continue. And at the same time, the Communist Party was still in charge until August 1991.
The more familiar idea that the Soviet Union was all coming apart or was inevitably doomed was far from anyone’s particular thinking for most of 1990 and 1991, until the fall. And this is why the August coup was seminal and critical.
There is a lot known now of course that nobody knew then, about who was doing what, what decisions were being made, and what decisions were not being made. It was pretty clear that on the second night of the events, there was some kind of a decision on whether or not to attack the White House and take military action to put down the resistance of the Russian White House to the Soviet authority. In the end, nothing happened. There were three young men killed as armored vehicles were being moved around, but nothing really major happened in a military sense.
On the third day, it basically began to evaporate. And Mr. Gorbachev came back to Moscow and, in a way, to a different country. What was particularly significant was that the day after he returned, in essence the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was put out of business. Yeltsin had decreed that the Communist Party could not function in the Russian Federation, which for all intents and purposes meant that it was finished.
I remember watching a couple of dozen men, a few with rifles, go and close down the headquarters of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow, pretty much on the same day that they took down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka, later called the KGB.
This was pretty dramatic stuff. But what really had taken place in these three days was a dramatic change in the entire fabric of the Soviet Union, because the Communist Party had lost its position. Within days, it was out of business. Mr. Gorbachev ceased to be the general secretary of the Communist Party; he was now president of the Soviet Union, but without a party function. And the entire fabric that had kept this whole system together, the ideological structures, the way in which decisions of importance were created and conveyed was unraveling.
What followed between August and December was an effort to keep the Soviet Union together through negotiation of a new treaty or constitution, but it was simply never able to move adequately. There were declarations of independence by a growing number of states as the fall proceeded.
The events of August were dramatic. They were not anticipated frankly by anyone in the U.S. government, except in a more general sense of something happening. The government had to react. I think the government did react quite well to an event of world-changing significance. There were no rash actions, there were careful considerations about how to approach the problem, and there was, I would say, in the end, a sort of standing by principle for which the American administration and President Bush can be proud.