Ambassador Jack Matlock on the 1991 Soviet Coup Attempt

June 29, 2011

Moscow demonstration during 1991 coup d'etat attempt.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges support for this project from the Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation and Donald M. Kendall.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Ambassador Matlock, you are on record as saying that, in your opinion, the Cold War ended on a very specific date, December 7, 1988. Please elaborate on that.

It ended on that date, in my opinion, because that was the date that Mikhail Gorbachev, who was then president of the Soviet Union and general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, gave a speech in which he explicitly renounced the class struggle as the basis of Soviet foreign policy, instead placing it ideologically on the common interests of mankind. Since I believe the Cold War was fundamentally ideological and was fundamentally brought about by Marxist ideology and the implications therefrom, at that time, in dropping the class struggle as a basis, he removed the ideological difference.

Now, it took us a few more months—maybe one would say a year or two—to clear up some of the debris. But basically when we were negotiating from that point on—and this had been happening gradually—from that point on, Soviet and American diplomats had the same goals. We were trying to find solutions that would satisfy the real interests of both sides. We no longer had the sort of zero-sum game that was caused by ideology.

DAVID SPEEDIE: You also went on to say that the other important and laudable characteristic of Gorbachev was that he placed the interests of the country above the interests of the party, the first party secretary to do so, which was a very interesting [inaudible].

JACK MATLOCK: Yes. It is very unusual to find a leader who will risk his own leadership in order to change the system. If you go back at least as far as Machiavelli, you will find in Machiavelli a warning to princes that there is nothing more dangerous or less likely of success than an attempt to change the institutions of your principality. This is one of the most difficult things any leader can try to do. Why would he do it? Not to get more power, because, as he has pointed out, he could have lived out his years of general secretary of the Soviet Union if he had not tried to change it. That makes him, I think, quite exceptional.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Obviously, the key figures in this, especially in this period that you delicately phrased as "picking up some debris," as it were, from 1988 to, say, 1991—and we'll get to 1991 in a moment here—the key figures were obviously Gorbachev and Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.


DAVID SPEEDIE: How did you observe the evolution of the relationship between these two men, leading up to the schism or the falling-out between the two? What was the dynamic of that relationship?

We did follow it as closely as we could. I would say that when I arrived as ambassador in April of 1987, Yeltsin was still in the Politburo and was the party secretary in Moscow. I had a couple of meetings with him before his falling-out with Gorbachev, and I found him, number one, one of the most frank of the leaders. He would talk about the problems in a very direct way. Number two, he was quite nonideological in looking at them. Number three, he seemed to recognize the need to change not only domestic policy, but foreign policy, if they were to make the reforms that he wanted.

He made a generally good impression, so we were shocked when he was expelled from the leadership. We got a number of stories, which were basically accurate, at that time as to what had happened. It seemed to me at the time that if Gorbachev was really interested in reform, he would make a special effort to keep Yeltsin on the team—use him as a lightning rod for the conservatives then or something. But he removed him, using the tactics of the old, but not completely. He let him stay in Moscow, in a respectable job, which had the rank of minister in the construction thing.

During that period, I made a point of making friends with him. I had met him before. When he was out of sorts with Gorbachev, nevertheless, Rebecca and I would invite him and his wife to private dinners, two or three times. We paid attention to him when he was out.

At the time, I had no idea what role he might play, except that he had remarkable political skills. That was apparent. People in Moscow adored him because he seemed to be taking action in ways that the other party people didn't. He also seemed to be a very plain person. He would ride the subway in to work sometimes. I'm sure he didn't do that very often, but you only have to do it once or twice and the myth begins to develop; the reputation develops. Then, of course, when he, operating against the Communist Party establishment, won over 90 percent of the votes in the Moscow district, in the first semi-free election they had, this proved, you might say, his political capabilities so far as winning votes.

From that point on, it seemed that he and Gorbachev would at times make agreements. I must say, Yeltsin was not always very reliable in keeping them. He would often renege. Sometimes Gorbachev would renege. But increasingly the personal chemistry was poisonous, and by 1991, we, like many informed Russians, felt that unless the two could somehow get along, they were going to split the country apart. Now, of course, in the final analysis, they didn't, though during the attempted coup, it was Yeltsin who saved Gorbachev, but then used that in order to destroy him, in effect. This was a case where I think, clearly, Yeltsin, if he had had the same regard for the best interests of the country, would have done things in a different way.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Just to wrap up this particular question of the Gorbachev-Yeltsin relationship, Ambassador, it was, in your opinion, more of a personal animus that may have developed? Certainly the description of Yeltsin is not that different from Gorbachev himself.

Well, they were quite different people. Yeltsin was much more, I would say, impulsive. But underlying it, I think the personal animosity colored these things. Gorbachev was, in many ways, better educated as a political leader. He went to Moscow University and studied law. Maybe it was not quite the same kind of law that ours is, but still—whereas Yeltsin had come out of a construction institute. He was essentially a builder, a construction specialist. He was much less a philosophical person, very egotistical. So was Gorbachev, of course.

So I would not say that necessarily their policies were the same. Yeltsin, in effect, was able to play the critic without putting forward any positive agenda, and he turned out to be much better as a destroyer than as a builder, whereas Gorbachev had the responsibility of keeping the country from descending into civil war by 1990 and 1991. I wouldn't say that it was exclusively a matter of a personal animosity, but that personal animosity certainly exaggerated and bolstered the differences.

DAVID SPEEDIE: On the coup, this is one of the most interesting aspects of your time, I know, in Moscow. Will you share with us the way in which you became unwittingly involved? This came up in our conversation with former mayor Gavriil Popov. Please, in your own words.

In one of the weeks in June, toward the end of June—I had announced that I would be departing post at the end of July (actually, I stayed into August because Bush came for a summit meeting)—I was, in effect, saying my farewells and had sort of a farewell luncheon, to which we had invited Gavriil Popov, the mayor of Moscow. He called midmorning to say that, unfortunately, he couldn't come to the lunch, but he did want to bid me farewell, and could he pay a personal call?

I said, "The lunch is at 1:00. Why don't you come at 12:00?"

So he came and we sat in my downstairs study, library, which we assumed was bugged. We didn't try to keep our residence clean of listening devices. We talked about Moscow politics, other things, and as we talked, he pulled a slip of paper out and wrote in Russian that a coup was being organized against Gorbachev and it could happen at any time, even tomorrow, and that he had to get word to Yeltsin, Boris Nikolayevich. What he was asking us to do was to send a message to Yeltsin, because Yeltsin was in Washington and he had obviously no way to pick up the phone and call him.

DAVID SPEEDIE: And Gorbachev was on vacation.

No. Gorbachev was in Moscow at that time. Gorbachev was in Moscow then. This was in June still.

Writing also on a sheet of paper, as we talked of other things, I said, "I will report this." I wrote in Russian [Russian phrase]. "But who is behind it?"

Then he wrote four surnames on another slip of paper and picked all the paper up, tore it in little bits, put it in the pocket of his coat, as we continued to talk about other things.

Those four names were Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, who turned out to be the main organizer of the attempted coup later; Yazov, the minister of defense; Pavlov, the prime minister; and Lukianov, the chairman of Parliament. These were all pretty heavy hitters. Obviously, if they were conspiring—and the first three had all been named by Gorbachev, ironically, and he certainly had supported the candidacy of Lukianov, the chairman of Parliament—these were not in overt opposition. But if they were involved, it was very clearly that this was a serious matter.

I sent the message to Washington. When it was received, Yeltsin had an appointment that morning at 10:00—of course, we had an eight-hour time difference—and he showed it to Yeltsin, as he had been asked to do, and said, "What should we do?"

Yeltsin said, "You had better warn Gorbachev."

A few hours later, I received a call—we finally had a secure voice line, which was encrypted—telling me that I should get in touch with Gorbachev and try to warn him, in general terms.

I said, "Of course I will, but I want it clear that I don't think it appropriate for us to name these individuals. We cannot confirm this, and if the American ambassador were to go to the president of the Soviet Union and tell him that the head of his security organization, the head of his military, his prime minister, and the head of Parliament were conspiring against him, this could really seem like an outrageous provocation. He's going to have to figure it out for himself."

I said, "And, of course, we don't reveal our source."

The answer was, of course, we had it exactly right.

I immediately called for an appointment to his assistant, Chernyaev, and was given an appointment almost immediately.

I thought, "How will I present this?"

I said, "Well, I'm going to tell them that we have information which is more than a rumor, but we cannot confirm it, and that the president had instructed me to inform of it because it seemed important enough to warrant that."

The reason I phrased it that way—I didn't want them to think that it was an intelligence report. After all, if it was an intelligence report, we could confirm it. It had to be another report, but more than a rumor that we would simply pick up on the rumor mill. So I thought I was being pretty clever.

But it turned out that maybe it was too clever by half because Chernyaev later wrote that I came in and said that we had an intelligence report, which, of course, was not what I said at all.

In any event, Gorbachev at first literally laughed it off. There were just three of us in the room. He turned to Chernyaev and said something about "these naïve Americans picking up stories." But then he got very serious and turned to me and said, "Thank you, and thank your president. He has said that he's a friend and now he's proved it. This is exactly what you should have done. But explain to him that I have things well in hand and he doesn't need to worry."

Inasmuch as I thought he might have been confusing this with something we all knew—that was some shenanigans that were going on in the Supreme Soviet that week—I repeated, "We feel that this is sufficiently serious—and it is more than a rumor, even though we cannot confirm it—that we thought it was our obligation to let you know. I'm sure the president will be relieved to find that you don't think there is a threat."

We then discussed other things for a while, and he dismissed me. The next day, he went before the Parliament and had voted down a proposal which had seemed extraordinary. The prime minister, one of the four names I had, had asked for some of the powers of the president without the approval of the president.

DAVID SPEEDIE: This is Pavlov.

This is Pavlov. He had done that in closed session, but it had leaked immediately and it was in the papers. He did that on a Monday evening. By Wednesday it was in the papers. The exchange I had with Gorbachev was on Thursday. Then Friday he went before the Supreme Soviet and had it voted down.

That's what he meant by "we will take care of this." To complicate this, the next day, President Bush called him on the telephone. We all knew or should have known that all of their telephone lines, the classified ones, were maintained by the KGB. One of the names on my list was the head of the KGB. So the last thing you wanted to do was to talk about this on the telephone.

But Bush asked him if he had seen me and Gorbachev said, "Yes. Thanks for sending him in. Thanks for the message. I'm taking care of it."

But somehow—and to this day, I do not know how it could have happened—somehow Bush told Gorbachev, on a line monitored by the KGB, that the source of my information was Gavriil Popov.

I will say this for him. He immediately realized that that was an error, and had his assistant call me on the secure line to let me know that this had happened.

He said, "Unfortunately, the president let slip the name of your source." Oh, my God.

This meant that when Gorbachev next saw Popov, which was at a reception for Bush—this was just a few weeks before Bush came on his state visit—he shook his finger at him and said, "What are you doing telling these fairy tales to the Americans?"

That way, Popov suddenly realized that the fact that he had seen me was known, not only to Gorbachev, but undoubtedly to Kryuchkov as well.

Let me just finish. There are more wrinkles to this. It is a very long story.

When I asked Popov months later, after the coup had failed and so on, if I could write and talk about this, he said, "Of course. Just keep it clear."

He did say, "I was shocked that the leak occurred. I couldn't imagine that you were indiscreet, but who else could it have been?"

Then he said, "Maybe it was a good thing."

I said, "What do you mean?"

He said, "Kryuchkov realized he had a leak and he had to stop his preparations."

You'll notice that the attempted coup was not prepared. And maybe that's why it failed.

So when people talk to me about conspiracies, about policies and how this policy or that is bound to work, I'll say international relations, like human relations, are full of chance. They are full of the unexpected. They are full of things that happen just the opposite of what you think they are going to. And this may be a prime example.

DAVID SPEEDIE: So in other words, the August coup may have been undermined already by the events of [inaudible].

That's right.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Fascinating stuff.

Let me switch gears a little bit. One of the other important developments at this time in terms of internal Soviet politics was the rise of a group called the Inter-Regional Group in the People's Congress.


DAVID SPEEDIE: We talked to some of the leaders of that group. Of course, Sakharov was very much in the leadership at the beginning. What's your recollection of the Inter-Regional Group and how it evolved? You talked about Yeltsin being more of a destroyer than a builder. In a sense, the Inter-Regional Group seemed to be very good at knowing what it wanted to end, but not so good at knowing what it wanted [inaudible].

The Inter-Regional Group was formed at a time when it was illegal to form any political party other than the Communist Party, and so they called themselves "the group." It was also illegal under party terms to be a faction in the party. The Inter-Regional Group was really a group of reformers, most from within the Communist Party, who really were forming what was, in effect, an opposition party.

However, they never really had all the organization of a party. It was really, you might say, like a group of senators and congressmen from both parties who get together to try to get some legislation through. But in this case they did not have so much a formal leader as informal leaders.

Sakharov was certainly, I would say, one of the prime leaders, but they needed a political leader who knew how to get votes, who knew how to talk to the crowd. For that, Yeltsin was an ideal ambassador.

Most of, you might say, the intellectuals, like Sakharov and the others, in the Inter-Regional Group—Popov and others—were not all that sure about Yeltsin. But as long as he could get the votes—and, as a matter of fact, when they supported Gorbachev, they were not always sure about that. Sakharov told me personally, "Well, as long as they're going in the right direction, it's our obligation to support them, and I'll do so. But we have to keep our independence, in a sense."

So it was a very loose grouping, I would say, at a time when it was impossible to form in any legal sense a party.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Ambassador, in November 1989, something rather momentous occurred, at the instigation of this Inter-Regional Group that we've been discussing. They invited a group of Americans, led by two men, Robert Krieble, a businessman, and Paul Weyrich, who was associated with the Heritage Foundation and the Free Congress Foundation. They came to Moscow. They were, I think, greeted by Popov before he was mayor of Moscow. He was, I think, at that time just affiliated with the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

This visit, which apparently then took them to 13 of the former—or at that time, Soviet states—for the purposes of training reform candidates to the then-Soviet People's Congress, was clearly quite a pivotal set of events at this particular time. Was this something the embassy was aware of? Was there any interaction with the Weyrich-Krieble group? Were you aware of [inaudible]?

We were certainly aware of these contacts. We tried to support them in ways we could. We would brief the parties if they wished. If they wanted an embassy officer to attend the sessions or participate, we were happy to do so. If they preferred not, we understood that perfectly well.

That was one of a series of contacts. We particularly wanted contacts with a broad variety of Americans, not just the sort of these very good and well-meaning people who would often go before, but who didn't represent what we considered the right wing of American politics. We were trying to forge a policy which would make right and left wings in the United States irrelevant. Therefore, part of this was to encourage much more contact between those that were traditionally suspicious, for very good reason, of the Soviet Union—so the embassy was very supportive.

As a matter of fact, many of these contacts grew directly out of what we called the Reagan initiative at his first meeting with Gorbachev, when we pushed for and got a very much expanded range of exchange visits, and one in which we named a person with the rank of ambassador to develop on the American side, working with the private groups. The embassy was very much involved in supporting these exchanges, without in any way trying to run them. The whole idea was to bring people in contact, and if they wanted information about our policy or how we read things, we were happy to give it.

I very often briefed these groups. If I was unable to, my political counselor would, or economic counselor, depending upon their interest.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Did you meet with Weyrich and Krieble personally?

I almost certainly did. Frankly, without looking at my calendar—at the height of these contacts, in addition to my official work at the embassy, my calls and negotiations, we were doing from 12 to 16 social functions a week at my residence—working breakfasts, lunches, receptions, dinners. In between would be briefings, press conferences, and in between, the work of negotiating numbers of agreements, calling on ministers and whatnot, and having staff meetings. Without looking at my calendar, I can't tell you that I had a meeting with that specific group. I think most likely I would have, with those people who were involved.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Understanding you don't have your calendar open in front of you, do you remember any of the other groups that came through at that particular time?

What year was this?

DAVID SPEEDIE: 1989, late 1989 into 1990.

By 1989 and 1990, almost every group in the United States seemed to be coming, from the American Bar Association to associations of jurists—you name it—the Chamber of Commerce. If I was in town, obviously I would meet with them. We would often do receptions for them. And, of course, former presidents came. I remember those meetings precisely. But off the top of my head, I wouldn't try to pull others out, although in a given context—whenever we had meetings of the Trade and Economic Council, for example, whenever there was a meeting of the group with Gorbachev, obviously I would be involved in it.

DAVID SPEEDIE: If I may, a follow-up question on the coup in August 1991. There was the iconic moment of Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank at that time. His close associate and chief of staff Gennady Burbulis described this as "the Chernobyl of the Soviet Union." In other words, in their view, this was the moment, in answer to the question, "When did you decide that the Soviet Union was absolutely no longer viable or that there had to be root-and-branch change, not simply reform?"

Does that sound convincing to you?

I think each individual is going to interpret things from the standpoint of where that individual was, where they stood. Certainly that was a pivotal moment, but for reasons that maybe people don't understand. Yeltsin himself told me later that he did not go out and confront the troops. He had been assured by the general that he would protect him. The commanding general of that unit had called him to say he had orders to attack him, but he was not going to do it. Instead, he would protect him. So he really went down to shake hands with the troops and so on.

Now, the picture of the tank looks as if he was shouting defiance. Of course, he was shouting defiance, at the coup leaders. But he knew what he was doing.

The significant thing there was that the commander was not going to take orders from a possibly unconstitutional committee, self-appointed, to attack the elected president of Russia. And that's what Yeltsin was at that point. It showed that, increasingly, the upper levels were, I would say, more Russian than Communist, in a sense.

The coup in general, I think, very much speeded the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But it didn't have to happen that way. If Yeltsin had wanted to preserve the Soviet Union in some form, he would have encouraged a federation, maybe trimming some of Gorbachev's powers as president, but not removing it entirely and not destroying the Soviet Union entirely. So his support later for destroying the Soviet Union was the crucial one.

I think that's something Russians should remember today. Many of them think that it was Western pressure that brought down the Soviet Union, even U.S. pressure. And the opposite was true. The United States was trying to preserve the Soviet Union as a voluntary federation of all but the Baltic countries. We would have much preferred that.

The question was, was that really the crucial moment? It was a crucial moment. But, actually, the real decisions were different ones.

DAVID SPEEDIE: But to recapitulate, at this point the official U.S. government approach was that you wanted to see a confederation of everything but the Baltic states, with Gorbachev in power, because more than a basic means of accommodation had been reached and the relation was actually very good at that point.


DAVID SPEEDIE: Perhaps one final thought, Ambassador, one final question. It's now 20 years since the coup, almost. Imagine that the coup had never taken place. Gorbachev was in power. The U.S.-preferred option of continuing a federation of Soviet states minus the Baltic states had, in fact, stayed in place. Gorbachev had stayed in power. How do you think that would have played out for Russia, given what actually did happen in the 1990s and so on and so forth? How do you think that scenario would have affected post-Cold War relations?

Obviously, one cannot be sure, if some things had been different, exactly what it would have produced. Without the coup, I think Gorbachev would have had signatures on the Union Treaty with maybe eight republics. He wouldn't have had all 12, excluding the Baltics. He would have had Ukraine at that point, which was the crucial one, as far as they were concerned, and he would have had Central Asia. He probably would not have had Georgia—almost certainly would not have had Georgia, and he might not have had Moldova. He would have had Belarus.

The thing is, what people who celebrate the collapse of the Soviet Union don't recognize is that by 1991, the force for democratization and the force also for economic reform was coming from Moscow, and not, outside the Baltic states, from the regional capitals. So the democratization process would have continued for a while in those republics.

I think that Gorbachev's plan was, in December, to hold another conference of the Communist Party and to split it, taking off the reformers and setting up, in effect, a multiparty system, at least a two-party system—letting the hardliners continue in existence, but pulling off those who were willing to reform and going into a multiparty system. This would have been very messy. In fact, changing the economy was so difficult, it could not have been done without a lot of misery. Any person who was president at that time would have gotten a lot of flak and may not have survived it. So we really can't predict to what degree that would have worked.

Certainly, I would say there would have been more support for democratic movements in the Central Asian republics and in Belarus if the Soviet Union had continued, under Gorbachev's leadership, as a voluntary federation for at least a few more years. It would have faced such challenges that it might not have survived, and I think eventually, probably for a whole variety of reasons, one would have ended up with a constitutional order similar to today, in the sense that they would be independent. However, they might have gone a little further in writing new constitutions rather than being hobbled with the old ones.

DAVID SPEEDIE: If you could just say that once more, Jack, that there's a common belief that the West [inaudible] - in other words, the fallacious belief that the West brought down the Soviet Union, whereas, in fact, this was not the case, not least because the Bush Administration at that time was not inclined to see the Soviet Union completely fail. That wording that you had was very good.

The first Bush Administration was quite aware of what was happening. The idea that everything took us by surprise is utterly untrue. Now, it is quite true that the CIA never made an official determination that the Soviet Union could break up. We didn't want them to make an official determination, because if they had, this would have leaked and everybody would have assumed that we wanted it to happen. As I think Condi Rice later commented—she was on the NSC [National Security Council] at the time—if it was going to happen, it was important not to have our fingerprints on it.

But we saw what was happening. We tried to do what we could to encourage the sort of outcome we wanted, but that was very little, given what was going on.

But today almost all Russians—certainly the younger generation—are convinced that the United States brought down the Soviet Union by military and economic pressure, which is the opposite of the truth. Part of this is because of the triumphalism that you had in the 1990s—"we won the Cold War." Actually, both sides won the Cold War. We settled it in terms that were in the interests of both countries, and we settled it by negotiation. It was not a victory of one side over the other. So the triumphalism in the West—"we won the Cold War. You lost it. You don't count anymore"—has led inevitably to the feeling, "Well, you guys must have brought down the Soviet Union, and that's why we have so many problems today." Of course, it isn't why. Most of the problems are internally generated, and Russians, like most people, don't like to recognize their own mistakes. It's much easier to shift the blame off to foreigners.

But I must say, our own attitudes in the 1990s, and particularly in the second Bush Administration, and the writings of the neocons, who talk about a unipolar world or a unipolar world, the sole remaining superpower—those things feed into this misconception.

It's absolutely true that we were doing our best to support Gorbachev's effort to preserve the Soviet Union by democratizing, by making a federation, by giving each of the republics rights that they had never had before. By stopping that process when they did, they have condemned many parts of the former Soviet Union to systems just as bad as the one they had in the Soviet period.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Beautifully put. Bravo! That was wonderful.

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