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Soviet President Feared for His Life : Coup: Gorbachev recounts his 'drama,' tells of rejecting the plotters' ultimatum.

August 23, 1991|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The men from Moscow announced themselves as simply from "the committee," and they bluntly told Mikhail S. Gorbachev to grant them sweeping emergency powers or be ousted as president of the Soviet Union and, Gorbachev thought, probably killed.

Although fearing more for his family than himself, Gorbachev rejected the ultimatum.

"The hell with you!" he told the men.

Thus began the rightist coup d'etat in which control of the Soviet Union, a nation in turmoil but still a superpower covering a sixth of the Earth, fell into the hands of men Gorbachev had trusted as his closest allies but who were determined to reverse his reforms.

In a voice cracking with emotion, pausing often to regain his composure, the 60-year-old Soviet president on Thursday told of his captivity in his vacation home in the Crimea, of how he sought to thwart the coup with smuggled messages, how his loyal bodyguards prepared to fight off an armed attack and how, as the plot collapsed, he managed to capture most of its leaders.

"The situation was critical, and I think that, when these reckless adventurers came to realize that they were destined to fail, these people might have done almost anything," Gorbachev told a packed news conference. "That is why I was ready for anything."

Angry at the betrayal by some of his top officials but resolute in his defense of perestroika and proud of the popular resistance to the coup, Gorbachev made clear just how perilous a time he and his country had lived through.

"This has been a very difficult, an extremely difficult lesson for me," he said, the tension and fatigue evident in the lines in his face and the trembling of his hands. "It's, you might say, my 'drama.' "

For the most powerful man in the country, it was a lesson in the powerlessness and helplessness felt by every prisoner, and the Soviet Union has jailed millions over the years.

For the man who launched the Soviet Union on the course of reforms six years ago, bringing greater democracy than it had ever known or even dared imagine, it was a brutal reminder of how fragile the rule of law remains here.

The drama began to unfold shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday, Gorbachev said, when an unannounced delegation appeared at his summer home in the Crimea near the Black Sea and demanded to see him urgently. Accompanied by the chief of the KGB's protection service, Lt. Gen. Yuri Plekhanov, they had been let into the heavily guarded seaside compound.

Wanting to find out who had sent the men and why, Gorbachev went to one of the special telephones that connect him to officials in the Kremlin and throughout the country.

"I was working in my office, picked up the one telephone, it didn't work. I lifted the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth--nothing. Then I tried the house phone and realized nothing worked and I was cut off.

"I then understood that the mission would for me be not the mission that we ordinarily deal with."

Gorbachev went to another part of the house, gathered his wife Raisa, his daughter Irina and her husband Anatoly and told them what was happening.

"I didn't need any new information," he said. "I knew that a very serious event was going on, that they would either blackmail me or there would be attempts to arrest me or take me away somewhere. Basically, anything could happen."

He was already resolved not to compromise but wanted his family's support for a decision that might bring the deaths of all of them.

"I told Raisa Maximovna and (daughter) Irina Anatoleyevna that if we talk about the main thing, about politics, the course of politics, that I will stick to my position to the end and that would I not step back, not under any pressure, blackmail or threats. I would neither change nor take up new positions.

"All the family--I thought it was important to tell them, you understand why, because I realized that anything could happen, especially to the members of my family. This we also know. The family told me that . . . this should be my decision and that (they) would go with me through this to the end. This was the end of our conversation."

By the time he had returned, the delegation was already in the house and delivered the ultimatum to hand over power to Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev, nominated by Gorbachev as December as "a man I can trust" but now one of the plotters.

"I told them that before I answered, I wanted to know who had sent them, what committee. They said the State Committee for the State of the Emergency in the country. Who created it? I didn't create it; the Supreme Soviet didn't create it."

The visitors said what they wanted was a decree establishing a state of emergency and granting the self-proclaimed Committee on the State of Emergency full powers, with Yanayev at its head; if Gorbachev would not sign, they said, he would simply be replaced by Yanayev.

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