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How We Got Here : Diary of a Doomed Coup : A bungle-by-bungle look at how Moscow's hard-liners grabbed for power, and missed.

September 03, 1991|MICHAEL PARKS and JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITERS; This account, written by Times staff writer John M. Broder in Washington, was based on reporting by Times staff writers John-Thor Dahlburg, Carey Goldberg and Elizabeth Shogren in Moscow; staff writers Norman Kempster in Washington and Douglas Jehl in Kennebunkport, Me.; and Moscow Bureau reporter Viktor K. Grebenshikov and researcher Andrei Ostroukh.

"I didn't need additional information," he said at his Moscow press conference. "I saw that this was a very serious situation. I thought that they were going to try to blackmail me or force me or compel me to do something. Anything was possible."

By the time Gorbachev returned, the delegation was already in the house--an extraordinary breach of security engineered by Plekhanov and Vladimir Medvedev, Gorbachev's adjutant and one of the conspirators. A virulent confrontation ensued.

"Who sent you?" Gorbachev demanded.

"The Committee," they replied. "The Committee appointed in connection with the emergency."

"Who appointed the committee?" Gorbachev asked. "I didn't appoint such a committee, and the Supreme Soviet didn't appoint such a committee."

They demanded that Gorbachev issue a decree establishing a state of emergency and granting the State Emergency Committee full powers with Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev at its head. If Gorbachev refused, they said, he would simply be replaced.

"They sat in my study and presented me with an ultimatum," Gorbachev told an aide immediately after the meeting. "Either I sign the decree on the state of emergency, they said, or I hand over my authority to Yanayev or--this was Varennikov's proposal--I resign.

"Fuck off!" Gorbachev told the conspirators, according to foreign policy aide Chernayev. "You are nothing but adventurers and traitors, and you'll pay for this. I don't care what will happen to you, but you'll destroy the country. You are pushing it to civil war."

As Gorbachev looked at the list of committee members, he was stunned to read that the names of Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, the defense minister, and Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, the country's security and intelligence agency.

"I particularly trusted Yazov and Kryuchkov," he said later.

For an hour, the men debated the country's profound political and economic problems. Gorbachev said that declaring a state of siege would only exacerbate the crisis. The usurpers insisted that he had lost the respect of his government and control of the people. Gorbachev could make no headway, he said later, for "the demand was still that I resign. And I said, 'You'll never live that long!' "

The delegation left for Moscow with Gorbachev's unequivocal "Nyet!" about 7:30 p.m.

The compound was sealed off from outside by KGB forces and army troops supporting the coup. Roadblocks were established throughout the Crimea and all planes were diverted on orders of the air defense forces.

Inside the compound, the president's personal bodyguard of 32 KGB officers remained loyal and prepared to fight off an armed attack from a military garrison in nearby Simferopol and perhaps from the naval units offshore. But they had only their side arms and a total of six Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Family members were placed in protected spots, and to guard against poisoned or drugged food or water, the defenders decided to rely only on supplies already in the compound.

"We thought the attack would come shortly before first light," one of the KGB guards recounted back in Moscow. "I don't know what the president did, but I wrote a letter to my wife and children. I doubted anyone of us would see the dawn."

With the return of Boldin, Baklanov, Shenin, Varennikov and Plekhanov to Moscow, the conspirators began the final preparations for the coup, readying the declaration of a state of emergency that would have to be proclaimed without Gorbachev's signature.

Foreign Minister Alexander A. Bessmertnykh, dressed in jeans and knowing nothing of the previous hours' events, was summoned to the Kremlin. There he found a meeting already under way, with a large number of generals participating, as well as Yanayev, Baklanov, Prime Minister Pavlov, Interior Minister Boris K. Pugo and KGB chief Kryuchkov.

Kryuchkov pulled him aside and led him into the next room, Bessmertnykh recounted.

"Listen, the situation in the country is terrible," Kryuchkov told him. "The chaotic situation emerges. It's a crisis. It's dangerous. People are disappointed. Something should be done, and we decided to do something through emergency measures. We have established a committee, an emergency committee, and I would like you to be part of it."

Bessmertnykh said he asked, "Is that committee arranged by the instructions of the president?"

"No, he's incapable of functioning now," the KGB chief replied, according to Bessmertnykh. "He's lying flat in a dacha ."

Bessmertnykh asked for a medical report on Gorbachev, but Kryuchkov declined to provide one. Bessmertnykh said he then replied, "Mr. Kryuchkov, I am not going to be part of that committee, and I categorically reject any participation in that."

As they went back to the meeting, Kryuchkov told the others, "Bessmertnykh refused." And someone commented, "Well, we needed a liberal on the committee."

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