Shebarshin told managers at the KGB to try to reinvigorate their subordinates by emphasizing "dedication to the service, dedication to your country, which is what is called patriotism. That was a real thing, a real motivation. How to preserve those things? I could not do that by any formal orders."
Instead, he told managers that the organization had to become more flexible in order to focus on "those things that were dangers to our way of life and our service." He asked that supervisors "do away with unnecessary formalities for all personnel. Not to make their lives easier, but to show them the real purpose of our work, the real purpose of the service; to show them that, yes, we were going through a very difficult time in our history, but it was not for the first time. And by the dedicated efforts of people like ourselves, our country had survived a great deal. It was our patriotic and our service duty to do our jobs."
But nothing worked. "An organization like ours," he said, "could only be effective if it was backed up with political will by the leadership of the nation."
The August 1991 coup attempt by a group of Communist hard-liners, including Vladimir Kryuchkov, the former chief of the First Directorate who had been promoted to run the entire KGB, found Shebarshin in a state of deep despair, willing to do what he could to help the coup succeed.
On Aug. 19, when the coup began, Kryuchkov asked Shebarshin to put the First Directorate at his disposal, and Shebarshin readily complied. He immediately ordered his intelligence officers to begin to spy on Moscow.
"I was reporting to [Kryuchkov] certain observations," Shebarshin says. "We had our people all over the city, and they were reporting to me, and I would try somehow to feed information to him."
Next, Shebarshin ordered the First Directorate's paramilitary unit to the KGB's central club in Moscow to stand by for orders to quash the opposition coalescing around Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. The First Directorate's unit was separate from the KGB's larger and better known paramilitary force, Alpha Group, which had also been put on alert.
But then came an odd silence; Kryuchkov stopped calling. Shebarshin waited at Yasenovo for the word to move, but it never came. "I never got any directions. . . ," he says. Kryuchkov "didn't order me to do anything."
As the coup began to collapse, Shebarshin told the commanding officer of the First Directorate's paramilitary force not to accept orders from anyone else but him. Calculating that the coup was about to fail, he decided that he would no longer obey Kryuchkov.
"It became very clear that something was wrong with this emergency committee [the coup leaders]," Shebarshin says. "There was a lack of will, a lack of direction. So we decided after the first impulse to stay back and to see how the wheel would turn."
Chillingly, Shebarshin acknowledges that if the orders for aggressive action had come at the outset of the coup, "definitely, I would have obeyed." He adds that if the plotters had used the levers of power at their disposal on the first day, "they would have succeeded, no doubt about it."
The coup's failure ended Shebarshin's career. Three weeks later--after spending one day as Kryuchkov's replacement as chief of the entire KGB--he was forced out of office in favor of reformers who would break up the KGB and its political power.
But while the attempted coup cost Shebarshin the position and status for which he still yearns today, it is clear that his only complaint is with its poor execution.
"A coup that fails," shrugs Shebarshin, "is an adventure."
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About This Series
Once it was the world's most mysterious and feared espionage organization, the "sword and shield" of the Soviet Union. But ultimately the KGB fell victim to the same forces of history that destroyed the empire it had served.
For the most part, the last KGB officers slipped away, retaining the cloak of secrecy. But now a group of former officers has stepped forward to provide an insider's guide. They agreed to a series of interviews with the Los Angeles Times, in part to put on the record what they see as their sacrifices and professionalism in a cause now widely denigrated.
* Monday: The spy who directed Aldrich H. Ames.
* Tuesday: Two enemies, two friends.
* Today: The Gavrilov channel, the KGB-CIA hotline.
* On the Web: The complete series is available on The Times' Web site at http://www.latimes.com/kgb