The Day Before (1/2)

This reflection shall in no way engage the responsibility of the French Administration that I served or the persons who are mentioned

          Thirty years ago, on 25 December, Mikhail Gorbachev signed the act of resignation of his duties as President of the USSR. In the early winter night of the Moscow latitudes, the Soviet flag flying on the Kremlin was brought back and replaced by the Russian tricolour. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was ratified the next day by the Supreme Soviet. The USSR, which was experiencing a final spasm after the abolition by the Congress of Deputies in the spring of 1990 of Article 6 of the Constitution on the “leading role” of the Communist Party, the August 1991 putsch and the creation of a Commonwealth of Independent States, On 8 December 1991, by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his counterparts in Belarus and Ukraine, had she really disappeared? 

The question may be asked in the Day After but the one Before was mainly the considerable work of Mikhail Gorbachev who changed the world by breaking down the internal mechanisms of the system, by insufflating a wind of freedom, whatever the risks to his power in the short and medium term, and try promoting as a rule the abolition of the Brezhnev doctrine and the peaceful settlement of external disputes. 


First, there is the testimony of the event experienced. On August 19, 1991, tanks were deployed in Moscow while Mikhail Gorbachev, on a family holiday in Crimea, saw his resort turned into house arrest. I am still in New York, on the verge of leaving for Russia, observing this world-wide event, which is the convulsive development of a weakened Soviet Union, confirming that is its even agonizing .

The information is piecemeal in the early hours. Televisions broadcast images of an empty and gloomy Soviet capital whose blafard lighting, which lets glimpse in the darkness of armored vehicles, reflect an even more sinister aspect.

The emerging coup d’état appears to be a conservative reaction from within the system. The army, the KGB, the ministry of the interior – what we call the «force structures» (siloviki) – seem in the initial confusion to have sided with the putschists who are given chances of winning. 

I read the diplomatic cables from our post in Moscow demanding, I imagine, a great deal of coolness and even courage in these circumstances when it comes to going to observe the street to the outskirts of the White House, that is, Parliament, which is one of the epicenters of the crisis. In the chaos of the end of the Soviet Union, as a counterpoint to the frozen world it embodied, it is very difficult to know what is really going on, at least in the first days, and on which side the balance will tip. The complexity of the case is such that, years later, the thesis will even circulate that Mikhail Gorbachev himself, seeing the failure of his policy of openness and reform, was an instigator of the coup, to then carry out a takeover which he would have planned.

Our Chargé d’affaires on the spot, in the absence of the Ambassador, took the risk of assessing – because it was necessary to provide Paris with an analysis as soon as possible – that « in the end, the man of the street, no doubt accommodates what looks like a takeover..». This judgment will prove to be totally erroneous but, in the meantime, France cannot remain silent and President Mitterrand decided to speak on television. Later, and sometimes even today, he will be criticized for having implied in the name of the necessary state-to-state relations, which is also with a country of such importance, that a dialogue was possible with the new self-proclaimed Soviet authorities. Honesty and historical truth require a substantial correction of this criticism.

The President of the Republic had at the time of his public intervention only fragmentary information, including the analysis of the Embassy. Mikhail Gorbtchev, under house arrest in Foros, Crimea, could not communicate with the outside world. It is necessary to review the televised performance of the President of the Republic. The latter, quite boldly, believes that the movement in favor of freedoms, committed from 1985, will not stop there, whatever happens and it clearly condemns the putsch. The primary concern he expresses is that of the security of Mikhail Gorbachev – and also at that time of Boris Yeltsin – and this may explain the reading, which was particularly reproached to him, of a letter from the putschist leader Gennadi Ianaev (cf. State Committee for Emergency) affirming that it will continue the policy initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Everyone knows the rest. The «man of the street» did not get along and Boris Yeltsin was the incarnation of the resistance, perched on a tank in front of the White House, recalling to some extent Lenin in Petrograd in 1917.   


It was not easy then to have a sure judgment in the context of a Soviet Union which one felt was going to disappear. This would be replaced a few months later by the bubbling of a new Russia engaged in what was called a “transitional period” that is probably not yet complete. 

With regard to the attitude of France in the early hours of the dismissal of the legal President of Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev even publicly estimated years later that François Mitterrand probably did not have the right information and that in any event he had always considered him his friend. Moreover, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Embassy succeeded in being on the plane which brought back from Foros to Moscow Mikhail Gorbachev and his family, while Kriushkov, the head of the KGB, Iazov, the Minister of Defence and Lukianov, the President of the Supreme Soviet, were under arrest at the bottom of the cabin.

As for the thesis of a pact between the Russian leader and the putschists, this one developed especially when the coup went wrong for the rebellion. Sixteen years later in October 2007, together with the French Ambassador Jean Cadet, and a French Minister at Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foundation, I made the mistake of saying to him that I had arrived in his country for the first time a few days after the coup. He grew pale, could not utter a word, and finally turned tail, proof that his confinement to Foros remained a traumatic event. Did he feel then like the Tsar and his family in Ekaterinburg? 

The climax of the putsch ended on August 22 had passed when I arrived in Moscow on September 12. I understood that my task was no longer to observe the Soviet Union, as a rather predictable actor of international relations in the context of an East-West opposition which had its codes and rules. The benchmarks were mostly lacking for those who had no direct knowledge of the country. Would Erich Honecker’s East Germany, where I had been posted about ten years before, give me keys for understanding the big brother country or would it have been finally only Germany obsessed above all by the development of inter-German relations?


What did we expect from this immense country, which wavered on its base? Were we not hoping too quickly that it would come closer to our European values? Did not the fascination that Russian culture and arts had always exercised in Europe, and especially in France, contribute to creating the illusion of closeness and rapid rapprochement? Were we prepared to get out of the mental patterns of the Cold War and accept, if necessary, that there might be a path between the failure of communism, which is obvious in many respects, and the excesses of capitalism to which all the peoples of the so-called free world did not necessarily adhere? Were we able to abstain from geopolitical reflection, towards which Russia by its multiple dimensions and its own fundamental questioning on belonging to the East or the West – inherited from an old debate opposing since the nineteenth century Slavophiles and Westerners – always leads us? Was not the urgency of the 1990s going to be the daily life of a population that had to undergo an incredible mental revolution, rebuild most of the economic and social structures and live simply, without the anesthetic protection that communism brought, in the face of new hardships of existence, largely responsible for the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev?


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