Vladimir Kryuchkov: Plotter against Gorbachev

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The Independent Online

Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov, spymaster and politician: born Tsaritsyn, Soviet Union 29 February 1924; died Moscow 25 November 2007.

Nominally, Vladimir Kryuchkov was just one of the eight members of the shortlived State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP to give its acronymic Russian name) that was supposedly in charge of the Soviet Union after the short-lived coup in August 1991 by hardliners against Mikhail Gorbachev.

But if the plot had a single leader it was Kryuchkov. Since taking over the KGB in 1988, he had become increasingly convinced that Gorbachev's perestroika programme, intended to reform and rejuvenate the Communist system, would instead lead to the demise of both the system and of the Soviet Union itself.

In June 1991, as Moscow bubbled with rumours of a plot to oust Gorbachev, Kryuchkov and other hardliners had failed in a "soft coup" that would have handed some of the president's powers to the then prime minister Valentin Pavlov. But the conspirators' determination only grew. On 17 August, Kryuchkov convened a key meeting at a KGB sanatorium outside Moscow. Among those present were Pavlov, Oleg Balkanov, chief of the Soviet military industrial complex, and the defence minister Dmitri Yazov.

The following day, with Gorbachev on holiday in the Crimea, the deed was done, with the creation of the GKChP. But the coup's organisation was shambolic – there was no effort, for instance, to sever communications with the outside world – and, crucially, the armed forces did not have the nerve to use force against the liberal reformers led by Boris Yeltsin.

Within three days, the attempted constitutional putsch had collapsed and Gorbachev returned to Moscow to preside over the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the disappearance of his own job, four months later. Kryuchkov himself, unrepentant to the last, was tried and jailed before being freed in an amnesty ordered by Yeltsin in 1994.

The coup was culmination of a life spent in the shadowy, hugely powerful Soviet intelligence and national security apparatus. Like Gorbachev himself, Kryuchkov was a protégé of Yuri Andropov, the former head of the KGB who led the Soviet Union for 15 months until his death in 1984. He was an aide of Andropov when, as Soviet ambassador in Budapest, the latter oversaw the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

Kryuchkov then served as a party official in Ukraine before joining the KGB, where he was chosen by Andropov to head the First Main Directorate in charge of spying abroad. In 1988 he was chosen by Gorbachev to become chairman of the agency, on the mistaken assumption that Kryuchkov too believed that reforms were essential if the Soviet Union was to be revived.

Indeed, Gorbachev could never quite believe that his appointee, a man he believed cultured and knowledgeable, would throw in his lot with the hardliners who wanted to turn back the clock. For his part, Kryuchkov was appalled by the Soviet Union's loss of prestige in the world, and what he saw as surrender to the West. By 1991 he had open contempt for the Soviet leader and his policies.

During the first decade of post-Soviet Russia, Kryuchkov was rarely seen or heard. But after the election of Vladimir Putin – another alumnus of the KGB – as president in 2000, he was frequently invited to Kremlin events and published his memoirs. He gave interviews praising Putin's more assertive style of government, accusing the West of plotting to weaken Russia. By the end Kryuchkov had become something of an elder statesman of the intelligence community, warning that feuding within its ranks could lead to "big trouble", of which Russia's adversaries would be the beneficiary.

The admonition came in an open letter to the newspaper Zavtra ("Tomorrow") less than a month before he died, after agents from the Federal Security Service, the KGB's successor, arrested officers from the anti-drugs service, allegedly for corruption and abuse of office. The quarrel, he said, would only weaken national unity. "Trust out experience," wrote Kryuchkov. He had seen his country disintegrate once, and had no intention of witnessing a repeat.

Rupert Cornwell