Russian history canters past coup plotters: Faced with the rigours of their second revolution, people have little interest in those who tried to bring back the past, writes Peter Pringle in Moscow

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The Independent Online
ONE YEAR after the August coup conspirators failed to put down a people's revolution, most of them are still detained, forgotten prisoners in jail, awaiting a trial that is months away. Muscovites are too preoccupied with the hardships of daily life to have much interest in their fate, but the plotters manage to keep themselves in the headlines anyway.

One has become a poet. Anatoly Lukyanov, the former speaker of the Soviet parliament, who is charged with being the chief ideologue of the plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev and end perestroika, is about to publish his second volume of prison verse.

Another, the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, recently wrote to President Boris Yeltsin pleading that his efforts to grab back power from the reformers were a cri de coeur, a deeply patriotic act governed by a wish to preserve the old Soviet Union.

Mr Kryuchkov is leading a campaign to give the upcoming trial political overtones, hoping thereby to have a mistrial declared. He managed to evade the security clampdown on court documents and slipped a full copy of the prosecution evidence to the neo-Communist daily, Den.

The Yeltsin forces retaliated, leaking the desk calendar of another plotter, the former defence minister, Dmitry Yazov, who ordered the tanks into Moscow. The calendar shows he was about to order a fresh crackdown in the Baltics, locking up its leaders.

Valentin Pavlov, the former prime minister, is now famous for being a slow reader. He is the only one of the dozen charged who has yet to finish examining the 125 volumes of evidence and 50 three- hour video tapes presented in evidence by the prosecution last January.

His slowness is self-serving. According to Russian law, until all the defendants have read everything and filed their appeals, the case cannot go to court. The court will then need several months to read the evidence and organise hearings. There are more than 1,000 witnesses who will take at least three months to be heard. Next summer would seem an optimistic date for an end to the case.

In the meantime, the new Russia canters on beyond its Communist Party past at such a hectic pace that few people have the stomach for the trial anymore. Trapped by the rigours of their second revolution - high inflation, rising crime, a roller-coaster rouble and looming unemployment - Russians have tended to forget how determined the plotters were to put an end to reforms, and return to authoritarian rule.

The ominous aims of the so- called State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR signalled an unambiguous return to authoritarian rule. The committee, led by the then vice-president, Gennady Yanayev, sought to impose a return to press censorship, a 'decisive struggle against the shadow economy, bungled management and other economic wrong-doing', cut off 'the octopus of crime and glaring immorality', and lock up those who disobeyed. Mr Gorbachev was falsely declared as being too ill to discharge his duties.

Mr Yeltsin and his new democrats urged citizens not to concentrate on revenge, but rather direct their energies to the future. And so they have, but the constant battle to maintain economic reforms has precluded a debate on the activities of the forces that made the coup possible - the KGB and the army - and about what, if anything, these formerly sinister outfits might be up to today.

The trial of the plotters, whenever it happens, will answer the question of who planned the coup. From prison, those charged try to implicate Mr Gorbachev. The 'blueprint' for the state of emergency was on Mr Gorbachev's desk, claims Mr Yanayev, who said the Soviet leader was himself contemplating such action. Mr Gorbachev maintains he was betrayed by those closest to him.

The consensus is that the coup was planned by the KGB, and no one expects a similar effort from the hardliners; the popular uprising would be greater than last year and any attempt would fail more disastrously, so the argument goes. The domestic KGB now has a new name, the Russian Security Service (RSS), and new top officials. Its vast ring of informers has been cut almost to nothing - at least on paper - but it can clearly still muster great power using its traditional methods.

Parallel to the investigation against the plotters, the Russian Prosecutor's Office launched an inquiry into the KGB's phone-tapping operation. More than 2,000 classified and top secret documents show that 'a significant number' of Russian and Soviet leaders were tapped by the KGB in their offices, and in Mr Yeltsin's case in his sauna.

After a brief honeymoon, when reporters were allowed into the Lubyanka headquarters and interviewed KGB colonels, the new Russian secret service is as tight- lipped as the old one. Though without evidence, some of its traditional watchdogs fear widespread tapping continues, and that the RSS is as deeply involved in politics as the KGB used to be. Yevgenia Albats, who specialises in writing about the KGB for the liberal weekly, Moscow News, thinks it is impossible that the huge KGB eavesdropping operation was dismantled overnight. 'By tapping political leaders they keep control, just like they always did, but the problem is there's no debate about it. For most people, it's still a taboo subject.'

Relations between Mr Yeltsin and Russia's new armed forces are more open, but not without friction. In the wake of the coup, Mr Yeltsin weeded out the old marshals, retired hundreds of generals who were still in their jobs beyond pension age, and put his own men in key places. In doing so he deftly removed the traditional lock on the top brass held by the tank commanders and replaced them with air force and paratroop


The Russian leader has recently established a special merit review board that oversees all high-level military appointments. The move infuriated some generals, who had hoped that with the Politburo gone, they would have greater say in who ran the army. They complain that Mr Yeltsin may know about Party structures, but he does not know about the military.

For example, they opposed his appointment of Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov as commander of the Commonwealth of Independent States' forces saying he was 'simply a bomber pilot and doesn't know staff work'. Mr Yeltsin's key military adviser has been General Dmitry Volkogonov, who was in charge of Party ideology in the Soviet Army and was later a military historian. The generals complain he knows nothing about the battlefield. 'There is room for potential conflict,' commented Pavel Felgenhauer, the military analyst of the independent newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

The uncertainties make Mr Yeltsin wary. Apparently guarding against an attack from the right, he recently created the military merit board and a new policy- making body, the Security Council, weighted with conservatives.

But little is known about the ambitions or politics of the new man in charge of these two bodies. Yuri Skokov, 53, is a former defence plant manager who was an official in the last Russian Communist government but he has yet to show his true colours. Last year he was passed over as economics supremo in the Russian cabinet. Mr Yeltsin chose instead the young radical economist, Yegor Gaidar, whose head is sought by the industrialists because of his reluctance to help inefficient enterprises. If Mr Gaidar goes, Mr Skokov could become the most powerful official in Mr Yeltsin's cabinet.

Today's Kremlinologists ask: does Mr Skokov have a master, and if so, who is he? Could it be that he comes from the military or the former KGB?

Burden of Russian history, page 17

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