November 22, 2006

Diary of a Collapsing Superpower

As has so often been in the case in history, there was little separating victory and defeat, joy and fear, euphoria and depression. And yet there couldn't have been a greater difference between the events in Berlin and in Moscow in October 1990.

The Presidential Council, a key group of advisors to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, met at the Kremlin at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17. It was a sunny day. But it was far from a routine meeting. As Anatoly Chernyayev later said, it reminded him "of the situation in October 1917 in St. Petersburg, when the Bolsheviks were threatening to storm the Winter Palace." In 1990 foreign policy expert Chernyayev was something on the order of Gorbachev's Henry Kissinger.

A storm also seemed to be on the horizon on that Oct. 17, but this time it was Gorbachev's archenemy, Boris Yeltsin, who was behind the sense of foreboding. Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession.

The Presidential Council fell into a state of panic. "Dissolution is in full swing!," Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Soviet Union's clever premier, warned. "All mass media are working for the opposition! Even the central council of trade unions! Even the party!" Vladimir Kryuchkov, the pale head of the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, agreed. "This is a declaration of war against the central government," he said, "and if we don't do something about it we will be thrown out."


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