Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


Cold War Warriors

1990’s – The Gorbachev coup and the end of the USSR

Commander John Murphy, USN, Ret

We entered the 1990s knowing all was not well in the Communist Paradise – back in the USSR. Still, from a military viewpoint – they appeared to be a formidable and unpredictable foe. We also were aware that their economy was having serious problems. That their state planning system could not compete in a free world market. Their citizens were aware of what was available in the West in the way of consumer goods, but their industry could not produce what they wanted. TVs, radios, automobiles, telephones, computers and appliances that worked! Sure they could build missiles and satellites for the military, but how about appliances that would were not ready for the junk pile shortly after purchase? Where were the Soviet State Stores (GUM or Gosudarstvenniy Universal’niy Magazin) where one could purchase reasonably priced clothing, appliances and quality, packaged and processed foods? Fresh fruit and vegetables – like they saw everywhere in European super markets? Not just vodka or matryoshka dolls.

Instead of prosperity, Communism had only brought empty shelves
 to the long-suffering citizens of the Soviet Union

Gorbachev had been in power for over five years and his concepts of "glasnost" (openness) and perestroika (restructuring … whatever that meant) had the diehard Communists confused and becoming hostile to his leadership. In the West we loved Gorbachev. So much so that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Quite a feat for the leader of the Evil Empire. He was the ‘Top Tovarishch" during a period of dramatic change. A period when Soviet Troops were removed from Afghanistan (the USSR’s Vietnam); the Berlin Wall was down; East and West Germany had unified and the Baltic States wanted out of the USSR.

By 1990 I had decided my Cold War was over and done with. I sold my home in the Washington D.C. area and moved to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and took a job teaching Russian at Gettysburg College. I was still doing some Soviet émigré interview work in New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Not enough to live on, but at least it kept me reasonably fluent in Russian. Also, I had a contract with CIA as a" contract Russian language officer" to provide language services" on demand" . Unfortunately, there was little demand. This was a job on my resume only.

Then things started to change. I did not see it coming. Nor did millions of Soviet citizens. In July of ’91 the Warsaw Pact was dissolved. In early August I was asked to meet with a Soviet scientist in Copenhagen, Denmark. An expert in Soviet submarine warfare with some new ideas on submarine detection techniques. He was due to arrive in Copenhagen on Tuesday, 20 August aboard a Soviet research ship out of St. Petersburg. I was to work with an American engineer who was coming via Norway. My ‘partner’ (sputnik?) was an expert on a new, commercial navigation system that just been installed on the Soviet ship. It was not performing as advertised. I arrived in Copenhagen on Monday, 19 August and settled into my hotel room in downtown Copenhagen. I turned on the TV and tuned into the CNN Noontime World News. They were issuing special reports ‘Live from Moscow’ that had something to do with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. That he was on vacation at his dacha in the Crimea and it appeared that some sort of a coup might be underway. Then there were dramatic images of President of the Russian Federation, Boris Eltsin standing on a Soviet tank addressing a large crowd outside Moscow’s White House (i.e. Parliament building). This historic scene was being fed live across the USSR by state TV.

[Editor's Note - Boris Yeltsin's surname is spelled ‘Eltsin’ in this article. A spelling that is preferred by many Russian linguists (e.g. Library of Congress). However, English language media sources have adopted the spelling as ‘Yeltsin.’ Take your pick, but it is definitely NOT "YeltsON" as shown on the Time cover of August 1991.

Boris Eltsin on tank at white house – Monday, 19 August ‘91

My partner arrived from Norway in the late afternoon, and we discussed the breaking news and its potential impact on our next day’s plans. Would our Soviet research ship still arrive in Copenhagen as expected? Would we be able to talk with our scientist? We checked with the Copenhagen Harbormaster early the next morning (Tuesday, 20 August) and were told "Your ship is scheduled to arrive at Copenhagen quay sometime this morning."

Demonstration in the streets of Moscow during the 1991 coup d'etat

I decided to go for an early morning jog along the waterfront. The clock ticked from 6 to 7 and then to 8 AM. There was no sign of any Soviet ships approaching Copenhagen harbor. Around 9 AM I saw a dark, blue van moving slowly along the pier area. I was advised to stay clear of this van…. That it was probably a KGB van and it was suspected that the Soviets might be concerned about ANY of their ships acting ‘strangely.’ That they might be on the alert for possible defectors? Around 10 AM I saw a Soviet trawler approaching the harbor entrance. I ran back to the hotel and alerted my partner. It appeared our guest was arriving. Now, would we still be welcome on board? Would we be able to meet with our scientist? We soon had our answer.

My partner and I approached the Soviet ship just before noon and a slightly built, middle-aged man waved to us and indicated we should come aboard. I would soon learn that it was my contact, Dr. Anatoliy Labkin from the St. Petersburg Branch of the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology. The Soviet equivalent of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

We went aboard and were greeted by Labkin and the ship’s Captain. The Captain was most cordial and invited us to join him for lunch…. along with our scientist ‘Akademik (Professor) Labkin.’ We were encouraged. Also, it was clear that the Captain was pretty drunk. Anatoliy whispered to me "We have been hearing the news from Moscow all night. The Captain is a die- hard Communist and has been drinking heavily. He is overjoyed. In his mind … the Soviet Union and Communism have been saved. Gorbachev has been destroyed. The world is looking very bright to him today." I thought Great! – Just so long as I get to spend some private time… somewhere … with our ‘esteemed Professor Labkin.’ Labkin assured me that we could work something out.

After some polite introductions, we settled down to a four-course luncheon in the Captain’s cabin. Complete with vodka toasts. I was mindful of the Russian custom that the recipient of a Russian toast must respond in kind in 45 seconds (or less) after a glass had been emptied. I believe we had five or six toasts before the meal was over. During the toasts we were assured that the ongoing Gorbachev coup was good for the USSR - for Russia and for America.

That President Gorbachev was out of control and was bad for Mother Russia. After lunch, the Captain gave us each a small bottle of Dagvino Russian Cognac in a special wooden presentation case. The Captain had personally signed and dated the case – "20.08.91" (20 August, 1991). Today I treasure that small bottle of cognac as it sits proudly in my library. For me, it is a symbol of the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, which would cease to exist in a short, 126 days. Of course we did not know that back then.

Following lunch, my partner repaired the malfunctioning navigation system and we asked the Captain and Dr. Labkin to join us for dinner at our hotel. They readily agreed. We drove by the ship in the late afternoon and took them to our hotel’s dining room overlooking the Copenhagen harbor. The Captain was almost giddy as we settled into cocktail hour in this magnificent, bourgeois setting. My partner was quite a pianist and proceeded to entertain our Captain and all in the dining room with anything they wanted to hear. Great entertainment.

After dinner Anatoliy and I slipped out for a meeting in the hotel’s main lobby while my partner and the Captain sampled the Danish after dinner drinks. Early in the meeting, Labkin gave me about 200 pages of scientific documents, which we took to the hotel’s Concierge for copying. We just about burned up the hotel’s copying machine. It broke down a couple of times. Both Labkin and I nervously watched with one eye on the copying machine and the other on the lobby in case the Captain should come looking for us.

Gorbachev and his family return to Moscow after being freed after the collapse of the coup.

Fortunately the task was completed successfully and we went back to the lobby to complete our discussions. It was around 11 PM when we heard the Captain wandering through the lobby calling "Anatoliy… Anatoliy … gde vy?" (Anatoliy … where are you?). He seemed to have sobered up a bit and was visibly agitated. We ‘flagged’ him down and said we had been looking for him, but could not find him. Meanwhile … on the hotel’s TV we were receiving reports from Moscow that our Captain would not have found good news. It was late Tuesday evening. We told Anatoliy what we were hearing, but decided to let the Captain have a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow was another day – Wednesday, 21 August 1991 - the day the coup started falling apart.

The next morning, Labkin told me that they had received urgent orders to return to St. Petersburg immediately. I estimated that they would arrive home by Friday, 23 August – the day after Gorbachev had been freed from house arrest in the Crimea and returned to Moscow.

Also, the day when Borris Eltsin unexpectedly confronted him in front of the Russian Parliament and demanded that he resign as Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.

Borris Eltsin demands Gorbachev resign his position as
Secretary of the Communist Party…. in front of the entire Parliament

The Captain would not be pleased to learn that the coup plotters were all under arrest or had committed suicide. Also, as he entered St. Petersburg harbor - he would have seen the historic White-Blue-Red - Russian national flag flying prominently over the city. Not good news for a die hard Communist.

Outside Russian Parliament Demonstrators confront Soviet Army.

They had just torched a bus to block approach of Soviet Army personnel carriers and tanks to the White House/Parliament Building. They were also trying to talk the soldiers into defecting to their cause.

From the USSR TO CIS

I arrived back in the USA on 23 August and could see that the Cold War had changed dramatically during my visit to Copenhagen. Even while I was there… I was mindful of the fact that the events that were taking place right "next door." It was like witnessing the 1825 Decembrist Revolt in St. Petersburg or the Bol’shevik Revolution of 1917 – via TV from the comfort of a modern hotel in Copenhagen – 800 miles to the west of Moscow.

By the time I got home we knew that Gorbachev had survived and was back in power in the Kremlin. But was he really? We now know that within a few months the USSR would be dissolved. Gorbachev was working for major changes in his state planned economy while his Republics were walking away from him. First, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and, Lithuaniain in September, followed by the Ukraine and Belarus.

The President of the Russian Republic, Boris Eltsin, on the other hand was trying to introduce a free market economy and was taking over the dysfunctional Soviet ministries and industry. After the August Coup, Eltsin had seen enough of the Communists.

Andrey Sakharov’s wife – Elena Bonner during a lecture at Gettysburg College in 1993 told us what it was like to be in Russia in 1991. She stressed that Eltsin, who was elected President of the Russian Republic in June 1991 – was the first Russian leader ever (in over 1000 years) to be elected by the Russian people. They were behind him. In November Eltsin totally banned the Communist Party in Russia. By December he had decided that both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union had to go! The Ukraine and Belarus supported him. Together they signed an agreement (the Belavezh Accords) to create a Commonwealth of Independent States (the CIS).

On Christmas Day 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as President of the USSR. The next day the USSR’s highest legislative body "The Supreme Soviet" dissolved itself and turned over the keys to the Kremlin to Boris Eltsin and Russia. All Soviet organizations went out of business at midnight on New Year’s Eve – December 31st, 1991 and the Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time.

The Hammer and Sickle – the emblem of the once proud Soviet Union
quickly became a distant memory

For the average Russian, I am sure this was a scary time. They were not happy with the Soviet system, but it was the only world they knew. Their place of employment was either shut down or operating at a fraction of its capacity. Their pensions from the USSR were worthless. For many … the only solace could be found in a good bottle of vodka. Alcoholism was on the rise as was the death rate of Russians. A people that had known war and devastation for over 1000 years… now seemed to teeter at the edge of a great unknown abyss.

For over a thousand years they had survived the Swedes, the Mongols, and Ottoman Turks, Napoleon, the Nazis and the Cold War. They had endured all – for Mother Russia. But, by the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 they had little or nothing to fall back upon. For most of their history they had religion – the Russian Orthodox Church – for comfort and a sense of purpose. The "opiate of the people" as Lenin called it. – But Communism had destroyed that – along with many of its churches and cathedrals. "What should we do?" they asked themselves.

Westernizers vs. Slavophiles controversy

In 1991 the former Soviet Union was like a nation with a bipolar disorder. Part of it saw the path to the future in the West and Capitalism. They were the "Westernizers." The other part wanted to return to the past – to their Slavic roots and, of course - Communism. They were the "Slavophiles." It was the rebirth of a controversy that Russia had seen before – in the mid 19th century when there were the first stirrings of revolution against the Tsar and his autocratic regime. Now the controversy was back. Which path would they choose this time? After 73 years under Communism?

The early 90s were confusing, but hopeful years. Elena Bonner, wife of renowned Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov put it best in her visit to Gettysburg College in November 1993 when she said "Every path is open to the Russian people. And the path of peaceful coexistence with the world should be the path of choice." Memorable words. But, which path would Russia choose this time?

We would gradually learn as the rest of the 1990s unfolded.

Next – Cold War Fallout – Russia chooses its future…..

Read other articles by Commander John Murphy

Read other Cold War Warrior Articles