Communist hardliners staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago, and the Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards. Previously unknown documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show just how desperate the last Soviet leader was as he fought to retain power -- and how he begged Germany for money to save his country.
There is one moment -- a single decision -- that some people still hold against Mikhail Gorbachev today, 20 years later.
Gorbachev, the last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and last president of the Soviet Union, his wife and his closest confidants had survived the attempted coup by the KGB, the military leadership and the interior minister. They returned to Moscow from their house arrest at Gorbachev's vacation home in the Crimean resort of Foros. Their plane landed in the capital at 2:15 a.m., local time, on Aug. 22, 1991.
For the last three days, some 60,000 people had been holding out in front of the Russian White House, the parliamentary seat of the Russian Soviet Republic, which had become the bastion of Gorbachev's supporters. When they heard on the radio that he had been released from house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula, they cheered and chanted "President, President," and waited for an appearance by the then 60-year-old Gorbachev.
But Gorbachev, who was only released because the leaders of the coup had become afraid of their own people and did not venture to storm the White House, shocked his jubilant fellow Russians. Instead of asking to be taken from the airport directly to his supporters, and instead of savoring the moment of victory and celebrating the defeat of the plotters, he ordered his driver to take him out to his dacha. He spent the rest of the night at home, and drove to work at the Kremlin the next morning.
By today's standards, it was a PR gaffe beyond compare. But the three days of house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula didn't just confuse the country, it also upset Gorbachev's inner balance -- and especially that of his wife, Raisa Maximovna Gorbachova.
Erasing the Past
Gorbachev's wife had paid the highest price for those three days. She was forced to lie down on the flight to Moscow. She had hematomas in her eyes, her speech was impaired and she felt paralyzed on one side of her body. Doctors diagnosed a stroke, which was later found to have been a severe attack of hypertension.
The stress of those days, when the Soviet Union was coming to an end after almost 69 years in existence, was too much for the Gorbachevs to handle. It was not the Kremlin chief but his former protege Boris Yeltsin who was now shining as the new political star in Moscow. Immediately after the coup, Yeltsin banned all activities of the Soviet Communist Party, of which Gorbachev had been the general secretary until then. And because the secession movement among the non-Russian Soviet republics was continuing, Gorbachev became a president without a state. Soon the only remaining core republic of the Soviet Union would be Russia, which Gorbachev no longer had control over.