The Gorbachev Files: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse


In January 1991, under pressure from the intelligence service and the military, Gorbachev apparently agreed to what was already a futile venture: proclaiming presidential rule in Lithuania under Moscow's control. As was once the case in Budapest and Prague, "workers" loyal to the Soviet Union were to ask Moscow to send troops to their aid, which is precisely what transpired. On Jan. 13, special Soviet army and state security units advanced in tanks to the building housing the state television headquarters in Vilnius, where they stormed the station and killed 14 people.

In a telephone conversation with then-US President George Bush two days earlier, Gorbachev had flatly denied that Moscow would intervene in Vilnius:

Bush: I'm worried about your internal problems. As an outsider, all I can say is this: If you manage to avoid the use of force, it will benefit your relations with us, and not just with us.

Gorbachev: We will only intervene if there is bloodshed or if there is unrest that not only threatens our constitution, but also human lives. I am now under tremendous pressure to introduce presidential control in Lithuania . I am still holding back, and only in the case of a very serious threat will I take tough measures.

Helmut Kohl, the German chancellor who, in the name of his government, had consistently campaigned for the right of self-determination by national populations, declined to make any criticism of Gorbachev. When the two leaders spoke by telephone five days after the bloody events in Vilnius, he only mentioned the Soviet military action in passing:

Gorbachev: Now everyone is beginning to ask: Is Gorbachev abandoning his course? Is the new Gorbachev finished, and has he moved to the right? I can say in all honesty: We will not change our policy.

Kohl: As a politician, I understand that there are moments when evasive maneuvers are unavoidable if one hopes to achieve certain political goals.

Gorbachev: Helmut, I am familiar with your assessment of the situation, and I greatly respect it. Goodbye.

But Gorbachev lost his last shred of credibility with his own people during those days. "He is on the side of those who committed murder in Vilnius," a bitterly disappointed Anatoly Chernyaev, his closest confidant, wrote in his diary. He dictated to his secretary a long letter to Gorbachev that reads like a settling of accounts:

Mikhail Sergeyevich!

Your speech in the Supreme Soviet (about the events in Vilnius ) signaled the end. It was not an appearance by a great statesman. It was a confused, babbling speech. You are unwilling to say what you really intend to do. And you apparently don't know what the people think about you -- outside in the streets, in the shops and in the trolleybuses. All they talk about is "Gorbachev and his clique." You claimed that you wanted to change the world, and now you are destroying this work with your own hands.

The secretary took down the letter, but then she accused Chernyaev of betraying Gorbachev. The letter disappeared into a safe instead of being sent.

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