The Gorbachev Files: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse


The two men spoke by telephone once again on the evening of Feb. 20, 1991. Kohl had called Gorbachev, after Yeltsin, in a television address on the previous day, had called upon Gorbachev to resign from his post at the Kremlin. Gorbachev never published this conversation, either, because it reveals the extent to which he had underestimated his rival and incorrectly assessed the situation:

Kohl: Hello, Mikhail. Did you resign, as Yeltsin is demanding?

Gorbachev: I think he senses that he is losing authority and becoming more and more isolated. His appearance yesterday was an act of desperation or a stupid mistake. Yeltsin is a destroyer by nature. He has nothing constructive left to offer. He is exploiting the current difficult situation and trying to unleash a political fight.

Kohl: That will benefit you.

Gorbachev: At today's meeting of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR , someone said that such methods were undignified for a man of his rank. He will probably have to retract his words. The president of Kazakhstan and the chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukraine have already distanced themselves from him.

Kohl: That's advantageous to you. I sense that you feel better now. I'm pleased about that.

Less than four months later, more than 45 million voters elected the supposedly beleaguered Yeltsin to be the first president of the Russian Federation, the largest Soviet republic. This marked the beginning of a dual leadership that heralded the end of the Soviet realm. In a telephone conversation on April 30, Kohl assured the Kremlin leader:

Kohl: I am doing everything I can to garner support for you here in Western Europe . I'll do the same in Washington , where I'm going in two weeks. You should realize that some people here are expressing grim opinions about your situation.

Gorbachev: Yes, I'm aware of that.

Kohl: To summarize, this is roughly what is being said: Yes, Gorbachev is a strong politician, but he will be unable to achieve the things he had planned. In this situation, it is extremely important to create a different environment psychologically. That's why I need authentic information from you, Mikhail. You have to tell me what the situation is really like.

Gorbachev: You know, Helmut, there are many people among our American friends who are whispering things about "Gorbachev's situation." They're saying, for example: Look, Gorbachev supports preserving the union, while Yeltsin might grant the Baltic states and other republics their independence. Yeltsin supports private ownership, while Gorbachev favors a mixed economy. Yeltsin will be more preoccupied with domestic issues and therefore won't get in the way of the Americans in various parts of the world. These are not credible recommendations. Bush and his secretary of state, (James) Baker, are still holding their ground, but they are coming under growing pressure. Of course, I also have to overcome these difficulties.

Kohl: You can rely on me, Mikhail. I will make this sufficiently clear to the Western European and American leaders.

On July 5, when Yeltsin was already the de-facto president of Russia, waiting only for his inauguration, Kohl met with Gorbachev at the summer residence of the Ukrainian Communist Party in Mezhgorye. At that moment, neither of the two leaders could know that, half a year later, Ukraine would already be an independent country.

As they were being driven from the Kiev airport to Mezhgorye, Kohl reviewed the worst-case scenario:

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