'The hell with you,' Gorbachev defied his captors THE SOVIET CRISIS

August 23, 1991|By Michael Parks | Michael Parks,Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- The men from Moscow announced themselves as simply from "the committee," and they bluntly told Mikhail S. Gorbachev to grant them sweeping emergency powers or be ousted as president of the Soviet Union and, Mr. Gorbachev thought, probably killed.

Although fearing more for his family than himself, Mr. Gorbachev rejected the ultimatum. "The devil take you," he told the men.

Thus began the rightist coup d'etat in which control of the Soviet Union fell into the hands of men Mr. Gorbachev had trusted as his closest allies but who were determined to reverse his reforms.

In a voice cracking with emotion and pausing often to regain his composure, Mr. Gorbachev told yesterday of his captivity in his vacation home in the Crimea, of how he sought to thwart the coup with smuggled messages, how his loyal bodyguards prepared to fight off an armed attack and how, as the plot collapsed, he managed to capture most of its leaders.

"The situation was critical, and I think that, when these reckless adventurers came to realize that they were destined to fail, these people might have done almost anything," Mr. Gorbachev told a news conference. "That is why I was ready for anything.

"This has been a very difficult, an extremely difficult lesson for me," he said, the tension and fatigue evident in the lines in his face and the tremble of his hands. "It's, you might say, my 'drama.' "

The drama began to unfold shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday, Mr. Gorbachev said, when an unannounced delegation appeared at his Black Sea summer home and demanded to see him. Accompanied by the chief of the KGB's protection service, Lt. Gen. Yury Plekhanov, they had been let into the heavily guarded seaside compound.

Wanting to find out who had sent the men and why, Mr. Gorbachev went to one of the special Kremlin telephones that connect him to officials throughout the country.

"I picked up the telephone, but it wasn't working," he recounted. "I picked up a second, a third, a fourth, but none of them worked. They were all cut off. I picked up an internal phone. But everything was cut off.

"I then realized that this mission was not the sort of mission with which we ordinarily had to deal."

Mr. Gorbachev went to another part of the house, gathered his wife, Raisa; his daughter, Irina; and her husband, and told them what was happening.

"I didn't need additional information," he said. "I saw that this was a very serious situation. I thought that they were going to try to blackmail me or force me or compel me to do something. Anything was possible."

He was already resolved not to compromise but wanted his family's support for a decision that might bring their deaths.

By the time he returned, the delegation was already in the house and delivered the ultimatum to hand over power to Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev.

"Who sent you?" Mr. Gorbachev asked.

"The committee," they replied. "The committee appointed in connection with the emergency."

"Who appointed the committee?" Mr. Gorbachev asked. "I didn't appoint such a committee, and the Supreme Soviet [the country's legislature] didn't appoint such a committee."

But, Mr. Gorbachev said, "the demand was still that I resign, and I said, 'You'll never live that long.' "

With that began what Mr. Gorbachev described as 72 hours of isolation as the compound was sealed off, apparently by KGB forces and army troops supporting the coup, and fears of an assault grew.

"Everything was done to weaken me psychologically," he said. "It was hard. I have to. . . ." He did not complete the thought. Later, asked how his family withstood the pressure, Mr. Gorbachev again struggled to compose himself. Finally, he said that his daughter and particularly his wife had suffered the most.

"She's not feeling at all well," he said of his wife. "But we think this will pass."

The president's personal bodyguard, 32 KGB officers, remained with him and prepared for the compound's defense.

To guard against poisoned or drugged food or water, the defenders decided to rely only on supplies already in the compound.

And his 4-year-old granddaughter, Anastasia, was kept inside the compound, forbidden to go swimming no matter how much she pleaded.

Although all communications had been cut off, the bodyguards foundold shortwave radios in a storage area and rigged up antennas, and Mr. Gorbachev was soon listening to the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Radio Liberty to learn what was happening.

Mr. Gorbachev said that he demanded several times that his communications be restored and that he be allowed to return to the capital. Angered by the plotters' claiming that he was in poor health -- their excuse for relieving him of his responsibilities -- he demanded a medical examination.

Then Mr. Gorbachev said he began to work out his own strategy.

He secretly made videotapes denouncing the coup so that the country would be able to see that he was well. Three of the tapes were smuggled out of the compound in small film canisters, he said, holding one up.

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