Witness: The "naughty schoolboys" who plotted 1991 Soviet coup

Wed Aug 17, 2011 7:37am EDT
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The following Witness piece recalls how the hardline communist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev unfolded in August 1991. Ralph Boulton was a Reuters correspondent in the Soviet Union at the time of the coup and is now based in London for Reuters.

By Ralph Boulton

LONDON (Reuters) - They were standing in a close huddle like a knot of naughty boys in the school yard, up to no good, turning silent as I walked past.

Only this was no schoolyard, but the walled Kremlin gardens, and the "boys" were the head of the Soviet KGB, the country's defense minister, the interior minister and the prime minister.

It was indeed the last day of term. The Soviet parliament had gone into summer recess and I was a straggler hurrying through the Kremlin grounds toward Red Square.

I spotted them as I turned a corner, wondering what they were gossiping about, the burly defense minister, Dmitry Yazov, the wiry security chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and their two partners in mischief.

Perhaps I should have asked. In those palmy days of 'perestroika', Western journalists rubbed shoulders with the mighty. But in any case, I did not have to wait long to find out.

A month or so later, in August 1991, they toppled their "headmaster," Mikhail Gorbachev, and declared themselves the rulers of the Soviet Union. When the coup collapsed, they were marched off to Moscow's "Sailor's Rest" jail in disgrace.

It would be wrong to trivialize what happened in August 1991, an event that hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union and disrupted the lives of millions. Three people were killed and many more could have died. For some it was terrifying.   Continued...

<p>Pardoned coup leaders Oleg Baklanov, Oleg Shenin, Vladislav Achalov, Dmitry Yazov (L to R) listen to the testimony of the former President Mikhail Gorbachev (L) during the trial of former deputy defence minister Valentin Varennikov on July 7. Varennikov insisted on being tried, inspite of the Parliament's amnesty pardoning the leaders of the 1991 coup. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor</p>