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Сайт Павла Палажченко

My Years With Gorbachev And Shevardnadze

Fourteen. The final weeks

November-December 1991

Gorbachev Pushes Ahead on the Union Treaty

On the flight back to Moscow, Gorbachev invited a few people to lunch with him in the small compartment that served as an in—flight conference room. There was Chernyaev, Gorbachev's press secrertary Andrey Grachev, and Grachev's predecessor Vitaly Ignatenko, recently appointed director-general of TASS, and also myself and Vitaly Gussenkov, a longtime aide in Gorbachev's office.

The conversation was rambling and not clearly focused, but the bottom line was that Gorbachev had no intention of calling it quits. He was impressed that all the foreign leaders he had talked to were worried about the possible disintegration of the Soviet Union. “They understand it better than those guys back home,” he said. “They want at least some predictability, and they know they won't get it if the country falls apart.”

The question, of course, was how to halt or manage a process that had already gone quite far. Gorbachev had one answer: to push ahead with the Union treaty process while supporting Yeltsin's determination to pursue a radical economic reform. That seemed to be the correct course—even the skeptical Chernyaev did not disagree.

One person on the plane who seemed pessimistic about the chances for success was Raisa Gorbachev. She was not saying much, but it was clear she had grave concerns on her mind.

As the days became shorter and the weather more and more gloomy in November—always a rather cheerless month in Moscow—there were two episodes in the middle of the month that seemed to offer hope. On November 14 Gorbachev and the leaders of several republics—including Russia, Byelorussia, and Kazakhstan, but not Ukraine—agreed on a text for the Union treaty. Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and others held a press conference at Novo-Ogarevo, right after a long and dramatic session of the State Council. They all seemed exhausted and psychologically drained. As Gorbachev recalled later, the session had included his walkout to protest the other participants' intransigence and unwillingness to compromise, an appeal from the others for him to return, and finally agreement on the text. The participants agreed to initial it in a few days, after discussion of some “fine print” details at the expert level. This might have been another mistake by Gorbachev—not insisting on initialing the text promptly.

But to almost everyone's surprise, Gorbachev did look like a winner in the late evening of November 14, as Yeltsin and others spoke into the microphones on live television repeating the phrase “The Union will exist. There will be a Union.” Watching the live broadcast with my colleagues, I felt that they, like me, were surprised Gorbachev had pulled it off.

The next day, I talked with a co-worker about it. It seemed that the Union treaty had a chance, but what about Ukraine? The polls indicated that the vote for independence would be overwhelming. We believed that Gorbachev and Yeltsin should make a statement that they accepted Ukrainian independence but that in their view it was not tantamount to outright secession and did not rule out association with the Union. They could offer to sign a defense treaty with Ukraine first—which in addition to the economic agreement Ukraine had already signed could have created a strong bond while allowing it to go ahead with acquiring the trappings of an independent country.

Later Gorbachev indicated that he had a basically similar plan, but two things were needed for it to succeed: Gorbachev's clear statement of support for Ukrainian independence, which he was reluctant to make, probably for fear of being accused of provoking a landslide “yes” vote, and Yeltsin's willingness to work with Gorbachev and accept him as president at least for a transitional period, which could be rather short. That second condition was lacking, but in mid-November that was not yet fully clear.

Shevardnadze Reappointed as Foreign Minister

The other event that supported the impression that Gorbachev might have a chance to pull the country through the crisis was Shevardnadze's return to the post of foreign minister. I was in my slotlike room adjoining Chernyaev's huge and inconvenient office when Tamara Alexandrova, our secretary, looked in and said I was being summoned to Gorbachev's office. No meetings with foreigners had been scheduled, as far as I knew, so I was curious about what the sudden call could mean.

Gorbachev's secretary let me in immediately. I saw the president sitting at his desk and, in two chairs on the other side of the desk, Shevardnadze and Pankin. They were silent when I entered. Whatever discussion there had been between them was apparently now over. Gorbachev's secretary later told me it had lasted more than two hours.

Gorbachev asked me to call the office of John Major and request an urgent talk with the British prime minister. “Tell them it's not on any issue of bilateral relations or an international problem,” he said, “but that there is something I want to talk to him about before making an important decision.”

I thought I knew what Gorbachev wanted to discuss with Major and was glad that it was happening. When I contacted 10 Downing Street, I was told that the prime minister was at a meeting out of his office and that they did not know when they could talk to him. I suspected that Major's office was reluctant to commit their boss to a telephone discussion of some sticky issue—such as, for example, the apportionment of the Soviet Union's foreign debt. Negotiations between a G-7 delegation and a Soviet delegation including representatives from the republics were then under way in Moscow and seemed to be going nowhere.

I repeated Gorbachev's request with some emphasis, including his wording about an important decision that he must make soon, and I said I would call again within half an hour. I then returned to Gorbachev's office and told him about my conversation. “I think that was the best I could achieve now,” I said, “but you probably will be talking with Major in thirty minutes.” I turned out to be right, and when I called back I was told that the prime minister would be on the line in a minute or two.

With Shevardnadze and Pankin still in the room, Gorbachev told Major what it was all about. “John, I need your help on a rather urgent matter. Yesterday at the State Council we decided to move rapidly toward a new Union and to begin setting up new government departments even before the Union treaty is signed. We'll have a combined ministry of foreign affairs and foreign trade. And all of us, including Boris Yeltsin, agree that Eduard Shevardnadze should be the new foreign minister. I have offered Boris Pankin the post of state counselor on foreign affairs, but he tells me he would prefer to work as ambassador to a European country. The post of ambassador to Great Britain is now vacant, and I think he would be a good ambassador to your country. So I need your consent to this appointment before I can make an announcement. I know there are some formalities to be taken care of in such cases, but I need your agreement today.”

Major was clearly pleased to hear all this. He said he welcomed Shevardnadze's appointment and that he would be glad to see Pankin in London. He had to see the Queen about consent to receive the ambassador, and he would be seeing her in the evening but would try to have an answer even sooner, and he was sure the answer would be positive. “We'll let you know through our embassy in Moscow as soon as we can,” Major said. In a minute the conversation was over. Everything was set.

I went out of Gorbachev's office, and Shevardnadze and Pankin left a few minutes later. I was glad to see Shevardnadze on Gorbachev's team again. Given what had happened over the last months, I was not sure there could ever be the old warmth between them. The appointment was a political deal for both of them, but I thought it was a good one. By striking it, both of them were expressing the hope that a Union—and a common foreign policy—could be preserved. Later Tarasenko told me in private discussions that they were “giving themselves perhaps a year,” knowing that developments were moving on inexorably and that the best that could be done was to carry out an orderly transition to something different—they did not know what. He may have been saying that with the benefit of hindsight, but anyway their guess was wrong, and the time allotted by history, or by the power hungry people waiting for their chance, was much less than that.

The U.S. Stance on Ukrainian Independence

The final collapse began on November 25. At the meeting of the State Council on that day Yeltsin refused to initial the draft Union treaty. Speaking to the press, Gorbachev tried to put the best possible face on it, and it was true that Yeltsin had agreed to a resolution that contained approval of the text and recommended it for discussion in the republics' parliaments. But the message of his refusal to initial the text was unmistakable, and it was not lost on either the media or the Western governments. It became clear it was extremely unlikely that the treaty would be signed in 1991; it was also clear that Gorbachev would not be getting any help from Yeltsin after the Ukrainian referendum. By working together they could have established a more or less orderly process, but Yeltsin turned his back on Gorbachev. Perhaps he thought that he had saved him in August and that once was enough, maybe more than enough.

A couple of days later I was watching the news on CNN when it was almost routinely announced that a policy meeting had taken place at the White House in Washington to discuss the U.S. stance on Ukrainian independence. It was reported that the decision was not to recognize it immediately after the referendum but to “move toward recognition quickly,” within a few weeks. I told Chernyaev and my colleagues about the news. “Whatever the details of the decision made by Bush,” I said, “this announcement is a real blow.” Everyone agreed.

Later, in a telephone conversation with Gorbachev after December 1, Bush sought to explain himself. He sounded defensive. He said he hoped a quick recognition of “the Ukrainians' aspirations for independence” would make them feel more comfortable working with Gorbachev and perhaps becoming involved in the Union treaty process. The explanation sounded lame to me, and Gorbachev did not even bother to argue with it.

Clearly, there were many avenues available to the administration if it really wanted to encourage the Ukrainian leaders to work with Gorbachev. But the administration did not have such a policy. Did it have any policy? In a moment of frankness a friend at the U.S. embassy told me what had happened at that White House policy meeting in late November. The two cases were presented—one for quick recognition, the other for a wait-and-see attitude.

“Bush, as usual, cut it down the middle,” my friend said, “and that allowed the proponents of recognition to present the decision to the media the way they wanted to. And it's all a matter of perceptions. ”

I asked him whether he thought the presence of Russia's foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev in Washington at that time had anything to do with the administration's decision, and he said he did not think so. I was not so sure. Then, and particularly later, Kozyrev had a habit of making contemptuous remarks about Gorbachev in conversations with his foreign counterparts, some of whom then passed on those remarks to Gorbachev or his people. I found Kozyrev's behavior inexplicable and unprofessional, and later there were many occasions when I doubted his professionalism even more. Russia deserved a better foreign minister.

Yeltsin Loyalists Execute Their Game Plan

In December 1991 Kozyrev, whom I had known as a rather nondescript though clearly career-minded mid-ranking official, was among the small group of Yeltsin loyalists and confidants who were planning and executing the final blows: the killing off of the Soviet Union and of Gorbachev's Union treaty. In hindsight it may look almost easy, but in reality it wasn't. Too many things had to be done in a precise and carefully planned fashion, and one has to admit that Gennady Burbulis, Sergey Shakhrai, and Andrey Kozyrev did it perfectly. It cost the country and its people dearly, and it was the last “perfect thing” they were able to do. But no one can deny that they executed their game plan with almost German precision, a rare thing in the history of Russia.

During the week between December 1 and December 9 Yeltsin talked with Gorbachev a few times, and also with Shevardnadze. I think he was still hesitating at that time, unlike his lieutenants. It is not easy, after all, to do what the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Byelorussia finally did on December 8. Like many other people, I was not able to predict what they would do, but at one point I came close. That was in a conversation we had in our office on Friday, December 6, on the eve of the Yeltsin-Kravchuk-Shushkevich Minsk summit.

One of my colleagues, normally a pessimist, said perhaps something good might come out of the Minsk summit, if only because for the first time in months Ukraine was involved in any kind of discussion with other republics. I disagreed, though normally I took a more optimistic view than he did. “The thing about the three of them, ” I said, “is that for reasons of their own each hates or dislikes Gorbachev. And I think this will be the guiding factor at their meeting. This will determine their decision.”

Few people had expected the unraveling to happen as quickly as it did. I remember Gorbachev and Shevardnadze dining with Bob Strauss, the U.S. ambassador, a few days before the Minsk meeting. The dinner was at Gorbachev's official country retreat, a large house within the Novo-Ogarevo compound, that used to belong to a millionaire Russian merchant. The atmosphere in those days was gloomy, and the news from Ukraine "was not good: Kravchuk had just declared himself to be commander-in-chief of all forces located in Ukraine, and both he and his nationalist opponents insisted that the vote for independence had confirmed Ukraine's secession.

Gorbachev and Shevardnadze, and the Americans who were present (Ambassador Strauss and Dwayne Andreas, a leading U.S. businessman and an old friend of both Gorbachev and Strauss) were with their wives, but the conversation was far from light and the ladies did nothing to sweeten it. In fact, from some of their remarks, particularly those of Mrs. Shevardnadze, Nanuli, I perceived that their mood was gloomier than that of their husbands and that they felt everything might end very quickly. But Gorbachev and Shevardnadze seemed determined to try to save what could still be saved.

Strauss, in the few months he had spent in Moscow, had made up his mind about the country in which he was ambassador and about the U.S. interests there. From what he was saying it was clear that he regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as not at all desirable from the standpoint of those interests. It is difficult to say what his prognosis was at that time, but it was probably far from what actually happened a few days later. Strauss was leaving for the United States, and he told Gorbachev and Shevardnadze he was thinking of ways to help them to keep the country together. “Too many people in the United States just don't understand how important it is to avoid chaos here,” he said. From some of his comments in the United States a few days later, it was clear how much he disliked the surprise sprung by Yeltsin and others not just on Gorbachev but, it seemed, also on him.

Memory, even recent memory, is selective, but what I remember well is that of the many feelings I experienced on the morning of December 9—when I heard on television the news of the “Minsk agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union,” creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—surprise and astonishment were the least intense. I had known that Yeltsin and his associates would do something to dispose of Gorbachev, and now they had done it. I was somewhat surprised by the way Yeltsin and his people, assisted by Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, did it—not stopping at “abolishing” a country to get rid of its president. It amounted to a coup and was of course illegal, but, as became clear within a few days, they had evaluated the balance of forces precisely and cynically.

An hour later I was discussing what was clearly a new situation with my colleagues in the Kremlin. There was a feeling of shock and bitterness about the unfolding drama. The country was being divided like some inherited estate, and the heirs were acting quickly and heavy-handedly, without lawyers or accountants, in an almost medieval way. But those were, of course, our emotions. There remained the question of what could or should be done in this situation.

The Minsk Agreement and lts Aftermath

The question of Gorbachev's resignation now became a serious one. This was not the first time the possibility was discussed, and just a few days earlier, I had been asked about it by a British diplomat, in the presence of others. I knew what Gorbachev thought then, and I replied that he had firmly decided not to leave the ship. But the Minsk agreement obviously changed the situation dramatically. Gorbachev called a meeting of his Political Consultative Council and caucused with a group of leading experts on constitutional law. One person who was close to him during those days told me that Gorbachev's immediate impulse was to resign—“The hell with it all!” But the way Yeltsin, Kravchuck, and Shushkevich did what they did was so blatantly illegal that immediate resignation by Gorbachev could have been seen as giving the stamp of approval to their actions. It might have seemed as though Gorbachev had just been waiting for a pretext to step down.

There was tension in the corridors of the Kremlin, but no panic or hysteria. People behaved with dignity despite the bitterness most felt. The various views expressed by members of Gorbachev's staff boiled down to perhaps three positions: one, that he should call the whole thing illegal and fight on; two, that he should try to cooperate with the leaders of the republics and institute an orderly process of transition, and perhaps even see where he could fit in it; three, that he should just resign, slam the door. I came down somewhere between those three positions. But above all, I said to Chernyaev when he asked what I thought—and he was always ready to ask for an opinion, regardless of the difference in rank or position—Gorbachev should play it cool. If his patience snaps and he loses his nerve, I said, that will be remembered for years to come.

“Of course what those guys did is illegal, and he should say so,” I said to Chernyaev. “They are not even seeking ratification or some kind of consent from their own parliaments. That is the least that must be demanded very firmly, and I think they would have to go to the parliaments. But there should be no doubt about it: the parliaments will ratify it. People are tired, and they will  say that a Commonwealth—any kind of association—is better than nothing. Of course, the commonwealth strategy will eventually fail, but don't say so now. And Gorbachev should not look for a position in the commonwealth for himself. It's just undignified to seek anything from those people. As for the resignation—well, he should think about stepping down. But resignation is not the right word. You resign an office that exists. But once the process of creating the Commonwealth has been completed there will be no such office, and no need to resign. There is one thing that must be done before stepping down—whatever you call it. He must make sure the nuclear weapons question is handled properly. He is still commander-in-chief, and it is his responsibility to the country and to the world to see to it that the matter is resolved responsibly and safely, beyond any reasonable doubt. Once this is taken care of, he should go.”

Gorbachev did not settle on a course of action immediately. I don't blame him. I do not know what advice he got from his consultative council, and anyway I do not believe their analysis was very incisive or their recommendations very clear. Ultimately he himself had to decide, as always during his years in power. Given the emotions and the turmoil, it was not easy to decide.

Another factor was complicating the situation: The Commonwealth agreement itself was a jerry-built structure, a shell that was almost totally empty and that had only one purpose: to jettison Mikhail Gorbachev. Even that clear goal was complicated by the obvious fact that the perpetrators of the “December coup” had not devised the mechanics of achieving it. At a reception in the U.S. embassy in the evening of December 9, I talked to a U.S. official with whom we always had candid discussions.

“We were in touch with Kozyrev today,” he said. “We asked him about Gorbachev, and whether he would still be president when Baker comes to Moscow in about a week. Kozyrev said he did not know.”

They did not know many things. Although they talked and behaved confidently they had no idea what they were setting up. A few days later Burbulis went to Brussels to ask for help. Like a student in search of material for a term paper, he asked the officials there for documents on the establishment of the European Community and the mechanics of its functioning. Nor had they any plan for the military aspects of the Commonwealth. As for the status of Russians and other ethnic groups who would overnight become foreigners in countries that were no longer their own, a few months later Yeltsin himself would admit in an interview that they had not given enough thought to that matter when they were “creating the Commonwealth.” But they acted confidently, like real winners, during those first days!

A young man I knew fleetingly during one of Shevardnadze's visits abroad, then a low-ranking official in a remote Soviet embassy and now Kozyrev's aide at the Russian foreign ministry, was strutting around at the U.S. embassy reception on December 9. He was condescending as he talked to me. The Russian foreign ministry, he made clear, was preparing to take over Smolenskaya Square.

“Watch out,” I said. “You are swallowing more than you can digest. Gorbachev and people like me will not sink in these waters, but you are doing something that will haunt you for years.”

We parted without outward animosity, and a few weeks later I saw him at a reception at another embassy. He was quite down. “It's chaos at Smolenskaya,” he said. “There is no policy, morale is low, and no one knows when things will settle down.”

Gorbachev's first formal statement about the Minsk agreement, issued on December 10, was mercifully brief, nonconfrontational, and left various options open to him. Still, “fighting on” was not really an option, particularly after the three leaders understood that they needed some semblance of legitimacy and put the Minsk agreement before their Supreme Soviets for approval. The parliaments' approval was not really in doubt, but the process made very clear how cheap Yeltsin had sold out everything to Kravchuk in Minsk.

The Ukrainian parliament tagged on to the agreement’s “amendments” that made the articles on coordination of foreign policy, common defense, free travel, and citizens' rights totally meaningless. When members of the Russian parliament asked Yeltsin about it, he answered that the amendments were “purely editorial.”

Everyone probably knew this was not true, but the Russian parliament approved the Minsk agreement overwhelmingly. People were tired of political fights and uncertainty, and they thought something was better than nothing at all. The top military officials thought the same. There was a lot of bad blood between them and Gorbachev, and a hope—of which Yeltsin would quickly disabuse them—that the Russian president would take better care of their needs.

I believe it was after the Russian parliament's decision to approve the Minsk agreement that Gorbachev decided not to resist the process that had taken on its own momentum. He still hoped the process could be made a little more constructive. As I saw from Gorbachev's talks with foreign leaders, that was also their hope. They were looking into the unknown, and they were far less enthusiastic about it than some of their subsequent statements might suggest.

Bush Sends Baker to Moscow

The prospect of many new and totally independent countries—unformed, immature, their elites distasteful or unreliable, and their problems countless—was frightening to the Western leaders steeped in the politics of consensus, evolution, and predictability. George Bush sent Baker to Moscow to find out what was happening. The Russian leaders wanted him to see a celebration of their victory and perhaps to join in it. They were close to triumph—just a few stitches remained, like getting the inevitable consent from Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev, who despite his bitterness at having been left out of the picture had nowhere else to go.

The Soviet bureaucracy was rapidly beginning to pledge total and undivided allegiance to Yeltsin. The ambassadors abroad had begun to do it even before Minsk, some in subtly diplomatic ways, others rather crudely. Few of them were rewarded for the quick about-face. The top officials of the military and the police did it on the eve of Baker's arrival. Kozyrev said triumphantly to reporters: “Watch the composition of the Russian delegation tomorrow when President Yeltsin will be meeting with Mr. Baker.” The delegation included Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Soviet minister of defense, who was offered the position of commander-in-chief of CIS strategic forces, which soon became meaningless, and Minister of Internal Affairs Victor Barannikov.

The turn had been completed and both Gorbachev and Baker knew that when they were meeting in the Catherine Hall of the Kremlin. Some questions remained, but it was clear that this was their last meeting. Shevardnadze and Yakovlev were with Gorbachev, two men who had been with him at the beginning of the road. The grand hall, ornate and majestic, was brightly lit as always, but I had a feeling that darkness surrounded it. It was the twilight of those three men, and also of Chernyaev, who was inconspicuously present. A large chunk of my life was also ending. I had no regrets, and I felt some quiet pride about the things I had done with those men, but it was a sad day.

A Rumor and a Warning

A couple of days before Baker's arrival I had a troubling conversation with a member of Gorbachev's staff, a well-connected and well-informed former Central Committee official who, incidentally, later worked for Yeltsin's administration. He buttonholed me in the Kremlin corridor and, after a few routine words, said: “I think we should be concerned about Gorbachev's future. I know that efforts are afoot to fabricate a case against him. There is a team searching frantically for 'compromising material,' and the coup-plotters will quite likely change their stories to help frame him.”

He was silent for a moment. I thought what he was saying was plausible. In times of trouble people look for a scapegoat, and the new authorities could well be tempted to make Gorbachev one. There were too many precedents for this in Russia's history to ignore this warning.

“Baker is coming here soon,” the man went on. “Why don't you talk to your American friends? They could stop it.”

I did not answer immediately. I was not at all sure “they could stop it.” But should they know about what was going on? The Americans, I thought, were probably aware of these rumors, but this warning seemed more than a rumor, and after some thinking I decided to pass the information on to Baker through Strobe Talbott, a Time magazine reporter whom I knew and trusted. He had come to Moscow to observe the rapidly evolving developments, hoping also to interview Gorbachev for the magazine and for the book he was writing.

Talbott had good contacts in the administration, and my message went through quickly. Its essence was that Gorbachev could become a private citizen soon, that he would like to help in the transition from Union to Commonwealth but was not looking for a role in its institutions. The key words were that it should be made clear to Yeltsin that he must not get involved in attempts to fabricate a criminal case against Gorbachev.

Baker took the message seriously, as indicated by the fact that he raised the matter in a one-on-one conversation with Yeltsin. He later told me that he thought I had acted properly. Whether or not the rumors that prompted me to act were true—and I have no way of knowing—I have no regrets about what I did.

Later I permitted Talbott to describe the episode in his book At the Highest Level, co-authored by Michael Beschloss, but unfortunately the book suggested that I had been prompted to act by Gorbachev, that he virtually asked the Americans for protection but did so indirectly to preserve “deniability.” Nothing could be further from the truth or more out of character for Gorbachev. He has courage, and he deals openly. James Baker, who described this episode accurately in his book The Politics of Diplomacy, is, as he told me, of the same view.

Baker's Last Talk with President Gorbachev

Gorbachev knew that Baker was trying hard “not to get involved in internal affairs”—indeed, Baker said that from the start of their conversation Gorbachev did not spend much time explaining what had just happened.

“We now have a new reality facing both you and us,” he said to Baker. “I want to do my best to make sure that the Commonwealth process does not lead to an even greater disintegration of the country. There is a real danger of that.” He continued, speaking to Baker, “As an experienced man, you must understand that an agreement like the one signed in Minsk is easy to conclude but impossible to live by. It's too general.”

Baker agreed. “It's just a shell.”

Gorbachev went on to say that he was willing to help make the Commonwealth more meaningful and viable and to cooperate in setting proper succession procedures to legitimize it. He had no bitter words for those who were pushing him out. “I wish them good luck even though I don't believe they will succeed. But I want them to at least half succeed—for if they don't, everything we have achieved will be jeopardized.”

This worried Baker too, judging by what he said. As someone who appreciated decency and fair play, he was also concerned about the way Gorbachev and his associates were being treated. “You have been our partners and, more important, our friends for many years now. You remain our friends and perhaps, as I said to the press, will remain our partners. Whether that happens is your country's internal affair.” (Those words might sound strange today, but at the time Baker may still have hoped that some common international representation of the Commonwealth could be arranged, perhaps by inheriting the Soviet Union's permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. U.S. diplomats were informally suggesting this until almost the very end.) Baker added, “Whatever happens, you are our friends. And it makes us very sad when we see, as we do on this visit, that you are being treated with disrespect. I'll tell you very frankly: we are against it.”

Baker wanted Gorbachev's advice about how the United States should behave during the transitional period. Yeltsin had led Baker to understand that the transition might take until mid-January, but he was not clear about what to expect at the end of the transition. “We were told today that the Commonwealth will be similar to the British Commonwealth, with one exception: the defense component. There would be a common defense made up of all armed forces, with the exception of ground troops. But how can there be a common defense if they plan to have ten fully independent foreign policies? And who will give instructions to the commander-in-chief of the common armed forces?”

Baker was well informed, as always. He knew that the country was being torn apart, not just dissolved, and he knew what that could mean. He recalled how the U.S. Congress had demanded that the administration take a tougher line with the Soviet Union on the Baltics and how the administration had resisted, arguing, among other things, that quick independence could lead to massive violations of the rights of Russians there. “And today we see what is happening there. And we see what is happening in Chechen-Ingushetia, and in the Dniester area, and in Yugoslavia, and that it could be even worse here.”

Baker also worried that while the political tug-of-war about the Commonwealth continued, nothing was being done to pull the economy out of the crisis and precious time was being wasted.

Gorbachev agreed. “We have to end this political schizophrenia,” he said.

I knew Gorbachev had made up his mind. He would step down even if all the issues he cared about were not handled right. The country could not afford continued political confrontation. Baker was of the same view, but it was his clear preference that the process take orderly and legitimate forms and that a viable Commonwealth emerge as a result. He said as much to Gorbachev, but as so often happened during the Bush-Gorbachev years, the Americans were not able to articulate their preference to all the political forces involved.

Shevardnadze on the Way Out

In fact, the day after Baker left, Yeltsin and Kozyrev acted as though they believed they had the U.S. administration's go-ahead for a quick destruction of the remaining Union structures—specificially the foreign ministry headed by Shevardnadze. Yeltsin issued a decree appropriating to Russia all properties of the foreign ministry in Russia and abroad. Union foreign ministry personnel were being transferred to the Russian ministry. That made Shevardnadze redundant and he understood that and did not want to fight. He held a meeting with his associates in the morning, asked them to thank the staff on his behalf for their cooperation, and left the building at Smolenskaya Square, never to return.

Shevardnadze, with his keen sense of decency and propriety, was perhaps the most unhappy about how things developed in December. He knew that all the rhetoric about the historical inevitability of independence and the need to destroy “the imperial center” was just a screen to obscure the one goal that united “the creators of the Commonwealth”: to solve their immediate political problems by removing Gorbachev. “As soon as it's over, Yeltsin will try to establish a new center. He just needs to get you out of the way,” Shevardnadze told Gorbachev right after the conversation with Baker.

Shevardnadze's implication, as he confirmed to me later, was that Yeltsin would try to interpret the Minsk agreement as something specific and viable that would bring the republics together rather than separating them, but that he would not succeed. Subsequent events would soon be proving him right: the Commonwealth was dying almost before it was born—it was rarely even mentioned. But in the new scheme of things, Yeltsin was someone Shevardnadze had to deal with as the leader of Georgia that he again became.

The Denouement

What followed was the denouement, the final days and hours, some of which it still hurts me to remember. I recall Chernyaev asking what I intended to do, and my answer that I was surprised at the question. “You can't think I would do anything other than leave government,” I answered.

In fact, I had just had a call from the foreign ministry offering me employment after the liquidation of the office of the president of the Soviet Union. “We feel it is our moral duty to offer it to those of our people who left to join the president's office,” I was told. The caller was the recently appointed deputy foreign minister in charge of personnel. “Of course,” he said, “we are being taken over, so I don't know what is going to happen to myself in a day or two. But we just feel we have to make this offer.”

I politely refused. The entire government bureaucracy would soon flock over to the new bosses and wait for their fate to be determined by people like Kozyrev. I understood them, but it was not for me.

Gorbachev was making preparations for stepping down. Basically, it was a question of when and how. During those shortest December days in Moscow, American reporter Ted Koppel of ABC was allowed to film the Kremlin from the inside and to talk with Gorbachev and people who were with him until the end. He talked with Gorbachev about what he had set out to do and why he had not succeeded, at least for now, about his feelings, and about the meaning of life. It was not terribly profound—such conversations rarely are—but it was sincere. I interpreted at those interviews, and I felt Gorbachev was taking the final blows much more courageously than many of the people around him.

Before the last filming session I talked briefly with Yegor Yakovlev, whom Gorbachev had appointed chairman of the radio and television company just a few months before. Yakovlev, a Communist liberal reformer for decades, had been through a lot in his lifetime, but this session was obviously difficult for him.

He asked me what I intended to do after Gorbachev's resignation, and I said I did not know yet. “But I know I just can't go over to work for the new boss, like the staff of the Kremlin cafeteria,” I said, and saw I had touched a raw nerve.

He did not try to hide it. “That is my problem,” he said, but he did not finish the sentence because the interview was beginning.

During the interview, Gorbachev noticed how depressed Yakovlev was—he seemed to be on the verge of tears—and said, “Well, Yegor, keep your chin up. Everything is only just beginning.” He often repeated the phrase afterward, and I think it was that conviction more than anything else that gave him strength in his final weeks as president and during the months that followed.

In those days it seemed that the most important thing for Yeltsin and his team was to humiliate Gorbachev as much as they could. The day after Gorbachev's resignation speech, Yeltsin, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and Gennady Burbulis—the winners and the heirs—came to the Kremlin to take over Gorbachev's office. Between them they drank a bottle of whiskey there—an act of multiple symbolism—and inspected the adjoining rooms. Gorbachev was ordered to vacate his city apartment and country house within days. Rumors were being spread about some compromising material the new government had on Gorbachev from the accused members of the State Committee for the Emergency. The government-orchestrated campaign of harassment against Gorbachev was rolling full steam ahead, but the object or that campaign seemed unperturbed—he was above it. I saw Gorbachev almost every day that December, and more than ever admired his courage. Given the history of this country and the fate of many of its leaders, it was amazing how well he was bearing up.

Now that Gorbachev had reconciled himself to the fact that his project for a new Union had been rejected by the political elite that emerged from perestroika, he had two priorities: one was to make sure the transition to the Commonwealth took place “within a legal constitutional framework,” the other concerned nuclear weapons—the nuclear button had to be transferred in a way that was safe and reliable.

“Nothing can be done constitutionally in revolutionary times,” I remember Chernyaev saying sometime in mid-December. I had to agree with him. Gorbachev tried to give the Commonwealth some legitimacy by calling for a final meeting of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet that would, as he put it, record formally the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of something new. He had some support, even from people who had disagreed with him on many issues, like Anatoly Sobchak, one of the few radical democrats who cared about legality and legitimacy. But people like him were already a minority among the new leaders. Few had bona fide democratic credentials, most were former members of the Communist Party apparat, and all seemed to feel instinctively that when an opportunity presents itself power should be grabbed quickly and without regard for legalistic niceties.

When Gorbachev called for a constitutional transitional process, the media, increasingly subservient to Yeltsin and other new leaders, had no difficulty representing it as an attempt to play for time and cling to power. “Those people find me difficult,” Gorbachev said of the new leaders to his foreign guests. He met a few foreign emissaries in those final days in the Kremlin, but their visits with him looked more and more like courtesy calls. It seemed that the world too did not particularly care how legitimate the process of transition was. It was almost begging “Make it quick.”

Yakovlev and Chernyaev worked with Gorbachev on his letter to the leaders of the eleven republics who were to meet in Alma-Ata to ratify the new composition of the Commonwealth. No longer was it a purely Slavic organization that Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich originally set up. Even though a few people would probably have preferred it to be limited to those three republics, such an outcome was not politically acceptable for Russia. Kravchuk, reluctantly, had to go along. But he was in a strong position to reject anything that seemed to bind Ukraine into something resembling a union. Therefore Gorbachev's sensible suggestions had no chance for approval or even a sympathetic hearing.

I thought there were two proposals he could make with at least some chance of being accepted: about common citizenship and common representation in the U.N. Security Council. But they were both rejected at Alma-Ata, the first by Kravchuk, despite Yeltsin's timid attempt to suggest it, and the second by Yeltsin himself, who regarded Russia's seat on the Security Council as the most cherished prize from this championship fight.

Like most Russians, Yeltsin was, I believe, inwardly dubious about the breakup of the country. In his heart, he probably agreed with Nazarbayev, who said almost plaintively: “But we are still together, are we not?” Yet by conceding to Kravchuk on almost every important point, and by grabbing the Security Council seat, Yeltsin made the breakup inevitable. He returned from Alma-Ata an apparent winner, and he was ready to talk with Gorbachev about the terms of surrender. Gorbachev, realistically, saw it and accepted it.

The Nuclear Button Transfer

Gorbachev had been thinking a great deal about the nuclear button problem. After Minsk, the initial statements of the three leaders, particularly some remarks by Kravchuk, concerning joint control of the button by the leaders of the republics that had nuclear weapons were incredible—they were both politically silly and technically not feasible. Gorbachev did point this out, but I believe that representations by Baker and other Western leaders played a bigger role in the final determination on the issue.

Whatever Gorbachev thought and knew of Yeltsin, he decided that the only way to resolve the issue was to transfer the button to him. Any other decision would have created enormous political or technical problems. Given Yeltsin's well-known personal character traits, transfer of the button to him was the subject of much discussion during those days, both in the Kremlin and elsewhere.

I remember an American reporter saying to me that the world had trusted Gorbachev as a man not given to rash decisions or reckless actions and therefore did not worry about the nuclear button. There was a clear hint in that remark. I had already been thinking about how the issue would be handled, and had concluded there was only one way to go about it. “Well,” I said to him, “it is essential that there be single control of the button, that it remains in Moscow, and that all the existing multiple layers of protection and nuclear safety remain in place. That means Yeltsin will have the button.”

In his final telephone conversations with Western leaders, Gorbachev insisted that there should be no worry about the nuclear button. But he said he would be transferring it to Yeltsin only in his talk with Bush, two or three hours before his resignation speech. Without too much enthusiasm, Bush welcomed the certainty.

Gorbachev and Yeltsin discussed the procedure for transfer of nuclear weapons control and agreed it would take place in Gorbachev's office right after Gorbachev's television address to the nation announcing that he was stepping down. Yeltsin, however, was incensed at the content of Gorbachev's speech and refused to come. Gorbachev, in turn, rejected the demand that he come to “neutral ground.” So right after the speech and Gorbachev's interview on CNN, which I translated, I saw Marshal Shaposhnikov enter Gorbachev's office. Gorbachev would hand over “the button” to him.

Shaposhnikov left the office a few minutes later with two men in civilian clothes—the code operators, whose faces were very familiar to me. They had accompanied Gorbachev on all his trips abroad and certainly had a gift for being inconspicuous. I remembered them sitting in the front section of the presidential plane, almost always silent and with an oddly inexpressive yet dignified look. Amazingly, I had never wondered what they were. Had I thought they were members of the plane crew or of the security detail? I can't say. The question never arose, and one has to give them credit for that.

Reflections on the End of the Soviet Union

My final days in the Kremlin were so busy that I had little time to think about the momentous significance of what was happening. There was a lot of talk in the media and among the “leading lights” of the Moscow intelligentsia about “the end of the last empire.” I had always been critical of a great deal in my country, but I had never thought of it as an empire. There was something indecent in how the satraps and propagandists of the old regime were now stigmatizing the country, not the regime.

If an empire had to disappear, why was it dismantled so clumsily, and, people would soon start asking, why was Russia again coming out a loser, a truncated territory with dubious contours, without Kharkov, Odessa, Minsk, the Crimea, and the steppes of southern Siberia—all traditionally Russian lands that now belonged to others? Almost every state that emerged from “the empire” was a mini-empire itself, multiethnic, with disputed borders, and in some cases without any historical roots.

I was sure we would have been much better off in some form of union, so my final hours in the Kremlin were filled with anxiety and great concern, tempered only by the workload. I was translating letters from foreign leaders to Gorbachev, and drafting his letters to Reagan, Thatcher, Bush, Major, and others. I was interpreting his telephone conversations, which he later described in some detail in his book about the events of December 1991.

Two of those conversations I remember well; of the dozens I interpreted, they were unique. One was with John Major; the other, with George Bush. Major called on December 23. We did not know yet when Gorbachev would make his final statement, but it was clear that he would be stepping down within days, maybe hours. The administrators were already reassigning the Kremlin offices to Yeltsin's people, and it was said that Chernyaev's office would go to Burbulis. There could be no more graphic symbol of the fact that power in Moscow was passing into the hands of a different breed of people.

Chernyaev was working with Gorbachev and Yakovlev on the text of the final statement. Gorbachev's letters to foreign leaders were sent out on December 25. Comparing them with my drafts, I saw that Gorbachev had not changed much, that he had just made the text even leaner and less sentimental. I was working on one of those drafts when Gorbachev's secretary called me asking to come by right away. The time was about 6:00 P.M. The security post near the entrance to Gorbachev's office was manned by a larger than usual group of people, and Yeltsin's guards were there too. One did not seem to know me and asked for an I.D. Let him pass, his colleague said to him, and I entered the reception room. Gorbachev's office was on the left, and on the right was the so-called Walnut Room, in which Gorbachev sometimes, but rarely, received foreign guests. More often it was used for private discussions with Soviet officials and small groups.

As I was waiting in the reception room I saw food being taken into the Walnut Room. A table at which there were three men—Mikhail Gorbachev, Alexander Yakovlev, and Boris Yeltsin—was laid. Their conversation, as Gorbachev said to Major later, had begun at noon. When the call from London came, I told Major's secretary that Gorbachev would be on the line shortly. Gorbachev was already emerging from the caucus room. As he shook hands and said something to me, I noticed there was a whiff of liquor on his breath—the three men had obviously sprinkled their dinner with vodka.

Discussing the Transition

On the telephone with Major, Gorbachev told him he was in the midst of discussing the transition and the future with Yeltsin and Yakovlev. He was, however, in no hurry to rejoin them. He talked with Major for almost half an hour, telling him he intended to announce his resignation “in a day or two.” He was choosing his words carefully, perhaps partly because he did not want any slips of the tongue caused by the drinks he had had. But there was, I believe, also another reason: the understanding that in those final hours of the Soviet Union and of its president every word was of momentous importance.

“Yeltsin and I both understand our responsibility in this transition,” Gorbachev told Major, “and all of us are responsible for ensuring that in this time of turmoil all that we initiated in the country and the world is not lost.” Gorbachev was still not prepared to resign himself to the partitioning of the country. “Whatever happens afterward,” he said, “this, for the time being, is still one country. Politically, it is being divided, but it should not be torn apart even more.” He pleaded with Major to help Russia. “Above all, let us help Yeltsin. I want to help him here, and you should help Russia from over there. Russia will be on the cutting edge of the economic reform, and it will bear the brunt of its hardships. So, once again, let us help Yeltsin.”

Major's voice, at the other end of the line, was not much different from usual—warm and yet a little formal. His sentences were so well-rounded and precise as to have an air of superficial formality. But there could be no mistake that Major was deeply moved as he spoke with Gorbachev; he just never crossed the line beyond which he might sound sentimental. He said that he would like to see Gorbachev as soon as things settled down and that he was always welcome in Britain. Mulroney, Bush, and others offered similar invitations, and there was talk in Moscow that Gorbachev might leave the country for a period of time; veiled threats of prosecuting him were already being made. “I might come on a visit one day,” Gorbachev invariably replied, “but now my place is here in Russia. Everything will be decided here.”

The next day, which turned out to be the day before Gorbachev's last day as president, American newsman Ted Koppel interviewed me for a television documentary about the end of the Soviet Union. On camera and off, we talked about many things—Gorbachev, Ukraine, the CIS, my work in the president's office, and so on. Koppel wondered at the size of the cubicle that passed for my office—it seemed barely adequate to him, “given the importance of all those issues you handle”—and inspected the books and dictionaries I kept there. I was ready to move out.

Koppel asked me whether I agreed with the characterization of what was happening as a coup d'etat. I replied that I might, but that Gorbachev had specifically rejected such a characterization. “I would describe it this way,” I said, on camera. “This is something that's being done by democratically elected people but in a less than democratic and fair way.”

A couple of days later Koppel's documentary was shown on our television, with that remark included. A friend of mine, after watching it, said to me, only half-jokingly and perhaps quite seriously: “I think you should ask the Americans for some kind of protection.” Indeed, there was a lot of fear in Moscow during those days, but for some reason I felt free from it. I had a feeling of emptiness, perhaps similar to what Gorbachev described to a reporter who asked him what he felt about having to leave the post of president: “No country, no president. True, we have many presidents now. So losing one is not a big thing. But you've lost the country, and this is much more important.”

Gorbachev's Last Telephone Call to Bush

Gorbachev seemed determined to bow out with dignity, but we all felt how difficult his final steps were. On the last day, December 25, the corridors of the Kremlin were hushed, even more quiet than usual. There was an air of waiting. I asked Chernyaev about a telephone talk with President Bush. The Americans had indicated that Bush expected a call from Gorbachev whenever it was convenient to him. “Well, I guess, today is the day,” Chernyaev said, and after checking with Gorbachev he asked me to call the U.S. embassy about arranging the call.

It was Christmas Day, and the American embassy was closed. The answering machine gave the telephone number of the marine on duty—in case of emergency involving an American citizen. I did not want to ask for help at the foreign ministry—now the foreign ministry of the Russian Federation, Kozyrev's domain. What should I do?

Finally, I found in one of my address books Jim Collins's home telephone. Jim, the embassy's deputy chief of mission, had become a good friend in the months we worked together. I wished him a merry Christmas and told him what my business was. He gave me the number of the State Department operations desk—“They will put you through wherever the president is”—and promised to help if there was a problem. I then asked the Moscow operator to connect me with that number in Washington. It was early morning there.

The operations desk officer told me President Bush was at Camp David for the Christmas season and that he was asleep, but that I could talk to someone on duty there. A minute or two later I talked to a marine officer at Camp David, who gave his name and answered my questions in a clipped military manner. Yes, the president was asleep, but he would definitely want to talk to President Gorbachev. Yes, it could be at any time convenient to Mr. Gorbachev after 8:00 A.M., eastern standard time. Yes, he would wait for my call to specify the time of the conversation.

Gorbachev's television address announcing his stepping down was scheduled for 9:00 P.M. Moscow time. He decided to talk to George Bush just before then, at 7:00 P.M. As the time approached, there seemed to be more tension, a kind of electricity in the air. I was in Gorbachev's reception room at 6:45. He had allowed a U.S. television team to film his final telephone talk with Bush, and they were busy installing their equipment.

It felt a little unreal—while the president was putting the final touches on the text of his address and the decree passing to Yeltsin control of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, American television technicians were coming and going busily, checking their wires and microphones. Who could have thought that this—all of this—were possible just a year ago?

But there was no time for this kind of wondering, analyzing, or waxing sentimental. I was checking the line with Washington. My American colleague was at the other end, greeting me before what I knew was the last such talk not only for Gorbachev but also for me. The right thing to do in such situations—there aren't too many “such situations” in one's life, though—is to keep going in the normal mode, as if it's the usual.

There was no trembling of the fingers in the Kremlin on that day. The American television group recorded the conversation, and Gorbachev has since published most of it in his book about the events of December 1991. So it is in the public domain, and what was said then is not, at least in my opinion, as important as the implications and the connotations. I could not get my mind off those as I interpreted the talk. The two men were saying more or less what could reasonably be expected of them under the circumstances. They were speaking calmly and to the point.

Gorbachev was emphasizing that even in this new situation everything possible must be done to make sure that the cause of democracy in his country was not lost and that the international achievements of the past years were preserved. Bush was telling Gorbachev how much he appreciated what his Soviet counterpart had been able to do.

But I could not help wondering what was going through the minds of those two men. Was Gorbachev perhaps thinking that Bush could have done more for him? Was Bush trying to rationalize some of his decisions, saying to himself that he had done his best and that whatever happened to Gorbachev and to his country was beyond his control or his ability to influence things? Then and later I often tried to rethink that telephone call, and my conclusion always was that something like those thoughts must have crossed their minds but that both probably pushed them back.

Whatever one's assessment of Gorbachev and Bush, neither could be accused of simplistic thinking. The complexity of everything in the world is something they understand better than most people I know. Gorbachev has a way of taking a large view. He knew that the first attempt to move the country toward normalcy, morality, and natural evolution was perhaps bound to be only partly successful. “Democracy, freedom of choice, political and intellectual freedom, social justice and the rule of law are great goals,” he had said to a group of reporters a week before, “they just cannot be achieved overnight.” So how could he blame Bush for getting burned in the process? But some of us did blame the Americans.

I remember someone saying that Bush's policies had the curious effect of having Mikhail Gorbachev out and Saddam Hussein in. The person who said it probably understood that his remark was unfair. Whatever one thought of George Bush, he could not be blamed for failing to recognize Gorbachev's role and importance. He talked to Gorbachev the man of history, and Gorbachev was a man he respected in a very human and personal way. That much was unmistakable.

Somehow I was thinking all that and was still able to concentrate on what the two men were saying to each other. Professionally, I would not recommend getting distracted that way, but this was not an ordinary day, and not an ordinary talk for everyone involved. It went well, considering.

The Final Statement

Finally, the moment some dreaded and many had been waiting for approached. A few minutes before nine o'clock the room from which Gorbachev was to speak to the people on live television was filled with associates, reporters, technicians, security guards, and some others who happened to be there—most of the faces were familiar to me. We were speaking in hushed voices while Gorbachev shuffled some papers, taking a final look at the text of his speech and exchanging remarks with the technicians.

Once again, when he began to speak, I found myself doing several things at once: listening to his speech, watching the people, and thinking about the years past and what was happening. It was a good speech. Gorbachev spoke without rancor or bitterness, but also without any sweet good wishes to his successors, and Yeltsin was said to have been enraged by it—understandably, I believe. It was, on balance, a wise speech, and I am sure it will be read for many years hence.

As I watched the faces of those present, I saw that many were moved; some had tears in their eyes. I could not tell what they were thinking, but I guessed that most were admiring of Gorbachev at that moment. I knew some of them well, and they were all together now for the last time. Tomorrow they would go their own ways: Anatoly Chernyaev and Georgy Shakhnazarov, who would soon join Gorbachev at his Foundation; Andrey Grachev, his press secretary, who would politely refuse the invitation; Vladimir Shevchenko, his chief of protocol, who would soon become chief of protocol for Yeltsin. Perhaps someone was watching me too, wondering where I would be a couple of weeks later.

Down but Not Out

Two weeks later I got back from the personnel department my “labor record book,” a curious Soviet document that officially records ones employment during one's entire lifetime. It said: “Discharged from his post due to the abolition (liquidation) of the office of the President of the U.S.S.R.” As simple as that. The office and the country were in their final minutes.

I thought, was Gorbachev an honorable failure? That was, after all, not the worst thing one could be in life. Was he a prophet with no honor in his own country? Many people thought so, and said so. Henry Kissinger, who was not believed to be a great admirer of Mikhail Gorbachev, was the first foreigner who saw Gorbachev at his Foundation a few days after he stepped down. He recalled that biblical phrase and added that history was working faster in the twentieth century and that “the lead time for prophets has now shrunk.”

Gorbachev was not an easy man to fit into definitions and pat phrases. I had seen him in different situations, in different moods and states. I saw him supremely confident and happy, and I saw him puzzled, saddened, upset. I saw him down, but not out. In his final months I saw how his opponents tried to humiliate him and worked to destroy him politically. And there were of course times when I believed he was not doing well for himself and hence for the country. He had made mistakes, and he had character flaws that it would soon become fashionable to enumerate. I knew that, but I never agreed that they were decisive in what finally occurred.

Gorbachev had done his best, and it was a great deal. As I watched him conclude his address—and as the year when I was close to him, the year between the two Decembers, 1990 and 1991, flashed through my mind I thought: It had been a tough year, and perhaps unwinnable for Gorbachev. So often he had looked helpless and bound to lose. And he did lose. In the end they had him out. But it took two powerful blows—a coup in August and then the breakup of the country—to seal Gorbachev's fate politically. But, I thought as I shook his hand saying goodbye to Mikhail Gorbachev, the country would survive, and his cause—moving toward democracy, the rule of law, and human rights—would continue. Perhaps he was right—everything was only just beginning.

Afterword (1996)

I finished writing this book in 1992. It took some time to find a publisher, because public interest toward Russia and the former Soviet Union was waning in 1993. After the events of October 1993, when Boris Yeltsin dismissed the Russian parliament and then ordered its building shelled, Americans saw Russia no longer as an exciting, promising democracy but, rather, as a forbidding, even threatening country. The time of glasnost and perestroika seemed ancient history.

When Penn State Press decided to publish the book, I reread the manuscript and was somewhat surprised to see that there was very little I wanted or needed to change or add. It is, after all, a personal memoir, and first impressions and initial recollections often have more insight than subsequent second-guessing. It goes without saying that I stand by the factual account of the events described in this book. As for analysis and evaluations, some things have become clearer than they were then, but the bottom line is the same.

I feel now, as I did then, that in the late 1980s the West and the Soviet Union had a unique opportunity to build new international relations and to ensure a relatively manageable transition from a bipolar world based on the superpower confrontation to a multipolar world of the future. To succeed, the East and the West needed to cooperate not only on arms control and regional issues but also in helping the Soviet Union to modernize its political and economic systems. That did not happen, and I am not blaming anyone for it. Events moved too fast for anyone to be able to adjust to this idea and to control them.

It must be clear to my readers that I disagree with the conspiracy theories—now current in the former Soviet Union, and sometimes supported by remarks from irresponsible or ill-informed people in the West—that the United States is to blame, or to take credit, for the demise of the Soviet Union. Seeking the dissolution of the Soviet Union into fifteen independent states would have been a reckless policy for the United States to pursue.

The record shows that the U.S. administration, far from wanting it, was worried about such a prospect. And rightly so. It is not tantamount to calling for the restoration of the Soviet Union to say that its breakup has had numerous negative consequences both for the people of the former Soviet republics and for the world.

The breakup of the Soviet Union was, in my view, part of a larger failure.

See also My Years With Gorbachev and Shevardnadze. Chapter 1