The Gorbachev Files Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse
Part 2: Did Gorbachev Know about Violent Crackdowns?
The West has praised Gorbachev for not forcefully resisting the demise of the Soviet Union. In reality, it remains unclear to this day whether the Kremlin leader did not in fact sanction military actions against Georgians, Azerbaijanis and Lithuanians, who had rebelled against the central government in Moscow between 1989 and 1991. When Soviet troops violently quelled the demonstrations, 20 people were killed in Georgia, 143 in Azerbaijan and 14 in Lithuania, not to mention the wars and unrest in Nagorno-Karabakh, Trans-Dniester and Central Asia.
Many have not forgotten the tragedy that unfolded in the Georgian capital Tbilisi on the night of April 8-9, 1989, when Russian soldiers used sharpened spades and poison gas to break up a protest march in the city.
Gorbachev claims that he was not made aware of the incident until six hours later. He had not given the military or the intelligence service clear signals to exercise restraint in the smoldering conflict, even though he knew how fragile the relationship was between Russians and Georgians. He also did not call anyone to account later on. Even today, he still says that it was "a huge mystery" as to who gave the orders to use violence in Tbilisi.
But when Gorbachev met with Hans-Jochen Vogel, the then-floor leader of Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), on April 11, two days after the bloody suppression of the protests, he sought to justify the hardliners' approach. He later had the following passage deleted from the published version of the Russian minutes of the conversation with Vogel:
You have heard about the events in Georgia . Notorious enemies of the Soviet Union had gathered there. They abused the democratic process, shouted provocative slogans and even called for the deployment of NATO troops to the republic. We had to take a firm approach in dealing with these adventurers and defending perestroika -- our revolution.
The "notorious enemies of the Soviet Union" were in fact peaceful civilians. Of the 20 Georgians killed in Tbilisi, 17 were women.
A remark made at a politburo meeting on Oct. 4, 1989, in which Gorbachev learned that 3,000 demonstrators had been killed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that June, shows that he was prepared for resistance to his reform plans and was not necessarily ruling out the need for violent action. Gorbachev said:
We must be realists. They have to defend themselves, and so do we. 3,000 people, so what?
Although the minutes of the meeting were later published, this passage was missing.
'We Will Only Intervene if There Is Bloodshed'
In 1990 and 1991, Gorbachev could assume that very few leading politicians in the West would question his role in the bloody conflicts with the Soviet republics vying for their independence. In those weeks, the only concern of Americans and Western Europeans alike was if the Soviets would really withdraw from Eastern Europe. As a result, they allowed Gorbachev to blatantly lie to them, such as when Moscow tried to stop the Baltic independence movement at the last minute.
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:
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.
'Kohl Is Not the Greatest Intellectual'
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl figures particularly prominently in the Gorbachev documents. He was greatly indebted to the Russian leader at the time, because Gorbachev had declined not to deploy tanks in East Berlin to stop the collapse of East Germany in the fall of 1989. He also did not stand in the way of reunification the following year. In fact, to the consternation of many comrades in his own ranks, Gorbachev didn't even oppose a reunited Germany joining NATO.
Kohl was able to repay the favor in 1991, which was precisely what Gorbachev expected of him. During this phase, Kohl was, in many respects, Gorbachev's last hope.
The Soviet leader had apparently forgotten that he had viewed the German chancellor as a mediocre provincial politician for years. On Nov. 1, 1989, when he received Egon Krenz -- the successor to East German leader Erich Honecker and East Germany's last communist leader -- at the Kremlin, he said to Krenz:
It seems that Kohl is not the greatest intellectual, but he enjoys a certain amount of popularity in his country, especially among ordinary citizens.
The message seems to have been: This isn't someone you need to worry about. Gorbachev himself had ignored Kohl for years. He had viewed him as a mouthpiece of the Americans and, for a long time, had deliberately steered clear of West Germany during his trips to Europe.
The minutes of the meeting between Krenz and Gorbachev were later published in Moscow, and were recently also made accessible to the public in Germany. However, the passage relating to Kohl is missing in the Russian version. Gorbachev was so embarrassed about it that he had it deleted.
- Part 1: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse
- Part 2: Did Gorbachev Know about Violent Crackdowns?
- Part 3: Breaking the Ice with 'Helmut'
- Part 4: 'We Need Money for Current Expenses'