The Gorbachev Files: Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse
Part 3: Breaking the Ice with 'Helmut'
In the summer of 1990, after both men had negotiated the details of German reunification, his relationship with Kohl changed. The ice was finally broken when Gorbachev and his wife Raisa traveled to Germany in November, visiting the Kohls at their house in Oggersheim in western Germany and touring the nearby Speyer Cathedral with them. They even dined at Kohl's favorite restaurant, the Deidesheimer Hof. The two men switched to first-name terms on that occasion -- the breakthrough in their relationship.
Gorbachev needed the influential German chancellor, now that the situation was becoming dicey at home. There were shortages of everything in the shops -- meat, butter, powdered milk -- and his popularity was sinking.
In those months, Gorbachev reached for the phone more and more often to discuss the situation with his "friend Helmut," who had suddenly become his political adviser. The two men used a special telephone line, and hardly any of these conversations between Moscow and Bonn would later appear in Gorbachev's books. Kohl, in his memoirs, also mentions them only in passing.
This hesitation becomes clear to anyone who reads the transcripts, most of which were prepared by translators who also had to report to the KGB. The conversations were filled with Gorbachev's complaints, the cries for help of a drowning man -- words that the once-proud Soviet leader did his utmost to sweep under the rug two decades later.
At the time, however, he wanted Kohl to encourage the West to rescue the Soviet Union. He wanted the chancellor to portray the impending collapse as a catastrophe that could send the entire world into turmoil. Or course, he also hoped for support in his fight against his toughest rival, Boris Yeltsin.
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:
Kohl: I've thought about it: What would happen if Gorbachev would suddenly leave and Yeltsin would take his place? I have to say that the mere thought of it horrified me. Of course the country cannot be left to such a man.
Gorbachev: We certainly agree on that point.
Kohl: What will you do, Mikhail, when the Baltic states finally leave the union?
Gorbachev: They can do that, of course. It's difficult to change their ideas about sovereignty. They refuse to engage in any reasonable argumentation. If they truly want to withdraw, there is only one way to do it -- the constitutional approach. But they are terrified of taking the normal constitutional path.
Kohl: You really won't keep them in the union by force. On the other hand, it must be clear to the Baltic states that there is no option other than the one prescribed by the constitution. And the West's verbal support for them changes nothing in this regard.
Neither the German nor the Russian would later publicize this conversation, because Kohl's view of Yeltsin was as devastating as Gorbachev's. What the chancellor also preferred not to see in print was the fact that he drew a clear distinction between his public support for the principle of self-determination and his actual position. Kohl did not truly support the Baltic Soviet republics withdrawing from the union, and he demanded that such decisions be approved by the parliament in Moscow -- which, by then, was already wishful thinking.
Kohl: Only a donkey can assume that the destruction of the union benefits anyone. The collapse of the Soviet Union would be a catastrophe for everyone. Anyone who supports this is jeopardizing peace. Not everyone understands me on this issue. But you can assume that I will not change my opinion in this regard Gorbachev's reform course must be consistently supported. If Yeltsin comes to us, I will tell him the same thing. I will tell him that he doesn't stand a chance if he doesn't cooperate with you. The Americans have told him the same thing.
Gorbachev: No, they are practically encouraging him. In their eyes, he is a reformer.
Kohl: If Yeltsin comes to Germany , it will be a working visit. My most important goal is that you don't attack each other.
Gorbachev: Perhaps it would be a good idea not to invite him on behalf of the chancellor? Someone else should invite him, and the chancellor could then join the meeting as if by accident.
Gorbachev's goal of spoiling Yeltsin's chances of further advancement and getting Kohl on board, if possible, is understandable from a human standpoint. Politically, however, it was absurd.
It seems even more absurd that Gorbachev still wanted to be perceived as the leader of a world power, even as he was forced to beg for assistance behind the scenes.
- 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'
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