The Gorbachev Files Secret Papers Reveal Truth Behind Soviet Collapse

Communist hardliners staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years ago, and the Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards. Previously unknown documents, which SPIEGEL has obtained, show just how desperate the last Soviet leader was as he fought to retain power -- and how he begged Germany for money to save his country. 

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Two decades ago, the Soviet Union broke apart. "The world can sigh in relief. The idol of communism ... has collapsed," Russian leader Boris Yeltsin said of the unfolding event. He had just chased Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last Soviet president, out of office. Gorbachev, who just before the final whistle had also been the leader of the Communist Party, had attempted to reform the country for six years until he was finally ousted in a putsch by his own party. Why did he fail? Explanations can be found in documents that Gorbachev took with him after leaving the Kremlin that he now holds in his own archive. SPIEGEL obtained a larger part of these documents from a Russian historian and has reprinted excerpts. In a series, SPIEGEL reports on the rise of the reformer and the myths surrounding the 80 year old, his relationship to former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and issues relating to the collapse of the Soviet Union. SPIEGEL also interviewed Gorbachev.


There is one moment -- a single decision -- that some people still hold against Mikhail Gorbachev today, 20 years later.

Gorbachev, the last leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and last president of the Soviet Union, his wife and his closest confidants had survived the attempted coup by the KGB, the military leadership and the interior minister. They returned to Moscow from their house arrest at Gorbachev's vacation home in the Crimean resort of Foros. Their plane landed in the capital at 2:15 a.m., local time, on August 22, 1991.

For the last three days, some 60,000 people had been holding out in front of the Russian White House, the parliamentary seat of the Russian Soviet Republic, which had become the bastion of Gorbachev's supporters. When they heard on the radio that he had been released from house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula, they cheered and chanted "President, President," and waited for an appearance by the then 60-year-old Gorbachev.

But Gorbachev, who was only released because the leaders of the coup had become afraid of their own people and did not venture to storm the White House, shocked his jubilant fellow Russians. Instead of asking to be taken from the airport directly to his supporters, and instead of savoring the moment of victory and celebrating the defeat of the plotters, he ordered his driver to take him out to his dacha. He spent the rest of the night at home, and drove to work at the Kremlin the next morning.

By today's standards, it was a PR gaffe beyond compare. But the three days of house arrest on the Crimean Peninsula didn't just confuse the country, it also upset Gorbachev's inner balance -- and especially that of his wife, Raisa Maximovna Gorbachova.

Erasing the Past

Gorbachev's wife had paid the highest price for those three days. She was forced to lie down on the flight to Moscow. She had hematomas in her eyes, her speech was impaired and she felt paralyzed on one side of her body. Doctors diagnosed a stroke, which was later found to have been a severe attack of hypertension.

The stress of those days, when the Soviet Union was coming to an end after almost 69 years in existence, was too much for the Gorbachevs to handle. It was not the Kremlin chief but his former protégé Boris Yeltsin who was now shining as the new political star in Moscow. Immediately after the coup, Yeltsin banned all activities of the Soviet Communist Party, of which Gorbachev had been the general secretary until then. And because the secession movement among the non-Russian Soviet republics was continuing, Gorbachev became a president without a state. Soon the only remaining core republic of the Soviet Union would be Russia, which Gorbachev no longer had control over.

Raisa Gorbachova spent those post-coup days on the veranda of the president's dacha. It was on one of those days that she erased a part of her past, by burning 52 letters her husband had written to her while on official trips. They were "letters from our youth," as Gorbachev would later say, letters his wife had kept her entire life. But following her experiences in Foros, she had become fearful, including of those who would be in power in the future. She wept as she threw the carefully preserved letters into the oven, telling her husband that she wanted to prevent outsiders from peering into their lives.

Gorbachev, who was equally in the dark as to what would happen to his family and the country in the coming weeks, and who respected his wife's opinions, followed her lead and began burning other documents.

He tossed 25 notebooks into the flames. They included notes he had made while in office, details of everyday political life, descriptions of politicians and various plans. The only notebook he kept was his private diary. Almost 20 years would pass before he spoke of the incident again, in a February 2011 interview with Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper he publishes.

Archive Contains Thousands of Documents

The official papers from his almost six years in office were preserved. Gorbachev took them with him when he announced his resignation as the Soviet president at the end of the year, and donated them to the foundation that bears his name. Since then, about 10,000 documents have been in storage at the foundation's headquarters on Leningrad Prospect 39 in Moscow. They include the personal archives of his foreign policy advisers, Vadim Zagladin and Anatoly Chernyaev.

The papers illustrate the end period of the communist experiment. They include the minutes of negotiations with foreign leaders, the handwritten recommendations of advisers to Gorbachev, speaker's notes for telephone conversations and recordings of those conversations, confidential notes by ambassadors and shorthand records of debates in the politburo.

None of the issues with which the self-proclaimed reformer of the Soviet Union was confronted in those years has been left out.

There are memorandums in which the Soviet leader is advised on how to end the war in Afghanistan or how to deal with Jews seeking to emigrate, or explaining to him why he should refuse to meet with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat ("nothing real to be expected from him") or why he should avoid putting Mathias Rust, a young German aviator who had illegally landed a light aircraft near Red Square, on trial and receive him in the Kremlin instead ("there are questions as to his psychological state").

There are reports from informers within the East German Communist Party leadership, describing how bad conditions were in East Germany and detailing who could still be depended upon in the East Berlin politburo. And there are equally meticulous reports on what the French magazine Paris Match wrote about Raisa Gorbachova or what the Russian singer Alla Pugacheva told a German magazine about Gorbachev's perestroika policy.

Inefficient Bureaucracy

Reading the documents feels like stepping back in time. All at once, they reveal the many problems of the calcified system, where farmers and miners alike were rebelling and intellectuals were demanding democratic elections. The people of the Baltic states, the Georgians and the Moldovans were revolting against the Russians, while the end of the Brezhnev Doctrine -- the Soviet Union foreign policy that countries could not leave the Warsaw Pact -- was looming in Eastern Europe.

Gorbachev, who had once been a provincial official in Stavropol, stood at the helm of this country, watching it suffocate as a result of its sheer size and the refusal of its bureaucracy to change course. The documents also show that even under Gorbachev, the bureaucracy was as inefficient as ever.

Gorbachev's aide Anatoly Chernyaev, for example, complains about incompetent leaders in the global communist movement, like French Communist Party leader Georges Marchais ("a dead horse") and Gus Hall, the chairman of the Communist Party USA ("a philistine with plebeian conceits"). Nevertheless, Moscow was still paying millions to support its representatives around the world.

At this time, shops in the Soviet Union had run out of eggs and sugar, and even vodka was in short supply. Conditions were so bad that, in September 1988, Chernyaev had to submit a written request to get a telephone connection in the apartment of his driver Nikolai Nikolayevich Maikov, so that the general secretary could reach him.

SPIEGEL is also mentioned repeatedly in the internal documents in the Gorbachev archive. For example, a June 1987 memo reveals that Chernyaev was clearly upset about 54 questions SPIEGEL journalists had sent to the Kremlin leader, which he characterized as "rather insolent." He suspected that SPIEGEL intended to conduct an interview it had requested with Gorbachev "as an interrogation." In the memo, Chernyaev writes that the Kremlin should "of course not react" to this request. The request is stamped "return with denial." As it happened, the interview did not take place. Now, 24 years later, it is clear why.

Still Taboo

Gorbachev later used some of the documents in his books, much to the chagrin of the current Kremlin leadership. But many of the papers are still taboo to this day. This is partly because they relate to decisions or people that Gorbachev is still unwilling to talk about. But most of all it is because they do not fit into the image that Gorbachev painted of himself, namely that of a reformer pressing ahead with determination, gradually reshaping his enormous country in accordance with his ideas.

During a research visit to the Gorbachev Foundation, the young Russian historian Pavel Stroilov, who lives in London today, secretly copied about 30,000 pages of the material archived there and made them available to SPIEGEL.

The documents reveal something that Gorbachev prefers to keep quiet: that he was driven to act by developments in the dying Soviet state and that he often lost track of things in the chaos. They also show that he was duplicitous and, contrary to his own statements, sometimes made deals with hardliners in the party and the military.

In other words, the Kremlin leader did what many retired statesmen do: He later significantly embellished his image as an honest reformer.

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mae 08/12/2011
1. s
Oh my saint Gorby is not so saintly as we thought. What is even more interesting is how Helmut Kohl allowed himself to be used by Gorby and pushed Gorby's agenda with the west. Given gazprom Schroder's role as Putin's unofficial spokesman, the USA and its allies need to be quite cautious about German chancellors. It is very likely they will be doing the bidding of the Russian Tzar.
dmitry 08/15/2011
2. dbondarenko
Is this really news that Gorbachev had dealings with hard line elements in the Soviet Government, and does that really reduce the validity of his efforts? Compromise and negotiation is the heart of intelligent government, and there is no way a leader of a world power with an atrocious civil rights history could not have dealt with the perpetrators of those atrocities. Wether he went far enough is another question, but judging by the KGB coup Gorbachev walked a fine line with mixed results - he is still widely loathed in Russia as a weak leader. Unfortunately, the largely negative view of his record demonstrated in this article is in line with der speigels xenophobic bias against its eastern neighbours. This lack of nuanced critique in your publication mocks the best efforts of genuine reformers in the region by cynically lumping them with the worst tyrants from the region. There was only a fleeting mention of the horrendous Breznev period in this article and no effort to analyze the improvements in government under Gorbachev from that dark time. Did he compromise his reforms? of course, but how else could any other statesman proceed. For instance, do we see the current US president, also an alleged reformer taking on the pentagon in any substantial way? I think not. This lack of unbiased analysis is particularly galling at the present moment. It should be abundantly clear from observing the situation in Syria, Lybia and Egypt how much worse things could have been under another leader who was unwilling to compromise and step down from power.
john.werneken.5 08/26/2014
3. Gorbachev: phooey
Reagan, and Deng, brought him down; Bush I guided the collapse without war; Yeltsin assisted. Gorbachev and the alleged other European 'leaders' were irrelevant. it is not surprising that they are revealed as even worse than irrelevant.
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