The Kremlin Minutes Diary of a Collapsing Superpower

In the fall of 1990, as Germany celebrated reunification, an enormous tragedy was taking shape in Moscow. The historical turning point can be reconstructed from previously undisclosed minutes of Politburo meetings published in Russia this month. And Mikhail Gorbachev may finally get the historical recognition he deserves.


Editor's Note: Seventeen years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and two years later the Soviet Union broke apart. More than 1,400 minutes published earlier this month in Russia from meetings that took place behind the closed doors of the Politburo in Moscow read like a thriller from the highest levels of the Kremlin. They reveal Mikhail Gorbachev as a party chief who had to fight bitterly for his reforms and ultimately lost his battle. But in doing so, he changed the course of history and helped bring an end to the Cold War. Christian Neef, 54, who served as DER SPIEGEL's correspondent in Moscow until 1996, explains why the "Kremlin minutes" may polish Gorbachev's image in the history books.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and East German Communist Party Erich Honecker: "We pursue our policy, which is by no means identical to Honecker's."

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and East German Communist Party Erich Honecker: "We pursue our policy, which is by no means identical to Honecker's."

As has so often been in the case in history, there was little separating victory and defeat, joy and fear, euphoria and depression. And yet there couldn't have been a greater difference between the events in Berlin and in Moscow in October 1990.

The Presidential Council, a key group of advisors to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, met at the Kremlin at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 17. It was a sunny day. But it was far from a routine meeting. As Anatoly Chernyayev later said, it reminded him "of the situation in October 1917 in St. Petersburg, when the Bolsheviks were threatening to storm the Winter Palace." In 1990 foreign policy expert Chernyayev was something on the order of Gorbachev's Henry Kissinger.

A storm also seemed to be on the horizon on that Oct. 17, but this time it was Gorbachev's archenemy, Boris Yeltsin, who was behind the sense of foreboding. Yeltsin, the then speaker of the Russian parliament, who had left the Communist Party three months earlier and had since emerged as the shining light of the great Soviet republic, had given the Kremlin an ultimatum the night before: His republic would no longer consider itself subservient to the Soviet leadership. Yeltsin was threatening Gorbachev with secession.

The Presidential Council fell into a state of panic. "Dissolution is in full swing!," Nikolai Ryzhkov, the Soviet Union's clever premier, warned. "All mass media are working for the opposition! Even the central council of trade unions! Even the party!" Vladimir Kryuchkov, the pale head of the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB, agreed. "This is a declaration of war against the central government," he said, "and if we don't do something about it we will be thrown out."

Chernyayev, who described the scene in his notebook, recalls: "There was fear and hatred on everyone's face. It was ridiculous, bitter and shameful to observe this high council of the state. These people were neither able to think nor behave as statesmen." It was a harsh judgment of that small group of men at the helm of a giant communist superpower, a group that was to decide the fate of half the world.

Gorbachev was at the meeting and, as Chernyayev wrote, he "listened, depressed and moved at the same time." But he was mostly silent. Only as he was leaving did he angrily strike out at Yeltsin and his supporters: "They ought to be punched in the face." But it was a moment in which he probably sensed that perestroika, his great historic project, was coming to an end.

At the same time, a completely different picture was taking shape 1,600 kilometers (994 miles) to the west.

All of Germany was caught up in the thrill of reunification as the East joined the West. Two weeks earlier, East Germany had agreed to submit to the "jurisdiction of the (West German) constitution." To the sounds of the freedom bell and Beethoven's 9th Symphony, sung to the words of Friedrich Schiller's "Ode to Joy," the Germans raised the black, red and gold flag of West Germany in front of Berlin's Reichstag building. From then on, the country erupted in a series of celebrations.

The Germans expressed words of gratitude to the victorious Allies who had given Germany its sovereignty back. Gorbachev, who, after prolonged hesitation, decided to stay home, sent a message to Berlin. He wrote that it was a "great event, and not just for the Germans," that German reunification was taking place at the "boundary between two epochs," and that it would become a "symbol" and certainly a factor in "strengthening the general order of peace."

Graphic: The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact

Graphic: The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact

They were great words, the words of a man who, with his policies of change in his own country, had made the liberation of Eastern Europe possible in the first place: exiled former Czechoslovakian leader Alexander Dubcek's triumphant return to Prague, the overthrow of the communist old guard in Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But at home Gorbachev's reforms became a millstone around his neck.

At home in Moscow, Mikhail Sergeyevitch Gorbachev, who had launched a campaign to rejuvenate the Soviet realm five and a half years earlier, was faced with the ruins of his policies on that October day. While the government in Bonn announced that German reunification would "largely pay for itself," that is, without the need for tax increases, Gorbachev was forced to introduce food rations in Leningrad. Lithuania and Kazakhstan had cut off grain shipments and milk and meat were scarce.

The Communist Party, which Gorbachev still headed, opposed the introduction of a market economy. Only a few weeks later, 15 provincial secretaries would publicly demand Gorbachev's resignation, and his silver-haired, pleasantly smiling foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, would throw in the towel. And only a few weeks later, the wave of liberation Gorbachev had triggered himself would sweep back into the Soviet sphere of power, prompting Moscow to roll out its tanks to restrain the rebelling Lithuanians and Latvians. And just over a year later, the Gorbachev era would come to an end.

Revolution devours its fathers. ( Click here to read a timeline of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.)

What really happened then in the Politburo, that secretive controlling body Lenin created shortly before the October Revolution, a body whose sessions could not even be recorded by stenographers, has been a mystery since the demise of the Soviet empire 15 years ago. Until recently, no one knew what was discussed every Thursday by 13 men in gray, the eldest of whom was 80 and Gorbachev, at 54, the youngest.

The real Gorbachev has also remained a mystery. Was he the politician who made such an excellent impression when he visited the United States in May 1990, an accomplished statesman and an independent, reasonable leader who had the courage and clear-headedness to negotiate decisions over the status of a future Germany with then-president George H.W. Bush?

Or was he the man who, a short time later, sat silently and anxiously at the Communist Party convention in Moscow, was forced to listen to his comrades' derisive laughter and ultimately could only manage to counter their criticism with the cumbersome, confused and hackneyed arguments of a provincial official?

Now, for the first time, a collection of authentic minutes of meetings at the Kremlin may help solve these mysteries. Beginning in 1985, three close advisors to Gorbachev recorded much of what happened at top secret meetings of the Politburo, the Presidential Council and the Council of Ministers, and of what Gorbachev discussed in smaller groups, including some one-on-one meetings with these advisors. They were Anatoly Chernyayev, Gorbachev's advisor on international issues, Vadim Medvedev, the secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and an expert on ideology, and Georgiy Shakhnazarov, an expert on socialist countries (* see accompanying box for bibliographical details).

The minutes, more than 1,400 pages of close-printed material, the second part of which deal exclusively with the German question and was published earlier this month, are a reflection of an era Chernyayev calls an "enormous historic tragedy.**" Any information that did manage to seep out from the deliberations of the party's innermost bodies in those six and a half years was at best reflected in the Communist Party-controlled publication Pravda. But what appeared in Pravda made it seem as if the country's top bureaucrats had discussed nothing but ordinary, run-of-the-mill business in their meetings.

The newly released documents paint a completely different picture from what was previously known. Under Gorbachev, the Politburo was a place of bitter polemics, arguments and accusations, straight talk and virulent personal attacks. Particularly the minutes involving the fate of the Soviet realm read like a thriller populated with characters from the Kremlin's innermost circle. They reveal that Gorbachev was everything but a dreamer, and that he was every bit the engine of perestroika. They also show how skilled he was at imperiously and sharply prevailing over his comrades.

But these minutes also uncover a tragic contradiction, an enormous gap between the courage Gorbachev exhibited within this small group of men at the Kremlin and the public speeches he believed he could impose on his country. According to the minutes, it was not Yeltsin who first launched the struggle against the privileges of the political establishment in 1987, but Gorbachev, who did so two years earlier in the Politburo. It was an achievement he never publicly acknowledged.


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