The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

GORBACHEV: THE WORLD'S MOST IMPORTANT HOSTAGE AUGUST 1991

Nowhere is the mercurial nature of Soviet events better captured than in
circumstances surrounding this snapshot. This essay was written two days
after the coup, when Gorbachev's whereabouts were still unknown. Within
hours of its completion, however, and before it could be faxed to the editorial
offices of various newspapers, reports began circulating that Gorbachev was
safe. Hours later, Gorbachev was seen on televisions around the world, and
this snapshot was rendered moot.

Although experts around the world have for years predicted a shakeup in Moscow, the August 19 coup took almost everyone by surprise. The coup itself was quite unconventional. There were no mass arrests, and no dawn raids on the homes of potential resistors prior to the announcement of the coup. The West's reaction to the coup was unconventional as well, particularly the almost total indifference to the fate of Mr. Gorbachev as a human being.

Within minutes after the coup was declared at 6:45 A.M. Moscow time, Western politicians, journalists, and other experts began speculating about the coup's possible impact on world events. Besides discussing potential consequences for the Soviet Union, the experts contemplated the likely repercussions of the coup on, among other things, events in East Europe, world oil prices, the future of arms control, and the upcoming human rights conference. In addition, some of this early speculation revolved around how the coup might influence the fate of the hostages in the Middle East. Rarely mentioned in these analyses, however, and conspicuously absent from any statements from major Western leaders, was any discussion about the fate of Gorbachev or about the human dimension of his personal tragedy.

Of course, the fate of the hostages in the Middle East is a vital topic for discussion, but for now, Mr. Gorbachev is in far greater jeopardy than are those being held in Lebanon.

Clearly no one believes, even for a second, the statements of Gennadi Yanayev and the junta, who declared that Gorbachev has suddenly succumbed to the pressures of his six years of activity as the head of state and needs special medical treatment. Yanayev's declaration that Gorbachev is incapacitated clearly implies that Gorbachev is suffering from a mental disorder and is therefore unable to participate in running the government. This explanation of Gorbachev's disappearance is far more cynical than that provided by Leonid Brezhnev and his team when they ousted Nikita

-194-

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