Thirty years on from the death of a superpower, who really won in Russia?

HE was one of those heavy men who carry their weight well. Alexander Bovin was round and balding with a magnificent moustache and a twinkle in his eye.

Thirty years ago this weekend, the veteran Moscow journalist was at a press conference – held by some of the men who had just seized power in the Soviet Union – in a nuclear superpower.

For three-quarters of an hour or so, Mr Bovin watched local and international reporters ask questions, sometimes a little awkwardly, of a group calling itself the State Emergency Committee, all broadcast live on TV.

One Russian colleague, Tatiana Malkina, a young reporter from the then new and independent Nezavismaya Gazeta newspaper, robustly asked the “committee” if they had staged a “coup”. An American, in English, wanted to why there were tanks on the streets of Moscow.

Most of the responses came from Gennady Yanayev, officially vice-president of the Soviet Union.

He spoke confidently enough, even as he lied that his boss, President Mikhail Gorbachev, was too ill to stay in post.

In fact, the reformist leader of the Soviet Union was under house arrest in a Crimean holiday home.

But Mr Yanayev was not coping. Cameramen from state TV – knowing exactly what they were doing – zoomed close in on the politician showing, clearly, that as he spoke his hands were shaking uncontrollably.

The press conference, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the heart of Moscow, was coming to an end when its host called “Comrade Bovin”.

Heads turned. The old newspaperman,

a commentator at state daily Izvestiya, did not have a question for the nervous

Mr Yanayev. He had a different target, a weaker one: Vasily Starodubtsev,

a collective farm bureaucrat who had somehow found himself fronting for

a putsch.

From his spot at the very back of the hall, a standing Mr Bovin locked his eyes on Mr Starodubtsev. Clutching his microphone like a deadpan stand-up, he asked: “How did you come to be in this company?”

The question brought a wave of barely stifled laughter. Mr Starodubtsev blushed and gave a camp smile. “Naturally”, he replied, when the vice president asked

him to join the committee he “could

not refuse.”

Historians still argue about why the Soviet Union collapsed, about how Communism and the Cold War came to

an end. There is even debate about exactly when the final bell tolled.

But, for me at least, the defining moment was when Mr Bovin, with his feedbacking old mic and comedian’s perfect timing, got his laugh.

Watching on TV from provincial Russia, I can still remember a warm wave of relief as the reporters all sniggered.

Why? Because this was when millions of Soviets realised the coup plotters were not that scary; that, like Mr Starodubtsev, they were just a little pathetic.

Journalism, simple journalism, was helping to bring down an empire. Or was being allowed to. Something had snapped: fear was replaced by contempt.

The putsch of August 1991 lasted something like 72 hours, from night of the 18th through to the early evening of the 21st. At first it sent a shockwave throughout world capitals, as worried diplomats tried to figure out who had their finger on the button of the planet’s biggest nuclear arsenal.

It ended with the de facto break-up of the USSR as governments of its constituent republics – including, crucially, Ukraine and Russia – effectively replaced the moribund Soviet state apparatus.

Mr Gorbachev was returned to the Kremlin. But he was effectively without power and the USSR legally ceased to exist just a few months later.

Ever since those two or three difficult days in the summer of 1991, it has been fashionable to think of the putsch as a hardliners’ last stand which was always doomed to fail.

After all, the plotters, including the then head of the secret police, the KGB, were not just poorly organised, they were also out of touch. They had lost the room before they had lost the country.

Yet Soviets had been half-braced for some kind of reactionary backlash for months. The warning signs of discontent with Mr Gorbachev were there to see, including open letters in the press.

An old guard wanted to shore up the Soviet homeland after it had lost control of its satellite states in eastern Europe.

The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 as the end loomed for one-party rule across the region.

Within 12 months, Germany was reunited and even the most closed regimes of the Warsaw Pact were crumbling.

Finally, on Christmas Day 1990, the tyrant of Romania, Nicolae Ceausecu, was executed after a swift revolution.

By the summer of 1991 it looked like the USSR itself was unravelling. The economy was on its knees. Supply chains had broken down. Basic goods – toilet paper, washing powder or butter and cheese – disappeared from the shops.

Mr Gorbachev – a Communist who had been in power since 1985 – wanted to hold his multinational state together. But it was fraying. South of the Caucasus mountains there had been ethnic violence between Armenians and Azerbajianis and Georgians were demanding independence. There were mass pro-democracy, pro-sovereignty movements in the three Baltic republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

In retrospect, it was Russia which mattered. The single biggest of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics, it too was reassessing Communism.

A one-time reformist provincial governor, Boris Yeltsin, was elected president of the then Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, in June 1991.

The plotters did not seem to realise the extent to which the USSR was now multi-polar; that it had different centres of power. And one of them was right in Moscow: in the “White House”, the building of the supreme soviet or parliament of Russia.

Even on the morning of August 19, ordinary Russians started to gather to defend the building – from armoured vehicles which had pulled up outside.

Mr Yeltsin condemned what he called

a coup and called for a general strike. Miners downed tools.

The press conference where Mr Bovin and Ms Malkina and the others grilled the coup plotters aired at teatime on the 19th.

Until then, all anybody unable to get the BBC or Radio Liberty on the wireless knew came from brief, terse TV statements read from sheets of paper.

Mostly Soviet broadcasters stuck with classical music. A production of Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet, has come to symbolise those first nervous hours of the attempted takeover.

And then, suddenly, TV showed pictures of Mr Yeltsin clambering on to a tank outside the Russian Parliament White House. The vehicle belonged to the Taman division, an elite unit of guards. Its commanders had decided to support the Russian president and not the self-declared “committee” claiming to be in charge.

The coup was not quite over yet. Three protestors lost their lives in a skirmish with soldiers.

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country supporting those who had formed a human ring around the White House.

Gradually, Mr Yeltsin took control. Coup plotters lost their nerve, with two resigning claiming ill health, others fleeing. On August 21, with regional and republican leaders having either declared independence or condemned the putsch, the Russian president sent a plane to fetch Mr Gorbachev back from Crimea. It was a flight that symbolised the end of the USSR.

“Gorbachev left the capital of the Soviet Union to go on holiday but he was welcomed back in to Russia,” wrote historian Nikita Petrov in a special edition of Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta this week. “After 72 hours we had woken up in another country.”

The last Soviet president, now 90, has outlived both Mr Yeltsin and those who tried to depose him.

But the fate of the people at the historic August 19 press conference, and those behind the scenes, tells the story of modern Russia, of its retreat back to authoritarian cronyism. Mr Bovin was rewarded with an ambassadorship, to Israel. Mr Yanayev spent time in prison but was eventually pardoned.

Mr Starodubstev, the farm boss, paid the smallest price. Rehabilitated, he enjoyed a post-putsch political career, rising to become a regional governor.

Most of the world focused on Moscow in those dark August days. There were no tanks in Leningrad, Russia’s second city. Its mayor, liberal Anatoly Sobchak, backed Yeltsin in key moments of the coup.

A few years ago, Tass, the state news agency, reported that one of Mr Sobchak’s staffers was understood to have negotiated to keep the military off the streets of the city now called St Petersburg.

That aide was a colonel in the KGB. He quit from the security service on August 20, just as the tide of history turned. His name? Vladimir Putin.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992