'I welcome you all!': The day Gorbachev was liberated

Paris (AFP) –


Thirty years ago, communist reactionaries attempted a coup against the reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

The overthrow bid on August 18, 1991 failed, and three days later, the victorious leaders of the Russian Federation flew to Crimea to liberate Gorbachev, who had been held under house arrest in the seaside resort of Foros.

Taking advantage of the confusion which reigned on the tarmac at Moscow airport, AFP's special correspondent Stephane Bentura managed to hop aboard the Aeroflot TU-134 and was on hand when the last Soviet leader was freed.

Here is his report:

FOROS, Soviet Union, August 22, 1991 (AFP) - "I welcome you all!" With these words, a smiling Gorbachev welcomed the Russian Federation delegation which had come to collect him from his villa in Foros on the Black Sea.

Officially deposed for health reasons last Monday, Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin on Thursday morning, ending a coup during which he was under house arrest in his summer residence, without ever being in danger thanks to the protection of his loyal bodyguards.

In shirtsleeves and open collar, Gorbachev welcomed the delegation, led by Russian vice president Alexander Rutskoy and Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, in a luxuriously decorated room of his residence, deep in a grove of cypress trees.

The Russian delegation had to pass two gates protected by a big security detail to arrive at the residence, which comprised several buildings. The journalists, parliamentarians and a French diplomat present were subject to a strict body search, carried out in the four-storey building in which the bodyguards were billeted.

The small group was then taken to the two-storey villa overlooking a superb swimming pool with a view of the sea.

- Loyal guards -

They went into a room on the second floor, at the entrance to which stood Irina, Gorbachev's only child.

He first held a one-on-one meeting with Silayev and Rutskoy.

It is in this golden interior, with its white marble walls and its floors in precious wood, that Gorbachev was forced to live, cut off from the world, with his family.

Clearly in good health, but his features also strained by the experience, Gorbachev explained to his guests that his personal guard never abandoned him during the dramatic days, meaning he had freedom of movement.

Communist reactionaries tried to overthrow the reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago
Communist reactionaries tried to overthrow the reformist Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev 30 years ago DIMA TANIN AFP/File

"The president went swimming less often," one of his bodyguards said dryly.

The president was at no point in the hands of the coup plotters during the putsch, which nevertheless posed a great challenge for him.

In a bid to avoid a bloodbath, or an attack that might end in failure, Gorbachev and his circle were simply cut off from the world in the seaside resort where the family traditionally spent their holidays.

- 'No trade-off' -

The security men, in tracksuits, equipped with walkie-talkies and automatic weapons, marched up and down in the courtyard in front of the house and the surrounding pathways lined with cypress trees. There were no signs of tension.

The coup started on Sunday evening for Gorbachev, according to his bodyguards questioned on the presidential plane as it returned to Moscow.

Four members of the junta, led by vice president Gennady Yanayev, arrived on Sunday afternoon to ask him to sign a letter of resignation.

The front page of Pravda from August 23, 1991, shows a freed President Mikhail Gorbachev
The front page of Pravda from August 23, 1991, shows a freed President Mikhail Gorbachev STF AFP/File

Gorbachev refused and all communications with the outside world were cut off when they left.

His voice slightly broken, Gorbachev explained that "for nearly four days my bodyguard remained at my side and remained loyal, taking the dacha under its control. We were a family and we faced up to it."

The bodyguard was under orders to "open fire on anyone who tried to enter," Gorbachev said. "The sea was full of warships and the surroundings packed with soldiers," said a visibly marked president.

"I can say one thing: I did no trade-off and I held firmly to my position," Gorbachev said.

In a victory for the Russian authorities, Gorbachev returned on Rutskoy and Silayev's plane with his wife Raisa, his daughter Irina and his granddaughter Xenia. Gorbachev insisted that the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kriutshkov, who was arrested on arrival in Moscow, travel with him.