For a journalist and foreign correspondent, being in the right place at the right time is sometimes lucky, sometimes an instinct. I had just failed in both. Only days before I had been in Russia, making a film about Boris Yeltsin, the recently elected leader of the Russian Federation, which was the major part of the Soviet Union, run by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Now, my wife and daughters and I were on holiday in the Middle East. There was a flight to Moscow that evening – but my wife said if I took it and ruined our vacation, it would be the last holiday we would ever spend together. I got the message.
In any case, I reasoned, the first thing that gets closed during a coup is going to be the airport … so I’ll probably get forced back on the plane and never get into the city. Some consolation for failing to make an effort, I thought. We flew back to London together two days later, and, as the Soviet coup was collapsing, I got permission from my wife to fly to Moscow.
“Where were you when the coup began?” asked the editor of Boris Yeltsin’s in-house newspaper as I arrived in the so-called Byeli Dom – the White House that was the headquarters of the Russian Federation. It had been surrounded by tanks during the three days of the coup, and Special Forces were assigned by the coup leaders to attack it. Yeltsin and his followers were trapped inside, making what might have been their last stand.
A supporter of Yeltsin’s defiance had managed to smuggle in some gas masks, which he’d stolen from the factory that made them. They lay all over the floor of a store-room. “Take a few. Souvenirs,” said the newspaper editor. “We don’t need them anymore.”
He told me if I had flown in to Moscow hours after the coup started, the pro-Yeltsin factions had their own people at the airport and were getting their friends in. You could have spent the entire coup here with us in the White House, reporting live alongside Boris. Thanks, I said.
Two days later British Prime Minister John Major became the first foreign leader to visit after the failed coup. Via the British embassy I sent him, and his foreign minister John Hurd, a souvenir has-mask each.
I had a devilish plan in mind. The next day Major spoke at a press conference. I slipped out and stood by a back door that I expected him to leave by. He did.
He was about to get in to one of those long Soviet-made black cars with tinted windows – they usually carried Soviet officials, Members of the Politburo. With their sardonic sense of humour, local Russians called these vehicles Member Carriers – the word Member having the same double meaning as it does in English.
“Mr Major,” I called as I rushed towards him. “I’m the journalist who sent you a gas-mask from the White House. Can I have an interview now?”
“Aha,” he said to me.” Bribery and corruption, hey?” “ Absolutely, Prime Minister,” I said.
“Okay, he said, but just two questions. He stopped in his tracks, and restrained the security detail around him. I switched on my tape recorder.
After two questions about the coup, I asked him the most important one: Did he think Yeltsin would take over from Gorbachev and was the right man to lead the collapsing Soviet Union out of the crisis?”
Mr Major smiled.
“Mr Martin, before I was prime minister I was Chancellor of the Exchequer, the British finance minister. And when I was there, they taught me to count. That was not two questions, that were three! Good-bye.”
So I never got to find out if Britain wanted Yeltsin to take over from Gorbachev. But he did anyway.
As the coup had sputtered and failed, Gorbachev had been brought back from his dacha on the Black Sea where he’d been temporarily held prisoner… but to a new reality. Boris was basically taking charge of the country, and I will never forget the look of amazement and shock on Gorbachev’s face when, to a packed audience of Communist party officials, Yeltsin announced: “The Communist Party is banned.”
I also watched with amazement as the statue of the founder of the secret service, the KGB, was demolished outside its forbidding headquarters, the huge grey Lubyanka. The new KGB chief later showed me around inside the still perfectly preserved office of Yuri Andropov, the only KGB chief who had officially become General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore Soviet supremo.
I asked the new KGB chief about another Yuri – who I had known in London. I’d met him on a bus, and when I heard his Russian accent, had started a conversation. He told me he lived in the Soviet trade Mission, just up the road from my home, and worked as a Svoet representative on the International Cocoa Board..
I invited him to visit us, not for a moment thinking he would. The Soviets had strict instructions in those days not to mix. To my amazement he phoned two days later, and he and his wife and daughter, dressed in western-style jeans, came for tea.
We spent several good hours together a few times – I even took him to a cricket match. Then the KGB chief in London defected to Britain – and revealed the names of 104 KGB agents. Yuri was on the list.
All of them were to be expelled, the British government declared. I went up my road to try to say good-bye to Yuri, even though no-one was permitted to enter the Soviet Trade Mission – except by special invitation.
To my astonishment, I was allowed in, and was signalled to go to a bus, where the expelled diplomats and their families were on board.
As his coach left for the airport, Yuri called from the window: “I saw your article in the New Statesman about me. It was — very good….”
I asked the KGB chief in the Lubyanka if he could allow me to meet Yuri and his family. We have no knowledge of any such individual, was his reply.
So, inside the Lubyanka and inside the Russian White House, I had seen history being made: but I had failed to be there when it really mattered.
History simply had proceeded, quite successfully, without me.