Encounters in Russia: Gas-masks, scoops and setbacks.

16 February 2022 By Paul Martin

“It’s been announced in Moscow that President Mikhail Gorbachev has become ill,” said the radio on the hotel reception desk. 

I immediately realised this was some sort of Soviet-speak for saying the Soviet leader was either already dead or was being removed – in a coup.  

I bemoaned my fate — marooned in another country.

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 President Gorbachev. 

Now I tried to console myself with the thought that the first thing that will get closed during a coup is the airport … so even if I could fly now to Moscow, I would probably get forced back on the plane and never get into the city. 

Two days later, as the Soviet coup collapsed, I finally got a flight. 

When I arrived in the so-called Byeli Dom – the White House that was the headquarters of the Russian Federation, the editor of Yeltsin’s in-house newspaper hugged me. “Why did you not come when the coup began?” he asked.

He told me that if I had flown in to Moscow the pro-Yeltsin faction had their own people controlling the entry points at the airport.  “You could have spent the entire coup here with us in the White House, reporting live alongside Boris.” 

“Thanks,” I said, now feeling ten times worse.

They told me the inside story. The White House 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 or liberated from the factory that made them.  The elite unit that was to attack the White House, and which would have used tear-gas or poinoned gas, disobeyed orders. Now the masks lay scatted on the floor of a store-room. 

“Take a few.  Souvenirs,” said the newspaper editor. “We don’t need them any more.” 

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, two coup souvenirs — a gas-mask each. 

The next day Major spoke at a press conference. I slipped out and stood at 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, locals called these vehicles Member Carriers – the word Member having the same double meaning as it does in English – referring to a sensitive part of the male anatomy!

 “Mr Major,” I called as I rushed towards him. “I’m the journalist who sent you a gas-mask from the White House.”

He stopped in his tracks, and restrained the security detail around him.   I proceeded: “Can I please 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.”  

After two rather mild questions about the coup, I asked him: Did he think Yeltsin was the right man to lead the collapsing Soviet Union out of the crisis — and would he become a dictator just as his predecessors had been? 

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 was three!  Good-bye.”   

So, frustratingly, I never found out if the British prime minister wanted Yeltsin to take over from Gorbachev. 

But Yeltsin did anyway.  Gorbachev had been brought back from his dacha on the Black Sea where he’d been temporarily held prisoner… but to a new reality. I will never forget the look of shock on Gorbachev’s face when, to a packed audience of Communist party officials, Yeltsin announced: “The Communist Party is banned.”  

Yeltsin was staging his own post-coup coup.  I also watched with amazement later as the statue of the founder of the secret service, the KGB, was pulled down outside its forbidding headquarters, the huge grey Lubyanka edifice.  

The new KGB chief showed me around inside the still perfectly preserved office of Yuri Andropov, the only KGB chief to become secretary-general of the Communist Party and therefore the official Soviet chief.  

I asked the new KGB boss if he could put me in touch with Yuri Rogov – who had been expelled from Britain a few years before.  I’d met him on a bus, and when I heard his Russian accent, had started a conversation.  Yuri told me he lived in the Soviet Trade Mission, just up the hill from my home. 

I had invited him to visit us, not for a moment thinking he would.  The Soviets had strict instructions in those days not to mix with us locals. To my amazement he had phoned two days later, and he and his wife and daughter, dressed in western-style jeans, had come for tea. 

We’d spent several good hours together a few times – I even took him to a cricket match.  Then the KGB chief defected to Britain – and revealed the names of 104 KGB agents.  To my intense surprise, Yuri was on the list. 

I wrote an article in the New Statesman, headlined: “My Friend the Soviet Spy”.  All 104 were expelled, but I managed to see Yuri just as his coach was about to leave for London’s airport. “I read your article in the New Statesman,” he told me as we shook hands.  “It was very good. Hope we meet again.”

“Dosvedanya,” I concurred.

The new KGB chief listened to my story about Yuri, then stared straight at me: “We have no knowledge of any such individual.”

So, another journalistic effort ended in failure.

I had — more importantly — failed to be there during the coup, when it really mattered.  History had simply proceeded, quite inexorably, without me.