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PARIS – The French capital, where seventy years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued at an international conference, this week played host to a call for action against rights abusers worldwide.

Eyewitness Media Blunders or Media Brilliance

After a very strange Soviet coup, I get a lesson — from the British prime minister

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“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.  

For a journalist and foreign correspondent, being in the right place at the right time can be achieved by planning, by luck or by instinct.  I had just failed in all three. 

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 Gorbachev.  Now, my wife and daughters and I were on holiday in the Middle East.  There was a scheduled 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.  I consoled myself with the thought that, in any case, 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.  We flew back to London together two days later, and, as the Soviet coup was collapsing, I finally got a flight to Moscow.  As 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 if I had flown in to Moscow, the pro-Yeltsin faction 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, now feeling ten times worse. 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.  Yelsin and his followers were trapped inside, making what might have been their last stand.  A supporter of Yelstin’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 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, a souvenir gas-mask each.  I had a cunning plan in mind.  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, referring to a part of the male anatomy, 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.   After two questions about the coup, I asked him the most important one: Did he think Yelsin 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 was three!  Good-bye.”   

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

But he 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 as the statue of the founder of the secret service, the KGB, was demolished outside its forbidding headquarters, the huge grey Lubyanka.  

OPTIONAL DROP OF 253 WORDS: [The new KGB chief later showed me around inside the still perfectly preserved office of Andropov, the only KGB chief who had become secretary-general of the Communist Party and therefore the official Soviet Chief.  I asked the new KGB boss if he could pout me in touch with Yuri – 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.  He 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.  Yuri was on the list.  I write an article in the New Statesman, headlined: “My friend the Soviet Spy”.  All of them were expelled, but Yuri, as his coach left for the airport, called from the window: “I read your article in the New Statesman.  I liked it.  Hope we meet again.” The new KGB chief listened to my story about Yuri, then stared straight at me: “We have no knowledge of any such individual.”]

History was in the making, but I had failed to be there during the coup, when it really mattered.  History simply had proceeded, quite successfully, without me.  


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