'Where Were You on August 19?'
Thousands of Communist Party faithful are being called to account for their failure to resist the coup
MOSCOW — LITTLE more than a week ago, Vladimir Shcherbakov was one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. The deputy premier in charge of economic planning was widely respected as a plain-talking economic administrator. He strode confidently at President Mikhail Gorbachev's side during the London summit with Western leaders as a principal economic aide.On the morning of Aug. 26, Mr. Shcherbakov stood in the hallway of the Soviet parliament a broken man. Deep circles were carved below his normally sparkling eyes. His wit and ease had been replaced by the repeated phrases of a man yearning to be understood, if not forgiven. The red-haired senior government official is only one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, like him who are now being called to account across the Soviet Union for their involvement in last week's failed hard-line coup. The criteria for judgment of guilt go well beyond those who openly identified themselves as coup leaders or supporters. It includes those in positions of authority who acquiesced through their silence. The standard was set by Boris Yeltsin and his Russian government: Those who did not actively oppose the coup, as they did, are now suspect. As Mr. Gorbachev put it bluntly to the entire parliament on Aug. 26: "The Supreme Soviet failed to move, and members of the Cabinet of Ministers panicked and failed to take action." Some of the denials of guilt have taken a tragicomic form, like the videotaped confession of Premier Valentin Pavlov, one of the eight coup leaders, taken at the time of his arrest and shown on Russian television Aug. 24. Asked why they had failed in their coup, Mr. Pavlov replied that "the majority of the Emergency Committee [as the coup leadership called itself] didn't know what was going on."
Blame the others As is becoming typical, Pavlov tried to blame his co-conspirators. Vice President Gennady Yanayev told them Gorbachev was sick but "no one could explain properly what was wrong with him." Then, he continued, "everyone started wondering whether we should go to the Supreme Soviet [parliament]." But unfortunately parliament chairman Anatoly Lukyanov told the coup committee that the earliest a session could be convened would be Aug. 26, a week later. Mr. Lukyanov, who was dismissed from his post that day, denied any involvement to reporters. But as to why he hadn't called the parliament into session to oppose the coup, as the Russian parliament leadership did immediately, Lukyanov weakly responded that parliamentary procedure requires a vote of two-thirds of the deputies to convene an emergency session. "For me, it is totally clear that Lukyanov was one of the most important people preparing the coup," says Sergei Tsypyaev, a deputy from Leningrad. "He was just waiting to see the result." Shcherbakov offers his own tortured explanation for his behavior, which included participating in a Cabinet meeting which backed the adventure on the evening of the first day of the coup. "We had been told that it was the radical democrats, the extremists, who meant to seize power and the emergency situation was necessary to prevent them from doing it," he says. The Emergency Committee went to Gorbachev with this version of events but "Gorbachev refused to declare a state of emergency, saying that he didn't believe the democrats were moving to seize power, that it was [the committee members] who were provoking the situation. Then they told Gorbachev: 'Look, how much longer are you going t o believe [the democrats]? Can't you see that every single agreement with them has been violated.... They are already concentrating their forces.... It is a question of hours. Either you make this decision or we are going to make it without you and then explain everything to others.
'He could've been taken ill' At the same time, Shcherbakov argues that he had no reason to disbelieve the coup leaders when they claimed the vice president was taking over for an ill and incapacitated president. "Yanayev's coming to power would have been legal if there was proof of Gorbachev's illness. I demanded such proof all the time.... I spoke with the president on Aug. 18 [the day before the coup] but he could have been taken ill, anything could have happened, he could have fallen down, injured himself, had a heart attack." In the manner of those Nazis who stood trial for war crimes at Nuremberg, the economic planner says he was only "following orders.As a person, I am against any use of force or suppression.... But I am a government official as well. The government is headed by those who have legal power. If I did not obey them, then I would have been committing an anti-constitutional deed." But the rotund bureaucrat does most of his squirming when forced to explain the recently revealed minutes of the Cabinet meeting where Premier Pavlov won backing for the takeover. "[Pavlov] signed the statement; let him answer for it," he says. As for his stated readiness to run the economy under the state of emergency, "I was responsible for Gosplan [the State Planning Commission], which is at present the only organ that still has some control over the economy. If I left then, work would be paralyzed." When Gorbachev returned to Moscow, Shcherbakov says the president called and forgave him, an account that is not confirmed from Gorbachev's side. But the finger of guilt has not moved away so easily from his brow. Shcherbakov concludes his defense by vowing that "as long as my name is not cleared of suspicion, I will not go on working."