Failed Kremlin Coup - History

On August 21st, hardline Communists staged a coup attempt against the government of Gorbachev, putting him under house arrest. The coup, however, failed when Boris Yeltsin– the leader of the Russian Republic rallied supporters at the parliament building in Moscow. Thousands joined Yeltsin there, and many military leaders announced their support for Yeltsin. The coup ended when it became clear that the troops would not open fire on the citizens of Moscow. Gorbachev returned to power as President, in a much diminished capacity– true power having passed to Boris Yeltsin, who soon declared the Communist party illegal.

Moscow coup 1991: With Boris Yeltsin on the tank

Two men who stood shoulder to shoulder with Boris Yeltsin to defy the attempted hardline coup in Moscow in 1991 look back on the critical hours when Russian democracy was saved - and share their disappointment with the society that has emerged.

It is one of the abiding images of modern Russian history, the famous picture of Boris Yeltsin speaking on a tank outside the parliament in Moscow on 19 August 1991.

It was a moment when the future of the Soviet Union hung in the balance.

That morning a group of communist hardliners had staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. The Soviet leader was trapped in Crimea, and troops and tanks were on the streets of Moscow.

It seemed like the era of glasnost and perestroika was at an end.

But a determined group of democrats had gathered at the Russian parliament, which became the rallying point over the next three days. It is an imposing building on a bend in the Moscow River, and that August it became known as the "White House."

Boris Yeltsin, the new President of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federal Republic, was about to have his finest hour.

Failed Kremlin Coup - History

&bull A coup is shorthand for "coup d&rsquoetat," a French term that means the overthrow of the government. The key element of a coup is that it is carried out beyond the bounds of legality. Coups can be violent but don&rsquot need to be.

&bull Some of the things Trump has done since November to contest the election are clearly within the law. Other actions of his up until Jan. 6 were close calls.

&bull Lawmakers objecting to the electoral vote count are acting within the rules to object, so that would not qualify as a coup.

&bull A good case can be made that the storming of the Capitol qualifies as a coup. It&rsquos especially so because the rioters entered at precisely the moment when the incumbent&rsquos loss was to be formally sealed, and they succeeded in stopping the count.

&bull The storming of the Capitol also would seem to qualify as sedition, which is the use of &ldquoforce to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States&rdquo or the authority of the U.S. government.

Are Americans witnessing a coup? Before the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the case was arguable, but not a slam dunk. After the Capitol was breached, the case became more clear cut, experts say.

The questions stem from President Donald Trump&rsquos reaction to losing the 2020 presidential election. Trump and his supporters have filed a string of lawsuits rejected by the courts, sought to strong-arm local officials into changing the results, and suggested incorrectly that Vice President Mike Pence could overturn the will of the electoral college as he presided over the counting of the ballots.

Whether the U.S. was witnessing a coup seemed speculative until the violent overrun of the House and Senate on the day the Electoral College votes were supposed to be counted, officially certifying Biden&rsquos victory.

Here are some questions and answers on what makes a coup, as well as another concept that is increasingly being discussed, sedition.

A coup is shorthand for "coup d&rsquoetat," a French term that means the overthrow of the government. The key element of a coup is that it is carried out beyond the bounds of legality.

"We define a coup d'état as the sudden and irregular (i.e., illegal or extra-legal) removal, or displacement, of the executive authority of an independent government," wrote the Coup D&rsquoetat Project at the University of Illinois&rsquo Cline Center for Democracy in 2013.

The Cline Center characterized 12 types of coups. Several of them aren&rsquot relevant to the current situation, including palace coups, military coups, counter coups, foreign coups, internationally mediated transitions, and forced resignations.

Others might be, including "attempted coups" and "coup conspiracies."

Prior to the breach of the Capitol, some officials and commentators suggested that President Donald Trump, with such actions as trying to get Georgia&rsquos secretary of state, Brad Raffensberger, to "find" enough votes for him to win the state, was effectively attempting a coup. Others said some lawmakers who opposed counting the certified Electoral College slates in Congress were creating a coup.

These actions might fall into the category of self-coups, in which the leader strong-arms other branches of government to entrench power.

"These coups involve the existing chief executive taking extreme measures to eliminate, or render powerless, other components of the government (the legislature, the judicial branch, etc.)," the 2013 Cline Center report said. "It also includes situations where the chief executive simply assumes extraordinary powers in an illegal or extra-legal manner (i.e., goes beyond extraordinary measures included in the country&rsquos constitution, such as declaring a state of emergency)."

Trump&rsquos call to the Georgia secretary of state might well qualify as an "extreme measure" and "illegal or extra-legal," although legal experts have said it might be a hard case to prosecute.

Multiple commentators applied the coup label to the objection to the lawmakers&rsquo counting of the electoral votes, too.

Speaking at a Senate session to debate objections to the electoral vote count, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, "Sadder and more dangerous still is the fact that an element of the Republican Party believes their political viability hinges on the endorsement of an attempted coup."

It may be harder to argue that the effort in Congress amounts to a coup. The law governing the counting allows for objections to be registered, debated, and, if the chambers vote them down, dispensed with. This is part of the law, not something outside it.

Police keep a watch on demonstrators who tried to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. (AP/John Minchillo)

The actions of some protestors at the U.S. Capitol, however, were clearly outside the law, especially the people who were able to reach the floor of the House and Senate and lawmakers&rsquo personal offices.

Speaking to CNN as the Capitol was being breached, Rep. Adam Kinziger, R-Ill., said, "Anywhere else in the world, we would call this a coup attempt, and that's what I think it is." NBC News&rsquo Lester Holt said, "There have been some elements of a coup attempt."

Are they right? Let&rsquos start by noting that while violence is part of many coups, being violent is not a necessary condition. (At least one person reportedly died after being shot inside the Capitol.)

That said, the actions on the Capitol grounds may strengthen the case for calling this an attempted coup.

The morning the Capitol was breached, and as the House and Senate were preparing to count the electoral votes, Trump spoke in person to thousands of supporters gathered between the White House and the Washington Monument. He called the presidential election the most corrupt in the nation&rsquos history, and he repeated the unproven claims of election fraud that have failed to find traction in courts across the country.

He told the crowd that they needed to fight for their country. "If you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore," he said.

He closed by saying, "We're going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue," Trump said. "We're going to try and give our Republicans, the weak ones, because the strong ones don't need any of our help, we're going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country."

Trump ended his remarks by urging the crowd to march down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress, suggesting that he would join them (though he didn&rsquot). At the Capitol, some of the group stormed the building, causing the House and Senate to break off debate and leave the chamber.

Several categories of coups share some elements of this scenario, although none fit perfectly.

"Rebel coups," according to the Cline Center, require "an organized, militarized group that is actively contesting government forces," though "militarized" may be too generous a description of the disorganized groups that entered the Capitol.

Another category is "dissident actions," which involve "small groups of discontents," though the tens of thousands of protesters in Washington on Jan. 6 were probably more numerous than this category envisions.

"Popular revolts " include "irregular regime changes that are driven by widespread popular dissatisfaction with a government that is manifested by high levels of civil unrest." This doesn&rsquot quite fit either, since the election results did not show "widespread" popular support for Trump remaining in office.

On the other hand, other elements of the actions on Jan. 6 do fit the overall definition of a coup.

A sizable number of citizens were urged by the president to move on the seat of legislative power at precisely the moment when the incumbent&rsquos loss was to be formally sealed. The group proceeded to break laws by entering the building, causing damage inside, and forcing the electoral vote count process to halt.

All this seems to fit the category of a "sudden and irregular (i.e., illegal or extra-legal) removal, or displacement, of the executive authority of an independent government." It was sudden, laws were broken, and official functions of the government were displaced. (For this to apply, one has to envision President-elect Joe Biden as the "executive authority," rather than Trump, the incumbent but lame duck president.)

"Invading the national legislature through force sounds like a coup peaceful protest is obviously not," said Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor.

Anthony Clark Arend, a specialist in international law at Georgetown University, said that he&rsquos skeptical of labeling the lawmakers&rsquo challenges to the electoral vote count a coup, but he thinks it could be valid for the storming of the Capitol.

"I do think the violent actions by the protesters currently occupying part of the Capitol could be seen as a coup attempt," Arend said. "To the extent to which the president can be seen as encouraging these actions, I would argue that he is supporting a coup attempt."

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP/John Minchillo)

Multiple commentators, including CNN&rsquos Jake Tapper, have cast the actions of the protesters as sedition. Sedition is usually defined as conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a government.

This appears to be an even clearer descriptor of the events of Jan. 6.

A seditious conspiracy is defined in federal law as two or more persons "conspir(ing) to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, &hellip or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof." The law comes with a fine or imprisonment up to 20 years, or both.

The storming of the Capitol would seem to qualify as the use of "force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States" or the authority of the U.S. government.

"The people who stormed the Capitol building would seem to clearly qualify for prosecution under this provision," said Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California-Davis.

James Robenalt, a lawyer with an expertise in political crises, agreed. "What we are seeing is sedition," he said. "All those taking place and those in conspiracy are guilty and punishable."

Yes, There WAS An Attempted Coup Against Trump

A coup d’etat is defined as “a sudden decisive exercise of force in politics, especially the violent overthrow or alteration of an existing government by a small group”.

The question of the attempt to oust US President Donald Trump from power in the United States from 2017-present has given rise to some debate over whether or not this constitutes a coup d’etat, albeit a failed one.

The etymology of the term itself is French, and translates to “a blow against the state.”

Coups have been occurring throughout history from as far back as kings of Israel outlined in the Old Testament of the Bible such as commander Zimri slaying King Elah.

Some of the most famous coups in history featured the rises to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, Francisco Franco, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Idi Amin, and Augusto Pinochet who was backed by the CIA in 1973.

More recently, the question of the attempt to oust U.S. President Donald Trump from power in the United States from 2017-present has given rise to some debate over whether or not this constitutes a coup d’etat, albeit a failed one.

President Trump and his supporters have both employed the phrase, and in many aspects it does seem to fit the narrow definition of the term.

The existing government of the United States was attempted to be overthrown by a small group from within the state.

This was not a traditional third-world coup which is characterized by military forces sweeping into the halls of power to swiftly arrest the former leader, but instead it represents something far more akin to a legal drama crossed with an espionage novel – two themes readily familiar to the American audience.

It was, in effect, a soft coup.

To put it plainly, if elements of state security services pushed to oust a leader in any other country, we would readily define that as a coup.

Now certainly, if you ask any of the individuals who supported the attempt, they would loudly declare that they were merely acting in the best interests of the nation and representing the legitimate ends of good government. That is what all coup participants say.

In 1965 the film Seven Days in May starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas was nominated for 2 Academy Awards and featured a plot centered around a failed military coup of the United States over the leaders of the military disagreeing with the President about relations with Russia. Fast-forward to today and much of the dialogue from that film would fit in perfectly with the text messages between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.


Let’s examine the origins of this coup attempt, which is unprecedented in this history of the American republic.

While the timeline has yet to be completely revealed, and many aspects are in question, a general public summary can be constructed.

In April 2016, the Clinton campaign began funding an opposition research firm to put together a series of reports detailing what they claimed were dubious ties between candidate Donald Trump and the Russian state.

Image by DonkeyHotey from Flickr, adapted from a photo in the public domain from the U.S. Department of State’s Flickr photostream.

While this may seem like politics as usual, the execution was anything but. Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and the DNC used a law firm to hire open source intelligence group FusionGPS and a former MI6 agent to write and disseminate information on the Republican candidate. This would later become infamously known as the Steele Dossier.

As the salacious and utterly unverified human intelligence (HUMINT) reports were written, Fusion employed sources from Russia and Ukraine in search of ‘dirt’ on Donald Trump. Where this took a turn for the sinister is that these reports were then passed to the Obama Department of Justice and the Comey FBI.

These reports were full of foreign disinformation stacked one upon the other mixing outlandish fantasies with just enough sprinkles of reality to hook in unsuspecting readers. These spin doctors and double agents crafted a story that Donald Trump and his associates were secretly engaged in an elaborate Kremlin plot to win the 2016 election.

Using the Steele Dossier as evidence, the Obama Administration applied several times for a FISA warrant to spy on at least one Trump associate, and were later granted it

In addition to this effort, foreign intelligence agencies targeted Trump aide George Papadopoulos also for suspected “Russian collusion” although tellingly, Mr. Papadopoulos does not even make an appearance in the Steele Dossier.

Even still, rumors from political opponents about his activities in Europe in 2016, particularly London, we used to open an FBI counterintelligence investigation on the Trump campaign codenamed Crossfire Hurricane. This investigation also included 3-star Army General Michael Flynn, and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Using the Steele Dossier as evidence, the Obama Administration applied several times for a FISA warrant to spy on at least one Trump associate, and were later granted it. This associate, however, was never charged with wrongdoing of any kind.

Some bristle at the word “spying”, so we should be clear. A FISA warrant permits the FBI to perform electronic surveillance and physical searches on the target in question. Given FISA’s infamous two-hop rule, this would have allowed communications access and data-mining on just about every member of the Trump campaign.

Once Trump won the 2016 election – in a stunning upset to many in the world – the investigation took on a life of its own.

First, FBI agents discussed developing sources in the Trump Transition Team and White House. Next, national security chiefs briefed Trump about the Russia dossier, but treated it as intelligence, not a product of a political campaign. Following this briefing, those same chiefs apparently leaked its existence to CNN’s Jake Tapper, who was eager to report on this disinformation. Buzzfeed later published the Steele Dossier in full.

Only later did it come out that Hillary Clinton and her allies had footed the bill for the report. Over the next months and years, those former Obama national security officials accepted media positions on cable news networks and could be found nightly calling for the ouster of President Trump over so-called Russian collusion. These officials abused their positions and access to mislead the American people in order to support the overthrow of an established and legitimately-elected president.

History will show that later, Special Counsel Mueller found their wild conspiracy theory to be completely unfounded. There was never any collusion between Trump and Russia, and these officials likely knew that all along. That their coup attempt failed makes it no less of an attempt.

It is now incumbent on the new leaders of the government to investigate this egregious wrongdoing. If laws were broken, the lawbreakers ought to be brought to justice.

Only by doing so can the American republic ensure such an outrageous act never again attempts to subvert the will of the people, and abuse laws to overturn the results of our democratic process.

Jack Posobiec

Jack Posobiec is the Senior Editor of Human Events.

Jack Posobiec is the Senior Editor of Human Events, a political news and analysis outlet founded in 1944. Prior to that, Posobiec served as a Washington DC correspondent at One America News Network. Posobiec is a veteran intelligence officer of the United States Navy with multiple deployments including Guantanamo Bay and East Asia. At Guantanamo Bay, Posobiec served as a HUMINT (human intelligence) analyst in the interrogation cell. In 2014, he joined the Office of Naval Intelligence as an officer at the Kennedy Irregular Warfare Center which provided intelligence to Navy Special Warfare and Navy Expeditionary Combat Command .

Posobiec completed his final deployment in 2016 as the Intelligence Director for Navy Expeditionary Forces Command Pacific - Task Force 75. Task Force 75 provides expeditionary intelligence throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region as directed by 7th Fleet Commander.

Posobiec has written three non-fiction books: Citizens for Trump: The Inside Story of the People's Movement to Take Back America, all about the 2016 presidential election, 4D Warfare: A Doctrine for a New Generation of Politics, a handbook on political information operations, and Antifa: Inside the Black Bloc, about his investigations infiltrating the Antifa phenomenon in North America and their history. In 2019, Posobiec was awarded a Lincoln Fellowship by the Claremont Institute. Posobiec is also a supporter of Let Them Live, a nonprofit that saves lives from abortion by supporting women in crisis pregnancies. Posobiec's life was the inspiration for the graphic novel 'Agent Poso' by Chuck Dixon and Brett Smith.

Russia: The Fading Legacy Of The Failed 1991 Soviet Coup

Demonstrators confront the military in front of Russia's White House on August 20, 1991 (ITAR-TASS) PRAGUE, August 18, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Through the winter of 1990-91 the glue that held together the Soviet Union was becoming unstuck.

On August 20, 1991, a meeting was scheduled to sign a union treaty that would give the republics more independence. But two days before, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's chief of staff and other Politburo members arrived at the presidential dacha in Crimea putting the president and his family under house arrest.

This move unleashed a chain of events that threatened to engulf the country in a bloody civil war.

"I call on you, my comrade officers, soldiers, and sailors, do not take action against the people -- against your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters," Russian Soviet Republic Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, a decorated hero of the war in Aghanistan, appealed to the Soviet armed forces on August 19, 1991.

MORE: Coverage of the coup from RFE/RL's Russian Service in Russian.

"I appeal to your honor, your reason, and your heart. Today the fate of the country, the fate of its free and democratic development, is in your hands," Rutskoi said.

Rutskoi's plea was for the most part heeded. Tanks took up positions, but no soldiers fired on the thousands of Muscovites who had taken to the streets to oppose the plotters.

Organizing The Resistance

"Just after 8 a.m., [human rights activist] Yury Samodurov rang and told me to switch on the television," activist Yelena Bonner, widow of Nobel Prize laureate Andrei Sakharhov, told RFE/RL. "I switched it on and saw all those people and everything that was happening. I began to phone everyone. It emerged that I was now the center of a rather large circle of people. I told them all: 'Go to the Moscow City Soviet.' Nobody really knew what was going on. Then, around 9 or 10, they called from the City Council to say that a lot of our people were there and that they were heading for the White House. Of course, I went to the White House as well."

Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin provided the defining symbol of defiance. Standing on top of a tank, with the Russian flag in the background, he called for mass resistance.

Gradually, the tide turned. The coup crumbled and Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea to find a starkly changed balance of power.

Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo announces the coup on August 19 he committed suicide two days later (TASSS)

"I think it is important too that President Gorbachev has returned to a different Russia, to a different country," Yelstin said. "It seems to me -- and yesterday I spent half the day with him discussing the future course of reforms and economic transformation -- that he has at last understood that without democracy, without the development of democracy, without radical reforms -- and not the sort of quiet reforms during which coup d'etats of this sort can happen -- that we can't go further. It seems to me too that he has understood the need in fact to end the ruling role of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union."

After The Coup

But building democracy in Russia -- to say nothing of most of the other post-Soviet republics -- has proved a daunting task.

The war in Chechnya, clampdowns on media and NGOs, the Yukos affair, the appointment rather than election of regional governors, the hobbling of all political opposition are all black marks against Russia's democratic record in the last 15 years.

James Nixey, the manager of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, thinks Russia's experiment with liberal democracy is over.

"If you look at President [Vladimir] Putin's very high approval ratings and if you look at the fact that living standards have risen quite considerably since 2000 and the fact that you have a leader who is strong and independent and doesn't give off the same kind of vibes as President Yeltsin, then that is actually far more important to [Russians] than the appointment of governors or NGOs," Nixey says.

No More Us And Them

And gone today is the neat demarcation between the plotters and those camped outside the White House, between democrats and their opponents.

In 2004, Putin awarded one of the coup plotters, former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Russia's Order of Merit medal for "high achievements in useful, societal activities."

A recent poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center shows that, with the benefit of hindsight, people's attitudes toward the plotters and the August 1991 events have changed somewhat.

President Putin (right) decorates former coup plotter Dmitry Yazov in the Kremlin on November 17, 2004 (TASS)

Yury Levada, the head of the polling agency, says that democracy these days is not high on Russians' list of priorities.

"People don't [think] of democracy and democratic institutions, universal elections, and other [things] as very important," Levada told RFE/RL. "The subject of concern for Russian people is family, the economic situation, finances, inflation, unemployment, criminality, and other [things]."

Looking Toward The Future

The question of Putin's succession and the 2008 presidential election will be a test for Russian democracy.

"Whether or not President Putin stays in power, and changes or adjusts or abolishes or alters the constitution to enable him to stay in power will show us an awful lot about the true nature of Russia," analyst Nixey says.

After 15 years of a rocky transition, Russians for the moment appear content to waive their human rights in return for stability and rising living standards. The drama of 1991 seems as much a part of history today as the Soviet Union itself.

Russia's Democratic Development

Demonstrators speak with local politicians in Butovo about the destruction of a local forest in July 2006 (RFE/RL)

IS RUSSIAN DEMOCRACY MANAGING? Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Western powers seek to pressure Russia under the pretext of concern over its democratic development. He has said Russia is ready to listen to "well-intentioned criticism," but will not allow anyone to interfere in its internal affairs. The Kremlin has been criticized for stifling political oppostion, increasing central control over the media, and cracking down on the work on nongovernmental organizations.



Luke Allnutt

Luke Allnutt is a web producer in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

What Happened To The August 1991 Soviet Coup Plotters?

Eleven hard-liners in the Soviet government, military, Communist Party, and KGB were named in a Russian court as the organizers of the failed August 1991 coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

They included the so-called “Gang of Eight” that had placed Gorbachev under house arrest -- a short-lived, self-declared provisional government that called itself the State Committee for the Emergency Situation was known by its Russian acronym, GKChP. They also included three other senior Soviet political and military officials.

One “Gang of Eight” member, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo, committed suicide shortly after the coup collapsed.

The 10 other men named as coup plotters were all granted amnesty by the State Duma on February 23, 1994 -- ending their 14-month trial, on high treason charges, by the military branch of the Supreme Court.

They went on to play various roles in politics and the private sector in post-communist Russia.

Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet KGB Chief

Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief who initiated the creation of the GKChP, was named by the court as one of four main conspirators in the attempted coup. After the amnesty, Kryuchkov wrote extensively about the events that preceded the disintegration of the Soviet Union -- criticizing Gorbachev’s for his political, social, and economic reforms, for the loss of Soviet domination over Eastern Europe, and for the reunification of Germany. Kryuchkov died at age 83 on November 23, 2007.

Valentin Pavlov, Soviet Prime Minister

Valentin Pavlov, prime minister of the Soviet Union, was released on bail in January 1993, more than a year before the amnesty. As a key member of the “Gang of Eight,” he was named by the court as one of the four main coup plotters. From 1994 to August 1995, Pavlov -- a former Soviet finance minister -- was a director of the commercial bank Chasprombank, resigning at the board’s request six months before Chasprombank’s license was revoked for violating Russian central bank rules. In 1996 and 1997, Pavlov was an adviser to Promstroibank, another commercial bank. In 1998, he became vice president of a U.S.-based software developer called Business Management Systems. He also was named during the 1990s as the vice president of an organization called Free Economic Society -- a renamed version of the All-Soviet Economic Society. Pavlov died in Moscow on March 30, 2003.

​Dmitry Yazov​, Soviet Defense Minister

Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, another member of the “Gang of Eight,” also was named by the court as one of the four chief conspirators. A World War II veteran and the last Marshal of the Soviet Union, Yazov accepted the amnesty after 18 months in Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina jail, but insisted he was not guilty of treason. He was dismissed from military service in February 1994 by President Boris Yeltsin, but continued to take part in veterans’ activities and was a guest of honor at subsequent May 9 parades commemorating the Allied victory in World War II. After Vladimir Putin became president, he became a chief military adviser to the Defense Ministry’s International Military Cooperation Department and to the chief of the General Staff Academy. In 2006, during Putin’s second term, Yazov took a post with the Inspectors General Service at the Defense Ministry, where he was a leading analyst. On November 8, 2014, Putin personally presented Yazov (pictured above) with Russia’s Order of Honor medal for “high achievement in useful societal activities.”

Oleg Shenin, Politburo Member

Oleg Shenin, a secretary of the Communist Party and member of its ruling Politburo, was the only official not among the “Gang of Eight” to be named by the court as a main conspirator. In 1993, while still on trial for high treason, Shenin became the founding chairman of the marginal Union of Communist Parties -- Communist Party of the Soviet Union (UCP-CPSU), and remained at that post after the amnesty. He met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il during a September 1997 visit to Pyongyang. In 2001, he split from the main Russian Communist Party after its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, refused to support his idea of creating a united Communist Party of Russia and Belarus. Shenin sought to run for the Russian presidency in 2008, but was denied registration on the grounds that there were omissions in his paperwork. He died at age 71 on May 28, 2009.

Boris Pugo, Soviet Interior Minister

Boris Pugo, the Soviet interior minister who was part of the “Gang of Eight,” fatally shot himself on August 22, 1991, after being summoned to a meeting with a Russian prosecutor over his role in the failed coup, according to multiple accounts. His wife also died after the incident. Prosecutors dismissed speculation that one or the other was murdered, saying that both left suicide notes and that Pugo’s wife managed to place his pistol neatly on a chest of drawers after shooting herself. Some of Pugo’s contemporaries have cast doubt on the official version.

Oleg Baklanov, Soviet Defense Council Deputy Chairman

Oleg Baklanov, was head of the ministry responsible for building ICBMs, booster rockets, and space vehicles. As Communist Party secretary in charge of defense issues, he was a top figure in the military-industrial complex at the time of the coup. After the amnesty, he worked as a scientist and a businessman in Russia’s defense sector. Baklanov became chairman of the board of Rosobshemash, a state-owned military contractor that builds military aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles, like the SS-18 “Satan,” for Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

Gennady Yanayev, Soviet Vice President

Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev was a “Gang of Eight” member who claimed the post of acting president during the attempted coup. His hands trembled at the plotters’ press conference, prompting speculation that he was drunk and making him a symbol of the failed power grab. After being freed from jail in March 1994 under the State Duma amnesty, Yanayev stayed out of politics and business. He became the head of the Department of History and International Relations at the Russian International Academy of Tourism. He died at age 73 on September 24, 2010, after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Anatoly Lukyanov, Supreme Soviet Chairman

Anatoly Lukyanov was chairman of the Supreme Soviet, the U.S.S.R.’s top legislative body. He became deeply involved in the creation of the Russian Communist Party after the breakup of the Soviet Union, even before the amnesty. In 1993, Lukyanov co-founded the Communist Party of the Russian Federation with Gennady Zyuganov. He served until 2003 as the chairman of the party’s Central Advisory Council and as a senior adviser to Zyuganov. Lukyanov also was elected as a Communist Party deputy to the State Duma in 1993, 1995, and 1999. Lukyanov stopped taking part in Duma elections in 2003 when he became a board member of OEG Petroservis, a Russian firm involved in exploration and drilling for oil and natural gas.

Valentin Varennikov, Soviet Deputy Defense Minister

Valentin Varennikov, a Soviet general and deputy defense minister, is the only coup plotter who refused to accept the State Duma’s amnesty offer after it was reviewed by a Russian court in March 1994. Varennikov was acquitted of treason on August 11, 1994, when a newly appointed judge in the case ruled that he had merely followed the orders of Defense Minister Yazov and had acted “in an interest of preserving and strengthening his country.” Varennikov won a State Duma seat in 1995 as a member of the Communist Party, and headed the Committee on Veteran Affairs. In August 2003, Varennikov co-founded the nationalist political party Rodina. He also founded a nongovernmental group that he called the International League for Human Dignity and Security and vehemently defended the reputation of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, saying that the Soviet Union “became a great country because we were led by Stalin.” Varennikov died at age 85 on May 6, 2009.

Vasily Starodubtsev, Soviet Peasants Union Chairman

Vasily Starodubtsev, chairman of the Soviet Peasants Union, continued his political career after the August 1991 coup. He was treated leniently by the court compared to other members of the “Gang of Eight.” He was released from jail in 1992, officially for health reasons, on the condition that he stay out of politics. But Starodubtsev ignored those terms. In 1993, he helped found the Agrarian Party of Russia, which advocated agrarian socialism and collectivism, and was elected to the State Duma. Starodubtsev was governor of Tula Oblast from 1997 to 2005. His party supported Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 presidential candidacy and merged into Putin’s ruling United Russia party the same year. Starodubtsev died of a heart attack at age 80 on December 30, 2011.

Aleksandr Tizyakov, Soviet Industrial Consortium Leader

Aleksandr Tizyakov, a member of the “Gang of Eight,” used his connections as the head of a Soviet industrial association to launch a career as a private businessman after the 1994 amnesty. At the time of the coup, Tizyakov headed the Soviet Union’s Association of State Enterprises and Industry, Transport, and Communications Facilities. By 2001, he had founded or cofounded a series of private companies: a mechanical engineering firm called Antal an insurance company called Severnaya Kazna a consumer goods firm called Fideliti and plywood producing enterprise called Vidikon. He is founder and board chair of an investment firm called Noviye Tekhnologii. He also founded a Russian-Kyrgyz joint venture called Tekhnologia and a Yekaterinburg-based firm that rents out non-residential properties called Nauka-93, and is listed as a founder of several other companies. Tizyakov ran unsuccessfully for the State Duma in 1995 and 1999 and again in 2003, when he was a candidate on the Communist Party ticket.

Russian Malign Influence in Montenegro: The Weaponization and Exploitation of History, Religion, and Economics

Russian malign influence seeks to exploit every weakness and societal division within in a respective country. An adviser to Russian president Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, recently stated that “Foreign politicians talk about Russia’s interference in elections and referendums around the world. In fact, the matter is even more serious: Russia interferes in your brains, we change your conscience, and there is nothing you can do about it.” It must be understood that everything from religion, history, facts, information, racial and ethnic tensions, illicit financing, and institutional and economic weakness, can be weaponized.

The mobilization of the Orthodox Church (in Montenegro through the Serbian Orthodox Church) is one such weapon in the Kremlin’s effort to resuscitate pan-Slavism and unite the Slavic world under Russian patronage. Doing so supports the Kremlin’s narrative that only Russian president Vladimir Putin is the true “defender of the faith,” and all that is culturally traditional and conservative. In effect, the Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches “interfere in [one’s] brain and alter an individual’s conscience” because the church touches many aspects of daily life, from the blessing of cars and homes to encouraging followers to fight against the decadence and liberalism of the West. The intermingling of financial support and the creation of outlets for the church’s charitable works can often be traced back to Russian ultra-nationalist oligarchs with close political and financial ties to the Kremlin. One particularly active figure in this space is Konstantin Malofeev who created the Charitable Foundation of St. Basil the Great, which is in part charged with spreading the Russian Orthodox faith. Mr. Malofeev’s spiritual adviser, Orthodox priest Bishop Tikhon, is also President Putin’s spiritual adviser. It is reported that Mr. Malofeev and Mr. Surkov also closely coordinate their activities.

The Kremlin is also weaponizing history as it attempts to revitalize the historical role of the Russian Empire as the true defender and “protector” of its Slavic brethren in Montenegro from its clashes with the Ottoman Empire. Today, Russia defends its Slavic brethren from the West and makes powerful appeals to a common Slavic identity and Orthodox culture to wield greater influence in Montenegro.

The Orthodox Church

The Kremlin exploits religious and cultural leverage through the Orthodox Church. A large majority of Montenegrins are Christian Orthodox, and the country’s religious authorities (the Metropolitanate of Montenegro and the Littoral) are still ecumenically attached to the Serbian Orthodox Church. There is, however, a Montenegrin Orthodox Church that has declared autocephaly (similar to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church), but it has not been recognized by Eastern Orthodox Churches. 1 The Serbian patriarch has also served as a conduit for Russian influence in Montenegro. For example, on one of his recent visits to the country, he was escorted by the infamous pro-Putin bikers’ club, the Night Wolves. 2

Today, Russia defends its Slavic brethren from the West and makes powerful appeals to a common Slavic identity and Orthodox culture to wield greater influence in Montenegro.

The Kremlin has tapped the Orthodox Church to influence Montenegro’s foreign policy decisions on two occasions: Montenegro’s 2006 push for independence and its 2016 accession to NATO.

As World War I drew to a close, Montenegro became part of a union of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which later became Yugoslavia. 3 As Yugoslavia collapsed and dissolved into ethnic warfare, eventually an EU-mediated accord established the new state of Serbia and Montenegro in 2002. Calls for greater independence in Montenegro followed, and Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic advocated for independence and eventual membership into the European Union. In 2006, following a referendum in which a 55 percent validity threshold was marginally met, Montenegro declared independence. Tensions flared in the run-up to the referendum as a majority of Montenegrin Serbs were strong advocates for a joint state with Serbia. During the campaign, the Serbian Orthodox Church served as an amplifier of and supporter of a unified state, playing on the fears that independence would have economic and political consequences for Montenegrins living in Serbia. Despite its passage, many still do not accept the results of the referendum, fueling the narrative of a divided state susceptible to Russian influence that pits one side of the population against another. The Kremlin is critical of any effort in the region that fragments a unified Slavic and Orthodox entity which is why it is against an independent Kosovo.

A more recent example of Russia’s use of the Orthodox Church occurred in 2016 as Montenegro’s membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was advancing. In an attempt to foment domestic opposition, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church publicly voiced concern over the prospects of NATO accession. 4 Shortly thereafter, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro released its own statement echoing Russian demands for greater scrutiny over the decision. The statement explained, “It is our duty in the name of the Church (italics added) that gave birth to Montenegro . . . to say that it is necessary that such a historic decision, like the decision on independence, is made by all citizens in a free referendum, and not simply by pressure from the ruling clique.” 5 Opposition by the church followed aggressive statements from the Kremlin, which characterized Montenegrin membership in NATO as “an openly confrontational step,” “reckless expansion,” and “a prelude to the new Cold War.”

The Orthodox church has also sought to foment societal divisions by weaponizing history. During a visit to Montenegro in October 2018, Serbian Patriarch Irinej evoked the memory of a unified Serbia-Montenegro state, explaining that “we are one nation, although we are divided.” He also appealed to injustices done to the Serb minority in Montenegro, comparing the treatment of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbs in Montenegro to how Serbs were treated during Ottoman occupation and “in the independent State of Croatia”—implying severe persecution at the hands of a pro-Nazi government that tolerated the killings of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and anti-fascist Croats.

Such statements foment internal divisions and erode confidence in leaders and democratic institutions. As many countries in the region are very new and fragile democracies, complications related to independence and democratic transition—issues of representation, protection of minorities, and government accountability—are politically destabilizing, making these countries unappealing for further Euro-Atlantic integration while reinforcing the internal messaging that Western democracy is simply incompatible with Slavic identity and the orthodox faith. Moreover, identity and religion overlap, and powerfully amplify malign Russian influence and the Kremlin’s interests.

Successfully Shaping Pan-Slavic Attitudes

The Western Balkans is a historic cornerstone of Russian influence with a Russian desire to unify Slavic communities across Europe. Prior to World War I, Slavic populations across Eurasia were estimated at 150,000,000: 100,000,000 in Russia, 25,000,000 in Austria-Hungary, with the remaining 25,000,000 residing in the Balkans. The idea of “Pan-Slavism” suggests that borders are irrelevant to the transcendent need to unite ethnic peoples. President Putin frequently champions this need, particularly when it came to reuniting the ethnic Russian communities in neighboring countries. A recent example is a 2014 construct of a “new Russia” or Novorossiya, which was the Kremlin’s policy to reunite the Russian people beyond its borders. Some of the early dynamics of this policy could be found in Russia’s compatriot policies of the mid-1990s. By renewing the historical role of the Russian empire in defending the Slavic world, Russia can reclaim its role as a great power guardian of the region.

In Montenegro, ethnic Serbs represent close to 30 percent of the population, 6 and many identify with and by their Slavic heritage, some even seeking to establish a Greater Serbia and enhance relations with Moscow. A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in October 2017 found that 42 percent of Montenegrins held a very favorable opinion of Vladimir Putin and 42 percent viewed him as a defender of traditional European values. Furthermore, recent polling by the National Democratic Institute highlighted that within Montenegro, Russia is viewed most favorably among foreign states and international institutions. China places second followed by the European Union and the United States. Montenegrins also view Russia as militarily superior to NATO.

Skepticism if not outright hostility about closer relations with the West and NATO are key components of the Kremlin’s narrative. As the Balkans reflects on the 20th anniversary of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and the subsequent 78-day bombing campaign against Serb forces, many ethnic Serbs view NATO as an aggressor who acted without international approval. A public opinion poll conducted in May 2017, a month before Montenegro officially joined the alliance, suggested that 47 percent of Montenegrins were against NATO membership, while 45 percent believe that membership was a positive development. Despite joining the alliance, the debate over NATO and its value continues to be a polarizing issue within Montenegrin society. Opponents are quick to point out that Montenegro is the only country to have joined the alliance after it was the target of NATO military operations.

Actively exploiting societal divisions and appealing to ethnic identity and historical memory has been successful in “changing their consciences,” but it did not ultimately prevent Montenegro from joining NATO as its 29th member despite the Kremlin’s alleged attempts to incite violence and foster a coup. The level of public support for Russia provides many avenues of influence to advance its foreign policy goals.

Russian Influence in Action: The 2016 Coup Attempt

Appeals to cultural, historical, and religious affinities translated into action in October 2016 as a failed coup attempt aimed to prevent Montenegro from joining NATO created a political crisis.

The level of public support for Russia provides many avenues of influence to advance its foreign policy goals.

The day before parliamentary elections on October 16, 2016, Podgorica police arrested a former Serbian gendarmerie commander and 19 other individuals based on the suspicion (and inside information they had received) that they were planning to overthrow the government and murder the prime minister. Serbian nationals were involved, as well as, according to Montenegrin officials, FSB and GRU operatives. 7 The operatives were to disguise themselves as Montenegrin police officers who would create a disruption at parliament, shoot demonstrators and eventually make their way to the prime minister, all while blaming the government for killing innocents. 8 A few days later, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic confirmed law enforcement had arrested individuals in connection to the attempted coup, providing support to the theory that third country individuals were involved. 9 Notably, the Serbian Orthodox Church reportedly hosted a meeting of the instigators of the failed coup in a monastery in 2016 before the elections. 10 The verdict of the trial of the alleged coup instigators is due to be given on May 9, 2019.

Russia’s focus on Montenegro was understandable: it sought to prevent further loss of its influence in the Western Balkans as well as to stave off the loss of the last section of Adriatic coastline not held by NATO. Montenegro had already declined Russia’s request in 2013 to use its deep-water ports of Bar and Kotor for the temporary moorage of warships (giving the fleet easy access to the Eastern Mediterranean). 11 The Russian government, through the voice of then-deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, stated that Montenegro would come to regret its decision to join the alliance. 12

Weaponizing Russia’s Economic Presence in Montenegro

In addition to cultural issues, Russian influence in Montenegro can be channeled through the economic sphere. Foreign direct investments (FDI) from Russia to Montenegro represented around 30 percent of Montenegro’s GDP in 2016, and 13 percent of all inward FDI (Russia was the country’s single largest investor in that year). 13 Though Russia’s corporate footprint has decreased since independence, investments are concentrated in some sectors, particularly services and metallurgy. Tourism and real estate have become an economic boon for Montenegro: real estate has provided close to €25 million in sales taxes since 2006 (an estimated 70,000 properties in the country belong to Russian owners) while tourism now represents 20 percent of Montenegro’s GDP, and Russians account for the largest group of tourists visiting Montenegro today. 14 This is an important leverage point for the Kremlin, and it has used it in recent years in 2017, it launched a media offensive that portrayed Montenegro as a dangerous country with rising crime rates, prompting tourism from Russia to plummet. 15

Russia’s presence in the metallurgy sector was for years exemplified in Oleg Deripaska’s ownership of the Podgorica Aluminum Plant (KAP), which the Russian businessman acquired in 2005. The plant was the largest company in the country (over 2,000 employees and accounting for 15 percent of GDP in 2005), and the acquisition agreement required Deripaska’s company to repay existing debt in return for preferential electricity prices. The 2008 economic crisis hurt the aluminum business, and KAP was unable to fulfill its agreement with the state, leading to bankruptcy and the state taking over the plant. The state did not recover all arrears, and most employees lost their jobs over the plant’s financial hardships. Deripaska has since tried to sue Montenegro, demanding compensation that would crush the state’s finances, but to no avail—although he is now pursuing the case in Cyprus. 16

Foreign direct investments (FDI) from Russia to Montenegro represented around 30 percent of Montenegro’s GDP in 2016, and 13 percent of all inward FDI (Russia was the country’s single largest investor in that year).


Despite the heightened public focus on Montenegro following the 2016 alleged coup plot, the risk of Russian malign influence in Montenegro has not receded following their NATO membership and efforts to join the European Union. If anything, it may be intensifying. Russia will continue to exploit political tensions following the conclusion of the attempted coup trial, and there is evidence that Russia is amplifying the legitimate political protests in Montenegro against the prime minister and alleged government corruption in the so-called “Envelope Affair.”

It bears repeating—everything, from religion, history, information, racial and ethnic tensions, illicit financing, and institutional and economic weakness, can be weaponized by Russia to alter the country’s policy orientation. Evidence of this is present in Montenegro. Cultural tools and influence networks from both within (a sympathetic ethnic Serbian population) and outside Montenegro (intelligence and criminal networks in the region) have been deployed, and Montenegro is proving to be one of Russia’s laboratories for malign influence.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew Melino is a research associate with the CSIS Europe Program.

This brief is made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

End of an Era: The August Coup and the Final Days of the Soviet Union

In August 1991, Soviet hardliners attempted to overthrow the progressive Mikhail Gorbachev, Secretary General of the Communist Party, in a desperate attempt to save the collapsing Soviet Union. Declaring a state of emergency, eight government officials named themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) and forcibly detained Gorbachev in the Crimea, where he refused to resign. At the GKChP’s behest, armored tanks thundered into Moscow on the morning of August 19 th , and the city’s only independent political radio station was silenced. Later that day, President Boris Yeltsin issued a statement condemning the coup and commanding those responsible to release Gorbachev. The coup disintegrated with little bloodshed two days later, on August 21st, when the soldiers withdrew and communications between Gorbachev and Moscow were renewed.

Although unsuccessful, the coup signaled an end to both Gorbachev’s supremacy and to the Soviet Union, which would be dissolved in December of that year. In the following interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning February 2003, William Green Miller, who was working in Moscow for the American Committee on U.S.– Soviet Relations at the time, discusses his impressions of the Soviet Union’s final days, the bitter rivalry between Yeltsin and Gorbachev which all but sealed the fate of the USSR, and his memories of the coup which heralded the end of an era. Read also about Yeltsin’s 1993 constitutional crisis and the attack on the Russian White House.

“Like Sampson, the Soviets brought down their own house”

MILLER: The battle for the survival of the Soviet Union was personified in the rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin. I was there, in the Kremlin, in the Great Hall, when Gorbachev came back from the coup attempt in August. Yeltsin received him on the stage with such visible great contempt, at the swearing-in of Yeltsin as President of Russia. I was present at the trial of the Communist party, which was held in the former offices of the Central Committee, which was then being transformed into the offices of the Constitutional Court. And I was present at committee meetings of the Supreme Soviet on human rights and arms control….

Q: What was the role of nongovernmental committees?

MILLER: NGOs came in to Moscow in abundance starting after the last Central Committee Congress, in 1988, during which Gorbachev gave his landmark speech admitting “there were white spots in history” and that “it was possible to have different views than that of the party,” an admission and permission that began the end of the party….Every conceivable nongovernmental interest group started to arrive, and they multiplied almost like a plague of locusts….it was messy and contradictory and difficult, but all of it was a part of the turbulence going on at the time….

For us, it was total immersion and constant activity, taking part in this momentous change with the most marvelous people, ranging from Gorbachev and Yeltsin to the oppressed gulagis [GULAG survivors] and the Human Rights Group. These human rights people who were able to survive are so remarkable. They are our good friends to this day. I can recall at first we were afraid to meet anyone in their apartment because it would be bugged and it was a risk for them to have Americans in their home. We’d have to go outside and walk and sit on park benches–it was at first, dangerous for our friends to talk to us. After 1988, there were absolutely no inhibitions…

“The best in the human spirit”

Marxism was still deeply held. The Gorbachevian proposition was that Marxism could be reformed, that the era of change was necessary because of the failure of Stalin and his regime’s brutality. The 1968 Czech Prague uprising had a profound effect on Gorbachev. The idea that it was necessary for socialism to have a human face was then widely believed. It is still a strong element of belief in Russia, and as I found, in Ukraine. He believed in reformed Marxist solutions, he believes in it to this day. It’s still a strong school of thought in all of the former Soviet states – although it is a minority view, whereas it was once the only permitted view.

The hardliners, who were in charge of the security organizations, were the holdouts, but in the perestroika [“restructuring”] time, they were the ideological minority, although they were in charge of the security ministries. The August coup of 1991 was their last attempt to maintain control. And that was the question, whether the ideological change, the “new thinking” so called would prevail, or whether the hard-liners would allow the change to take place….[T]he futile, comic coup attempt, by the pathetic coup group, was a clear sign the change was irreversible. The Stalinist hard-liners didn’t have the conviction that a militant group in charge of the power and security ministries in the past would have had.

The children of the Bolshevik Revolution had a different idea. The failure of Gorbachev to handle the expectations and demands of the intellectuals, the inability to control or at least steer the new freedom that had been acquired by the younger generation, was the main reason, I think, for the end of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev couldn’t accommodate or adapt fully enough to the consequences of this new freedom….

This was a hell of a time to be in Moscow as a Foreign Service officer, as an NGO president, as I was, as a journalist, as a tourist. It was an extraordinary moment and a great expression of the best in the human spirit….

I think [there is] a desire on the part of some of our leaders to think that they were responsible for the end of the Soviet Union. The end of the Soviet Union was Soviet, from within. It had little or nothing to do with us…..Like Sampson, the Soviets brought down their own house….

Q: You were there during the coup attempt against Gorbachev, when Yeltsin came into his own?

MILLER: Yes, of course, but there was also the suspicion that Gorbachev was part of the coup. That’s a thought that persists to this day, that Gorbachev was trying, in some way, to get rid of Yeltsin, that Yeltsin was such a threat to Gorbachev that this coup may have been a clumsy effort to get rid of Yeltsin. Yeltsin was warned by the KGB in Moscow and he escaped – he was about to be captured. When I was Ambassador in Ukraine I stayed at Foros [a resort town in Yalta on the southwest coast of the Crimea], there where Gorbachev had been seized by the KGB.

The Director of Foros told me details during my stay there in 1996, of the days of the coup. He was there at the time of the coup. He said that during the coup, Gorbachev always had full communications with Moscow, he was very well-treated. The director believed that Gorbachev was really free to leave, but did not do so until Yeltsin sent Sergei Shakhrai [Olympic pair skater] down with a plane to bring him back after the coup effort collapsed. The Director of Foros believed that Gorbachev was part of the coup. I know that Yeltsin’s people believed that….

“The last gasp”

Q: What was the viewpoint from the Moscow side of the fall of the Berlin wall in 󈨝?

MILLER: The fall of the Berlin Wall cannot be understood by itself. The impact of the 1968 Prague uprising on Gorbachev, the power of the human rights movement and the example of people liked Andrei Sakharov…all contributed to the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall. But most important was Gorbachev’s decision that people of each nation will make their own decision about the government they want to have. Self-determination is a view that he came to in 1968 in the Prague uprising. Some of his close friends were Czechs….

The possibilities of working out a new democratic rationale for the Soviet Union [were] lost with the death of Sakharov. Sakharov was the only one who could have crafted a new viable confederation, a looser democratic arrangement of states within the territorial framework of the former Soviet Union.

[T]he debate at that time centered on the issues of whether it was possible to have a confederation on new principles, principles of democracy, human rights, decent civic and civil behavior….It was a brief period of two years when this remarkable group of Russians were looking at the possibilities of a great new future. After all, the Soviet Union was a country that was founded on dreams, dreams that were almost never realized, of course. These dreams and hopes perhaps were never intended by the Stalinists and the leaders of the Communist Party to be anything more than temporary illusions. But in those years, there were dreams and hopes that seemed to have meaning and possibility. People were coming to Moscow from all over the Warsaw Pact region….

It was a very real hope – that is, the possibility of a democratic Soviet Union. The chance for a democratic Soviet Union is challenged by the drive to create an independent Russia.

Yeltsin, as you remember, championed the independence movement of Russia. His motivations, I would say were primarily personal. Yeltsin wanted to break the power of Gorbachev, his sworn enemy. I don’t think it was the highest of motives. At the same time, many members of the Supreme Soviet were also elected to the Russian Parliament, so they served, for a time, in the legislature in both places. In the opinion of most political observers of the time, the very best, the most talented were those who decided to stay with the Soviet Union. I thought so too. They said ‘Our highest duty is with the Soviet Union. We can’t serve two masters.’…

That crucial period in Moscow was extraordinarily hopeful from the point of view of the possibilities of constructing a new Europe, a new world after the failed experiment of the Communist Party. Russia lost its direction when it lost Sakharov….I would say once the Sakharov’s moral and intellectual leadership was gone and there was a divided struggle for power between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, the impetus for self-determination, independent states, gained sway, and that was really the end. The coup attempt was very symptomatic. The coup was the last gasp, a last-ditch effort by a military coup, by those who wanted to keep the Soviet Union together.

“The death blow”

Q: How did your organization and you see developments prior to the coup?

MILLER: We were just as active after the coup as before in working in the parliaments of both of these structures, and in the new ministries of Russia, particularly the Ministry of Justice, while at the same time the existing Soviet structures were in place. There was a kind of joint responsibility of many of those who were Russian and those from outside who were really helping both places, because it was all seen at that time as useful. But, certainly, there was an overall sense of waiting, waiting for the decision. There was a peculiar sense of stasis even in the midst of dynamic change. Many efforts were made to bridge the gap between Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the last year, but after the August failed coup, Yeltsin had the upper hand and he used his advantage to destroy Gorbachev’s power.

Gorbachev knew that a coup was being considered and he may have been complicit, even if he was not directly involved in the actual carrying out of the attempted takeover. The Politburo had fractured, obviously, with the creation of Russia earlier in the year, and all that were left in the Soviet leadership structure were second-raters, but they were certainly controllable by Gorbachev, even in the diminished circumstances.

I think the coup, which [Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Eduard] Shevardnadze warned about very clearly – he said, “They’re coming” – was not a surprise to Gorbachev….I think Gorbachev knew. There was a lot of evidence pointing to that, and had the coup been successful in removing Yeltsin from the scene, Gorbachev would have acted in a very forceful way in moving in the direction of a loose federation.…

[After the coup] Gorbachev was cut to pieces by Yeltsin, particularly after Shevardnadze’s departure. He lost his majority in the ruling group, the Soviet ruling group….He had lost the leadership role and he didn’t convert the disintegration of the Politburo and the Central Committee into a majority group in the legislature, which was where the leadership was. Political leadership had gone from the Party to the legislature. This was the great change in the Soviet structure of the last several years of perestroika.

The Party, the Communist Party – the Party of Power — had disintegrated. The Party, as an instrument of power, had disintegrated. The Party as a reflection of intellectual allegiances remained, but it was now in splinters, it no longer was the identity to the state. The Party was the state up until 1989. After the collapse of the single Party in the last Congress of the Party in 1988, it was no longer the main structural instrument of governance. It wasn’t the state any longer, so the state was somewhere out there, but the legislature was from where legitimate leadership and policy direction would come….

Gorbachev still had the remnants of the power in his grasp, and he had great putative power. He could have, in the minds of many, put it together again. But the coup of August 21 st , ’91 was….the last desperate effort to hold it together. The coup was a crude device carried out by primitives and incompetents, as we saw. It ended disastrously, in such humiliation for Gorbachev. I witnessed the public humiliation when he came back from Foros in Crimea. I was in the Great Hall in the Kremlin, in the Assembly, and it was horrible.

Well, it was the coronation, really, of Yeltsin, and a symbolic transfer of power. Yeltsin treated him very much in a way of a Roman emperor treating a king that had been defeated by the legions. It was symbolic it was powerfully conveyed on television and throughout the world. Psychologically, the death blow was administered. One could see it, and everyone was affected. That was the decisive moment, when Gorbachev came back.

The Fall of the Soviet Union in rare pictures, 1991

A woman reaches into her bag, which rests on a fallen Soviet hammer-and-sickle on a Moscow street in 1991.

What led to this monumental historical event? In fact, the answer is a very complex one, and can only be arrived at with an understanding of the peculiar composition and history of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was built on approximately the same territory as the Russian Empire which it succeeded. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the newly-formed government developed a philosophy of socialism with the eventual and gradual transition to Communism. The state which the Bolsheviks created was intended to overcome national differences, and rather to create one monolithic state based on a centralized economical and political system. This state, which was built on a Communist ideology, was eventually transformed into a totalitarian state, in which the Communist leadership had complete control over the country.

Lithuanians carry Lithuanian flags in the center of Vilnius on January 10, 1990, during demonstration asking for the country’s independence. In early 1990, Sajudis-Reform Movement of Lithuania backed candidates won the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Soviet proclaimed the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence. The Baltic republics were in forefront of the struggle for independence and Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence.

However, this project of creating a unified, centralized socialist state proved problematic for several reasons. First, the Soviets underestimated the degree to which the non-Russian ethnic groups in the country (which comprised more than fifty percent of the total population of the Soviet Union) would resist assimilation into a Russianized State. Second, their economic planning failed to meet the needs of the State, which was caught up in a vicious arms race with the United States. This led to gradual economic decline, eventually necessitating the need for reform. Finally, the ideology of Communism, which the Soviet Government worked to instill in the hearts and minds of its population, never took firm root, and eventually lost whatever influence it had originally carried.

By the time of the 1985 rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s last leader, the country was in a situation of severe stagnation, with deep economic and political problems which sorely needed to be addressed and overcome. Recognizing this, Gorbachev introduced a two-tiered policy of reform. On one level, he initiated a policy of glasnost, or freedom of speech. On the other level, he began a program of economic reform known as perestroika, or rebuilding. What Gorbachev did not realize was that by giving people complete freedom of expression, he was unwittingly unleashing emotions and political feelings that had been pent up for decades, and which proved to be extremely powerful when brought out into the open. Moreover, his policy of economic reform did not have the immediate results he had hoped for and had publicly predicted. The Soviet people consequently used their newly allotted freedom of speech to criticize Gorbachev for his failure to improve the economy.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, center, in animated conversation with residents of Vilnius, Lithuania, on Thursday, January 11, 1990. Gorbachev was in the Lithuanian capital to press for reversal of the local communist party’s decision to split from Moscow and to slow the republic’s drive for complete independence.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union began on the peripheries, in the non-Russian areas. The first region to produce mass, organized dissent was the Baltic region, where, in 1987, the government of Estonia demanded autonomy. This move was later followed by similar moves in Lithuania and Latvia, the other two Baltic republics. The nationalist movements in the Baltics constituted a strong challenge to Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. He did not want to crack down too severely on the participants in these movements, yet at the same time, it became increasingly evident that allowing them to run their course would spell disaster for the Soviet Union, which would completely collapse if all of the periphery republics were to demand independence.

After the initiative from Estonia, similar movements sprang up all over the former Soviet Union. In the Transcaucasus region (in the South of the Soviet Union), a movement developed inside the Armenian-populated autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabagh, in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Armenian population of this region demanded that they be granted the right to secede and join the Republic of Armenia, with whose population they were ethnically linked. Massive demonstrations were held in Armenia in solidarity with the secessionists in Nagorno-Karabagh. The Gorbachev government refused to allow the population of Nagorno-Karabagh to secede, and the situation developed into a violent territorial dispute, eventually degenerating into an all-out war which continues unabated until the present day.

A crowd blocks the passage of Soviet tanks on a road near Ganja, formerly Kirovabad, in Soviet Azerbaijan, on January 22, 1990. Troops sent into the area last week to quell ethnic violence met both armed and peaceful resistance.

Once this “Pandora’s box” had been opened, nationalist movements emerged in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Byelorussia, and the Central Asian republics. The power of the Central Government was considerably weakened by these movements they could no longer rely on the cooperation of Government figures in the republics.

Finally, the situation came to a head in August of 1991. In a last-ditch effort to save the Soviet Union, which was floundering under the impact of the political movements which had emerged since the implementation of Gorbachev’s glasnost, a group of “hard-line” Communists organized a coup d’etat. They kidnapped Gorbachev, and then, on August 19 of 1991, they announced on state television that Gorbachev was very ill and would no longer be able to govern. The country went into an uproar. Massive protests were staged in Moscow, Leningrad, and many of the other major cities of the Soviet Union. When the coup organizers tried to bring in the military to quell the protestors, the soldiers themselves rebelled, saying that they could not fire on their fellow countrymen. After three days of massive protest, the coup organizers surrendered, realizing that without the cooperation of the military, they did not have the power to overcome the power of the entire population of the country.

After the failed coup attempt, it was only a few months until the Soviet Union completely collapsed. Both the government and the people realized that there was no way to turn back the clock the massive demonstrations of the “August days” had demonstrated that the population would accept nothing less than democracy. Gorbachev conceded power, realizing that he could no longer contain the power of the population. On December 25, 1991, he resigned. By January of 1992, by popular demand, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Collected here are photos from those tumultuous months.

People buy teacups in the Vilnius downtown shop on Friday, April 27, 1990. Despite an economic blockade of Lithuania by Soviet forces, shops in Vilnius are well supplied with food and other goods as Lithuania entered the 10th day of a blockade.

Residents face a cordon of Soviet Interior Ministry troops in front of the local Communist Party Headquarters in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, on February 15, 1990. Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency in the city, following ethnic rioting.

Two Soviet paratroopers inspect weapons confiscated from a local militia organization in Kaunas, Lithuania on Sunday, March 26, 1990. Soviet President Gorbachev ordered all Lithuanians to surrender their firearms to Soviet authorities.

Soviet mothers who lost their sons in the Red Army are held back by State militia as they hold photographs of their loved ones in Red Square, on Monday, December 24, 1990. A group of about 200 Soviet parents who have all lost sons through ethnic violence and accidents within the Soviet armed services demonstrated outside the Kremlin. 6,000 Soviet service men were killed during 1990.

About 100,000 demonstrators march on the Kremlin in Moscow on January 20, 1991. Many called for the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev protesting against the Soviet army crackdown against the nationalist Lithuanian authorities. Lithuania had been the first Baltic Republic to proclaim its independence in March 1990.

Soviet soldiers patrol an emptied Red Square in Moscow, on March 27, 1991, after the area had been blocked off in anticipation of a pro-Yeltsin rally.

Anti-Soviet political graffiti filled an entire wall in Vilnius on January 17, 1991. The wall surrounding the Lithuanian parliament was erected to defend against a possible raid by Soviet troops. Many Soviet army deserters pinned their draft cards to a defaced poster of President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In this photo taken on January 13, 1991, a Lithuanian demonstrator runs in front of a Soviet Red Army tank during an assault on the Lithuanian Radio and Television station in Vilnius. Soviet troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in Vilnius, killing 13 people and injuring 100 others.

An armed Lithuanian volunteer guard wakes up as his fellow compatriot slept in Vilnius, Lithuania, on January 23, 1991. Hundreds of gunmen held vigil in the heavily fortified Lithuanian parliament while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev urged all Baltic republics to prevent further violence.

Pall-bearers carry a flag-draped casket during a funeral procession through Vilnius, on January 16, 1991, for 10 of the 13 people killed when Soviet troops stormed the Lithuanian broadcast center the previous weekend. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians jammed the procession route to mourn their national heroes.

A few weeks before the Coup, Mikhail Gorbachev stands surrounded by his so-called friends, all of them soon to be leaders of the August Coup against him. Vice President Gennady Yanayev, second from right, became the most visible of the Coup leaders. Here, they are lighting the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier outside the Kremlin wall in May of 1991.

Soviet Army tanks parked near Spassky Gate, an entrance to the Kremlin and Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. Tanks rolled through Moscow towards the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Soviet-era Russian republic at the time, gathered his supporters after denouncing the coup.

The leaders of the August Coup: from left, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo, Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and Oleg Baklanov, the first Vice-President of the Soviet Defence Council. These men were members of the self-styled “committee for the state of emergency” which headed the coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Here, they gave a press conference on August 19, 1991 in Moscow.

A crowd gathers around a personnel carrier as some people climb aboard the vehicle and try to block its advance near Red Square in downtown Moscow, on August 19, 1991. Military vehicles were on the streets of Moscow following the announcement that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Gennady I. Yanayev in a coup attempt by hard-line Communists.

Supporters of Russian president Yeltsin roll a large metal pipe to use as a barricade near the Russian federation building in Moscow, on August 19, 1991, following a military coup attempt by Soviet hardliners.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) stands on top of an armored vehicle parked in front of the Russian Federation building as supporters hold a Russian federation flag on August 19, 1991, during a coup attempt. Yeltsin addressed a crowd of supporters calling for a general strike.

A picture shows Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaking in a video message taped on August 19, 1991, the second day of his captivity. Gorbachev said there had been an unconstitutional coup and that he was completely well. Photo taken on August 25, 1991.

A pro-democracy demonstrator fights with a Soviet soldier on top of a tank parked in front of the Russian Federation building on August 19, 1991, after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The same day, thousands in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities answered Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin’s call to raise barricades against tanks and troops.

A defiant Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) raises a fist to his supporters from the Russian Federation building in Moscow on August 19, 1991, calling on them to hold a general strike and to resist the pro-communist coup against Soviet President Gorbachev.

Over 50,000 people ignore a declared state of emergency and gather in front of the Russian parliament building in order to support Boris Yeltsin, on August 20, 1991.

A pro-democracy demonstrator argues with a Soviet soldier late on August 20, 1991, as a tank blocked access to the center of Moscow.

Residents play music and talk to soldiers in front of the Russian White House in central Moscow early on August 20, 1991.

People stand on a barricade in front the Russian White House in Moscow on August 21, 1991.

A soldier waves a Russian flag from the top of his tank as armored units leave their positions in Moscow following the collapse of the military coup against president Gorbachev on August 21, 1991. Coup leaders fled the capital and president Gorbachev was rumored to be returning soon.

Part of a large crowd, outside the Russian Parliament building in Moscow, celebrates the news that the hardline Communist coup has failed, on August 22, 1991.

Celebrations in Moscow after the failure of the coup attempt, and remembrances of those killed in the violence, in August of 1991.

A crowd watches the statue of KGB founder Dzerzhinsky being toppled in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, on August 22, 1991.

President Mikhail Gorbachev, in the Soviet Parliament right after his return from being under house arrest during the August, 1991 coup.

People follow a funeral procession for the victims of the coup in front of Russian White House in Moscow on August 24, 1991, after the coup attempt failed.

A group of Boris Yeltsin supporters rip apart one of the barricades surrounding the Russian federation building in Moscow, on August 25, 1991, following a coup attempt a few days before that eventually failed.

A Baku resident uses an axe to hack apart a placard showing a portrait of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, on September 21, 1991. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet Union in 1920. The Azeri National Council voted for its declaration of independence in 1991.

A member of the KGB (right) who requested anonymity hands over his weapon to a Lithuanian official before leaving the KGB headquarters in Vilnius after Lithuanian government decided to drop the Soviet secret service organization, on August 31, 1991.

Soviet rock fans attend a concert in Moscow on September 28, 1991. Half a million people jammed an airfield to see the Monsters of Rock concert featuring AC/DC, Pantera and Metallica at the Soviet Union’s biggest Western rock concert, touted as a gift to Russian youth for their resistance to last month’s coup.

A young Lithuanian girl sits on the toppled statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Vilnius after the monument was removed from the center of the Lithuanian capital, on September 1, 1991.

A jubilant Chechen secessionist with clenched fists opens his arms to the crowd during a rally in Grozny, on November 14, 1991, to celebrate the pullout of Soviet troops from the Muslim enclave in Southern Russia.

Citizens of the Ukraine vote on a referendum for independence from the Soviet Union at the Ukraine Embassy in Moscow, on December 1, 1991.

The Musichick family watches Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation speech on Soviet television in their downtown Moscow apartment, on December 25, 1991. Gorbachev, whose reforms gave Soviet citizens freedom but ultimately led to the destruction of his nation resigned on as President of a Communist empire that no longer exists.

or one of the last times, the Soviet flag flies over the Kremlin at Red Square in Moscow, on Saturday night, December 21, 1991. The flag was replaced by the Russian flag on New Year’s.

Steele's dossier: 'Clown show' or the greatest Russian coup?

The known details of the so-called Steele dossier point to a peculiar ambiguity. To expert analysts, it always appeared to be low-quality political opposition research. Yet, it turned American against American, paralyzed our government — and may be the greatest Russian disinformation coup in history.

On Jan. 10, 2017, BuzzFeed published the dossier. Supposedly written by an ex-MI6 agent turned consultant, Christopher Steele, it charged, among other offenses, that President-elect Trump was a longtime Russian agent and a pervert to boot.

Trump’s many opponents rushed to adopt the dossier as a road map to Putin-Trump collusion.

At about the same time, the FBI was interrogating a 42-year-old Russian national working in Washington. The interviewee, Igor Danchenko, admitted to being Steele’s primary source for the dossier. The “clueless” Danchenko confirmed that he had collected the dossier’s “raw material” from talking with drinking buddies. For purposes of the dossier, Steele would transform Danchenko’s “sources” into high-level Kremlin insiders.

Danchenko’s admissions should have prompted the FBI to dump the dossier immediately. That the FBI proceeded to pursue the dossier’s “road map” is the ultimate scandal of what conservatives would subsequently dismiss as “Russiagate.”

As special counsel Robert Mueller Robert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE and, later, Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz moved their interminable investigations behind closed doors, Russiagate turned into a circus of anti-Trump leaks. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC “confirmed” various aspects of the dossier’s fabulisms in the form of leaks from “current and former American officials” who wished to remain anonymous.”

It was not until the 2019-2020 release of classified footnotes (including the Danchenko interview and Steele’s depositions), as well as the FBI’s refutation of a key New York Times leak and its own inability to verify much of the dossier, that the anti-Trump sensational leaks were debunked — but not before the Times and the Washington Post won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage. The Trump administration now waits for media “mea culpas” that will never come. Being wrong, apparently, does not mean having to say you’re sorry.

This author was among the few voices contending from the beginning that the dossier was a fake. I entered this fray two days after BuzzFeed with an article, “The Trump Dossier Is Fake — And Here Are The Reasons Why.” I followed with a series of articles that challenged Steele’s “dossier.”

Lacking special sources, I had to rely on simple smell tests: Do the events described in the dossier make any sense? Are Steele’s sources credible? Was there a hidden agenda?

That the dossier purports to be a breathtaking peek into the highest echelons of Vladimir Putin Vladimir Vladimirovich PutinHillicon Valley: Senate unanimously confirms Chris Inglis as first White House cyber czar | Scrutiny mounts on Microsoft's surveillance technology | Senators unveil bill to crack down on cyber criminals Ukrainian diplomat calls for Russia to withdraw after Biden-Putin summit Meghan McCain, Whoopi Goldberg spar over Biden's outburst at CNN reporter MORE ’s Kremlin constituted the most important warning signal. Steele claimed that his informants (aka, Danchenko’s drinking pals) had first-hand knowledge of intra-Kremlin power struggles, that Putin ordered the Democratic National Committee hack and controlled a Hillary Clinton Hillary Diane Rodham ClintonVirginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP Hillary Clinton backs Shontel Brown in Ohio congressional race Hillary Clinton: Casting doubt on 2020 election is 'doing Putin's work' MORE dossier, and that the head of Russia’s national oil company offered a minor Trump associate a gargantuan bribe. To believe the dossier is to believe that Steele’s network knew just about every significant detail of Kremlin life.

Liberal Russian commentator Yulia Latynina demolishes Steele’s “sources,” writing for those who do not know how Putin’s Russia works: “Christopher Steele, the humble head of a small consulting company Orbis with a dozen employees, including cleaners, has ‘sources’ everywhere: in the Kremlin … moreover, at the very top. After all, ‘sources’ of this kind in Russia … have their own palaces, yachts, private jets. It is not entirely clear why these corrupt billionaires … should reveal top-secrets to a consultant who had not visited Russia for 13 years.”

Steele could not “buy” his sources with his $186,000 budget. They were either Danchenko’s buddies, embellished by Steele, or they were Russian disinformation specialists. The FBI revelation that the Kremlin knew of Steele’s opposition research means that Russian intelligence could handily have inserted disinformation into Danchenko’s social circle for him to pass on to Steele.

Journalist, author and Russia historian David Satter is another voice who, early on, questioned the dossier. Satter also wrote two days after the BuzzFeed publication that the Steele dossier had all the signs of Russian disinformation — “a carefully constructed attempt to disrupt American political life for years to come.”

Satter, who was expelled from Russia because of his reporting there, immediately identified typical themes of Russian disinformation in the dossier — such as Putin’s supposed desire to return to 19th-century power status as an excuse for naked aggression, the Russian Federal Security Service’s (FSB) “use of perversion kompromat, and the attribution of policy differences to personality conflicts.”

Satter characterizes the Russian disinformation campaign in the dossier as a monumental success in turning American against American. The Kremlin, according to Satter, does not share the U.S. perception of differences between the 2016 political candidates Putin did not care if Clinton or Trump won, because each had pluses and minuses for Russia. Tearing America apart was — and remains — the Holy Grail of Russian disinformation.

There is an impressive collection of Russia specialists in U.S. universities and think tanks some have written impressive monographs on Russian disinformation. They would know that any dossier purportedly based on Russian sources must be suspect. Yet such voices have been silent.

The slack has been taken up by a few journalists, such as Gregg Jarrett of Fox News, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Kimberley Strassel and Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal. With the flood of released documents, these skeptics have characterized the Trump-Russia investigation as a “clown show” (Taibbi) or suggested that Woody Allen should play Steele “for laughs” in the eventual movie (Strassel).

Viewed from one angle, the Steele dossier indeed has all the elements of a comedy — but it achieved incredible results. As Satter writes: “The Trump-Russia affair did lasting damage to the U.S. For the first time, it became acceptable, even common, to accuse political opponents of treason. The media, Congress and the intelligence services have all undermined themselves by repeating wild and unsubstantiated charges provided for them by Russian intelligence.”

In retrospect, the “clown show” dossier was put together ingeniously. First, the identity of the ultimate client was kept secret long enough for it not to ruin the show. Second, in Steele the Russians had someone with a modicum of respectability to gain access to American government and media and, in the media and professional bureaucracy, they had an army of Trump-haters ready to believe anything.