Dead: The man who would be Soviet President
The death of Gennady Yanayev (73) on Friday, September 24, 2010, did not go unremarked at our house. In fact, Wonder Wife and I owe a strange debt to the late Gennady Yanayev.
So, who was Gennady Yanayev? He was the Soviet vice-president and Soviet Politburo insider who, on August 19, 1991, tried to lead a coup against then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. While Gorbachev and his family were on vacation in the sunny Crimea, Yanayev and 11 fellow plotters had Gorbachev placed under arrest.
But when Yanayev proclaimed to the Soviet media that he was the new Soviet president, his hands shook so visibly not even the communist-controlled press could ignore his tremors. Half a world away, as Wonder Wife and I watched Yanayev on TV, Yanayev’s shaking hands came as no surprise.
Moments later, we received a phone call from my then editor at USA Today who just happened to remember that my wife and I interviewed Gennady Yanayev in his Moscow office during the summer of 1989. My editor wanted our opinion of Yanayev, the person, and he wanted our prediction as to whether the coup against Gorbachev would succeed or fail.
Without hesitation, I said Gennady Yanayev was a drunk who could not organize a two-car parade (admittedly, the second worst cliché since canned beer) and that the coup would fail within days. My editor asked me to dash off about 350 words to that effect. The very next morning, our bold prediction was a big headline stretched across the top of USA Today’s coverage of the coup. Within three days, the coup failed. Scoop-wise, USA Today aced out the entire world media.
So, how did the then editor-in-chief of The Capital Times of Lincoln, Nebraska, and his wife become the “experts” on a “high” Soviet official? It happened because, during the summer of 1989, we and ten other American journalists were invited by Novosti, the Soviet Press Agency, to visit Moscow, Minsk and Leningrad. Our group, led by the noted author, Larry Moffitt, included the late Tony Snow, then a relatively unknown journalist who would later become press secretary for President George. W. Bush. Together, we spent 17 miserable days and nights touring the “people’s paradise.”
Just as we arrived in Moscow, the coal miners of the Soviet Union decided life in Soviet coal mines was not paradise. They struck for better working conditions. Our group, known to each other as “the dirty dozen” because our hotel had no hot water, asked to interview the head of the Soviet National Council of Trade Unions who just happened to be: Gennady Yanayev.
We were immediately struck by Yanayev’s palatial office which included a massive mahogany conference room table and an expensive, state-of-the-art simultaneous translation system. The Soviet labor boss lived like God in pre-revolutionary France.
We asked Yanayev about the strike by the coal miners. Yanayev told us the strike was settled. We knew he was lying because Tony Snow had just listened to the BBC short-wave service reporting the strike was far from settled. In fact, the strike continued throughout our stay.
We expected Soviet officials to lie to us; however, we were shocked to see a very senior Soviet official so visibly drunk so early in the morning. His hands were shaking so badly we were all embarrassed for him.
After the failure of Yanayev’s August, 1991, coup, he and his co-conspirators went to prison; however; they were released in 1993. Yanayev spent the rest of his life in relative obscurity.
The strange debt? Yanayev’s aborted coup hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union just four months later. Our scoop resulted in more editorial-page writing assignments. May Gennady Yanayev rest in peace. And, do so with our thanks.
Nationally syndicated columnist, William Hamilton, was educated at the University of Oklahoma, the George Washington University, the U.S Naval War College, the University of Nebraska, and Harvard University.
©2010. William Hamilton.