It was the late summer of 1991. The Soviet Union was careening toward collapse. Mikhail Gorbachev was in his sixth year of power and deep into his program of glasnost and perestroika. And hard-liners opposed to his policies had just attempted a coup.
Boris Yeltsin, who was then the first democratically elected president of the U.S.S.R.’s Russian Republic (the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic), took a stand against the coup leaders by barricading himself in Moscow’s White House, which then housed the Russian parliament, and was quickly surrounded by thousands of supporters.
In the end, the failed coup attempt only lasted a few days. The U.S.S.R. only lasted a few more months.
Thousands of miles away, in Washington, people in another White House were closely watching the unfolding events over those tense August days two decades ago.
Among them was Brent Scowcroft, who was then the national security adviser to U.S. President George H.W. Bush. The retired air force lieutenant general had served in the same capacity for President Gerald Ford (1973-76) and been Henry Kissinger’s deputy under President Richard Nixon.
Scowcroft says he and the other members of Bush’s foreign-policy team saw Gorbachev as someone who “was, in a way, doing what we thought was our work for us” by introducing reforms and liberalization to the Soviet Union. The Bush administration had already been walking a fine line between encouraging what Scowcroft describes as the “evolving liberal spirit, or unrest, in [the Soviet satellite states in] Eastern Europe” and trying to keep the scope and pace of change “below that which the Soviet Union would have to feel it had to crush.”
RFERL marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union with a multimedia project featuring the stories of ordinary people alongside the memories of the decision makers. The Fall: 20 Years After the Collapse Of The U.S.S.R.
Amid that foreign-policy dilemma, Scowcroft says Gorbachev’s own reformist spirit was welcomed by Washington. “While we didn’t really think Gorbachev was a democrat, he was trying to make the Soviet Union more efficient by going after corruption, absenteeism, drunkenness, and also the repressive aspects of the system which stifled productivity,” he says. “So he was trying to make the system more efficient. And we thought that was good, because in the process of doing it he was undermining what kept it together.”
‘Chicken Kyiv’ Speech
The August 1991 coup failed, but the hard-liners did succeed in crippling the man they had targeted. “Gorbachev came back severely diminished in his stature,” Scowcroft said, adding that that’s when “Yeltsin became more important” to Washington.
But it wasn’t just Yeltsin with whom Washington needed to forge a new relationship. Across the former Soviet Union, 15 new nations and leaders were emerging; in Georgia, a nationalist named Zviad Gamsakhurdia ascended to power, In Ukraine, Soviet apparatchik Leonid Kuchma rose to the top.
“There was a steep learning curve not only because of their own personal predilections on politics but [because] they represented different interests,” Scowcroft says. “Dealing with the interests of the Soviet Union itself is one thing; dealing with the interests of 15 or 20 different entities who represent more specialized interests was a very different kind of a problem. But I don’t remember us ever thinking in those terms. This was history unfolding before us, and we weren’t sure how it was going to work out. So we just tried to make it peaceful and successful.”
WATCH: Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under U.S. President George H. W. Bush, spoke to RFE/RL about the administration’s response to the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Ukraine, however, Washington’s foreign-policy approach was momentarily lost in translation. On August 1, 1991, as independence movements were gaining momentum across the U.S.S.R., President Bush gave what infamously came to be known as his “Chicken Kiev” speech, which he and others from that era, including Scowcroft, are still trying to explain.
In remarks before the Ukrainian parliament in the capital, Kyiv, Bush warned against “suicidal nationalism” and said Americans would not support replacing “a far-off tyranny with a local despotism.”
William Safire, who at the time was an influential columnist for “The New York Times,” immediately labeled it Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech and derided it as weak on communism and U.S. support for democracy. The description of Bush’s remarks has stuck ever since. Months later, Ukrainians voted overwhelmingly for independence.
In 2004, while on a return trip to Ukraine, Bush told a group of students that his words had been misconstrued. What he was trying to say, he said, was that they shouldn’t do “something stupid.” He added, “If your leaders hadn’t acted smartly, there would have been a crackdown” from Moscow.
Scowcroft says he and others on the White House foreign-policy team had written the speech with an eye on what was happening with the chaotic and violent break-up of Yugoslavia, and never thought it would be interpreted it as the United States opposing independence movements.
“What we were saying to Ukraine [was] not, ‘Don’t think about whether you want to be part of the Soviet Union,’ but there’s east Ukraine, and west Ukraine, and there was a lot of enmity, or discussion, between the two; ‘Don’t let that kind of suicidal nationalism get you carried away.’ That was the message,” Scowcroft says. “But in retrospect I would not have recommended that the president give the speech because it was too complicated.”
Russia ‘Still Searching’
The last decade has brought three democratic revolutions in former Soviet countries: 2004’s Orange Revolution in Ukraine, 2003’s Rose Revolution in Georgia, and 2005’s Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan. Russia, Scowcroft says, is “still feeling its way.”
There have been just two Russian presidents since Boris Yeltsin left office in 1999, and neither one could be called a reformer: The current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who served as president from 2000 to 2008; and current President Dmitry Medvedev, who has said he will step aside next spring to allow Putin to return to power.
During eight years of Putin’s leadership, the country took a turn toward authoritarianism it hadn’t seen since the pre-Gorbachev days. Political opposition was suppressed, civil rights were sharply curbed, and media freedoms were rolled back.
Scowcroft doesn’t foresee a return to those days, but he also thinks it will take more time for Russians to fully feel a part of Europe, and as such, demand the same freedoms and opportunities as citizens on the Continent have.
Twenty years after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., he says, Russians are “still seeking to find where their center of gravity really is.”
Brian Whitmore contributed research to this article