Mohan Guruswamy | Christmas ’91: The day Red Flag was lowered

The Asian Age.  | Mohan Guruswamy

Opinion, Columnists

For most of that decade, Russia teetered on the brink with Yeltsin’s mood swings worsened by the alcoholic haze he was in most of the time


Twenty-nine years ago, at 7 pm on December 25, as the rest of the world celebrated Christmas, Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the world that he was resigning as President of the Soviet Union and formally pronounced the end of the continental state forged by Vladimir Lenin. No sooner had Gorbachev finished, the Red Flag came down from the top of the Senate Dome in the Kremlin for the last time.

At the same time Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the defence chief, arrived at Gorbachev’s office to collect the chemodanchik, or the Soviet version of the black suitcase, referred to by the Americans with Strangelovian fondness as the “football”, containing the nuclear codes for the Soviet President to launch all-out and unrestrained nuclear war. 

This was contrary to the agreement between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. In that script, Yeltsin was to call on the Soviet President and receive it from him. So Marshal Shaposhnikov improvised and persuaded Gorbachev to let him sign for it. Thus, this symbol of supreme power quietly left Mikhail Gorbachev and went over to Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Federation, who was waiting for it elsewhere in the Kremlin. 

Twice that year I visited the USSR. The first trip took me from Moscow to Vladivostok, where I saw how the average Russian outside Moscow lived. We stayed in Vladivostok’s only hotel for foreigners and lived on a diet of fish, watery cabbage soup and black bread for all four days. Providentially, the Indian embassy had provisioned our group with some tinned fruit, condensed milk, instant coffee and breakfast cereal.

The second time I stayed in a small Moscow apartment belonging to an old Russian widow, who for a small dollar price agreed to part with her state-allotted home. The flat, a few kilometres away from the Indian embassy at Ulitza Obhuka, was as tiny as they come. The bedroom had enough place for just a single bed. The living room was of the same size and had a sofa-cum-bed. The kitchen was tiny and bare. The bathroom was not much bigger than a train toilet. Food was not available for love or money, but there was a lot of love available for food or money. 

After the first visit, I had occasion to tell Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao about what I saw in Russia. I told him that we were on the verge of something significant and that events in Russia may lead to a shakeup hitherto unthinkable. 

At the PMO’s suggestion I made a second and longer visit to Russia that ended just a couple weeks ahead of the KGB-led abortive coup in August 1991. It only reinforced my views and but the external affairs ministry in New Delhi, and particularly the Indian ambassador in Russia, were not willing to accept this view. After I met with the MoS at the PMO, Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, and briefed him, the ambassador, who was on a visit to New Delhi, invited me for lunch at the IIC and berated me for peddling unfounded fears to the PM. He said that the USSR was eternal and that the Red Army was the vanguard of the revolution and will ensure the longevity of the Soviet Union. He urged with me not to fill the PM with unfounded inferences and confidently predicted that I will be proved wrong. 

In the immediate wake of the failed KGB coup, the PM did make a mild comment deriding the pace of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. But with the return of a somewhat diminished Gorbachev from his confinement in Foros on the Black Sea, the know-alls were quick to deride the PM for being hasty and uninformed. The day was saved by a revolt in the Red Army with Shaposhnikov leading the rejection of Marshal Yazov’s order to arrest Boris Yeltsin and the new arrangements after the August 1991 events were to put the USSR into a steep dive.

Shortly after the failed coup the three Baltic states seceded. The economic situation became chaotic. On December 8 that year, the Presidents Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation, Ukraine’s Leonid Kravchuk and Belarus’ Stanislav Shuskevich secretly met at a hunting lodge in Belovezh in Belarus and decided to dissolve the USSR. Thirteen days later, on December 21, representatives of 11 of the 12 remaining Soviet republics -- all except Georgia -- signed the Alma Ata Protocol which confirmed the end of the Soviet Union and announced the establishment of something called the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The summit of Alma Ata also provisionally accepted Gorbachev’s resignation as President of the Soviet Union and agreed on several other practical measures consequential to the dissolution of the USSR. 

For most of that decade that followed, Russia teetered on the brink with Yeltsin’s mood swings worsened by the alcoholic haze he was in most of the time. In 1993, Yeltsin finally visited India after postponing it a few times. Russian foreign policy had taken a new direction under foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, and India was concerned about Russian support in the UN. Our MIGs were also mostly grounded, as were the submarines, and India was keen to get the supply chains restored.  So much hinged on getting Yeltsin’s attentions and into his good books.

From my contacts I had learned that Yeltsin’s preferred vodka was a brand called Kristal and that Yeltsin collected daggers. The appropriate officials were informed, and the government quickly swung into action and several crateloads of Kristal were procured from Moscow and flown into India as diplomatic baggage. The vodka was placed prominently in the visiting dignitary’s suite at Rashtrapati Bhavan. An officer from the Cabinet Secretariat was dispatched to Jaipur to buy a jewelled encrusted Rajasthani dagger.

When Prime Minister Narasimha Rao gifted it to him, Yeltsin quickly unwrapped the gift and beamed with pleasure. He was clearly pleased with the attention to detail and he signed a joint statement restating Moscow’s position on Kashmir. But quite clearly, the new Russia was not the superpower that the USSR was. It lurched till 1999 when Vladimir Putin took over as President. In the last 22 years, Mr Putin has to a great extent brought Russia back to the superpower status it has missed since that Christmas day in 1991.