David Jones (who just died the other day. RIP) organised an annual meeting at his ancestral home in Bedford Basin, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Purpose to talk about all the stuff that was going on in the USSR. I was one of the participants (greatly outranked by most of the others. Thank you David).
So, down I went to Halifax in August 1991 by car with my wife for the latest. We have the meeting; serious bunch of people, knowledgeable and informed. I remember, on the last day, having a debate with one of the participants on the subject that the Soviet Armed Forces had more power than ever before; I argued no, they were just as divided on perestroyka, glasnost, Gorbachev and what was happening as any other part of the USSR and could not be considered as monolithic at all. Anyway, after convivial discussions boozing chatting and so on, we get into the car to drive back to Ottawa on Sunday. Overnight somewhere in Vermont.
Turn on the TV in the motel Monday 19 August and there’s the news of the coup – tanks on the street, Gorbachev overthrown, lots of people saying “told you it wouldn’t last”. Sinking feeling in the stomach – it always hurts to be proved wrong. Here I am saying no coup and I’m instantly contradicted by the facts. And will probably get home to be fired (I heard years later that one senior had been joyfully saying that at least we’ll never have to hear from Armstrong again.) But tank crews arguing with citizens is not the sign of a successful coup I think as I drive. As the day wears on and we listen to whatever we can get (no Internet then, boys and girls, only what we now scornfully call the Lame Stream Media; so you had to listen carefully through the piffle and bias and deduce heavily) it occurs to me that this coup really isn’t working out very well. In short, coups have to be fast and total (or at least look that way) or they trickle away.
So Tuesday, into the office. Get some intelligence that confirms my suspicion that the coup isn’t really working and won’t take. (And also do some thinking; two things are missing: nobody from the CPSU in the Extraordinary Committee and where are the planes flying low and loud? In short, not everyone is on board.) Get a phone call from the Globe and Mail. Tell the reporter (I was new to the business then – I trust reporters a lot less now) that the coup is a bust and will fail.
Wednesday. Front page of G&M – Foreign Affairs says um ah maybe yes maybe no; so-called Defence Department “Expert” by name (sneer sneer) is so inexpert (sneer sneer) as to say no one expected the coup attempt and it will fail (hah hah, what a doofus!) Even made Quote of the Day: if the coup succeeds I will eat my hat. On my desk a stack of telephone messages. Phone the Director, phone the Director General, phone the ADM, phone the Minister! But, by Wednesday, it was clear that the coup had failed and that it was wrapping up. So I phone nobody.
Thursday lots of phone calls from various media outlets asking for interviews because I’m the only (later learned that I wasn’t actually the only) “expert” (not so sneery now) in the whole Canadian Government to have got it right. Asked my boss what to do. He said (wisely) that, since the then foreign minister had said that Canada would probably have to recognise the junta, I would be smarter, from a career perspective, to keep my mouth shut.
So, dear comrades, that’s why
- I’m not world famous today but
- I am living happily on a solid government pension.
There’s a lesson in here somewhere for you younguns but I don’t know what it is.
(Pre Internet so I can’t find the Globe and Mail reference. Have the cutting somewhere; if I find it, I’ll post it.)