Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Portrait of a Russian- Oleg Baklanov- The Engineer from the Gang of Eight

When Oleg Baklanov sat down at the press conference of the newly formed State Committee on the State of Emergency on the 19th of August 1991, he was First Deputy Chairman of the Defence Council of the USSR. He was also, in this moment, one of those who sought to save the country, as they put it, from Gorbachev’s reforms. In particular they wanted to stop his Union treaty which would have given more power to the Soviet republics and, so they thought, would mean the end of the Soviet Union.

Oleg doesn’t like the word ‘putsch’. He told us not to use it before our interview because he says it’s an overly negative word coined by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. He directed us to an article written by a Russian academic more recently defending their actions. ‘The Patriotism of Duty’ it’s titled. This is more how Oleg likes to think of what he and his fellow plotters did.

But for most of his life Oleg Baklanov wasn’t centrally involved in Soviet politics. He was a prestigious engineer and rocket scientist, helping to design and oversee huge improvements in Soviet rocket and space technology.

However, as the crisis of the Soviet Union developed throughout 1991 Baklanov became one of those convinced something had to be done to stop the breakup of the USSR. In March a plebiscite had found the majority of people wanted the Soviet Union to remain intact. It is this plebiscite that Oleg referred to as justification for the opposing the union treaty. Like others involved in the coup attempt he is very negative towards Gorbachev. “The Union treaty was against the will of the people,” he told me.

As a result tanks went into the streets of Moscow on the 18th of August 1991. When people found out what was happening on the 19th, and that Gorbachev was not, as the coup members had said, ill, they barricaded the Russian parliament which became the symbol of Russian hopes of democracy. When the President of Russia, Boris Yeltsin (not president of the Soviet Union, that was Gorbachev, yes two presidents, Russian politics at this time contains too many name changes too fast, a sure sign of trouble) stood on a tank whose crew was sympathetic and rallied the people to defend democracy and Gorbachev, Oleg says he knew the Emergency Committee, or coup plotters if you prefer, had to back down or open fire. Neither he nor his fellow coup members were prepared to kill civilians.

Oleg does maintain that the current tale of the August coup is a pack of lies spun by Gorbachev and Yeltsin. For example, it’s widely accepted that Gorbachev was shut up inside his Crimean villa where he had been on holiday, and his phones cut off so he couldn’t have contact with the outside world. Both Baklanov and Vasily Starodubtsev who I interviewed in another post say that’s not true. “We didn’t block Gorbachev,” protests Oleg, “we didn’t want to seize power either. We were already in power, we didn’t need to do that. We wanted to save the Soviet Union.”

The coup had failed by the 21st of August and the plotters were arrested, apart from the interior minister who shot himself. Most were given amnesties after light punishment. Oleg Baklanov returned to the space industry and is still a director of the Russian space technology agency.

But he does allow himself a little wistfulness, perhaps justifiably, at what could have been. “If the Soviet Union could have been maintained we could have avoided the state of modern slavery that exists in Russia now. So many people from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics come to Russia looking for work and end up working for nothing as modern slaves. This is terrible when they could have worked where they lived in the Soviet Union,” Oleg says.

Oleg himself is a child of the Soviet Union. He was born in Kharkov in the Ukraine. He's nearly eighty now but doesn’t want there to be only negative memories of the USSR. He’s chairman of the society of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Ukraine and Russia. His list of scientific and engineering achievements in the cosmonautics field is vast. He most probably wouldn’t have achieved all he has if it weren’t for the Soviet Union. So although one might not excuse the methods of Baklanov and his fellow conspirators in those fateful August days, we can perhaps sympathise with the genuine respect he felt for the system he was trying to save.

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