Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Talking to Soviet Soldiers During the 1991 Coup Attempt: A U.S. Defense Attaché’s Tale


James Cox knew that Soviet officers would stonewall a foreigner like him, but there was a chance that regular soldiers might express their grievances to him. In the midst of the 1991 Soviet coup attempt, Cox sought information to report to the U.S. Embassy. So when the officers were not looking, he launched into a tirade about the coup, hoping to solicit a congenial response from a startled group of Russian soldiers–and it worked. The soldiers said they had no idea where their officers were leading them, or why.  The information was invaluable to the U.S. Embassy team attempting to make sense of it all.

The leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt sought to remove reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev from power and preserve the Soviet Union. These hardliners confronted Gorbachev and isolated him under house arrest. On August 19, the coup leaders declared a state of emergency, sending military units into Moscow.  Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian component of the USSR, condemned the coup and called for a general strike. People responded by rallying around Yeltsin. As the coup lost momentum, its leaders fled Moscow, the military pulled back, and the coup collapsed. Though Gorbachev returned to power, the damage was done, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union followed in December of the same year.  

Lt. Col. James Cox came to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with extensive qualifications in the Russian language, having served as a Russian instructor at the U.S. Military Academy and a Soviet foreign area officer in East Germany. After his time in Moscow, Cox went on to serve as a defense attaché in Warsaw and worked with the Department of State as an arms control delegate at the representative for the United States in Europe.

James Cox’s interview was conducted by Mark Tauber on January 24, 2018.

Read James Cox’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Randy Huang

“We have been informed that President Gorbachev has been removed from power.”

 

Rushing to Work on the Morning of the Coup: I got up early that morning [August 19, 1991], and was sitting at the dining room table…. My practice was to sit down just before 7:00 a.m. because at 7:00, the BBC News Moscow service came on. The BBC announcer started reading the news. At some point, because I was not totally awake, I had not realized that he had stopped reading the news. When he started speaking again, he stammered a little. He said, “Um, ladies and gentleman, um, I’m going to stop the regular news program at this point because I have been handed a special announcement. I have been asked to read it first.” Then he said something along the lines of, “We have been informed that President Gorbachev has been removed from power.” I stopped eating and just stared at the radio. He continued, “. . . for health reasons.” My eyes almost popped out of my head because that is a euphemism for a change of government. He then added, “An emergency committee has taken over the Government of the Soviet Union.”

My apartment was in the upper part of the embassy compound, so I immediately swung around in my chair and looked out the dining room window toward the Russian White House, which is only 200 meters away from the embassy. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. But I knew that something big was happening. I ran upstairs, shook my wife awake and essentially gave her an order, “You will not leave the embassy compound. Something is happening. Gorbachev has been removed from power for health reasons. I don’t like it. I’ve got to go. Do not leave the embassy no matter what. You and the girls stay here.” And I was gone.

I ran down to the core of the embassy, the classified area where the substantive sections of the embassy were. Nobody was there. I went into my office and paced like a caged lion waiting for somebody else to show up. I was thinking to myself the first thing we need to do is go out and do a sweep, a drive by of all the power ministries—Ministry of Defense, KGB Headquarters, Central Committee, and the Kremlin—and look for anything out of the ordinary. Within a few minutes, the Army attaché, Colonel John Reppert, arrived. I virtually attacked him as he walked into the office. I said, “What’s going on? What did you see out there? Gorbachev’s been removed from power!” He looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “What are you talking about? Nothing’s going on out there.” I said, “It was on BBC. We’ve got to go! We have got to make a sweep!” He said, “Grab your stuff. Let’s go.”

 

“…One soldier leaned forward, and answered me in G.I. Russian, “You are right, exactly right! These damn officers have no idea what’s going on.”

 

Questioning Soviet Soldiers: So we made a sweep of the key buildings in Moscow and saw absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. Fathers were walking their children to school. People were lazily walking down the sidewalk, going to work groggily. No extra police. Nothing! We’re scratching our heads, saying, “What the heck is going on?”

As we approached the embassy on our return from the sweep around Moscow, we saw a column of military trucks on the road on the far side of the embassy. Instinctively, I said, “Go! ” The military convoy was taking one lane of the road. He said, “What should I do?” I said, “Drive to the other side of the trucks so you can pass them, and “run” them. We’ll look at the license plates.” We knew how to identify the military units in the Moscow area. At that point, we were driving directly toward the Moscow Zoo to a traffic light at a “T”. Strangely, the Soviet military vehicles were stopping at the traffic light. I thought, “No Soviet military force deploying would stop at traffic lights; they routinely posted soldiers, traffic regulators, at every intersection to signal which way for the drivers to turn. Something is not right.” When the light turned green, we saw an armored tracked vehicle turn left. “Whoa! That is not normal. Let’s go back to the embassy.” By then other military attachés and embassy staff were beginning to report in.

. . . By about 9 a.m. tanks were pouring into Moscow. I was moving like a machine, as were the other officers. Tanks were taking up in positions around the Kremlin and around the Russian White House near our embassy. Armored personnel carriers were also pouring into Moscow. There were soldiers all over the place. I looked up one street, a block or so away from the embassy, and saw several military trucks parked. I turned to walk by them. A group of junior officers, the platoon leaders, were standing in a group on the sidewalk talking among themselves. I noticed the trucks were from an airborne division, which is garrisoned several hours drive south of Moscow. I walked up to the officers. (I was in civilian clothes.) In my best, most polite, Russian, I asked, “Excuse me. Can you guys tell me what’s going on?” They turned and looked at me, but not one of them said anything. Total silence. I thought to myself, “Well, you know, if I were in their situation, I would act the same way.” Obviously, I was a foreigner. I said, “Okay, never mind. Thank you.” I turned and started walking away.

This is when everything in my career came together—all my training, all my instincts, and my desire to find answers to my main questions. The column of trucks was literally parked nose-to-tail, and the canvas flaps were down on the trucks. I figured the trucks had to be full of soldiers. I walked back three or four trucks and looked over my shoulder. The officers weren’t paying any attention to me. I got between the trucks. I took a deep breath, and I said, “This is it. I’m all in.” I climbed up on the back of the truck, threw open the flap. I totally startled the armed Russian soldiers sitting inside. Russian is a very beautiful language even when swearing. It’s a very rich language, let’s put it that way. I knew enough about militaries that all soldiers all over the world, in every army, complain about their officers. So in my best Russian, I launched into a run-on sentence. I’m going to clean it up for the purposes of this interview, but using all the profanity I could think of, I talked to them like a soldier. I said, “Aw, man, I’ll bet these damn officers got you up at zero-dark-thirty this morning, and you have no frigging idea what you’re doing here, why you came here. This is really screwed up.” I went on and on and on until I ran out of breath.

Then I stopped and waited, hoping someone would say something. I was standing on the tailgate, leaning into the truck. They were looking at me like, “Who in the hell are you? And where did you come from?” Seconds felt like years at that point. I was thinking to myself, “This is not going well. I better back out,” when one soldier leaned forward, and answered me in G.I. Russian, “You are right, exactly right! These damn officers have no idea what’s going on. They got us up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning and said, ‘Grab your weapons! Get on the trucks!’ This is the most screwed up thing I’ve ever been involved in. This is a total cockup!” My eyes were huge now. He just told me everything I wanted to know. My next thought was, “I need to wrap this up.” I commiserated with them, saying, “Oh, man, I feel so sorry for you guys! I wish you the best of luck. Bye.” I got back down off the truck, walked back out to the sidewalk, and I realized I was shaking. I said to myself, “I just paid the United States government back for every dollar spent on my Russian training.”

 

“I was 20 feet away from him [Boris Yeltsin], taking it all in.”

 

Boris Yeltsin Addresses the People : I came back to the embassy and reported what I had learned. The military did not appear to be the instigator of this action; I believed they were being played by the coup-plotters. I returned to the front of the Russian White House and was standing by the tank for that iconic moment when Boris Yeltsin, who was the Russian Federation president, came out of the Russian White House and climbed onto the tank to address the crowd. I was 20 feet away from him, taking it all in. He had a couple of his bodyguards behind him, but he was completely unprotected standing on that tank. I thought, “Oh no, this is it. This is the perfect opportunity to assassinate him.” Yeltsin, on the tank, spoke to the world, calling the putsch illegal and urging Russian people to resist. He said all the right things. And nobody shot him.

However, that was the last time he appeared in public during the failed coup without people holding a flak jacket across his chest and protecting him a lot better. When he finished speaking to the crowd (which included some international press) Yeltsin talked to the soldiers and shook their hands. The soldiers were very calm, not aggressive at all. Russian civilians at this point were putting flowers in the machine gun barrels on the armored vehicles and giving the soldiers candy, bread, cigarettes, and flowers. The soldiers were just standing around. The order to deploy military forces to the capital, in and of itself, was not an illegal order. But when the army got to the capital, they slowly realized they were being played by the coup-plotters.

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in general engineering, United States Military Academy 1967-1971

     MA in Russian, Indiana University 1979-1980

Notable Posts

     Aberdeen, USA—Translator   1974-1977

     South Korea—G-2 Operations Officer   1978-1979

     West Point, USA—Instructor of Russian   1980-1983

     Garmisch, Germany—Russian Foreign Area Officer trainee   1983-1984

     Arlington, USA—Manager of the Army’s foreign language training program      1985-1987 

     Potsdam, Germany—Military Liaison Mission Officer   1987-1990

     Moscow, Soviet Union—Defense attaché   1991-1993

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