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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 58: Session of the CC CPSU Politburo April 20, 1989

Traduction de Anna Melyakova

Texte intégral

1Gorbachev was out of the country on April 9 when Soviet forces cracked down on pro-independence demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, killing at least 20 and drawing widespread condemnation. Eleven days later, this Politburo meeting is the first sustained high-level discussion of the still-murky affair. Gorbachev denounces the Georgian communist leadership who called in the troops for having “sat in a bunker and relied only on force.” He turns directly to the head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, to criticize the slanted intelligence given to the leadership, while Prime Minister Ryzhkov chimes in that “we, the people in the government, the Politburo members, knew nothing” and had to read about the deaths in Pravda.

2The Tbilisi events become the center of debates when the new Congress of People’s Deputies convenes in May; the Congress would appoint an investigating commission, and the acting head of the Politburo at the time of the massacre, Yegor Ligachev, would be pilloried on national television by the radical democrats and independence advocates. For his part, Ligachev would maintain he had been set up, and that Gorbachev had been aware of the order to use force, even though in the post-event debates Gorbachev would unequivocally side with the opponents of violence.

3On a broader level, Tbilisi later becomes a watershed event that undermines the prestige of the Soviet military, delegitimizes the use of force against political movements in the USSR, reinforces Gorbachev’s own commitment to nonviolent change, and leads to the erosion of state power based on fear of violence and repression. Yet, in April, the leadership’s views appear to be considerably more guarded. Left with the final word in this version of the Politburo meeting, Defense Minister Dimitry Yazov (later a coup plotter in August 1991) advises grimly: “Still, the troops should not be moved far from Tbilisi.”


  • 1 Sergey Kirov (1886-1934) and Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937) were Bolshevik revolutionaries who pl (...)

4Shevardnadze: In 1921 there was no revolutionary situation in Georgia. The 11th army just entered [the country]. From here stems the traditional attitude toward Kirov and Ordzhonikidze.1

5Our version of the April 9 events was absolutely groundless. The crisis is in the manifestation of contradictions between the new situation and the old leadership methods. We should have prevented the use of the army. In general, the army should not be drawn into resolving internal political conflicts.

6Gorbachev: The crisis in Georgia was not a bolt out of the blue. The whole country suspected that something was brewing there. Eduard Amvrosievich [Shevardnadze] drew our attention to this many times. The Georgians and Ossetians have a fiery temper, they are not like the Armenians. [Georgian First Party Secretary Jumber] Patiashvili, as far as we know him, is not deaf to national interests but he shares with other comrades elements of panic-mongering, suspicion and, even more, reliance on force. He lacks the guts to conduct political work.

7The Georgian leadership did not establish ties with the intelligentsia. And this is the Georgian (!) intelligentsia. It is historically deeply tied to the people. It is the carrier of Georgian national symbolism. Everything there—theater, film, mu-sic—everything carries a very strong national element, an underlying connection between the intelligentsia and the people. Had the intelligentsia been involved in due time in the process of change it would have responded sincerely and actively. But this was not done. Patiashvili has a taste for “decisive action.”

8I have long been saying—let us learn how to work under conditions of democracy. And now events confirm that. Our cadres regard political methods as a manifestation of weakness. Force—that is the real thing! In Georgia they could not transform themselves in the democratic way, to lead genuine advocates of perestroika, to listen to opponents, even to people with extreme views. Patiashvili is the man with whom I was most closely tied in the Georgian leadership, so it is difficult for me to give a full political and accurate analysis of what happened. And right now this is important for our work with the entire country.

9The crisis in work methods is showing through in more than just relations with the intelligentsia. It is necessary to understand everything correctly in order to work not only with the intelligentsia, but with the entire country. Herein lies the source of what happened. It is very important to understand this for the sake of political analysis. Otherwise we will not find ways to consolidate the people in this time of change.

10Regarding this, I would touch upon another theme: the information necessary for decision-making. When I receive ciphered telegrams, for instance, I immediately see the handwriting of the GRU or the KGB or any other ministry. When they analyze the situation in the Baltics, I can see right away what is true and what is packaged as truth. (He turns to [KGB head] Kryuchkov) Vladimir Aleksandrovich, I am looking at you! It is important to what extent one should attribute [nationalist] disturbances to trouble-making teenagers, and to what extent it is about the profound undercurrents in the nation.

11From the point of view of information, let us look at the events in Tbilisi. I land in Moscow. At Vnukovo I am told that troops were brought into Tbilisi. What is this? Was it necessary? At that time in the airport I did not go to the heart of the matter, I did not question this decision. But right away I understood that something was about to happen. I was told that this was necessary to protect objectives, nothing more. Why was the curfew necessary? It was not necessary. The Georgian CC members should have walked out to the people. But as it turned out, they sat in a bunker and relied only on force. Only later did we begin to receive truthful information from Tbilisi. Perhaps someone from the KGB should have gone there to obtain information. In a word, if we don’t have truthful and timely information, or objective data; we cannot make correct decisions. And in these matters one should think seven times, one hundred times, and only then make a decision and act.

12Ryzhkov: We were in Moscow in those days, and what did we know? I am chairman of the government and what did I know? I read about the deaths of people in Tbilisi in Pravda. The CC secretaries knew [what happened]. And we, the people in the government, Politburo members, knew nothing. And why Shevardnadze’s trip [to Georgia] was canceled I also do not know.

13True, we in the Politburo should not panic. But we must have timely and truthful information. How could this have happened? The army was used against the people. The military district commander was acting there, and we in Moscow knew nothing about it. And if he comes and arrests the entire Georgian Politburo? Will we also learn about it in the newspapers? And, it turned out, Mikhail Sergeyevich [Gorbachev] also did not know. So what is actually going on here? Armed forces were used, and the general secretary learns about it only the next morning. How then do we appear before Soviet society, before the whole world? In general, wherever you turn, things go on without the Politburo knowing about them. This is even worse than if the Politburo had made bad decisions.

14Gorbachev turns to Yazov: Dmitri Timofeyevich, from now on the army cannot take part in such actions without Politburo decisions.

15Ryzhkov: Why is our government removed from such matters? Why are other members of the Politburo removed from them? By the way, the same [trend] came up during the elections in Moscow and Leningrad […] they blame the general secretary; they say that he has split the country. They insist on a “firm hand.” These are all serious matters. […]

16[Source: Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation, Fond 2. Opis 2. On file at the National Security Archive. And: The Union Could Have Been Preserved (Moscow: April Publishers, 1995) Translated by Vladislav Zubok and Anna Melyakova.]


1 Sergey Kirov (1886-1934) and Sergo Ordzhonikidze (1886-1937) were Bolshevik revolutionaries who played integral roles in establishing Soviet control over the Transcaucasus region, including Georgia, in 1921-1922.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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