In his three days of imprisonment at his dacha in the Crimea, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was supposed to be totally isolated. Phone lines and electricity were cut. “Everything was down,” Gorbachev said at his first press conference Thursday.
But Gorbachev and a group of still-loyal guards were able to keep up on the events that defeated the coup by resorting to an old tool of the Cold War--international shortwave radio, particularly the British Broadcasting Corp.'s Russian World Service and the United States’ Radio Liberty and Voice of America.
” . . . We found some type of old receivers in the maintenance rooms, and we fixed the antennas. There were some smart lads who know something about this--and we began to get whatever we could from there,” Gorbachev said.
What the imprisoned Soviet president could have caught, along with the rest of the Soviet people, was a remarkable demonstration of how communications have shrunk the world.
On Radio Liberty, Gorbachev might have heard two correspondents reporting live on a permanently open phone line to Munich from inside the Russian Parliament, the headquarters of besieged Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin.
The American radio service, which was set up in the 1950s to function as a surrogate for the controlled press of the Soviet Union, also had more than 75 stringers, or local correspondents, dotted throughout the Soviet Union. It is the sister service to Radio Free Europe, which serves the same function for Eastern Europe.
For most of the last 40 years, the Soviet Union jammed international shortwave radio services, but Gorbachev had the jamming abruptly stopped on Memorial Day, 1987, and it did not resume during the coup.
One of the mysteries of this crisis is why not. Among various possibilities, shortwave radio officials noted that the Soviet method of jamming is costly, cumbersome and requires enormous manpower. It is also possible that much of the jamming equipment has been dismantled and is now used for other purposes.
“If they couldn’t organize the KGB, forget about the jammers,” said Natalie Clarkson, head of the Voice of America’s Russian service.
In a fascinating example of how the channels of global communication now work, Radio Liberty had reporters describing for the Russian people what was being broadcast on foreign television.
Radio Liberty, which broadcasts 24 hours a day in Russian and 11 other Soviet languages, also conducted interviews with people on all sides of the coup, from many of Yeltsin’s top aides to the so-called Black Colonel, Viktor Alksnis, a member of the Supreme Soviet who stood up and denounced Gorbachev earlier this year.
Gorbachev said the clearest signal he heard was from the BBC World Service. The reason was a quirk. The BBC, whose 46 hours a week of Russian broadcasts are less than either of the American services, does not have a particularly strong signal in the Soviet Union. But one of its key relay stations happens to be on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and its signal travels directly over the Crimea on its way to Moscow.
“The Crimea is not a prime target area, but it just so happens that we had one important listener there,” David Morton, head of the BBC Russian World Service, said in an interview from London.
The BBC, which estimates its Soviet audience in normal times at 13 million a week, also had two people reporting live from inside the Russian Parliament, as well as a reporter in Kiev and Leningrad and stringers elsewhere.
On the pivotal Tuesday night, the Russian people heard one BBC reporter calmly dampen rumors that tanks were breaking down the barricades and seizing Yeltsin.
“From where I am standing,” he reported, “I can’t see any tanks coming toward the building.”
Times staff writer Tyler Marshall in Bonn contributed to this report.