The men from Moscow announced themselves as simply from "the committee," and they bluntly told Mikhail S. Gorbachev to grant them sweeping emergency powers or be ousted as president of the Soviet Union and, Gorbachev thought, probably killed.
Although fearing more for his family than himself, Gorbachev rejected the ultimatum.
"The hell with you!" he told the men.
Thus began the rightist coup d'etat in which control of the Soviet Union, a nation in turmoil but still a superpower covering a sixth of the Earth, fell into the hands of men Gorbachev had trusted as his closest allies but who were determined to reverse his reforms.
In a voice cracking with emotion, pausing often to regain his composure, the 60-year-old Soviet president on Thursday told of his captivity in his vacation home in the Crimea, of how he sought to thwart the coup with smuggled messages, how his loyal bodyguards prepared to fight off an armed attack and how, as the plot collapsed, he managed to capture most of its leaders.
"The situation was critical, and I think that, when these reckless adventurers came to realize that they were destined to fail, these people might have done almost anything," Gorbachev told a packed news conference. "That is why I was ready for anything."
Angry at the betrayal by some of his top officials but resolute in his defense of perestroika and proud of the popular resistance to the coup, Gorbachev made clear just how perilous a time he and his country had lived through.
"This has been a very difficult, an extremely difficult lesson for me," he said, the tension and fatigue evident in the lines in his face and the trembling of his hands. "It's, you might say, my 'drama.' "
For the most powerful man in the country, it was a lesson in the powerlessness and helplessness felt by every prisoner, and the Soviet Union has jailed millions over the years.
For the man who launched the Soviet Union on the course of reforms six years ago, bringing greater democracy than it had ever known or even dared imagine, it was a brutal reminder of how fragile the rule of law remains here.
The drama began to unfold shortly before 5 p.m. Sunday, Gorbachev said, when an unannounced delegation appeared at his summer home in the Crimea near the Black Sea and demanded to see him urgently. Accompanied by the chief of the KGB's protection service, Lt. Gen. Yuri Plekhanov, they had been let into the heavily guarded seaside compound.
Wanting to find out who had sent the men and why, Gorbachev went to one of the special telephones that connect him to officials in the Kremlin and throughout the country.
"I was working in my office, picked up the one telephone, it didn't work. I lifted the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth--nothing. Then I tried the house phone and realized nothing worked and I was cut off.
"I then understood that the mission would for me be not the mission that we ordinarily deal with."
Gorbachev went to another part of the house, gathered his wife Raisa, his daughter Irina and her husband Anatoly and told them what was happening.
"I didn't need any new information," he said. "I knew that a very serious event was going on, that they would either blackmail me or there would be attempts to arrest me or take me away somewhere. Basically, anything could happen."
He was already resolved not to compromise but wanted his family's support for a decision that might bring the deaths of all of them.
"I told Raisa Maximovna and (daughter) Irina Anatoleyevna that if we talk about the main thing, about politics, the course of politics, that I will stick to my position to the end and that would I not step back, not under any pressure, blackmail or threats. I would neither change nor take up new positions.
"All the family--I thought it was important to tell them, you understand why, because I realized that anything could happen, especially to the members of my family. This we also know. The family told me that . . . this should be my decision and that (they) would go with me through this to the end. This was the end of our conversation."
By the time he had returned, the delegation was already in the house and delivered the ultimatum to hand over power to Vice President Gennady I. Yanayev, nominated by Gorbachev as December as "a man I can trust" but now one of the plotters.
"I told them that before I answered, I wanted to know who had sent them, what committee. They said the State Committee for the State of the Emergency in the country. Who created it? I didn't create it; the Supreme Soviet didn't create it."
The visitors said what they wanted was a decree establishing a state of emergency and granting the self-proclaimed Committee on the State of Emergency full powers, with Yanayev at its head; if Gorbachev would not sign, they said, he would simply be replaced by Yanayev.
As he looked at the list of committee members, he could barely believe his eyes when he read the names not only of Yanayev but those of Marshal Dmitri T. Yazov, the defense minister, and Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, the country's security and intelligence agency.
"I can tell you frankly that I especially trusted Yazov and Kryuchkov," he told the press conference, acknowledging his nomination of Yanayev as vice president last December was a mistake--"and it's not the only mistake I've made."
The plotters were "not crazy or loony," Gorbachev said. "This is something that they had thought through. Either they do not want change, or they are afraid of change. This is what motivated them."
For a time, Gorbachev debated with the men--he did not identify anyone in the delegation other than the KGB officer--about the profound political and economic crisis in the country and the best way to tackle it.
He was prepared, he recounted, for a special session of the Congress of People's Deputies, the national Parliament, to debate his handling of the crisis, or a meeting of the Supreme Soviet.
And he warned them that emergency powers were not in themselves a solution to the nation's problems.
"OK, I told them (the plotters). So, tomorrow (Monday) you will declare a state of emergency, then what? Think several steps ahead. One day, two days, three days--try to think ahead. The country won't accept this new order."
But the conversation might as well have been with the deaf, Gorbachev said, for "the demand was still that I resign, and I said, 'You'll never live that long.'
"So report that I categorically say that you will face defeat . . . but I am scared for the people and for all we have done in these years in order to. . . .
"So that's how it ended, when they received my ultimatum demand to their ultimatum, my ultimatum answer and my demand to report my conclusions."
With that began 72 hours as a virtual hostage, as the compound was sealed off, apparently by KGB forces and army troops supporting the coup, and fears of an assault grew.
"I think everything was done to psychologically break the president down," he said. "It is difficult . . . to talk about it here."
Grasping for words to convey the fear he felt for the country and for his family, he broke off and did not complete the thought. Later, asked how his family withstood the pressure, Gorbachev again struggled to compose himself, his hands nervously fiddling with a black fountain pen. Finally, he said that his daughter and particularly his wife Raisa had suffered the most.
"But this seems to have been (just a brief) episode," he said.
The president's personal bodyguards, 32 KGB officers, decided to remain with him and prepared for the compound's defense against an expected attack from a military garrison in nearby Simferopol and perhaps from naval units offshore.
Family members were placed in protected spots around the house, Gorbachev said. To guard against poisoned or drugged food or water, the defenders decided to rely only on supplies already in the compound.
And his 4-year-old granddaughter Anastasia was kept inside the compound, forbidden to go swimming no matter how much she pleaded.
"She didn't understand anything that was going on and just wanted to go to the beach," Gorbachev said.
Although all communications had been cut off, the bodyguards found old shortwave radios in a storage area, rigged up antennas and Gorbachev was soon listening to the Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corp. and Radio Liberty, an American-financed station, to learn what was happening.
"BBC was best of all--it had the clearest signal," he said.
Later, he watched Yanayev and other members of the committee hold a televised press conference Monday to try to depict the coup as a constitutional shift of power because of the president's inability to perform his duties and the deepening crisis in the country.
"I began to see how primitive and crude and crafty these people were," Gorbachev said of the men he had appointed and entrusted with vast powers. "As one friend from the Russian Federation said, 'They can't even do that right (justify the coup), as they couldn't do anything else right.
"Society has rejected these plotters," Gorbachev quickly concluded. "Even the army wouldn't obey them."
Gorbachev said that he demanded several times that his communications be restored and that he be allowed to return to the capital. Angered at hearing of the plotters claiming that he was in poor health--their excuse for relieving him of his responsibilities--he demanded a medical examination.
"How could these people talk about bad health--their own hands were shaking the whole time," he said.
Then Gorbachev said he began to work out his own strategy.
He secretly made videotapes denouncing the coup so that the country would be able to see that he was well. Three of the tapes were smuggled out of the compound in small film canisters, he said, holding one up for journalists to see. He had also composed a four-paragraph statement asserting his authority and signed and dated it. And a doctor's statement was prepared for release as well.
As resistance mounted to the coup in Moscow and other areas, the conspirators unexpectedly sought a meeting with Gorbachev, several of them flying in a presidential plane to Simferopol to ask him to return with them to the capital.
"When they came, I said, 'Put them in the house, put them under guard and tell them I demand that I will not talk about anything until we are doing this at a governmental level. And so they will have a lot of time to think about it--they won't be going anywhere for a while.' "
That tactic got communications restored, and Gorbachev quickly made contact with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin and with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Byelorussia and the Ukraine to make sure of their support. He then learned that the Soviet navy was loyal to him and might send help from nearby bases. He also talked with President Bush and received assurances of support.
"Then I began work," Gorbachev said, clearly relishing the speed at which he organized his return.
Finding that Gen. Mikhail A. Moiseyev, the armed forces chief of staff, was also loyal to him and opposed to the putsch, Gorbachev ordered him to take over the Defense Ministry from Yazov, to order the troops back to their barracks and to arrest Yazov.
Then, he contacted the commander of the elite Kremlin guard, who also pledged their loyalty, and arranged for control of the regiment surrounding his compound to be transferred to him.
"So, I started to call all around the major points (of the country) to cover all the bases, as it were, because this was in every way a very dangerous situation," Gorbachev said.
Yeltsin sent a delegation to assure him of the Russian Federation's support, and Vladimir Ivashko, the Communist Party's deputy general secretary, and Anatoly Lukyanov, the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, came to assure him of theirs, although they had both remained silent through the coup.
Still worried by the possibility of further betrayal and even armed attack on the road, he arranged to leave Simferopol late Wednesday night with the Russian delegation and under a special guard arranged by Moiseyev.
"I did not meet or talk to any of the plotters," Gorbachev said, "and I don't want to see them. We divided them among several airplanes, and after the planes arrived (back in Moscow) they were all arrested and placed in isolation. I have since given a command to the Kremlin not to admit anybody who participated with them or cooperated with them.
"And, well, that's how we did things."