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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Short-Stint Diplomat Tells All

The atmosphere in Soviet government circles after the collapse of the August 1991 putsch was one bordering on panic. Many ministers actively supported the coup, others lay low and failed to condemn it. Typical was the reaction of then Soviet foreign minister, Alexander Bessmertnykh, who contracted a dose of "coup flu" and said nothing for three days. He recovered in time to meet Mikhail Gorbachev at Vnukovo airport when he returned from the Crimea.

In this climate of cowardice and hypocrisy, Boris Yeltsin and Gorbachev held tight to those who had professed full loyalty to them during the coup. One of these was the big, ponderous and well-liked ambassador to Prague, Boris Pankin.

From his position as a middle-ranking ambassador with moderate career prospects, Pankin was suddenly elevated to Soviet foreign minister. He spent three months touring the world and hobnobbing with international leaders. Then, a mere month before the Soviet Union fell apart, he was edged out in favor of Eduard Shevardnadze. Pankin was sent to London to replace the coup-tainted Ambassador Leonid Zamyatin.

"The Last Hundred Days of the Soviet Union" is Boris Pankin's account of those unexpected three months which he spent at the summit of world politics. One of the most likeable traits in the author is that he cannot disguise his own surprise at having ended up there.

The period which Pankin describes is one when the Soviet government was disintegrating, as Yeltsin worked to undermine it. The Foreign Ministry fared better than other branches of government because it was still Moscow's official front to the rest of the world, but even so diplomats had the feeling that they were on a sinking ship.

For example Pankin recalls having to leave the Madrid Middle East peace conference early in order to return home and quell a revolt in the ministry, where officials were complaining their jobs were disappearing from under them. However, Pankin downplays the importance of this power-struggle and Andrei Kozyrev, Yeltsin's man in the ministry, makes only fleeting appearances. Nonetheless, we get a glimpse of Kozyrev's ambitions when he requests permission to use the spetspodyezd, the VIP entrance to the Foreign Ministry reserved for the top leaders.

With the ministry threatened from within by Yeltsin's team, Pankin also had to contend with a U.S. administration that was determined to exploit the chaos which had descended on Moscow. U.S. Secretary of State James Baker comes out of these memoirs as a decidedly unsympathetic figure, keen to score political points off the Russians, even on minor issues.

The main contribution that this somewhat naive foreign minister was able to make during his brief tenure was in the promotion of human rights. Pankin chaired the human rights conference which was held in Moscow shortly after the coup (he conferred with Sergei Kovalyov in writing his speech) and he tried to push the issue higher up on the agenda.

The fun of this book is in the author's incidental brushes with history. Here is Gorbachev, happy as a schoolboy, telling British Prime Minister John Major that he has just struck an agreement which will preserve the Soviet Union (of course it did not). Or Gorbachev saying of the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who had come to a meeting in Moscow, "Look at him. Another Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin], but much cleverer."

Some high-ranking men are remembered in ways they might prefer to forget. In Gorbachev's outer office when the news that he had been appointed foreign minister was announced on television, Pankin was greeted by the man now occupying his office, Yevgeny Primakov:

"It cost me some effort to grasp that Yevgeny Primakov, noisy and warm in his congratulations, was already hinting that he wouldn't mind being posted as ambassador to an English-speaking country -- 'Not to the Middle East, I've had enough of that. Preferably to the U.K. You'll have to replace Zamyatin anyway, he disgraced himself with his support for the coup.'"

Nor are foreign dignitaries immune to his sharp pen. Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, "reminded me of an apparatchik from one of our Central Asian republics. He struck me as an intelligent fellow who had made his way astutely from the provinces to success in the big city without being quite convinced that he belonged there."

Margaret Thatcher in her heyday "looked like a heroic figure from one of those old Bolshevik posters from the era of absolute certainties -- steely, messianic and loud." Fallen from power "she was a shadow of her former self, but still managed to congratulate me rather grandly on my immediate attack on the putschists."

Pankin, a former editor of Komsomolskaya Pravda, has now retired from the diplomatic service to devote himself to business and writing. Judging from this book, that is where his main talents lie.

"The Last Hundred Days of the Soviet Union" by Boris Pankin is available at Zwemmer's (tel. 928-2021) for $48.