SPIEGEL: Against the will of the party. But you weren't that critical of them at the time.
Gorbachev: The Soviet Communist Party was a huge machine. At some point, it began throwing spokes into the wheels. It was the initiator of perestroika, but then it became its biggest obstacle. I understood that nothing would work without deep-seated political reforms. After suffering a defeat in the first democratic elections, the establishment joined forces and openly attacked me at a meeting of the party leadership. That was when I announced my resignation and left the plenary chamber.
SPIEGEL: But that was only in April 1991, eight months before the end of the Soviet Union. Besides, you returned. You allowed yourself to be persuaded once again, instead of using the moment to send the old party packing.
Gorbachev: Yes, I came back after three hours. Some 90 comrades had already established a list for a new Gorbachev party, which would have created a schism. I joined the Communist Party at 19, when I was still in school. My father had been on the front and my grandfather was an old communist -- and I was supposed to blow the whole thing up? Today I know that I should have done it. But the man sitting in front of you is not a so-called statesman, but a completely normal person. Someone with a conscience, and that conscience tortured me constantly.
SPIEGEL: The next charge is that you lacked sufficient insight into human nature for the job. Many comrades whose advancement you facilitated betrayed you later on. That too is certainly hard to deny.
Gorbachev: There you go again! Yes, I did make (Vladimir) Kryuchkov head of the KGB, and he later staged a coup against me. But where else was I going to get an intelligence chief? Kryuchkov had worked under Andropov for 20 years, and I was on familiar terms with Andropov. Of course I got him from there, but I didn't know him well enough.
SPIEGEL: (Boris) Yeltsin, who, as Russian president, later chased you out of office, was someone you did know well.
Gorbachev: Okay, let's talk about Yeltsin. I did in fact know him a little. Even as district leader in Sverdlovsk…
SPIEGEL: … which is now Yekaterinburg …
Gorbachev: … he was already very, very self-confident. When we wanted to bring him into the national party, many advised us against it. They later elected him as party leader in Moscow. I supported it. He was energetic, and it took a long time for me to recognize my mistake. He was extremely infatuated with power, haughty and thirsting for glory, a domineering person. He always believed that he was being underestimated, and he constantly felt insulted. He should have been shunted out of the way and made an ambassador in a banana republic, where he could have smoked water pipes in peace.
SPIEGEL: The third issue: You are criticized for having criminally underestimated the national question …
Gorbachev: That's not true. I lived in a country in which the people spoke 225 languages and dialects, and where all religions existed. I grew up in the Caucasus, and I was familiar with the problems.
SPIEGEL: You really didn't know that the army violently suppressed the independence movement in Tbilisi and Vilnius?
Gorbachev: Yes, I know, that accusation has been leveled at me millions of times. But it really was all happening behind my back. Of course, this raises the question: What sort of a general secretary were you if you didn't know anything about it? That's the far more serious charge. Take Vilnius, for example. On Jan. 12, 1991, after the clashes there between supporters and opponents of independence had come to a head, the Federal Council convened. They sent a delegation to Vilnius to bring about a political solution. But in the night before its arrival, there were clashes and people were killed. It's clear today that there were forces in the KGB leadership that wanted to stand in the way of a political solution. It was a similar situation in Tbilisi.
SPIEGEL: Your leadership vacillated between harshness and indecision.
Gorbachev: It was said that Chinese harshness was unacceptable, while not shooting was a sign of weakness. Both are nonsense. You have to seek dialogue until the end.
SPIEGEL: Why didn't you use the Chinese approach with your perestroika: tough communist leadership but capitalist economic reforms?
Gorbachev: Each country is different. China is a good example, but reforms have to be advanced in different ways.
SPIEGEL: There is a theory that you often repeat, but that we are unable to understand, namely that the Soviet Union could still have been saved even after the coup.
Gorbachev: And it could have. It's just that we were too late in beginning to reform it. Some wanted a federation, but the majority of the republics wanted a united state with elements of a confederation. Then I proposed a referendum. When we voted on the proposal, Yeltsin angrily slammed his fist on the table. He was against it, of course. He announced openly that he could no longer work with Gorbachev, and that they had to part ways with him. Then came the referendum, and the people supported me.
SPIEGEL: Seventy-six percent.
Gorbachev: That means that the union was destroyed against the will of the people, and it was done deliberately -- with the participation of the Russian leadership, on the one hand, and that of the putschists, on the other.