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Immortal Champagne Toast April 24, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Beachcombing continues his series of Immortal Meals with a mere liquid lunch, a short champagne party from 29 August 1991 in Whitehall, London. Of course, champagne parties in London are two a penny: but this one was rather unusual as all those in attendance were (i) ostensibly at work and (ii) they were members of one of the most austere bodies imaginable, the Joint Intelligence Committee, Britain’s operations executive during the Cold War.

What was it then that persuaded a dozen besuited men gathered that day to knock back bubbly while working on the Queen’s dime?

The date is the clue: and Beachcombing remembers that month well as he spent most of it in various sub-Saharan airports trying to find out was happening in Swahili and other (to him) unintelligible languages.

4 August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev went on holiday to the Black Sea. He was likely exhausted after a shattering year for him and his country, but rarely can a leader have chosen a worse time to enjoy a fortnight at the dacha. For while their boss was away hard-line communists – ‘the Gang of Eight’ – decided to act to prevent the disintegration of Lenin’s dream.

Their coup – a brave but farcial affair – began on 19 August and ended on 22 August when Gorbachev was released from captivity and flew back to Moscow. Gorbachev’s resignation itself followed days later and Boris Yeltsin – a great fan incidentally of the liquid lunch – took over the rule of Russia. The Soviet Union was dead.

Many mark the failure of the coup – as opposed to the collapse of the Wall – as the end of the Cold War. Certainly the British mandarins and politicians gathered in London did.

‘The Joint Intelligence Committee is an austere body. It rarely rejoices and it lives too close to the dark side of political activity, the plots, revolutions, defections and betrayals, to find much ground for surprise, let alone celebration in the events it analyses. But the proscription of the Soviet Communist Party, which had been the prime object of its study [what a beautiful euphemism!] for so many years, was memorable even against that bleak background. After our meeting of 29 August I [Sir Percy Cradock, JIC chairman] asked the Committee to join me for a glass of champagne. We drank to the demise of the Party and added a toast to the plotters of 19 August who, in the best Marxist fashion, had given a push to history.

This anonymous meeting was the closest an important member of the Western alliance came to celebrating the end of a conflict that had lasted over forty years, brought humanity close to an apocalyptic nuclear exchange – memories of poor old Oleg Penkovsky and his obscene phone-call – cost millions of lives and trillions of pounds, dollars, francs and roubles…

In the spirit of the Cold War – the war that never was – its passing could not be the subject of public notice: not least because anything that made the life of the reformers in Russia more difficult would have been ‘bad form’. But an anonymous drink in a secret Whitehall location with spies, politicians and civil servants clinking glasses was just permissible.

This is a Beachcombing WIBT (Wish I’d Been There) moment, especially one of the toasts given, as good a epithet as any for 1947-1991: ‘We didn’t have a war. We did win.’

Beachcombing is always on the look out for Immortal Meals: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com