August 19, 2016

August 1991 Coup Attempt

August 1991 Coup Attempt

The August 1991 coup was a watershed in modern Russian history. It marked the beginning of the last chapter in the USSR and the first in a new post-Soviet reality. On the 25th anniversary of this momentous event, we look back at how it all began, how it unfolded, and how it collapsed.

First, some background

In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of openness and reform; glasnost and perestroika; unleashed an unexpected epidemic of independence movements within the Soviet Union. People were, technically, free to speak their minds, demonstrate and protest. Perestroika opened the door for the leaders of the collection of states to demand more control over their individual regions and, eventually, sovereignty from the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev may have envisioned a second revolution in Russia but never a coup attempt. After his election as president in February 1990, many feared the onset of another dictatorship. In fact, Gorbachev's actions seemed to contradict his policies of perestroika. During the October session of parliament, Gorbachev opposed the so-called 500 Days Plan which would have moved the centralized Soviet economy to a market economy within the following two years. Always in favor of uskoreniye (acceleration), Gorbachev seemed to be slowing things down. Many speculated that he had lost his nerve or was backing down now that he was president. In any event, it did not seem certain where he stood or what he would do next.

In December 1990, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze resigned. This was a great blow to Gorbachev and a public embarrassment as Shevardnadze tendered his resignation in public to the 2,000 members of the Congress of People's Deputies. Shevardnadze did not resign suddenly or on a whim. For several months, he had been very vocal regarding his concerns:

We are going back to the terrible past. Reactionaries are gaining power. Reformers have slumped into the bushes. A dictatorship is coming. No one knows what this dictatorship will be like, what kind of dictator will come to power and what order will be established.

In December 1990, Gorbachev appointed Boris Pugo as Interior Minister. Pugo was Latvian and the head of the KGB in Riga. Immediately, he called for actions against Lithuania, which had declared its independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990. Moscow responded by establishing an economic blockade of Lithuania. On January 20, 1991, contributing to further unrest, Soviet troops clashed with Latvians in Riga. Five demonstrators were killed causing thousands to actively protest against the government.

At this time, Boris Yeltsin was a Communist and the head of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. Yeltsin was one of those who wanted to speed up reforms and he called for the formation of an independent Russia. Yeltsin announced that he would sponsor a rally in Moscow to present and gain support for his ideals. Pugo saw this as a direct challenge to Gorbachev's authority and accused Yeltsin of being a neo-Bolshevik who just wanted to storm the Kremlin. Gorbachev reacted by banning the rally and reinstated state censorship of all media.

On March 28, 1991, Yeltsin's rally went ahead as planned; thousands attended. Gorbachev ordered troops to monitor and control the event, which ended up going off without incident. This was a critical moment for Gorbachev. He realized that he must form a positive relationship with Yeltsin in order to stay in power.

By June, many of Gorbachev's top advisers were getting nervous. Many saw the writing on the wall and warned Gorbachev of a possible impending plot against him from within his own government. Gorbachev brushed off the warnings, believing that no one would have the nerve to attack him.

On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian republic, exactly one year after Russia declared itself an independent and sovereign state. Yeltsin was inaugurated on July 10.

By this time, Gorbachev's popularity at home was almost nonexistent even though he was praised by the international community for his reform attempts. Many promises and failed reform attempts had comprised Gorbachev's five year tenure. In reality, the gross national product fell roughly 10 percent and the cost of goods was up over 50 percent. Faced with a very dissatisfied population and a government that was barely functional, Gorbachev left Moscow and headed to the Crimea for a vacation and to put the finishing touches on the new Union Treaty, due to be signed on August 19. 

Gorbachev with President Ronald Reagan and VP George Bush, NYC, 1988


The Coup

August 18 at 4:50 p.m.
It was a peaceful Sunday afternoon at Gorbachev's dacha in the Crimea. He was working on his union treaty when there was a knock on his door and he was told that Yuri Plekhanov, a top KGB officer, was there. With Plekhanov was Valery Boldin, Gorbachev's chief of staff. Boldin announced that he represented the State Committee of Emergency (in Russian GKChP), a committee not authorized by Gorbachev.

The president was asked to sign a statement declaring a state of emergency, or else the head of the committee, Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, would take control of the country. Gorbachev refused and Boldin left along with the black box; the president's briefcase which held all of the launch codes for the nation's nuclear arsenal.

This group of GKChP conspirators were known as the Gang of Eight. They immediately sent troops to Moscow, Leningrad and the Baltics. But one important thing they did not think to do was detain Boris Yeltsin.

August 19 at 6:30 a.m.
The Gang of Eight made their presence known to the public. Yanayev claimed to have control of the government, stating that serious health problems prohibited Gorbachev from serving as president any longer. Yanayev stated that, Over these years Gorbachev has gotten very tired and needs some time to get his health back. The Gang announced, through the state news agency TASS, that all demonstrations and strikes were now illegal and that the media had been taken under state control. Later that day, the Emergency Committee conspirators made a television appearance. They appeared uneasy and ill prepared. One thing, however, was clear; Yanayev intended to establish a new dictatorship.

Meanwhile, Gorbachev and his family were prisoners in their Crimean dacha. All of his phone lines and other means of communication with the outside world had been cut off. In fact, for roughly 72 hours, the outside world did not know where Gorbachev was or if he was even alive. This gave Yeltsin the perfect opportunity to take charge and, as it turned out, grab the glory for putting down the coup.

Yeltsin, who had been at his dacha just outside Moscow, made haste for the White House (parliament building). There he made and received phone calls from all over the world. Finally, Yeltsin called Yanayev to tell him that the Russian people wanted nothing to do with him or his gang of bandits. It was at this point that Yeltsin did what we remember most. He went outside, before some 20,000 citizens who had gathered to protest the coup, and climbed atop a tank. From this dramatic pose, Yeltsin proclaimed the coup unconstitutional and called for a general strike. In an effort to turn the troops away from the coup conspirators, Yeltsin declared:

You have taken an oath to your people, and your weapons cannot be turned against the people.

Yeltsin at the barricades (from the website of the President of the Russian Federation)



In connection with actions by a group of persons, who call themselves as the state committee on the extraordinary situation, I order:

1. Establishing the committee must be considered anticonstitutional, and the actions by its organizers must be considered a revolution, which, at the same time, is a state crime.

2. All resolutions, which are issued by the name of so-called committee on the extraordinary situation, must be considered illegal and having no use in the territory of the Russian republic. The lawful power in the person of the President, the Supreme Soviet and the chairman at the Ministers' Council, all state and local bodies of the power and administration of the Russian republic is in force in the territory of the Russian republic.

3. Actions by officials, who execute resolutions by the mentioned committee, are under the criminal code of the Russian republic and to be prosecuted by the law. The present decree is put in force since the moment of signing.

Decree of Russian President Yeltsin; 6:49 pm, Aug 19, 1991


Soon, over 100,000 people rallied behind Yeltsin. Many were pensioners who had lived through Stalin and world wars and refused to tolerate another dictator. Before the day was over, many of the troops had sided with Yeltsin and were protecting him and the White House. Similar protests also took place in Leningrad (modern day St. Petersburg).

August 20
By mid-day, over 150,000 citizens had gathered in Moscow to protest the coup. In Leningrad, some 250,000 protestors voiced their disapproval of the Gang of Eight. The Emergency Committee attempted to place a curfew on Moscow. This was ignored. Suddenly, they all became ill with what was dubbed coup flu and hid in their homes. Yeltsin spoke from the balcony of the White House, describing the battle as democracy vs. dictatorship. In the midst of the drama, some rather bizarre things happened. Mstislav Rostropovich, an exiled cellist, flew in from Paris to play in the parliament building. Carry-out food from the Moscow Pizza Hut and McDonalds was brought in to keep up the strength of those fighting the coup attempt.

Tens of thousands of protestors remained in the streets and around the Parliament building, turning back tanks and troops still loyal to Yanayev and his gang. In the confusion, it is amazing that only three protesters were killed.

August 21
When it became clear to the coup plotters that the will of the people was against them and that troops were willing to disobey their orders and would not attack, the coup simply and undramatically fell apart. It was announced that the coup leaders were trying to flee the country. In fact, two of them went to the Crimea in hopes of explaining themselves to Gorbachev, who refused to see them. Yeltsin had Gorbachev and his family safely returned to Moscow the following morning.

The eight members of the so called State Emergency Committee were arrested. They were:

  • Gennady Yanayev, Soviet vice president; today is a pension fund consultant
  • Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB; has since written his memoirs
  • Dimitri Yazov, Soviet defense minister; now an advisor to an arms exporter
  • Valentin Pavlov, Soviet prime minister; today is a banker
  • Oleg Baklanov, of the Soviet Defense Council
  • Vasily Starodubtsev, member of the Soviet Parliament
  • Alexander Tizyakov, president of state enterprises, industrial construction, transport, and communications.

The eighth member, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, shot himself to avoid arrest.


Gorbachev had hoped, through the Union Treaty he was working on, to be able to hold the union together, albeit in a decentralized format. In the opinion of many CPSU conservatives, Gorbachev's treaty went too far and gave too much authority to the governments of the individual states. The August 19, 1991, coup attempt came just one day before Gorbachev and the various republic leaders were to sign his new Union Treaty. Once back in Moscow, Gorbachev acted almost as if the events of August had not happened, or that they had no effect on events.

As he returned to power, Gorbachev promised to purge conservatives from the CPSU. He resigned as General Secretary, but remained president of the Soviet Union. At the end of August, Yeltsin issued a decree dissolving the Communist Party. Gorbachev followed suit by declaring an end to Communist Party rule. The Central Committee was done away with and all properties of the Party and the KGB were seized by the government.

The coup's failure brought a series of collapses of all-union institutions. Yeltsin took control of the central broadcasting company and key economic ministries and agencies, and in November he banned the CPSU and the Russian Communist Party. By December 1991, all of the republics had declared independence, and negotiations over a new Union Treaty began anew.

In September, both the Soviet Union and the United States had recognized the independence of the Baltic republics.

For several months after his return to Moscow, Gorbachev and his aides made futile attempts to restore stability and legitimacy to central institutions. Nonetheless, in November seven republics agreed to a new Union Treaty that would form a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States.

The reality was that, in the absence of the CPSU, there was no way to keep the Soviet Union together. From Yeltsin's perspective, Russia's participation in another union would be senseless, because inevitably Russia would assume responsibility for the increasingly severe economic woes of the other republics.

On December 8, Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus (which adopted that name in August 1991) and Ukraine met outside Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and annulled the 1922 Union Treaty that had established the Soviet Union.

Another signing ceremony was held in Alma-Ata on December 21 to expand the CIS to include the five republics of Central Asia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Georgia did not join until 1993; the three Baltic republics never joined.

Gorbachev finally resigned his post as President of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. He was the eighth and last leader of the USSR. Yeltsin took over the reigns of government as the first elected president of the Russian Federation. Exactly six years after Gorbachev had appointed Boris Yeltsin to run the Moscow city committee of the party, Yeltsin now was president of the largest successor state to the Soviet Union.

This is a revised version of a post written for Russian Life Online by Linda Delaine in 2001.

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