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19-22 August 1991 Coup

Gorbachev hoped that he could at least hold the union together in a decentralized form. However, in the eyes of the remaining CPSU conservatives, he had gone too far because his new union treaty dispersed too much of the central government's power to the republics. On August 19, 1991, one day before Gorbachev and a group of republic leaders were due to sign the union treaty, a group calling itself the State Emergency Committee attempted to seize power in Moscow. The group announced that Gorbachev was ill and had been relieved of his state post as president. Soviet Union vice president Gennadiy Yanayev was named acting president. The committee's eight members included KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Internal Affairs Minister Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, and Prime Minister Pavlov, all of whom had risen to their posts under Gorbachev.

On August 19-21, 1991, a group of plotters made an attempt to preserve the Soviet Union as it was, in a desperate effort to avert the disintegration of the country. However, the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev failed miserably. A state of emergency was declared in Moscow and troops were brought in to the city on Aug. 19, 1991. "Compatriots! Citizens of the Soviet Union! In this difficult and critical hour for the fate of our fatherland and our peoples we turn to you! Deadly danger awaits our great homeland! The policy of reforms that Mikhail Gorbachev initiated as a means of guaranteeing dynamic development of our country and the democratization of society, due to a series of reasons, has reached a dead end.”

The State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) pronounced these anxious words to the Soviet citizens on Aug. 19, informing them that plotters were attempting to seize power in an attempt to derail the reforms implemented by Soviet premier Gorbachev. This was the first time the people had heard of the GKChP. “Taking advantage of the liberties given them, trampling on the fresh buds of democracy, extremist forces have appeared and intend to liquidate the Soviet Union, destroy the government and seize power at any cost," declared the GKChP. The committee, which had been formed just a day earlier, included representatives of the Soviet top brass: the head of the KGB, the prime minister and the vice president of the USSR. The latter, Gennady Yanayev, issued a decree appointing himself head of the government, justifying this by Gorbachev's poor health.

Gorbachev himself, who was preparing a new constitution project that would have turned the USSR into a loose confederation, was detained by coup participants in Crimea, where he was on holiday. The GKChP introduced censorship and restricted TV broadcasting. The TV stations, having changed their broadcast programs, were constantly showing Swan Lake, which many people still associate with those events.

The committee lasted for only three days. The "putschists," as the GKChP members were later called by allies of popular Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, could not overpower the center of opposition to the GKChP, which in those days was the White House in Moscow, where the Russian government was located. The committee members decided not to storm the building. By that time Yeltsin's entourage was able to bring Gorbachev back from Crimea, and the GKChP members were subsequently arrested.

Boris Yeltsin, who had been elected President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic two months earlier, was the biggest winner from the coup's defeat. The authority of his main political rival, Mikhail Gorbachev (along with that of all the Soviet administration and the USSR as a political project itself), was irreversibly undermined.

Yeltsin's supporters (during the GKChP days thousands of people came to defend the White House) perceived the coup attempt as an intention to return to the past, to the pre-perestroika period of the Soviet Union. This would have been impossible, since by the time of the coup the process of the USSR's dissolution had already acquired an irreversible inertia – the putsch's success would have only prolonged the agony. The USSR was doomed, no matter what the GKChP members might have done, by tahe collapse of the Soviet economy due to the distortions resulting from Peristroika. This meant that any moves aimed at preserving the Soviet Union by the committee members were also doomed to failure. The problem with the USSR was that even before Gorbachev came to power the Soviet administration had lost strategic aims for developing the country, aims that earlier were formed within the framework of Communist ideology.

There is, however, the opinion that the GKChP had a chance of being successful had the committee's members been more prepared for seizing power. From the military point of view, in 1991 everything was done very poorly, says Dmitry Andreyev, a historian and political scientist at Moscow State University. But Andreyev does not believe that the GKChP did not have a program. In its statements to the Soviet citizens the committee spoke of private enterprise, democratization, and the fight against crime, among other things.

Viktor Militarev, member of the Council of National Strategy, a non-governmental expert organization, is also convinced that the GKChP had a chance of prevailing. He believes that the GKChP would have conducted policies that in principle would not have been different from Gorbachev's. "The GKChP's public statements appeared threatening during the few days they were in power because they did not have good image-makers. But this does not mean that they actually wanted to impose a dictatorship. In essence, they wanted the same thing that Gorbachev did ([he preservation of the USSR – RBTH]," explains Militarev.

Large public demonstrations against the coup leaders took place in Moscow and Leningrad, and divided loyalties in the defense and security establishments prevented the armed forces from crushing the resistance that Yeltsin led from Russia's parliament building. On August 21, the coup collapsed, and Gorbachev returned to Moscow.

Once back in Moscow, Gorbachev acted as if he were oblivious to the changes that had occurred in the preceding three days. 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. The failed putsch further destabilized the Soviet state, which was already coming apart because of a steady loss of faith in the Soviet Union's ruling communist ideology and rising nationalism in its constituent republics. 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. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had recognized the independence of the Baltic republics in September. For several months after his return to Moscow, Gorbachev and his aides made futile attempts to restore stability and legitimacy to the central institutions. In November seven republics agreed to a new union treaty that would form a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States. But Ukraine was unrepresented in that group, and Yeltsin soon withdrew to seek additional advantages for Russia. 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 at Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they created the Commonwealth of Independent States 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. On December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. 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.

In a Levada Center poll conducted in late July 2016, respondents were asked to assess the failed August 1991 coup. Thirty percent of the respondents called it “a tragic event which had disastrous consequences for the country and the people,” while 35 percent called it “just an episode of power struggle in the top leadership of the country.” Only 8 percent called it “the victory of a democratic revolution that ended the power of the Communist Party,” while 27 percent said they were undecided about how to assess it. Asked whether they would come out to protect “Russian democracy” if something like the 1991 coup attempt happened today, 16 percent of the respondents answered “yes,” 44 percent answered “no” while the rest said they didn’t know whether they would or not.

Vladimir Putin once called the dissolution of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” He rolled back many of the democratic reforms Gorbachev inaugurated three decades ago.

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Page last modified: 19-08-2016 18:14:32 ZULU