GORBACHEV AND THE COUP ATTEMPT IN AUGUST 1991

COUP ATTEMPT IN AUGUST 1991

On August 18, 1991, Mikhail S. Gorbachev was taken hostage at a villa on the Black Sea in the Crimea by a group of Communist hardliners. Gorbachev's phone was cut and he was stripped of his nuclear command codes. He was asked to transfer power to vice president Gennaday Yanaev. He refused and was placed under house arrest. Gorbachev later wrote, "I think I shouldn't have gone on vacation."

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc took place in four phases: 1) liberalization, reforms and a degree of democratization in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev from 1985 to 1988; 2) liberalization in Eastern Europe and chain of events that led to the downing of the Berlin Wall and the ouster of Communist governments there in 1989 and 1990; 3) protests, more democratic reforms, and efforts by individual republics to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991; and 4) the failed coup, the replacement of Gorbachev with Yeltsin as the leader of Russia-Soviet-Union and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

On August 19, 1991, an eight member group calling itself the State of Emergency Committee appeared on television announced that had taken control of the government in Moscow and restored order after Gorbachev had fallen ill and had been relieved of his state post as president. They didn't close borders or explain why did they did what they did. They had Swan Lake shown on television and sent tanks into Moscow. The coup plotters said their aim was to oust Gorbachev to prevent his perestroika reform program from breaking up the Soviet Union. They wanted to return the Communist Party and the Soviet Union to its former status.

Gorbachev hoped that he could at least hold the union together in a decentralized form. However, in the eyes of the remaining CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) conservatives, he had gone too far because his new union treaty dispersed too much of the central government's power to the republics. The coup took place one day before Gorbachev and a group of republic leaders were due to sign the union treaty.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Coup Leaders

The coup attempt was orchestrated by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov. The other seven members of the State of Emergency Committee included 1) Soviet vice president Gennady Yanayev, 2) Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, 3) Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, 4) Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, 5) Oleg D. Baklanov, 6) Alexander Tizyakov and 7) Vasily Starodubtsev. Gen. Anatoly Varennikov and Prime Minister Anatoly Lukyanov were also involved.

Kryuchkov, Pugo and Pavlov all had risen to their posts under Gorbachev. Lukyanov was a former friend of protege of Gorbachev. Their relationship goes back to Moscow University in the 1950s. He was a Politburo member and chairman of the Supreme Soviet. The other coup plotters were people that Gorbachev had appointed.

Historian Geoffrey Hosking told the Los Angeles Times, "It was a coup of Gorbachev against Gorbachev. It was mounted by people...who represented one half of what he was trying to do, while he himself was left stranded representing the other half of what he'd been trying to do."

Lukyanov later told the New Yorker, What happened in August 1991 “was not a coup, not a plot. It was an attempt to save the country, and that is all. In Gorbachev we were dealing with a politician who was out of his depth, a man who had never known anything except Komsomal politics and Party politics...All that happened with Gorbachev could have predicted...He was a confused politician. He was a child who refused to see that some stories have scary endings...” Perhaps the primary mistake of the coup leader was their failure to arrest Yeltsin.

Events After the Coup is Announced

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 the morning of August 19, tanks began rolling into downtown Moscow. Boris Tesyolkin, a 27-year-old tank commander, told the Los Angeles Times, he was roused from his bed at 2:00am at a base 30 miles outside of Moscow and put on alert. At 5:00am he was told to prepare his company. He thought it was a drill. At 8:00am he was ordered to drive to Moscow and block traffic on a bridge near the White House.

Protesters began appearing in the streets. A statue of Dzerzhinksy was toppled by demonstrators. Tesyolkin said people began laying in front in his tank. One demonstrator climbed on the tank and began beating him. He ordered the hatch closed.

Yeltsin and Events After the Coup is Announced

When Yeltsin heard about the coup attempt he raced to the "White House" (Parliament Building) and resisted by holing himself up there. The only problem was that nobody knew what was going on. During the early stages of coup attempt there were reportedly more people waiting in line at McDonalds than defending Yeltsin's White House.

To get word out Yeltsin sent a fax to the office of Konstantin Borovoy—an entrepreneur and Duma member—and brokers photocopied leaflets and spread them around the city. Soon crowds were gathering around the Parliament building and erecting barricades. To help keep them there Borovoy ordered two truckloads of sausages and Pizza Hut sent over carloads of pizzas. By the time the KGB came to seize the Xerox machine from Borovoy's office they had taken to a safe place. Borovoy later became a millionaire. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, March 1993]

Polls taken at the time found that 62 percent of Muscovites supported Yeltsin and only 4 percent supported the coup plotters. Eventually more that 50,000 people surrounded the White House in a show of support for Yeltsin. Some of the supporters were armed. They prepared themselves for an assault. Later, graffiti on the walls caricatured the coup plotters with artillery shells shove up a certain orifice on the backside's of their body.

Yeltsin Stands on a Tank

In a climatic move, still on August 19, Yeltsin climbed on tank to rally civilians to resist oncoming troops and tanks that were coming to reclaim the White House. He declared the coup was illegal and the coup leaders were criminals.

Yeltsin climbed Tesyolkin’s tank. Recalling the event Tesyolkin told the Los Angeles Times, "All of a sudden, there was a roar from the stairs—'Yeltsin! Yeltsin! Yeltsin!' And there was Yeltsin, coming down the stairs. He came up to us, climbed up, showed no fear. He deserves credit for that...For all he knew he could have climbed up on the tank and been fired upon. His bulletproof vest couldn't have saved him, and he had nothing else. What he did was brave."

Yeltsin later wrote, "I greeted the commanders of the tank which I was standing on and talked with his soldiers. From their faces, from the expression in their eyes, I could see they would not shoot us." Tesyolkin didn't see it that way. He recalled, Yeltsin "asked me, 'Have you come to kill Yeltsin?'...I replied,' no.'" He said his tank had no ammunition, no orders to shoot Yeltsin. He didn't even like Yeltsin, he said.

Tesyolkin said, "When I heard a little of what he said I began to make sense of the situation. I began to think about it a little...This could have turned serious. But no one could attack their own people. I know I couldn't, and couldn't order my subordinates to." After jumping down from the tank, Yeltsin told the crowd to move back and allow the tanks to pull away. The crowded moved as Tesyolkin and his unit took up the position on the bridge as they had been ordered to do.

Military Supports Yeltsin

The turning point of the coup came when a tank company led by Sergei Yevdokimov, a 36-year-old major, arrived on the scene and switched sides and ordered his tanks to turn around and defend Yeltsin and his supporters rather than attack them.

Yevdokimov was in charge a 10-ten tank company stationed outside the White House. He hadn't heard Yeltsin's speeches. He lined up his tanks around the White House and waited for orders. This around noon. None came. While he was waiting he was given a copy of Yeltsin's speech.

Yevdokimov later told Los Angeles Times, "When we got the photocopies and started talking to people, I began to understand basically what was happening—who was right, who was wrong." In the afternoon Yevdokimov met with one of Yeltsin's aids. Yevdokimov said he was on Yeltsin's side and agreed to place his tanks around the White House. His tanks also had no ammunition. "At a minimum I thought I'd be thrown out of the army," he told the Los Angeles Times. "maybe they’d put me in jail. I was worried only for my family. But Stalin’s time were already long past."

Yevdokimov's tanks stayed through the night and the next day. Protesters formed human chains around the White House. Barricades were set up. Even the KGB seemed unwilling to do anything. On the evening of August 20th, Yevdokimov's commander showed up. He ordered Yevdokimov to move but don't press the issue, apparently taking a wait and see position. Yevdokimov spent the night sleeping in a car. Yevdokimov told the Los Angeles Times, "The military began to improvise as soon as it was clear that something was going wrong." After the coup was over, the military said it had supported Yeltsin. Two days later Yevdokimov said his commander told him. "If they ask, say I was the one who ordered the tanks to stand around the White House."

End of the Coup

The coup collapsed on August 21, less than 72 hours after it begun. The day after Yeltsin stood on the tank, huge crowds opposing the coup appeared in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad; the leaders of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan rejected the coup; Estonia and Latvia declared full independence; and the tanks returned to their bases. The coup leaders backed down; some claiming they were ill. Pugo committed suicide.

One of the most telling images of the whole episode occurred at a televised press conference held by the coup leaders after Yeltsin had climbed on the tank. Yanayev announced he had assumed presidential powers but his hands trembled as he said it and he seemed very nervous and unsure of himself as reporters asked difficult questions. The images gave the impression to both Russians and non-Russians that the plotters lacked the will to see to fruition what they began. Although many journalists felt the coup was doomed, average Soviet citizens, numb from decades of Communist rule, accepted it. They were surprised when the coup was reversed.

The coup failed as a result of pressure from Yeltsin, the weakness and incompetence of the coup plotters, and dissent within the KGB and the military. Only three people were killed. They were protestors who died in a skirmish with armored personnel carriers near the U.S. Embassy. Starodubtsev blamed the failure on the inability of the leaders to take control of the media. He later told the Washington Post, "That was our grave mistake. Instead if broadcasting Swan Lake we should have been explaining what we were doing."

Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the Aftermath of the Coup

Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22 on Yeltsin's jet because he couldn't even trust his own pilots. He and Raisa were visible shaken by the whole episode (Raisa suffered a stroke during the coup attempt). The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was humiliated and had lost what little credibility it had left. Gorbachev lost his job as president four months later.

Yeltsin was clearly the hero of the hour. In the days after the coup he announced that all property in the Russian Republic was under the control of Russia not the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned as the Communist Party leader but not president, and ordered the property of the Soviet Union transferred to the Soviet parliaments.

After the coup attempt, Gorbachev acted as if he were oblivious to the changes that had occurred in the preceding three days. As he returned to power, he promised to purge conservatives from the CPSU. He resigned as general secretary but remained president of the Soviet Union. 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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Yevdokimov remained in the army. He retired as soon as he was eligible for early retirement. As of 2001, he was looking for a job. At that time still served in a tank unit.

Break Up of the Soviet Union

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. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

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 (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. 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.

Fate of the Coup Leaders

The seven surviving coup plotters were imprisoned awaiting trial for about a year and then released and given amnesty. A trial for the plotters wasn't held until 1994. By then no one cared much. Varennikov was the only one of the conspirators who showed up. His main purpose seemed to be to establish himself as a Communist martyr. He had refused amnesty and was acquitted. The other co-conspirators had accepted amnesty.

In the early 2000s, the plotters were regarded by many as national heros and most were living comfortably in their government apartments and dachas. Yanayev told the Washington Post, "I haven't heard a single insult over 10 years from ordinary people" and said he felt a "ceratin guilt...but only because the [coup] failed."

In the mid 2000s, Yanayev headed foundation and worked out of a comfortable office in Moscow. Lukyanov wrote his memoirs and a collection of sonnets. Baklanob worked as a defense consultant. Pavlov worked as an investment consultant. Starodubsev was elected to two terms as governor of the Tula region. Kryuchkov was invited to Putin's inauguration.

Yeltsin Takes Power from Gorbachev

After the coup Yeltsin became the defacto leader of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin had the support of the people and Gorbachev didn't. Gorbachev needed Yeltsin's support just to get back to Moscow. Hosking told the Los Angeles Times, Yeltsin "was the legitimate Russian leader in a way no Russian leader had never been before and in away Gorbachev was not because Gorbachev wasn't elected."

After superceding Gorbachev, Yeltsin appeared to take great pleasure in slighting and humiliating him. He said Gorbachev had the habit of "babbling on and on about socialism." After taking over the dacha occupied by the Gorbachev's, Yeltsin's wife commented, "Who in the world needs that many bathrooms, TV sets and servants?" Perhaps his most contemptuous act was interrupting Gorbachev while he was giving an important speech. Yeltsin approached at the podium and stopped Gorbachev in mid-speech and scolded him, making it clear that he not Gorbachev was in charge. When Gorbachev was asked about these slights, he said, Yeltsin always wanted to “hang noodles on my ears" (ridicule him).

Sergei Stankevich, a Duma deputy told the New Yorker, "After August 1991. Yeltsin sensed triumph but couldn’t resist temptation to humiliate Gorbachev. It was such a horrible scene. The first thing he did was manipulate Gorbachev so he was completely humbled and stripped of power. But Gorbachev would not accept his new role, and Yeltsin moved to get rid of him entirely."

One of Yeltsin's reason's for letting the Soviet Union break up is that with it gone, there was no one more powerful in Russia than the president of Russia, his job. Many believe Yeltsin had no intention of ruining the Soviet Union and he had no clear picture of what he wanted Russia to be. He was instead motivated by his antipathy of Gorbachev. Mark von Hagen, a historian at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it was a kind of personal hatred that motivated Yeltsin to dismantle the Soviet Union more than any real broad political vision of what should happen next.”

Gorbachev regarded Yeltsin as unprincipled, opportunist and crass and blamed him for throwing him out of office and usurping the democratic revolution that Gorbachev believes he started. "It is already well-known and proven that for him the most important thing is winning power, that he doesn't give a damn about Russia, about reform, and all the rest," Gorbachev said of Yeltsin. "There's no point in being bitter. I know what his nature his. I don’t get bitter. I just observe." Gorbachev later accused Yeltsin of creating “unchecked decentralization” and “regional feudalism” rather than democracy.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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