Putsch: Collapsed Attempt at a Russian Coup that Failed in 1991

Putsch: Collapsed Attempt at a Russian Coup that Failed in 1991

In March of 1985, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party and chief political leader of the Soviet Union. In 1990, he also became President of the Soviet Union.

Shortly after assuming power in 1985, Gorbachev introduced a program of economic and social reforms that began shifting power away from the totalitarian central government and allowing the Soviet citizens greater individual liberties. His policies of glasnost ( openness) and perestroika ( restructuring) expanded the powers and freedom of the media, allowed for multi-candidate political contests and elections by secret ballot, introduced limited free market economic practices and private ownership of some businesses, and encouraged the creation of citizens’ groups. Slowly, totalitarian rule was being abolished.

Communist Party officials and leaders of the central government bureaucracy who saw their power and authority being taken away from them resisted Gorbachev’s democratic reforms. In August of 1991, a handful of men representing the opposition attempted to seize the government from Gorbachev.

Just three days after it began, the coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed. However, despite his success in avoiding removal from office, Gorbachev’s days in power were numbered. The Soviet Union would soon cease to exist as a nation, and as a Cold War threat to the United States.

Sunday August 18,1991 An Unanticipated Visit

Like the countless millions of Russian citizens who were grabbed in the middle of the night and taken to Stalin’s Soviet gulags, Mikhail Gorbachev learned of his date with totalitarian security after an unexpected knock on the door. That afternoon, aides told the Soviet president that they had allowed a mysterious group led by Yuri Plekhanov, a powerful KGB official, into Gorbachev’s Crimean dacha (house). Dumbfounded, Gorbachev quickly tried each of the government phones in his office, discovering that all were dead. What he later called his personal “drama” had begun.

Fearing that he might be assassinated, Gorbachev went to his family’s quarters, gathering his wife Raisa, his daughter Irina, and son-in-law Anatoly, to break the news. “ If the worst happens, if it’s a question of giving up my political course, I will stand up for my position,” he said. All agreed it was the only option, even if it put their own lives at risk.

Gorbachev left to confront his captors, but before he could usher them in, they had entered on their own. To his shock, their leader was his own chief of staff, Valeri Boldin. Gorbachev first tried bluster, “Who sent you?” “The emergency committee,” came the response. “I didn’t appoint such a committee,” he stormed. They pressed their ultimatum. He must either sign a decree authorizing an emergency crackdown to undo much of the reform he had championed in the past six years, or turn over his power to an emergency group led by his hand-picked vice president, Gennady Yanayev. Gorbachev refused, vowing silently to commit suicide rather than accede.

The arrest had interrupted Gorbachev while he was drafting a speech he planned to give two days later at the signing of a new Union treaty transferring unprecedented powers from the central Soviet government to the increasingly active republics. “I was totally isolated from the sea and from the land,” Gorbachev related later. “Everything was done to weaken me psychologically.” His 32-man guard remained with him, providing what protection they could for his family. With an eye to his own death and place in history, Gorbachev recorded a video tape to prove he was in good health and resisting the coup. He passed it piece-by-piece to his guards when they brought food, in the hope it would be spliced together if he were killed. He also wrote a will.

Another cause for alarm, his captors had seized the briefcase that contained his codes to launch nuclear weapons, raising the prospect that in desperation, the coup leaders might attempt nuclear blackmail.

Monday August 19, 1991. The Tanks Roll

Gorbachev’s refusal to comply with the conspirators’ script set off the slipshod machinery of the coup. In the middle of the night, the KGB went on alert around the sprawling country. Hours later, thousands of Soviet soldiers with their armored vehicles were ordered to prepare to head to Moscow. Air defense forces parked tractors on a runway near Gorbachev’s dacha to keep his airplane and helicopter from leaving. Several KGB units sealed off the area around the home, helicopters circled overhead, and more than a half-dozen patrol boats monitored the coast.

But the coup planners sealed their fate in these first hours by failing to decapitate their opposition. The KGB missed arresting the Russian Republic president Boris Yeltsin at his home because he had rushed off to the Russian Parliament after receiving an intercepted radio communication. His first anti-coup appeal to the nation was already in hand. In fact, none of the opposition leaders in any of the Republics was arrested.

Early in the morning in Moscow, the plotters went public. The Soviet news agency Tass announced that Yanayev had taken over because Gorbachev was suffering health problems. But the real powers behind the curtain had names like:
Boris K. Pugo, interior minister
Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, chairman of the KGB
Dmitri T. Yazov, defense minister
Valentin S. Pavlov, prime minister

Even before they filled the streets with tanks, they showed their Stalinist colors by issuing a resolution declaring all media organs under official control and banning all strikes and demonstrations.

The takeover was neither peaceful nor orderly. Mid-morning, the Soviet Army rumbled into Moscow to the cries of “Pozor!” “Shame!” from distraught onlookers.

Other activities were coordinated in the capital cities of the outlying republics. Soviet troops surrounded the transmission tower of Lithuania’s government. Tanks surrounded the Parliament building of the Russian Republic. Soviet troops invaded TV stations in Riga, the Latvian Capital, to seize control of the main television station. They also killed a bus driver and wounded one passenger.

Rather than wither away, the resistance mounted a tit-for-tat counter strategy. When Yeltsin learned of Yanayev’s role, he phoned the new national boss with a challenge. “Keep in mind that we do not accept you gang of bandits”. Brushing aside his advisors’ admonitions that he was overplaying his weak hand, Yeltsin climbed atop one of the Soviet tanks on the street outside his office to ask the crowd of 20,000 to participate in massive resistance and a general strike the following day. As an inspirational spectacle, it was electric.

That afternoon, Yeltsin’s office issued the first of a blizzard of decrees, ordering among other things, that KGB officers obey his commands in the Republic of Russia, not those of their national KGB masters. Meanwhile, groups of young war veterans began appearing at the Parliament building, offering to help erecting barricades and making Molotov cocktails.

On the defensive, the leaders of the coup called a press conference to argue their right to remove the man who had presided over a 25% collapse in the Soviet economy. “The situation has gone out of control,” Yanayev charged. “ We’re also facing a threat of disintegration.” But it was clear Gorbachev’s betrayers had no strategy to fix the problem.

A harbinger of the plotters downfall came toward the end of the first day. Shortly before midnight, 10 tanks from the elite Soviet Taman motorized rifle division maneuvered in front of the Russian Parliament building known as the White House, until their cannons were in position to defend Yeltsin against the rest of the Soviet Army.

Tuesday August 20, 1991. Putsch Comes to Shove.

Inside the Yeltsin bunker, the sleepless resistors knew their fate would depend on whether the public turned out in the streets the next day. They were not disappointed. In Moscow, Leningrad, and several other cities hundreds of thousands chanted, “ Yeltsin!” “ Yeltsin!” The emboldened Russian responded with new demands, the right to meet with Gorbachev within 24 hours, the dropping of restrictions on the media, the lifting of the state emergency, the return of troops to their bases, and the arrest of coup leaders.

Fence-sitters and even early agents of betrayal began to cross the line. The commander of the Tula Airborne Division refused his allegiance and directed his men to protect the Russian Parliament. The chief of Leningrad police and the local Leningrad KGB Chief said they, too, supported Yeltsin.

Yet inside the Moscow White House, there was fear. KGB agents who turned up at the door claiming a change of heart and volunteering help were closely questioned to test their sincerity. “I don’t have much time left,” Yeltsin told an anguished John Major, Britain’s prime minister, during a phone call. Pistols were passed out to Yeltsin aides, and boxes of Molotov cocktails were strategically placed. To resist attack, military deserters manned makeshift communications lines, taking in intelligence reports of troop movements and other developments.

The emergency committee ordered an overnight curfew in Moscow, banned all but its own radio and TV broadcasts, and ordered Yeltsin’s allies to clear their barricades. But their demonstrations of power were all for show. In Estonia, more than 100 Soviet armored vehicles and trucks rolled into the capital, Tallinn, but did not disrupt the media, or communication with the outside world. In Moscow, the tanks still loyal to the hardliners just raced up and down the street in front of the White House as if caught in some hellish traffic circle.

The health problems afflicting Gorbachev suddenly appeared to be catching among the coup leaders. Pavlov was reported hospitalized with high blood pressure. Two of his colleagues were also rumored to be ill. The KGB’s Kryuchkov raised his head, opening conciliatory discussions with Yeltsin during the afternoon and then promising that the military would not storm the White House. There was no assurance that he was telling the truth.

The most anxious moments came that evening, when Yeltsin’s camp was tipped off that a tank attack was imminent. All women were ordered out of the building, lights were doused to protect against snipers spotted in nearby buildings, and orders were given to shoot anyone who stepped within a 50-meter no-man’s land around the White House.

Overhead, Yeltsin’s followers had lofted a dirigible draped in the Russian flag, in the hope that it would help deter incoming helicopters. Inside, the world’s pre-eminent cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich, who had flown in from Paris to show solidarity with the protesters, played soaring music in the darkened Parliament building.

Wednesday, August 21, 1991. Deliverance.

The nightmare outcome appeared to unfold in the middle of the night. Soviet tanks became entangled in the human chain around Yeltsin’s White House and protesters swarmed over the first tank. A second tank tried to maneuver around and was pelted with Molotov cocktails. A brawl broke out and two of Yeltsin’s supporters were shot and one was crushed by an armored vehicle. But the tanks withdrew. The democrats had held, and Moscow’s youth gave the retreating tanks a high-spirited escort.

So desperate were the coup schemers that the next morning KGB boss Kryuchkov suggested that Yeltsin travel to Gorbachev’s home to see his condition. “Of course I refused,” Yeltsin later reported. Less than an hour after Kryuchkov’s offer, Yeltsin returned to the parliament podium to tell stomping, cheering delegates that the gang of eight was trying to flee Moscow. Russian police forces just missed catching them en route to the airport several miles outside the city. Yazov and Kryuchkov flew to the Crimea, apparently to seek a pardon from Gorbachev. In his dacha, Gorbachev refused to meet with them and demanded a phone. His first call was to his savior, Yeltsin. Shortly afterwards, a second plane from Moscow arrived, carrying a Yeltsin delegation led by officials of the Russian Republic. Yazov and Kryuchkov were taken into custody for the return trip to Moscow. Four others would soon be arrested and a fifth was being sought for questioning. The interior minister, Pugo, killed himself with a bullet in the head; his wife was found critically injured by his side. In Moscow, a huge traffic jam ensued as a 3-mile long convoy of tanks and other vehicles made its way back to nearby bases.

Gorbachev returned in the next day’s dawn to confront the depths of the treachery against him by men he had trusted. Even his friend and college classmate, Anatoly Lukyanov, chairman of the Soviet Parliament, appeared to have dirty hands as Yeltsin supporters fingered him as the ideological mastermind of the coup. As Gorbachev’s countrymen stomped on the symbols of their oppression, the embattled leader began a purge of his revealed enemies. He then eventually purged himself by resigning as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

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