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The Soviet August Coup still resonates 20 years later

Twenty years ago today, Communist Party hard-liners staged a coup to guard against further democratic reforms. The takeover failed but triggered the Soviet collapse.

By Correspondent / August 19, 2011

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaks during his news conference ahead of the 20th anniversary of Aug. 19, 1991, hardline coup that briefly ousted him and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union, in Moscow, Wednesday, Aug. 17. Gorbachev criticized the government for taking Russia backward and said that the nation needs free elections and a fresh leadership.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

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Moscow

Sergei Strokan, then a young reporter with the official Soviet news agency Novosti, still remembers his intense shock at the moment he learned that a KGB-backed coup d'etat was unfolding in the heart of Moscow on the morning of Aug. 19, 1991.

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"I looked up from my desk, and there were tanks in the street below," he recalls. "All my coworkers were stirring, muttering, no one knew what was going on. But there was a feeling of terrible tension."

He was even more surprised when their boss, a Communist Party apparatchik, called them into a meeting. "He told us that our job now was not to release any information. He said 'no one knows how this thing is going to turn out, we cannot take any chances,' " he remembers.

"So, on that first day of the coup, when one of the most important events of the 20th century was happening under our noses, one of the main news agencies of the country published just one thin news item, which contained zero facts," Mr. Strokan says.

That morning, millions of Soviets awoke to the strains of martial music on their radios, and repeated readings of a declaration by the group of top Communist Party, KGB, and military leaders calling themselves the "Emergency Committee." They said they had taken power in order to "restore the honor and dignity of Soviet man," and had called out tanks and troops to maintain a state of emergency until a fresh order was established.

The hard-liners were reacting against five years of pro-democracy reforms driven by the determined modernizing instincts of the last Soviet Communist Party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Those reforms had opened up the media to free debate, allowed non-Communist political groups to organize, replaced Communist Party administration with elected legislatures at every level, and moved to replace the forced union of 15 Soviet republics with a voluntary confederation.

Few realized at the time that the coup would be the death knell of the sprawling, multinational state in which they'd grown up.

Before the year was out, the USSR would slip away into the pages of history books.

Nikolai Svanidze, now one of Russia's best known TV personalities, says that he understood immediately what was at stake. "It was an attempt by the Communist Party and the nomenklatura [party elites] to preserve their power," he says.

With other friends, he rushed to the White House, a hulking white building by the Moscow River that in those days served as the seat of the newly elected Russian parliament. Boris Yeltsin, who'd been elected president of the Russian republic just two months earlier, escaped arrest by the Emergency Committee and made the White House his headquarters.

"The situation at the White House was really tense," says Mr. Svanidze. "People were gathering [to resist the coup]. I remember the excitement, lots of adrenalin. Everybody expected the soldiers and tanks outside to begin an assault at any moment. Many people armed themselves with sticks, or pieces of furniture, and got ready for the attack."

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