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.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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.

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.

"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."

No one knew what had happened to Mr. Gorbachev, who'd been vacationing at the Crimean resort of Foros. Later in the day, coup plotter Gennady Yanayev told journalists, with shaking hands, that Gorbachev had been placed under house arrest. "Over these past few years Gorbachev has got very tired and needs some time to rest and get his health back," Mr. Yanayev said.

Though about 50,000 Muscovites eventually converged on the White House, determined to defend democracy, most Russians sat on their hands throughout the 60-hour ordeal of the coup.

"As a Soviet person, I was against the USSR collapsing and the republics going their own way," says Viktor Baranets, at that time a spokesman for the Soviet Defense Ministry. "The Army hated Yeltsin, and didn't end up supporting the Emergency Committee only because we feared civil war. We remained silent [through the coup]. But many officers of my generation still feel betrayed and deceived," by all political leaders, he says.

The crowds surging around the White House represented the popular face of resistance to the coup, and the crowning moment came when Mr. Yeltsin clambered atop a tank and bellowed his defiance to the Emergency Committee.

But a far more important battle was being waged in the corridors of Soviet bureaucracy across the vastness of the USSR, where apparatchiks were compelled to choose sides. With Gorbachev's whereabouts unknown, most opted to pledge their loyalty to Yeltsin.

"I went to the White House early the first morning, and talked to [Yeltsin's people]," says Alexander Krasnov, then chairman of the Krasnopresnensky District Council, which ran a region of Moscow. "I then worked on the other 125 deputies in our council, and persuaded the majority of them to back Yeltsin. The Communist Party district committee was situated in our building, and most of them also refused to support the Emergency Committee," he says.

"I was later awarded for my efforts with a watch that had Yeltsin's portrait on it," he says.

The end came on Aug. 21, when the elite KGB Alpha commando squad refused to storm the White House on Emergency Committee orders, and the coup collapsed. A shaken Gorbachev returned to Moscow, but failed to go to the White House to congratulate Yeltsin and the pro-democracy crowds.

To this day Gorbachev blames Yeltsin's "thirst for power" for the subsequent destruction of the USSR, which saw the other 14 republics gain independence and left Yeltsin as the supreme leader in Russia. Gorbachev resigned on Dec. 25, 1991, and the Soviet flag was hauled down from the Kremlin for the last time.

"[Yeltsin] was extremely infatuated with power, haughty and thirsting for glory, a domineering person," Gorbachev said in an interview with the German newsweekly Der Spiegel this week. "He should have been shunted out of the way and made an ambassador to some banana republic."

A survey released this week by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that the number of Russians who look back on the August Coup and its outcome – the collapse of the USSR – as a "tragedy" has grown from 25 percent to 39 percent in the past 10 years. Only 10 percent of respondents in this week's poll maintained that the defeat of the August Coup was a "victory for democracy."

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