August 1991 Putsch
AUGUST 1991 PUTSCH
On the morning of August 19, 1991, Soviet state television suddenly and ominously switched to playing classical music, a programming change that usually preceded a significant political announcement. Soviet vice president Gennady Yanayev issued a statement that President Mikhail Gorbachev had been removed for health reasons and that he, as vice president, was now acting president. In reality, Gorbachev was under house arrest at his vacation home in Foros. Yanayev and seven other hard-line communists, under the rubric of the State Committee for the State of Emergency, had seized power to prevent a major reorganization of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev's policies of glasnost, democratization, and perestroika had set in motion a process of reconfiguring the relationship between the central party-state and the fifteen constituent republics of the USSR. Glasnost, for example, had resulted in the publication of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact's secret protocols, revealing that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been illegally annexed by Moscow. While these three republics sought outright independence from the Soviet Union, other republics issued decrees announcing their intent to take more control over their local political and economic affairs. This parade-of-sovereignties gained momentum when Boris Yeltsin declared the sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) in June 1990.
Gorbachev and the Communist Party initially tried to control the restructuring process. On April 26, 1990, the Supreme Soviet adopted the law, "On the Delineation of Powers Between the USSR and the Subjects of the Federation," to redefined center-periphery relations. The newly established Federation Council, consisting of Gorbachev and leaders of the fifteen republics, announced on June 12, 1990, that a completely new union treaty was needed to clarify the changing authority structure of the country. Four separate Union treaties were drafted in 1990 and 1991. Critically, Gorbachev primarily negotiated with the elected presidents of the republics, not the republic Party leaders, a move that would alarm die-hard communists in the months to come. Gorbachev's two closest allies in the reform process, Eduard Shevardnadze and Alexander Yakovlev, began to warn that a reactionary coup was imminent.
After many rounds of negotiation and a popular referendum, a final draft was issued on June 17, 1991, and a signing ceremony was announced for August 20. The treaty created a Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics and tacitly acknowledged that the six republics absent from the negotiations (Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova) were free to enter or decline this new political union. Gorbachev departed for vacation in the Crimea on August 4.
However, key Soviet leaders feared the new treaty would mean the end of the great Soviet state—and their own power. Plans had already been drawn up and were implemented once Gorbachev had left Moscow. The plotters' "Appeal to the Soviet People" was full of warnings about the imminent demise of the USSR, and court documents and testimony have since revealed that the desire to preserve the Union was a direct precipitant of the coup. The eight-man Emergency Committee represented the traditional bastions of power in the Soviet system. They included: Gennady Yanayev (USSR vice president), Valentin Pavlov (prime minister), Vladimir Kryuchkov (head of the KGB), Dimitri Yazov (minister of defense), Boris Pugo (minister of interior), Alexander Tizyakov (head of the Association of State Enterprises), Oleg Baklanov (head of the military-industrial complex and deputy chair of the Defense Council), and Vasil Starodubsev (chair of the Soviet farmers' union). Although Yanayev was the reluctant public face of the Committee, Kryuchkov was the real architect. Key leaders such as parliamentary speaker Anatoly Lukyanov and Gorbachev's long-time chief of staff Valery Boldin supported the Committee, although they were not formal members. In the end, the coup was thwarted by its planners' incompetence, popular resistance, and Russian Republic (RSFSR) president Boris Yeltsin.
On Monday, August 19, the Emergency Committee dispatched troops to key positions around Moscow, shut down all independent media outposts, banned all non-Communist political organizations, and proclaimed a state of emergency. They failed to shut off telephones, e-mail, and fax machines, however, and the independent media merely went underground.
Inexplicably, the Emergency Committee did not arrest Boris Yeltsin, who had become the popularly elected president of the Russian Republic only two months earlier. Yeltsin, at his dacha outside Moscow, was soon joined by key leaders of Russia, including Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak, Moscow deputy mayor Yuri Luzhkov, and General Konstantin Kobets, chair of the Russian parliament's military affairs committee.
The Russian leaders drafted their own appeal, "To the Citizens of Russia," and then dispersed. Although the KGB's elite Alpha unit had surrounded the dacha, they did not move to arrest Yeltsin and company. In hindsight, participants have attributed this critical error to internal bickering among Alpha commanders or the lack of a direct order from the Emergency Committee. Whatever the explanation, Yeltsin slipped away and immediately went to the Russian parliament building, known as the White House. Climbing atop one of the tanks surrounding the White House, Yeltsin denounced the coup as illegal, read his appeal, and called for a general strike. He also declared that military and police forces on Russian territory now reported to him. Yeltsin's team began circulating alternative news reports, faxing them out to Western media for broadcast back into the USSR. Soon Muscovites began to heed Yeltsin's call to defend democracy.
Tens of thousands of Russian citizens assembled outside the White House, constructing barricades out of trees, trolley cars, building materials, even old bathtubs, to hold off an expected attack by Soviet troops. But instead of attacking on Monday, troops from the Tamanskaya Division switched sides to defend the White House, turning their turrets away from the building.
Outside Moscow, the reaction was mixed. Many local leaders hastened to support the Emergency Committee. Republics with noncommunist leaders, such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Kyrgyzstan, immediately denounced the coup. Iraq and Libya backed the plotters, while Western leaders cautiously observed events unfold. United States diplomats had issued three separate coup warnings to Gorbachev that summer, but President George H. W. Bush was initially reluctant to back the maverick Yeltsin.
That evening, Acting President Yanayev held a press conference that was a public-relations disaster. His quivering hands, constant sniffling, and stilted delivery suggested his lack of conviction— or his inebriation. Reporters laughed at his lame answers about the day's events. From the outset, the Emergency Committee inspired little fear.
On Tuesday, August 20, citizens continued to gather at the White House. Students, private security firms, priests, and grandmothers defended the building, organized by veterans of the Afghanistan war. Yeltsin emerged to rally the crowd. Waving Russia's pre-communist flag, he exhorted citizens to ignore decrees from the Emergency Committee. Members of the Russian and Western media entered the White House and provided eyewitness reports. Some 250 RSFSR Supreme Soviet deputies alternately holed up with Yeltsin or went into the crowds to convert Soviet soldiers to their cause. Pro-democracy figures such as Eduard Shevardnadze, Yelena Bonner, and Mstislav Rostropovich addressed the crowd.
Defying a curfew and drenching rain, people stayed at the barricades Tuesday night. When troops began to stir just after midnight, the crowds tried to halt them, shouting "Shame! Shame!" Three civilians, Volodya Usov, Dima Komar, and Ilya Krichevsky, were killed in the confusion, becoming the coup's martyrs. No further advance was made on the White House, as military and KGB troops refused to fire on their countrymen.
The Emergency Committee effectively surrendered at 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 21. As the troops withdrew, two competing delegations raced to reach Gorbachev first. One group, consisting of Baklanov, Kryuchkov, Tizyakov, and Yazov, primarily wanted to plead their case to Gorbachev and avoid arrest. Yeltsin's group, led by Russian vice president Alexander Rutskoi and Prime Minister Silayev, wanted to assure Gorbachev's safety. They took Western media and Russian security forces with them. Yeltsin's team arrived first, and Gorbachev had the other group arrested immediately upon arrival. Gorbachev and his family flew back to Moscow, arriving in the early hours of Thursday. However, the people had sided with Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, and power began to shift accordingly.
Gorbachev was slow to read the new mood among his populace. He believed a new union treaty was still possible, praised Lenin and socialism upon his return, and hesitated to resign from the Communist Party. Meanwhile, people took to the streets, tearing down statues of Lenin, hammers and sickles, and even the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky outside KGB headquarters, the organization he had founded. Lenin's Mausoleum closed indefinitely. At an August 23 session of the Russian parliament, members jeered at Gorbachev, then forced him to fire his entire cabinet. Yeltsin compelled a stunned Gorbachev to read aloud the minutes of an August 19 meeting of the coup plotters. Yeltsin then banned the Party from Russian territory. On August 24, Gorbachev resigned as Party general secretary, turned its assets over to parliament, and curbed its activities in the dwindling USSR. Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, and Latvia declared their independence, followed by Moldova.
Seven members of the Emergency Committee were arrested immediately following the coup's collapse. Interior Minister Pugo committed suicide. In the immediate aftermath of the putsch, staff at the Central Committee headquarters destroyed thousands of documents. The Russian Duma amnestied the plotters in February 1994, and several were elected to that institution.
The degree of Gorbachev's complicity in the putsch remains a source of controversy. The KGB placed him under arrest on Sunday evening, August 18, after he refused to resign. Gorbachev insists that he was isolated, betrayed, and fearful for his life. Lukyanov and Yanayev, however, insist that Gorbachev was in on the plans from the beginning and merely waiting to gauge popular reaction. History is still being written on this key event in Russian politics.
See also: gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; kryuchkov, vladimir alexandrovich; pugo, boris karlovich; union treaty; yazov, dmitry timofeyevich; yeltsin, boris nikolayevich
Billington, James. (1992). Russia Transformed: Breakthrough to Hope, Moscow, August 1991. New York: Free Press.
Gorbachev, Mikhail. (1991). The August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons. New York: Harper Collins.
Remnick, David. (1993). Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Random House.
Yeltsin, Boris. (1994). The Struggle for Russia. New York: Random House.
Ann E. Robertson
August ★★½ 1995 (PG)
Yet another version of Chekov's “Uncle Vanya,” this time transported to 1890s Wales. Hopkins (who makes his directorial debut and composed the score) stars as Ieuan Davies, a bitter drinker who manages the estate of brother-in-law Alexander Blathwaite (Phillips). Blathwaite arrives for his annual summer stay with unhappy, young second wife Helen (Burton), who's the object of desire for both Ieuan and the local doctor, Michael Lloyd (Grainger). It's a perfectedly adequate rendition but offers little that's new except a change of scenery. 93m/C VHS . GB Anthony Hopkins, Kate Burton, Leslie Phillips, Gawn Grainger, Rhian Morgan, Hugh Lloyd, Rhoda Lewis, Menna Tussler; D: Anthony Hopkins; W: Julian Mitchell; C: Robin Vidgeon; M: Anthony Hopkins.
au·gust / ôˈgəst/ • adj. respected and impressive: she was in august company. DERIVATIVES: au·gust·ly adv.
Au·gust / ˈôgəst/ • n. the eighth month of the year, in the northern hemisphere usually considered the last month of summer.
August: see month.