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The August 1991 putsch: digging the USSR’s grave

Demonstration in the streets of Moscow during the 1991 coup d’état attempt. From Wikimedia Commons.

It was August 1991 and, from the point of view of old communists, the leadership circle in Moscow, things were going seriously wrong. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin politics of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were threatening the very foundation of the world’s largest totalitarian creature; the ‘superpower’ was losing control in its 15 ‘brotherly republics’ and, equally painfully perhaps, it was losing land and people: by that fateful August Lithuania, Georgia and Latvia had already declared their independence. Millions of other Soviet citizens were becoming troublesome, too.
For those longing for the status quo of pre-perestroika times, it was not the USSR itself that was wrong, but rather the USSR it had become.

It was time to put things right again. It was time to show those rebelling serfs who was the boss.

So on 18 August 1991, a bunch of senior government officials put the holidaying Gorbachev under house arrest and went public with their mission. We will get the USSR back on track!

‘The putsch was an effort by reactionary forces to save the Soviet Union, to restore the countries that had pronounced themselves independent and to bring it all back not only to the USSR, but to the USSR of Brezhnev’s times [“good old days”, in reality – deep stagnation],’ says Algirdas Jakubcionis, a Lithuanian historian from Vilnius University.

These reactionary forces – the ‘Gang of Eight’ – announced they were taking over, but the new boss, USSR’s vice-president Gennady Yanayev, betrayed weakness when millions saw his confusion (nerves or alcohol?) on TV. ‘It was a massive blow to the putschists’ image,’ says Jakubcionis. ‘Yanayev’s trembling hands were further evidence that the putsch organizers had not prepared it properly.’

They made another mistake. Lenin’s teachings that during coups it’s vital to control the communication means were foolishly ignored: telephone lines and the radio in Moscow worked fine.

Tanks in Moscow during the putsch. From Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, when at 9 am on 19 August the army’s tanks reached Moscow, pro-reform crowds were already gathering. It was rare that ordinary Soviet citizens had such important information beforehand – secrecy had been a well-respected rule in the USSR. Boris Yeltsin, the recently-elected president of Soviet Russia, was also there. It was on this day that he, famously posing as a democrat on top of a tank, denounced the coup as unconstitutional and called for mass resistance.

Boris Yeltsin giving a speech on top of a tank, 19 August 1991. Photo from the website of the President of the Russian Federation – Kremlin.ru under a CC licence.

Two days later, the Gang of Eight were arrested, having failed to ‘make it right’.

‘Had the putsch succeeded, there’s no doubt all the independent countries would have been returned to the USSR in the form of military dictatorship,’ Jakubcionis says. ‘We would have been crushed. Remember that, in Lithuania’s case, for example, only Iceland had recognized our independence at the time.’

The rest of the West could not be relied on for help. Their belief in Gorbachev as the great democrat was so strong they failed to assess him critically. To this day, Gorbachev, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, denies responsibility for the blood spilled in Vilnius, Tbilisi and elsewhere in a desperate attempt to crush independence movements. ‘In totalitarian states, leaders work dawn to dusk to dawn because they must have all the information, be in total control,’ Jakubcionis explains. ‘And the USSR was such a strictly centralized state that the leader personally decided who was to get which communal flat.’ Is it possible that Gorbachev didn’t know about his army shooting at innocent people in the already-former Soviet states Moscow didn’t want to let go? ‘No.’ But this was already history.    

After the ill-conceived and inadequately planned putsch failed, the Soviet Union didn’t take long to disintegrate completely. From Ukraine to Kazakhstan, independence was declared; Russia itself did it on 25 December 1991. The USSR formally ceased to exist the day after.

Old jokes about Russia announcing its secession from the Soviet Union (Russia was, of course, the heart of the Soviet Union) became reality. And reality continued to bite.

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