Questions about the failed 1991 Soviet coup that you’re too embarrassed to ask What the heck is a ‘putsch’? Which sides were Yeltsin and Gorbachev on? What was the military doing during all this?
The August Putsch, as it’s known in Russia, began 30 years ago. On August 19, 1991, a group of senior state officials launched an attempt to seize control of the USSR, deploying troops to Moscow, which led to a confrontation at Russia’s White House. The coup’s failure doomed the Soviet Union, which collapsed before the end of the year. By 2016, almost half of Russians didn’t even remember the events of August 1991. In light of the public’s fading knowledge, Meduza answers a few important questions that many people are now too embarrassed to ask.
Is a putsch the same as a revolution?
A putsch is the same as a coup d'état — a violent attempt to overthrow the government and an unconstitutional seizure of power. This is how the Russian authorities have classified the actions of the “State Committee on the State of Emergency” (GKChP) in August 1991. Several top Soviet officials joined the August Putsch: Vice President Gennady Yanaev, Council of Ministers Chairman Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Interior Minister Boris Pugo, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, and others. The GKChP’s nominal leader was Yanaev, but most historians say he was a figurehead and the group’s real leader was Kryuchkov.
The putschists sought to remove Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from office and impose a state of emergency in certain regions across the USSR, suspending the activities of political parties and social movements, prohibiting all demonstrations, marches, and labor stoppages, and introducing controls on the news media.
What was the GKChP exactly? What did its members want?
Calling themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency, the putschists said their goal was to preserve the Soviet Union and suspend the reforms rolled out under Perestroika that they believed were destroying the country. They launched the coup ahead of the August 20 scheduled signing of a new union treaty between various Soviet republics that was meant to replace the USSR with a conference named the Union of Sovereign States. But not every Soviet republic planned to join this new union.
Others argue that the top officials who formed the GKChP had more selfish interests, knowing that they’d likely lose their jobs in a reformed union. Mikhail Gorbachev has said the KGB probably recorded his conversations in July 1991 with Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic President Boris Yeltsin, where the two presidents agreed to make radical changes to the country’s ministerial leadership after the new union treaty was signed. The KGB presumably shared this information with the GKChP’s members, says Gorbachev.
Where did Yeltsin come from? Who was fighting against him?
At the time, Boris Yeltsin was the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic — the USSR’s biggest constituent republic. The Russian SFSR’s leadership (including the Russian branches of the Interior Ministry, the KGB, and other law enforcement agencies) led the opposition to the attempted coup, while the putschists drew mainly on national-level Soviet institutions like the military, the Soviet KGB, and the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Boiled down, the August coup was a conflict between the conservative wing of the Soviet leadership and the political leadership of the Russian SFSR, headed by Yeltsin.
So Yeltsin and Gorbachev wanted to dissolve the USSR?
Hardly! In the years before the Soviet Union collapsed, reformists were trying to salvage what they could of the country. Gorbachev and others risked the disruptions inherent in Perestroika because they believed democratization and economic change were necessary to address the failing Soviet system. The nation’s economy had been in crisis since the mid-1980s, and the Soviet Bloc had essentially dissolved in 1989. Within a year, the USSR itself was disappearing, with one republic after another declaring its sovereignty. By 1991, many senior officials realized that Moscow lacked the resources needed to hold the union together. The only way to save the state was to modernize and modify its entire structure.
On March 17, 1991, at Gorbachev’s initiative, the Soviet Union held its first and only ever unionwide referendum, asking citizens to vote on whether or not to “preserve” the USSR “as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics.” Six of the 15 constituent republics (Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia) boycotted the referendum, but roughly 78 percent of people in the rest of the Soviet Union voted to keep the country. The result was the New Union Treaty, due to be signed on August 20, 1991. Despite numerous internal disagreements, the Russian SFSR’s leaders decided to sign the agreement. The officials behind the GKChP, however, believed that the new union marked the USSR’s collapse and determined that the country could be preserved only by force.
What was Gorbachev doing during the coup?
The putschists struck when Mikhail Gorbachev was on vacation in Crimea. On August 18, the future members of the GKChP visited Gorbachev at the presidential retreat in the resort town of Foros and asked him to declare a nationwide state of emergency. After the Soviet president refused, all communications to the Foros compound were cut (though putschists have denied this in subsequent interviews) and Gorbachev was effectively trapped at the retreat. The Sevastopol border troops regiment encircled the compound and Soviet Air Defense Forces Chief of Staff General Igor Maltsev ordered the presidential plane and helicopter grounded at the local airport. On television, broadcasters announced that Gorbachev had fallen ill and his duties had temporarily passed to Vice President Gennady Yanaev.
According to some reports, Gorbachev knew about the plot in advance and even advocated imposing a state of emergency throughout the USSR. Boris Yeltsin maintained that Gorbachev was well-informed while in Foros. “He knew everything and was waiting to see who would win,” Yeltsin said. Early on, the GKChP’s members themselves also claimed to have Gorbachev’s support, but there is no evidence that the Soviet president actually participated in the coup.
How did the coup start? Besides the retreat in Crimea, did the entire incident take place in Moscow?
Protests against attempts to impose a curfew and a state of emergency broke out in many cities across the USSR, but Moscow was indeed the center of events. Early in the morning on August 19, on orders from Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov (a member of the GKChP), troops entered the capital. Tanks and armored personnel carriers drove down central streets and entered public squares, while paratrooper units seized control of the Ostankino Television Technical Center and other key broadcast media hubs. Throughout the day, every TV channel showed the same thing: news programs that comprised a recording of Swan Lake with classic music playing between scenes. Protests were underway by 11 in the morning, as armored personnel carriers took up positions along the roads. At 5 p.m., members of the GKChP held a press conference at the Foreign Ministry’s building. Visibly nervous, Vice President Yanaev stated his enduring respect for Gorbachev and stressed the need to “continue the course taken towards democratization.”
What happened at the Russian White House? Who stood “with the people”?
The Russian SFSR’s Supreme Soviet was located in the White House (not to be confused with the building in Washington, DC). Beginning at 9 a.m. on August 19, Boris Yeltsin made his stand here, leading the resistance to the GKChP. The leaders of the Russian SFSR denounced the GKChP as an illegal government takeover and called on supporters to come to the White House to defend it against the putschists. Later in the day, Yeltsin went outside to address the crowd of sympathizers and made a famous speech, standing atop one of the tanks parked outside. Afterward, demonstrators started forming unarmed militia units and erecting barricades using bricks, park benches, garbage cans, and anything else they could find to defend the republic’s leadership against a possible military assault. Inside the White House, there were also some armed guards and police officers defending Yeltsin and his team. Before dawn on August 21, armed police cadets also joined the Russian SFSR’s side. Additionally, there are reports about body armor and automatic weapons being distributed to volunteers.
By the evening on August 20, according to some estimates, several hundred thousand people had amassed outside the White House. Documents and eyewitness reports indicate a very diverse group of protesters ranging from members of the intelligentsia and university students to Afghanistan War veterans, Cossacks, and nationalist activists. Resistance leaders warned demonstrators not to provoke the military, instructing them to lock arms and stand some distance from the White House. At the same time, guards were under orders to shoot any attackers on sight, if soldiers raided the building.
But the army never stormed the White House, so how did people end up dying?
The military drafted at least one plan to storm the White House that would have used tanks and soldiers from the “Alpha” and “Vympel” special forces, but Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov never gave the order to begin the operation. Yazov later denied any plans to storm the building, but other GKChP members have said in memoirs and testimonies that the assault plan was designed to “isolate and disarm the militants who were causing tensions around the White House.” Some of the soldiers involved in preparing the assault plan ultimately changed sides and went over to the White House’s defenders, like General Alexander Lebed, the Russian Federation’s future National Security Council secretary and governor of the Krasnodar region.
In the early morning hours on August 21, armored vehicles from the Soviet Army began patrolling Moscow’s streets to enforce the new curfew in effect. There were no arrests that night, but demonstrators clashed with the military in several places across the city. For example, at the intersection between the Garden Ring and Novyi Arbat, protesters tried to block the path of a convoy of armored vehicles. Civilians threw rocks at the military and set one vehicle ablaze. Soldiers fired several warning shots into the air, one of which ricocheted and killed 37-year-old Vladimir Usov. A soldier fleeing the burned armored vehicle killed 28-year-old Ilya Krichevsky with a gunshot to the head. Another man, 22-year-old Dmitry Komar, fell under an armored vehicle’s tracks and died. All three demonstrators were posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union medals.
So the Soviet military ultimately abandoned the GKChP?
Gradually, several high-ranking military officers (like Soviet Air Force Commander-in-Chief Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, Soviet Navy Commander-in-Chief Vladimir Chernavin, and Strategic Rocket Forces Commander-in-Chief Yuri Maksimov) announced their opposition to the putschists, but the commanders of units actually deployed to Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities perhaps played the more decisive role on August 21. For example, when members of the Russian SFSR’s Congress of People's Deputies blocked the path of a military convoy near Moscow’s Ring Road and tried to appeal directly to the soldiers, no one interfered with the demonstrators.
As a result, by the morning of August 21, Soviet Defense Minister Yazov was forced to order the withdrawal of troops from Moscow. Later in the day, he made one last attempt to enlist Mikhail Gorbachev’s support. When this failed, Vice President Yanaev formally dissolved the GKChP.
What was happening in the other constituent republics? Did they support the GKChP or Yeltsin?
In most cases, the leaders of other Soviet republics avoided direct confrontations with the GKChP. In the Belarusian and Ukrainian SFSRs, for instance, senior officials offered supportive public statements but little else. In the Baltic states, meanwhile, the heads of the now powerless local Communist parties also welcomed the putsch, albeit without consequence.
What happened to the putschists afterward? Did they end up in prison?
Between August 22 and 29, 1991, the authorities arrested the GKChP members and several of their accomplices. The suspects were later released from jail and forced to remain in Moscow. Their trial didn’t begin until April 1993, by which point the USSR no longer existed. Then, in February 1994, the State Duma amnestied all the defendants in the GKChP case. Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo never lived to witness these events, however, as he shot himself on August 22 rather than surrender to the police.
Meduza thanks Dmitry Travin, research director at the European University in St. Petersburg's Center of Modernization Studies, for his assistance with preparing this text. Please note: any opinions reflected here do not necessarily represent the views of Travin’s employers, past or present.