On the hot summer morning of the 19th of August, the citizens of Russia woke up to find every TV channel broadcasting a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This unseasonal broadcast was then drowned by the very real noise of tanks thundering down the wide Moscow streets. Was WWIII finally breaking out? What was happening? This was the August coup, the attempt of certain hardliners to keep the Soviet Union alive and seize power from Mikhail Gorbachev.
Events Leading to the August Coup
By 1991, the Soviet Union was in a precarious position. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev took office as General Secretary, the nation had undergone severe challenges and irreversible reforms. Firstly, the war in Afghanistan had cost billions of dollars and thousands of Soviet lives. This was followed by the devastating Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, which cost billions of dollars to clean up and drastically reduced the public’s faith in communist power. Moreover, Gorbachev had increased press freedom with his reform of Glasnost and allowed for the first time democratically held elections to take place as part of his Perestroika reforms.
This led to increased criticism of the Soviet system and a sudden rise of nationalist and independence movements in the republics making up the USSR. Most notably, Boris Yeltsin, elected as the leader of the Russian republic, campaigned for the end of the Soviet system.
In 1989, to the word’s shock, the Berlin Wall fell and Germany outlined its commitment to uniting as one nation. Soon afterward, the Soviet influence over Eastern Europe disappeared. The Baltics saw a considerable rise in independence movements. By 1991, Gorbachev planned to assemble the leaders of the most prominent Soviet republics (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) to sign a new union treaty that would effectively end Soviet centralized power. However, loyalist and hard-line Soviet military and political leaders saw this as a step too far. They considered that a coup was their only available option for maintaining the Union’s integrity.
For the Soviet Union’s Shake: The August Coup Day by Day
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
18th of August
On the 18th of August, as Mikhail Gorbachev was holidaying in the Crimea, he received an unplanned visit by his chief of staff, Valery Boldin, along with the heads of the Soviet army and the infamous KGB. Gorbachev did not greet their arrival warmly. When he attempted to phone his aides in Moscow for further information, he found the phone lines cut. These men then revealed their intentions to Gorbachev. They had come to force him into signing a document that would transfer his executive power to them and declare Gennady Yanayev, his vice president, as the new leader of the Soviet Union. Shockingly, the coup organizers had not planned on what happened next. Gorbachev refused to cooperate. That was the beginning of the bloody August Coup of 1991.
Gorbachev and his family members were immediately forbidden to leave the resort and confined to their rooms. Despite the severed phone lines, Gorbachev managed to get word to Moscow that he was still alive through his bodyguard. Together they fashioned a small ham radio that gave them access to what was taking place in the outside world as the August coup began to unfold.
19th of August
In the morning of the 19th of August, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake filled the airwaves. Soviet media proclaimed that “ill health” had prevented Gorbachev from performing his duties and that following the Soviet constitution, Vice President Yanayev would assume the powers of the presidency. Yanayev then issued a Presidential order banning strikes and demonstrations and imposing press censorship.
Tanks soon rolled down the streets of Moscow, and the local population poured out of their apartments in an attempt to stop the troops. Protesters quickly gathered around the Russian parliament building (also known as the Russian White House) and built barricades. At midday, the Russian President and the leading figure seeking to disband the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, climbed a tank in front of the White House. He made a rousing speech to the gathered demonstrators, where he condemned the coup and called for an immediate general strike. He later issued a presidential proclamation declaring the August coup illegal.
In the afternoon, the August coup leaders broadcasted an unusual press conference to the Soviet people. They claimed that the country was in a state of emergency because of civil unrest and Gorbachev’s apparent ill health. They told the Soviet people that they had no choice but to restore order. However, they outwardly appeared to be terrified. Their hands were shaking and their voices cracked with fear.
20th of August
The next morning, the Soviet General Staff ordered that control of the Soviet nuclear arsenal be returned to Moscow military officials loyal to Gorbachev. At noon, the Moscow military leaders loyal to the August coup ordered the city to be placed under a curfew. Supporters of Yeltsin, who had barricaded themselves outside the Russian White House saw this as a sign of an imminent attack. In secret, KGB agents loyal to the coup mingled amongst the crowd and relayed to their superiors that an attack would result in bloodshed. Despite this, an assault was planned for early the following day.
The defenders armed themselves with makeshift weapons and strengthened the barricades. During the chaos, the Soviet republic of Estonia fully restored its independence, reinstating the Republic of Estonia, which had been under Soviet control for 51 years. The first Soviet republic had officially broken away from the Union. Latvia followed shortly after.
21st of August
Early the following day, outside the Russian Parliament, the military attack began. Tanks rolled down the boulevards and tried to topple the trams and street cleaning machines used to barricade the entrance. During this attack, three men were killed while attempting to stop the tanks. Several others were wounded. The crowd retaliated and set an army vehicle to fire. In the ensuing chaos, a 28-year-old architect was shot dead. Shocked at the bloodshed, the troops still loyal to the August coup refused to storm the parliament building and fled from the scene. The attack was called off a few hours later and the troops of the coup were ordered to pull out of Moscow.
Soon after the bloody attack, Gorbachev restored his communications with the capital. He declared the August coup illegal and fired the organizers from their posts. Finally, he ordered the USSR General Prosecutors Office to investigate the coup.
22nd of August: Gorbachev Returns
On the 22nd of August, Gorbachev and his family returned to Moscow. Upon hearing that Gorbachev had escaped captivity, Boris Pugo, one of the coup organizers, shot his wife and killed himself. Later, Marshal Sergey Akhromeyev, an adviser to Gorbachev and coup supporter, hung himself, and Nikolay Kruchina, who had been the party’s administrator of affairs, also committed suicide. Thus, the August coup had failed just a few days after it began.
Boris Yeltsin took the opportunity to ban all Communist party organizations on Russian territory, essentially outlawing the party of Lenin on Soviet soil, and Moscow residents celebrated with a massive rally in front of the Russian Parliament. The fall from grace of the KGB was symbolized on the evening of the 22nd of August, when a colossal statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police, was toppled from its pedestal on Lubyanka Square in downtown Moscow. That same night, Gorbachev gave a press conference revealing that he still had not grasped that the communist party was unreformable. Two days later, he resigned as the General Secretary and dissolved the Central Committee. Four months later, on Christmas day 1991, the central republics of Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus broke away from the USSR. The Soviet Union was history.
Why Did the August Coup Fail?
The August coup failed for several reasons. Firstly, the army and KGB officers refused to carry orders to storm the Parliament building. Secondly, the plotters appeared to have no contingency plan against Gorbachev’s refusal to cooperate. Thirdly, the failure to arrest Yeltsin before he got to the White House was crucial because from there, he rallied massive support. Fourthly, Muscovites turned out to defend their hero Yeltsin in the thousands, and Moscow’s police did not enforce the coup orders. Finally, the August coup leaders had not grasped that Gorbachev’s democratization reforms had made public opinion essential to Soviet society. As a result, the population would no longer obey orders from above.
The organizers were unaware or unwilling to recognize that by 1991, the Soviet Union had already passed the point of no return. The August coup was the last attempt by hardliners to keep the Soviet Union alive. They ultimately failed because they lacked a widespread base of support among the military and the general public.