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Defense of Soviet state against coup, 1991
Since assuming the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev pushed for a program of economic openness and political restructuring, prompting resistance and suspicion from hard-line members of the Communist Party. Russia had declared its sovereignty in June 1990, beginning a period of constitutional reform. By the early 90’s, the Soviet Union, with Gorbachev as the first executive ‘President’, was in economic and political crisis.
In late 1990, a group of hard-line Soviet officials, including the Chairman of the KGB Vladimir Kryuchkov, USSR Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, deputy Chief of the USSR Defence Council Oleg Baklanov, head of Gorbachev's secretariat Valeriy Boldin, and a CPSU Central Committee Secretary Oleg Shenin began conspiring against Gorbachev, hoping to stop the signing of a treaty that would further decentralize the Soviet Union. Kryuchkov placed Gorbachev under surveillance, and learned soon after that Gorbachev himself was plotting to replace hardliners such as Kryuchkov and others.
In early August 1991, Gorbachev went on holiday, away from Moscow. On the August 18, after a meeting with other co-conspirators in Moscow, Baklanov, Boldin, Shenin, and Deputy USSR Defense Minister General Valentin Varennikov flew to visit Gorbachev, demanding he either resign or declare a state of emergency and let the conspirators ‘restore order.’
The coup had begun. KGB security guards were called, and Gorbachev was put under house arrest; communication lines were shut down. Referring to themselves as the ‘State Committee for the State of Emergency,’ the conspirators ordered hundreds of thousands of handcuffs and arrest forms to be sent to Moscow. Salaries of all KGB personnel were doubled. The Lefortovo prison was emptied to receive more prisoners. Opposition newspapers were banned, opposition political parties were suspended, public demonstrations were outlawed, and a six-month ‘state of emergency’ was declared. The ‘Emergency Committee’ appeared to have the support of all military forces.
On August 19, a ‘Declaration of the Soviet Leadership was broadcast by state radio and television by the ‘Emergency Committee.’ Armored divisions of the military and paratroops entered Moscow.
Soon after, Boris Yeltsin, newly elected President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR), arrived at the parliament building in Moscow, called the ‘White House.’ He helped issue a declaration through flyers stating that an ‘anti-constitutional coup’ had taken place, urging the military to not cooperate. He also called for a general strike with the demand that Gorbachev address the people.
In Moscow, tens of thousands of citizens gathered in the streets to resist the coup, many meeting in front of the White House to protect it from a suspected attack. They raised barricades using trolley cars and automobiles to block the streets. Some activists distributed the printed list of Gene Sharp's 198 methods of nonviolent action, in Russian translation.
Amidst the demonstrations, Major Evdokimov, Chief of Staff of a tank battalion of an infantry division declared his loyalty to the Russian SFSR. In a show of defiance, Boris Yeltsin climbed atop one of the military tank to denounce the coup and make his declaration to the crowd.
The call for a general strike went largely unheeded, however miners in Kuzbass coal fields and others workers near Sverdlosk did strike.
In light of the direct action during the day, the ‘Emergency Committee’ announced a ‘special state of emergency.’ Resistance organizers pasted leaflets calling for mass demonstrations the next day at the White House.
By the next day, resistance to the coup had increased. In Leningrad, 200,000 people rallied, answering their mayor Antoly Sobchak’s call to resist. Tens of thousands blocked the streets in Moldavia keeping Soviet troops at bay. Leaders in Ukraine and Kazakhstan denounced the coup. Demonstrations occurred in Minsk. In Moscow, the banned newspapers secretly printed ‘The Common Paper’ calling on citizens to resist. Information was broadcast across the nation through local relay stations. The banned independent radio station ‘Echo Moscow’ defied the ban and broadcasted. Although they were prohibited, Russian T.V. technicians distributed videotapes in twenty cities. With some state media officials refusing to cooperate with the coup, Boris Yeltsin’s and others’ speeches were broadcast on the evening news.
In Moscow, crowds of people remained at the White House throughout August 20 in anticipation of a violent attack and seizure of parliament. Demonstrators fraternized with the military, offering them food and informational leaflets. Citizens pleaded with tank crews. Yeltsin urged the crowds not to provoke the military and to be civil with them.
The next day, August 21, a group of tanks was blocked in a tunnel by barricades made of trolleybuses and street cleaning machines. There are conflicting and unclear reports as to the details of the events, but by the afternoon, three civilians were dead, two of them killed by gunshot wounds. Their names were Dmitriy Komar, Vladimir Usov, and Ilya Krichevski. A tank was also set on fire by the crowd.
The organizers of the coup attempted to organize a final attack on the White House; however, the head of the Army’s paratroops and commander of the Soviet Air Force refused to cooperate, spoiling plans of attack. In some cases entire military units deserted. Ten tanks turned their turrets away from the parliament building in a symbolic sign of non-cooperation. Eventually, the ‘Emergency Committee’ lost faith in the military, and in some places disbanded soldiers out of fear of disloyalty.
The ‘Emergency Committee’ returned to where Gorbachev was being held to meet with him, but he refused. Gorbachev soon after declared void all orders and decisions of the ‘Committee’ and dismissed its members from their state offices. The USSR General Prosecutors Office began investigating the coup attempt. The next morning, the defense Board of the Soviet Union voted to withdraw the troops from Moscow. Conspirators and members of the ‘Emergency Committee were arrested, and Gorbachev resumed leadership.
The coup attempt was thwarted with a total of 5 reported causalities during the struggle. On August 24, thousands attended the funeral of Dmitriy Komar, Vladimir Usov, and Ilya Krichevski in Moscow.
Although the coup collapsed relatively quickly, it contributed to the destabilization of the Soviet Union and is considered to have led to the demise of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union itself. By the end of 1991, Gorbachev had resigned as Soviet president and the Soviet Union was officially ended.