Twenty-two years ago today, on August 20, 1991, the fate of the world hung in the balance and all eyes were turned toward Moscow. The previous day, a group of hard-line Soviet politicians and military men, including Gennady Yanayev (Vice-President of the Soviet Union), Valentin Pavlov (Prime Minister), Dmitri Yazov (Minister of Defense) and Boris Pugo (Minister of the Interior), tried to take over the government of the USSR to prevent the collapse that they believed–correctly, it turned out–was imminent due to the policies of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. These men and their allies, called the “Gang of Eight,” held power in the USSR for barely 48 hours, but had the coup succeeded, it would have certainly changed world history in a very dramatic way.
The story begins with Gorbachev, still one of the boldest political figures of the 20th century. Coming to power as head of the USSR in 1985, after the last decrepit member of the revolutionary generation had finally died off, Gorbachev saw the need to institute comprehensive political and economic reforms to get the Soviet Union moving again. Perestroika, his domestic plan, and Glasnost, his conciliatory attitude toward the West, deeply alarmed Stalinist hard-liners who feared he was weakening the Communist Party’s hold on power. Beginning in late 1990, the hard-liners started conspiring against him.
The occasion of the 1991 coup was the signing of a new treaty which fundamentally restructured the relationship of the Soviet republics to the central government. Essentially they turned the USSR from an integrated country into more of a confederation of autonomous countries. When Gorbachev went on vacation to his dacha, the plotters saw their chance. They arrested him, seized control of the government and sent tanks into the streets.
A Western journalist captured this terrific, high-def footage of the people of Moscow meeting the soldiers who had been sent to put them down–but who couldn’t quite find the gumption to fire.
The plotters didn’t count on the Soviet military turning against them. They also didn’t count on Boris Yeltsin, the flamboyant, ambitious President of the Russian Republic, who went out into the streets on August 19 and told people to resist. When they realized they had no chance of controlling Moscow, the Gang of Eight ran for the exits. One of them–Pugo–was unable to cope with the idea of his beloved Soviet Union collapsing. He got drunk and shot himself. The others were arrested when Gorbachev was released on August 21.
Here’s some more footage of the coup.
What would have happened if the plotters succeeded? It’s hard to say, but there would have been at least some sort of renewed confrontation with the West, though perhaps a full-on renewal of the Cold War wasn’t in the cards. By August 1991 the USSR had lost most of its empire of satellite states in Eastern Europe, most of which had replaced their Communist governments in the wave of revolutions in 1989. The USSR had also decisively lost the war in Afghanistan. Its economy was on the brink of collapse. Ultimately a successful coup might only have kept the Soviet dinosaur on life support a few more months, a year at most. But certainly the development of post-Communist Russia would have been quite different.
I remember when this event happened. It was extremely dramatic, and we were all glued to our TV sets for most of those three days. When it was over and ordinary Russians spilled into the streets cheering democracy, it seemed like the Soviet Union was finally dead. In fact it was. Gorbachev spent his last three months in office presiding over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. When he resigned on Christmas Day, 1991, the hammer-and-sickle flag was taken down from the Kremlin for the last time, and the Russian tricolor, which hadn’t flown in Red Square since November 1917, replaced it. An era had ended.