The August Coup

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

As in 1917 when General Lavr Kornilov attempted to roll back the tide of revolution by launching what proved to be an abortive coup, so in 1991 August was the month when a group of eight highly-placed Soviet officials declared themselves a State Committee for the State of Emergency and attempted to seize the reins of political power. In both instances, failure to unseat the existing government redounded not to its benefit, but to forces that were more persuasive in claiming responsibility for putting down the coup. In 1917 these were the Red Guards mobilized by the Bolsheviks; in 1991, it was Boris Eltsin, President of the Russian Federation, whose demonstrative resistance to the coup enhanced his popular support.

The coup of August 1991 was timed to prevent the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the center and the republics in favor of the latter, and was scheduled for August 20. On August 18, a group of five military and state officials arrived at Gorbachev’s presidential holiday home at Foros on the Crimean coast to attempt to persuade him to endorse a declaration of a state of emergency. Gorbachev’s angry refusal to do so was the first indication that the coup plotters had miscalculated. The leaders of the coup, the eight members of the State Committee that issued the declaration were Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev’s deputy head of the Security Council and the most important representative of the military-industrial complex in the leadership, Vladimir Kriuchkov (head of the KGB), Dmitrii Iazov (Minister of Defense), Valentin Pavlov (Prime Minister), Boris Pugo (Minister of Interior), Gennadii Ianaev (Vice President), Vasilii Starodubtsev (head of the Peasants’ Union, a political pressure group opposed to the dismantling of collective farms), and Aleksandr Tiziakov, a leading representative of state industry. They thus included several people whom Gorbachev had appointed and on whom he had relied for advice and counsel especially during his “turn to the right” in the winter of 1990-91.

While Gorbachev was held virtual prisoner, the State Committee ordered tanks and other military vehicles into the streets of the capital and announced on television that they had to take action because Gorbachev was ill and incapacitated. Some of the republics’ leaders went along with the coup; others adopted a wait-and-see approach. A few declared the coup unconstitutional. Among them was Eltsin who made his way to the White House, the Russian parliament building, and, with CNN’s cameras rolling, mounted a disabled tank to rally supporters of democracy. The soldiers and elite KGB units ordered into the streets by the State Committee refused to fire on or disperse the demonstrators. By August 21 the leaders of the coup had given up. An exhausted Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find it totally transformed. When he visited the Russian parliament, Eltsin’s stronghold, he was humiliated by Eltsin and taunted by the deputies. Reluctantly, he agreed to Eltsin’s dissolution of the Communist Party which was held responsible for the coup and resigned as the party’s General Secretary. Eltsin thereupon proceeded to abolish or take over the institutions of the now moribund Soviet Union.

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