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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

1991: The Coup. Part 2
Text and photo: John Harrison

n August 4, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took his wife and daughters on holiday to the presidential dacha in the Black Sea resort of Foros. He was fully aware that a group of senior government officials was plotting against him (see PASSPORT November issue) but chose not to take the threat seriously. He grossly underestimated the situation. By allowing the coup to happen, Gorbachev signed the death warrant for the Soviet Union, with its integrated industrial infrastructure. As terminator of the largest empire on earth, he did a fantastic, if unwitting, job.

What actually happened in those surreal days in August 1991?

On 18th August, Gorbachev noticed that his communications at Foros had been switched off. Shortly afterwards, Valery Boldin, Gorbachev’s personal assistant, and other officials flew to Foros to inform him that a coup had been staged by a group of eight members of the government, including the Vice-President and the head of the KGB. They gave themselves the ugly acronym GKChP, which in Russian stood for “State Committee for the State of Emergency”. Gorbachev was told to transfer his powers to Vice-President Gennady Yanaev whilst “order was being restored in the country”. But Gorbachev was intransigent and threw his visitors out.

The GKChP leaders assumed there would be little resistance. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The Soviet command system was so decayed that even officers in the elite KGB would fail to carry out the orders of their superiors. The GKChP also failed to understand the power of the media. Acting President Yanaev’s fingers were twitching with nerves as he declared the state of emergency at a press conference on the morning of the 19th. Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, apparently wracked with doubt, was too drunk to attend. The group lacked cohesiveness and failed to clamp down on the foreign press, which reported live to the whole world.

Instead of arresting Yelstin, the coup leaders gave him time to get to the White House, which he turned into a base for resistance. He requested and received the support of Pavel Grachev, Commander of Soviet Airborne Ground Forces, which rattled the hardliners. Tanks arrived at the White House but their commanders changed sides to support Yeltsin. When he clambered up on one of the vehicles to denounce the putsch, the whole world was watching. By 8pm that evening, Yanaev’s will snapped and he ordered the cessation of military action against the White House.

Other members of the GKChP overruled him and formulated plans to storm the White House. The resistance smuggled weapons inside. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich joined Yeltsin in the building, playing his instrument in a scene reminiscent of the sinking of the Titanic. Reformists Eduard Shevardnadze and Alerander Yakolvlev arrived to show solidarity. A bloody outcome seemed inevitable.

Thousands of people, mostly young, gathered outside the White House to offer their support. Some were even formed into detachments by Afghan veterans. They were prepared to fight and many would have been killed, had it come to armed confrontation. Resistance in the White House galvanised public opinion against the conservatives, particularly in Leningrad. People may not have liked the new economic reality but neither did they want to go back to the Soviet Union with its abusive hypocrisies.

On the night of 20-21 August, citizens tried to block large-scale tank movements in Moscow. Three young civilians, Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov, were killed in an underpass near the White House. The death toll could have been much higher. Bad weather prevented a special forces group from landing on the roof of the White House and lower-ranking army officers ignored orders to attack the building from the ground.

By the morning of the 21st, the leaders of the coup had given up. At 2.15 pm, several of them boarded a plane south to plead their case directly to Gorbachev. He refused to listen to them and they were promptly arrested. Gorbachev himself returned to Moscow with his traumatised family early on the morning of the 23rd.

Elsewhere in the Soviet Union, Leonid Kravchuk and Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leaders of Ukraine and Kazakhstan respectively, initially backed the GKChP but adroitly turned against the plotters when it looked as if they would fail. Now they could press for their own independence.

Back in power, Gorbachev characteristically refused to blame the Communist Party. He replaced the coup leaders with others equally odious. It was left to Yeltsin to attend the funeral of the three young men who had been crushed to death by the tank in the underpass.

On August 23rd, at a meeting of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, Yeltsin publically humiliated Gorbachev by ordering him to read out a full list of GKChP collaborators, which he did like a reluctant but obedient dog. On the same day, Yeltsin suspended the legal status of the Communist Party in Russia. He went on to ban it altogether in November.

Gorbachev, meanwhile, proposed replacing the USSR with a “Union of Sovereign States”, which would have a single economic space and unified military command. Yeltsin wanted nothing to do with yesterday’s man and this new union. After all, he was president of the biggest country on earth. Neither did the Ukrainians, who voted overwhelmingly on 1st December for full independence. All they would agree to, at a meeting on 8th December at Belovezhskaya Pushcha near Minsk, was a very watered-down union called the Commonwealth of Independent States, which would maintain a unified economic space but no single president. Its headquarters would be in Minsk.

Russians were aghast when they realised that even brother Slavs didn’t much like them and would prefer to align themselves with the West. On 21st December, another eight Soviet republics agreed to join the new Commonwealth. They were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Russia abstained. The Soviet Union was terminated on 31st December 1991. And on 2nd January, Gorbachev resigned and became history.

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