August 16, 2011 / 11:35 AM / 8 years ago

Q+A: What was the hardline Soviet coup attempt in 1991?

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Hardline communists opposed to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms staged a coup in August 1991, but the putsch failed two days later and ultimately hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Following are some facts about the botched putsch.


The coup was a plot by hardline members of the ruling Communist Party to take control of the Soviet Union and stop Gorbachev’s “perestroika” program of political and economic reforms, which threatened the break-up of the country created after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The coup plotters hoped to prevent the signing of a new union treaty which was to decentralize much of the Soviet government’s power to the Soviet Union’s constituent republics.


The conspirators included Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov as well as Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov and Interior Minister Boris Pugo. Others involved were Valery Boldin, the head of Gorbachev’s secretariat, Oleg Baklanov, the deputy head of the Soviet Defense Council, and Oleg Shenin, a Communist Party Central Committee secretary. They were joined by Deputy Defense Minister Valentin Varennikov and two others, Vasily Starodubtsev and Alexander Tizyakov, were part of a state committee intended to oversee a planned state of emergency.


Gorbachev went on holiday to his dacha, or country residence, in Foros in Crimea on August 4, 1991. The conspirators met in Moscow to decide on a plan of action. Baklanov, Boldin, Shenin and Varennikov flew to Foros and demanded that Gorbachev declare a state of emergency or resign and name Yanayev acting president to enable them to “restore order.” Gorbachev did not comply but was confined to his dacha and the hardliners issued a statement on August 19 saying they were saving the Soviet Union from a “national catastrophe” and Gorbachev was now “resting” to get his health back.


The coup was opposed by thousands of people who protested outside the Russian Soviet republic’s parliament building, the White House, in Moscow. Resistance was led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who climbed onto a tank outside the White House to appeal to the army not to turn against the people and called for a general strike. The coup was poorly planned — the leaders who were to oppose the events were not rounded up and communications were kept open. Foreign leaders including U.S. President George Bush condemned the coup. Three men were killed during disturbances but the security forces vacillated and ultimately did not use force to disperse the protesters outside the White House.


By August 21 the coup had failed. Troops withdrew from Moscow and Gorbachev was able to fly back to Moscow, although he looked badly shaken by the experience. The coup leaders were arrested but Pugo and his wife later committed suicide. The conspirators were eventually tried for treason but were offered an amnesty in 1994. All accepted except Varennikov, who insisted on facing trial and was later acquitted.


Many historians say the coup achieved the opposite of what the plotters intended and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party on August 24 and Yeltsin banned the party’s activities in Russia on November 6. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus created the Commonwealth of Independent States on December 8 and annulled the 1922 treaty that had established the Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president on December 25 and the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist the next day.

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