The Russian Coup of 1991
A look at the failed August Coup of 1991, where conservatives in the Soviet Union tried to overthrow Gorbachev.
Published: Friday, December 09, 2005
by Scott Nenni
In August of 1991, conservatives of the old elite attempted a military coup in the ailing Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in his dacha. Moscow was placed under military occupation. The coup plotters, mostly Gorbachev’s own ministers, had formed an emergency committee to run the USSR, citing Gorbachev’s poor health as a precipitant. The Russian national government, headed by Boris Yeltsin, and Muscovites energetically resisted. Amid stunningly high drama, the coup failed in three days. By the year’s end, the Communist Party would be illegal on Russian soil and the Soviet Union would cease to be.
The coup failed for several reasons, chiefly among them is a lack of resolve on the part of the coup plotters, and broad changes in Russian society which deeply impacted the landscape faced by the putchists. Demonstrators, an irrepressible media, disloyalty in the military, and a newly elected government around which to rally all combined and set fierce obstacles in the putchists’ path, further straining their already insufficient resolve.
The coup was ill-conceived; planning was inadequate. For example, the White House, “a symbol of democratic resistance,” was never sealed off. Reporters inside the White House used phone lines to call out their reports. The coup plotters failed to cut the phone lines, and failed to isolate or arrest Yeltsin, who quickly sought refuge in the aforementioned White House. Soon reports would be broadcasted, and Yeltsin would stand on a tank and give a speech, appealing to the citizenry to resist the coup, denouncing it as illegal. To win hearts and minds, the coup plotters planned on stocking the stores with food and goods, but this scheme evaporated once it was revealed that such supplies scarcely existed. There was also a lack of initiative; 10,000 protestors flooded the square in provincial Sverdlosk, but none were arrested. There was no attempt to stifle dissent. David Remnick ascribes the coup’s ultimate failure to the confusion, stupidity, drunkenness, lack of will, [and] miscalculation” on the part of the plotters. This theme will be developed throughout the paper, with depth added as we examine the situation in which the plotters found themselves. Such an explanation, while it is likely a vastly, if not chiefly, important factor, leaves an incomplete picture.
What Russia and the Soviet Union had become, that is, the strategic environment faced by the coup plotters, conspired against them. It is mentioned above that the coup plotters lacked the appropriate nerve. Nerve for what? The White House, with Yeltsin inside, was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of determined demonstrators. Barricades were built, the number of demonstrators grew impressively over the course of the three day coup. They were prepared to defend the White House, because they had elected the government within. One woman, Nadezhda Kudinova, heard that Yeltsin “had begun organizing resistance,” and decided to “protect the president she had voted for just two months before,” and headed down to the White House for its crucial defense. Various and disparate segments of society melted together into a mass of resistance. Businessman, bikers, “prostitutes, students, [and] scholars” took to the streets, fearful of what they might lose if the coup were successful. The coup plotters were trying to oust a man with popular support, and to crush this would have difficult.
David Remnick describes the explicit strategy of the demonstrators as one designed to “maximize the threat of bloodshed,” the threat of Muscovite blood spilt by KGB operatives, so as “to scare the shit out of the KGB and the putchists by essentially using unarmed people as a shield.” One Soviet General commented, “there is a huge crowd,” it was “building barricades,” and he acknowledged that, if the White House was stormed, “there would be heavy casualties. There are many armed men around the White House.” In the face of such popular resistance, the coup plotters balked. Perhaps they would have balked anyway, their probems were many and their resources few, but the demonstrators did not make it easy. Of the putchists, we read “they had the same Stalinist impulses” as their predecessors, “but not their core of cruelty.” They lacked the “willingness to flood the city in blood, call it a victory for socialism, and then go off and [watch a movie].”
There was an endemic failure on the part of the coup plotters to secure the media. Russia had only recently become used to seeing arguments and substantive criticism in their press, and journalists were unready to cede that right. These journalists had recently grown accustomed to asking painful questions. This practice, a completely routine one by Western standards, threw the putchists off guard, demystifying them by exposing their frailties, and incisively cutting through their deceptions. The journalists “showed no fear or respect in their questions,” and when the putchist Yanayev gave a press conference, his statements were seen as “transparent lies.” One young journalist was able to ask Yanayev, quite plainly, “do you realize you have carried out a state coup?” It was mentioned earlier in the paper that reporters inside the White House called out their reports, with no problems. These reports were carried ceaselessly by CNN, the BBC, and foreign radio, beyond the purview of the coup plotters. This is a sign of disorganization, not control.
When editors did fall in line with putchist demands, a few of those working the presses revolted. They had cast their votes in a competitive election, for the first time in their lives, and were thoroughly unready to see this newfound right snapped away from them. When one editor for a major newspaper neglected to include Yeltsin’s appeal to resist the coup, he was ultimately forced to capitulate by the recalcitrance of the press workers. They claimed they would rather die than fail to print Yeltsin’s statement, claiming “we live the life of animals, in poverty, and we don’t want our children to live the same way.” This is of paramount importance, as it underlies the basic premise of this paper. Not only did the coup plotters fail to prevent anti-coup material from being printed in a nationally distributed newspaper, but the effort the putchists actually did put into silencing the opposition could not overcome the will of people who were either tired of the past, hopeful of the future, or both.
The coup was hurt badly by the reality that the military and the KGB did not wholeheartedly support their endeavor. The USSR and the Communist Party, had already ceded much in the way of authority. All it really retained was “control over the means of coercion: the armed forces, police, and security forces.” Of course, coercion should not be belittled. Authority is weak without power, and power can crush authority. No matter how legitimate the election, a tank can crush a politician with ease. But only if the person driving the tank, or their commander, or anyone up the chain of command, decides not to disobey orders. The prospect of shooting Russians defending a government elected by Russians on the orders of stale, unelected putchists did not always get traction with Russian soldiers. At least in some units, “the soldiers unloaded their AK-47s” and hid them, and began to discuss leaving Moscow peacefully. When the “soldiers in their tanks welcomed kids aboard and flirted with the girls,” they did not appear ready to engage in a massacre. Many defected, people like retired Lieutenant Baskakov, who commanded Civil Defense Unit No. 34 in defense of the White House. The lack of zeal on the part of the military could not have added to the confidence of the coup plotters.
Although it is impossibly to tell what the putchists thought at the time, we now know that KGB leaders on the ground refused to storm the White House, unwilling to spill so much blood, and two Generals were ready to bomb the Kremlin in retaliation if the White House was stormed. During the coup, one plotter, Yazov, complained of a lack of support, and even passive resistance, from Generals. It is not that they were democrats, rather, they had lost faith in the old leadership.
The waxing atmosphere of the rule of law may have conspired against the plotters. At every turn, they sought veneer of legality. And Yeltsin certainly derided this veneer, and promulgated the notion that the putsch was in fact illegal and unconstitutional. However, even Stalin had show trials that feigned a legal veneer, and any serious and meaningful study into the change in the legal climate, and much more importantly, perceptions of the legal climate, would require an in-depth study that is beyond the purview of this paper. Nonetheless, the vehement claims of both sides, that they were respectively in the legal right, suggests that the legal climate of 1991 did in fact play a significant role.
Perhaps the coup could have been successful if dissenters had been rounded up, media outlets commandeered, Yeltsin and other symbols of the incipient democracy detained, and demonstrators crushed. This would have taken the resolve of the putchists, and the obedience of the military. Since the obedience of the military was not tested, it seems highly plausible that a lack of will on the part of the coup plotters is to blame.
After the coup, Gorbachev returned to Moscow, and was told, immediately and constantly, that he had returned to a “different country.” Once off the plane, Gorbachev hesitated before departing for home, saying “no, wait. I want to breath the air of freedom in Moscow.” Something so profound does not percolate spontaneously. The demonstrations, the recalcitrance of demonstrators, the restlessness of journalists, the passive and often active resistance in the KGB and armed forces, had deep roots. In glasnost and perestroika, with press freedoms and competitive elections, memories of the old system and only limited experience with the new system, enough Muscovites refused to capitulate. Their actions made control and suppression difficult, and their firm resolve was pitted firmly against those of the coup plotters. In the same way that the US was threatened by terrorism before September 11th, but did not realize the magnitude of the threat, Russia was already a “different country,” before August 19th, but the three dramatic days of the coup served to make it obvious. In this “different country,” a coup d’etat proved to be too difficult for those who tried it.
McAuley, Mary. 1992. Soviet Politics, 1917-1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Remnick, David. 1994. Lenin’s Tomb. New York: Vintage.