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Russian President Boris Yeltsin gesturing toward Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev during a session of the Russian parliament in Moscow on August 23, 1991, the day after Gorbachev returned to Moscow following the failure of the coup

With protests against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin continuing in the aftermath of his recent victory in the presidential election, the August 1991 coup attempt in Moscow seems particularly relevant to our understanding of what is now happening in Russia.1 The failed coup led not only to the disintegration of the Soviet Union—and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s departure from the political scene—four months later but also to Russia’s subsequent evolution into what the Kremlin euphemistically calls a “managed democracy.” Had the coup not been attempted, Vladimir Putin, at the time a mid-level KGB officer, would not now be about to begin a third term as Russia’s president, attempting to preserve a corrupt and lawless political system. Was there a possibility in 1991 for things to have turned out differently, perhaps in the direction of democratic reform?

After more than twenty years there are still mysteries surrounding the coup affair, particularly regarding the actions of Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. The complete story will not be known until Russian archives are opened, which could be a long time. Nonetheless, new sources, in the form of firsthand accounts and interviews such as those discussed here, continue to emerge in Russia, adding much to the picture of the August 1991 events.

Gorbachev, to his great credit, dealt resolutely with the challenges he confronted after coming to power in 1985 in a politically stagnant and economically decrepit country. He made the bold decision to introduce three key policies that had a dramatic impact on the Soviet political and economic system: “new thinking” in foreign affairs, which included a significant rapprochement with the West and the end of Soviet control over Eastern Europe; glasnost, or openness, which gave the press, and Soviet citizens, unprecedented freedom to criticize the Kremlin; and perestroika—market reforms and democratization of the political process, which had been dominated by the Communist Party.

Unfortunately, however, the reforms had unforeseen negative consequences. Gorbachev’s attempt to eliminate central state control over the allocation of consumer goods without replacing it with an effective supply and demand system led to drastic shortages. Production declined dramatically, along with government tax revenues, resulting in a huge budget deficit. To finance the deficit, the authorities printed more rubles, causing a rise in inflation, which in turn aggravated shortages of consumer goods. According to Gorbachev’s chief aide at the time, Anatoly Chernyaev, whose remarkable diary for the year 1991 was only recently translated into English, Gorbachev expressed the fear at the end of March that “in 2–3 months…we will not be able to feed the country.”2

Equally threatening to the Kremlin were the political effects of perestroika. The Communist Party began to rapidly lose its authority, leaving a political and ideological vacuum. Gorbachev’s decision to let Eastern Europe go its own way in 1989, and to allow freedom to express opposition, had given rise to mounting nationalist demands, long suppressed by the KGB (and its predecessors), in several of the republics that formed part of the Soviet Union. In Lithuania, for example, the newly elected parliament declared independence from the Soviet Union in March 1990.

Tensions between the Soviet central government and its fifteen constituent republics became particularly pressing when Boris Yeltsin rose to the leadership of Russia, the largest and most powerful of the republics. Yeltsin, a former Communist Party boss whom Gorbachev had expelled ignominiously from his job as Moscow Party chief and Politburo member in 1987, had made an amazing comeback as a self-declared liberal democrat. In 1989, he won a seat in the Soviet parliament—the Congress of People’s Deputies—as a representative from Moscow. In the spring of 1990 Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, and in June 1991, after resigning from the Communist Party, he won the presidency of the Russian Republic. Yeltsin was an astute politician with an uncanny ability to gauge the mood of the populace. He began to undermine Gorbachev’s authority by building alliances with the leaders of other republics and by making demands for Russian autonomy that would increase his own political power significantly.

In the face of these enormous challenges, Gorbachev—the courageous innovator—became dangerously indecisive, allowing himself to be buffeted between the forces of left and right, and satisfying no one. In November 1990, after he encouraged his liberal advisers to develop a program for rapid privatization of the economy, he suddenly rejected their proposal, apparently because it would have significantly weakened the powers of the Soviet center in relation to the republics. A month later, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a principal architect of détente with the West, abruptly resigned because of concerns that Gorbachev was influenced too heavily by hard-liners in his government. (Some leading officials in the military had earlier circulated an open letter urging Gorbachev to impose direct rule by the Kremlin in troublesome republics, including Lithuania.) In his dramatic resignation speech to the Soviet parliament, Shevardnadze warned that the Kremlin was moving toward a dictatorship. As he later told a Western reporter, he resigned because he foresaw a military crackdown, which is exactly what happened in Lithuania.


On January 13, 1991, in an apparent effort by the Kremlin to quash Lithuania’s drive for independence, Soviet troops opened fire on civilians in Vilnius, killing fourteen and wounding over six hundred. Gorbachev continues to this day to deny that he authorized the use of force there, but Chernyaev was so shocked by the bloody onslaught that he drafted a letter of resignation to Gorbachev:

You publicly mentioned many times that as long as you are in power, you will not allow armed violence against the people. Let’s say you “didn’t know,” did not give permission to shoot and crush people with tanks that night in Vilnius. But what happened was the result of your policies, your unwillingness to let Lithuania go in good time.3

Chernyaev ended up not sending the letter and remained loyally in his job until Gorbachev was forced to step down in December 1991. But he was increasingly discouraged by Gorbachev’s policies and decisions. On March 20, 1991, Chernyaev complained:

Gorbachev is repeating himself. Words, phrases, examples, trains of thought, arguments that were shocking in 1986 and still impressive in 1988, now sound like standard blather. He is stuck in his discoveries; he hasn’t evolved at all….

The hard-liners in the Kremlin, notably KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov (all of whom Gorbachev had appointed), were also unhappy, mainly because Gorbachev was not addressing the growing political threat from Yeltsin; Yeltsin defied the Kremlin by staging a large pro-democracy rally in Moscow in March 1991, and his election in June to the Russian presidency raised the real possibility that he would use his new position to transfer power from the Soviet center to Russia and the other republics, thus rendering Gorbachev a mere figurehead. Although he had earlier insisted that a union treaty should maintain strong central control over the republics, in April Gorbachev began working with Yeltsin and other republic leaders on a new treaty that would give the republics significant autonomy, particularly in matters of finance, thus threatening the future of the Soviet Union as a political and economic entity.

Gorbachev seemed to be playing both sides against the middle. With his top officials, he repeatedly discussed the possibility of imposing martial law in the country, while at the same time he appeared to cooperate with Yeltsin. On July 19, Gorbachev met secretly with Yeltsin and the leader of the Kazakh Republic, Nursultan Nazarbayev, at Novo-Ogorevo, where he agreed to a union treaty that would strip the Soviet government of many of its powers, including the right to impose federal taxes. He also promised that certain members of his government—Kryuchkov, Yazov, Pavlov, and Minister of Interior Boris Pugo—would be dismissed.

Unknown to Gorbachev, KGB Chief Kryuchkov had taped the conversations and informed his colleagues. Aside from the prospect of their own dismissal, the signing of the union treaty (set for August 20) would, in their view, have meant the demise of the Soviet Union. In a nationwide referendum held in March 1991, close to 75 percent of the voters said they wanted the Soviet Union preserved, as a federation of equal sovereign republics.4 So Kryuchkov and his colleagues felt justified in doing everything they could to persuade Gorbachev to abort the deal he made at Novo-Ogorevo and declare a state of emergency in order to restore political and economic stability.

At a meeting of the Cabinet of Ministers, including Kryuchkov, on August 3, the day before he left for vacation in Foros, in the Crimea, Gorbachev seemed, without quite saying so, to give them the go-ahead. According to a transcript of the meeting, cited in Valentin Varennikov’s book, Delo GKChP (The Case of the State Committee on a State of Emergency), Gorbachev said: “Emergency measures are needed…. In emergency situations all governments have taken action and will continue to do so, if circumstances call for emergency measures.” He then told them: “I am going on vacation with your permission, so as not to interfere with your work.”5

Gorbachev’s departure at this crucial time struck Russian observers of all political bents as inexplicable. As Nikolai Leonov, a former foreign intelligence official, noted, “Logically, a major political leader does not abandon his post at such a critical moment, when the abolition of a powerful state was on the immediate agenda.”6 Gorbachev later said that he was so exhausted from the stress of governing that he simply had to rest. But it seems more likely that he wanted to avoid blame for a decision to introduce emergency measures that he had encouraged.


On August 18, 1991, a group including Kryuchkov, Pavlov, Yazov, Pugo, and Vice President Gennady Yanayev formed an eight-man “emergency committee” with the intention of introducing martial law in some parts of the country. Judging from the subsequent memoirs of Kryuchkov and his colleagues, this was to be only a temporary measure, designed mainly to prevent the signing of the union treaty. Yanayev, with visibly trembling hands, announced, at a televised press conference on August 19, that Gorbachev was ill and he had assumed the powers of the presidency. The committee ordered Soviet troops and tanks into Moscow, but there was no bloodshed, save the tragic deaths of three young men, later determined to be accidental, who tried to block moving Soviet tanks in the early hours of August 21.

Yeltsin emerged as the hero of these events. He and his allies took over the Russian White House, the headquarters of the Russian government in Moscow, on August 19. They drew a large crowd of supporters, who cheered Yeltsin when he famously mounted one of the tanks that had been sent in by the emergency committee to preserve order but had not been given a command to attack. Within three days, the “coup” was over: the troops had been withdrawn on the orders of Minister of Defense Yazov, the alleged plotters had been arrested by security forces loyal to Yeltsin, and Gorbachev was back in Moscow, about to experience a humiliating loss of his power.


Dima Tanin/AFP/Getty Images

A pro-democracy demonstrator wrestling with a Soviet soldier on top of a tank in front of the Russian Federation building, Moscow, August 19, 1991

Gorbachev has long claimed that he was caught completely off-guard by the decision to declare a state of emergency. In his account, he was only informed of the plan when a small group of “hard-liners” flew down to his dacha in the Crimea on August 18 to present it to him. He has said he vigorously opposed the idea, and they cut off all his communications and kept him hostage until August 21, at which time the coup failed and he was able to fly back to Moscow. Immediately after he returned, Gorbachev launched an ambitious public relations effort to put forward his own version of events, even commissioning Chernyaev to write a short book, The August Coup: The Truth and the Lessons, which appeared under Gorbachev’s name in September 1991. Over the years Gorbachev has kept up his efforts to defend his role in the coup affair.7

Initially Yeltsin endorsed Gorbachev’s story, which thus became the “official version” in Russia. Although Yeltsin hinted in his 1994 memoirs at the possibility that Gorbachev knew about the coup beforehand, it was not until much later, after he had been out of power for six years, that he accused Gorbachev point-blank of being in on the conspiracy: “He [Gorbachev] knew about the coup from the very beginning. There is documentary proof. And during the putsch, he was informed and waited the whole time [to see] who would win.”8 It is not clear what evidence Yeltsin was referring to when he said this in February 2006, but Gorbachev immediately denied the accusation, telling the Italian daily La Repubblica that “Yeltsin is trying to denigrate me.”

Why did Yeltsin go along with Gorbachev’s story for so long? For one reason, the alleged coup attempt was a principal source of Yeltsin’s political legitimacy, enhancing his image as a courageous fighter against anti-democratic forces. In fact, Yeltsin’s part in the events of August 1991 was by no means straightforward. One of the greatest puzzles about the coup affair is the failure of the emergency committee to arrest Yeltsin as he left his dacha on August 19 or when he later took over the White House. As Yeltsin’s former aide Gennady Burbilis noted some months ago:

The simple fact of our continued freedom was inexplicable. Successful coups don’t happen in stages; a more practiced group of plotters would have had all of us under lock and key the moment tanks and troops entered the capital city.9

It was not a question of the military or the KGB refusing to follow the committee’s orders. Despite what some officers later claimed, the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court, which tried the putschists, found no evidence from any testimony or documents to show that leaders of the military, KGB, or MVD gave orders to seize the White House or arrest members of the Russian government.10

It is difficult to know just what Yeltsin’s motives were at the time. In 1991 he told a US senator in Washington that he knew a coup was imminent and had begun cultivating key members of the military, including Pavel Grachev, commander of the airborne forces. According to several sources, Kryuchkov was in regular communication with Yeltsin and Burbilus during the standoff of August 19–21 in an effort to negotiate a peaceful way out of the impasse and perhaps even to persuade Yeltsin to replace the Soviet president. Yeltsin’s main goal, after all, was not to dismantle the Soviet Union, but to wrest power from Gorbachev.11

Western commentators have for the most part accepted Gorbachev’s version of what happened in August 1991.12 But in Russia his account has been widely disputed, especially by the direct participants, such as Valentin Varennikov, a highly decorated former commander of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, who was not a member of the emergency committee but, as head of the Soviet ground troops at the time, actively supported it. He was part of the group that flew to Foros on August 18, and was subsequently arrested for participating in the coup attempt.

An unapologetic Stalinist who disapproved of perestroika from the beginning, Varennikov died in 2009 at age eighty-five, before his book appeared the next year. The book describes in detail the imprisonment and trial of the twelve defendants, which proved to be troublesome for Yeltsin’s new government. There were questions about why the Russian prosecutor’s office was put in charge of the case when in fact the defendants were charged with treason against the Soviet Union, which was still an entity until December 1991. (The implication was that Yeltsin wanted control of the investigation.) Then a huge scandal arose when the two lead prosecutors leaked materials from their investigations to the German magazine Der Stern and published a sensational book based on selected excerpts from their interrogations.13

The trial itself, which began in April 1993, was a fiasco. It was marred by constant lengthy interruptions, and ended without a verdict in March 1994, after the Russian Duma offered the defendants amnesty. The decision openly challenged the authority of Yeltsin, who was facing growing opposition because of his economic reforms and his October 1993 assault on the Russian parliament, where his political foes had barricaded themselves in protest against his policies. Varennikov refused the amnesty offer and insisted on a new trial. As he wrote in his book, his honor was at stake and he was deeply angry at Gorbachev for what he viewed as betrayal.

In August 1994 the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Soviet reached its verdict. Varennikov, who vigorously denied the charges that he had ordered Gorbachev to be placed under “house arrest” when he flew down to talk to him on August 18, was found innocent. The senior prosecutor at the trial, Arkady Danilov, concluded that Gorbachev had at least limited telephone access and could have left the compound if he had wanted to: “Could he [Gorbachev] have flown back to Moscow with the delegation who came to see him? He could have…. Could he have detained [i.e., arrested] the visitors? Yes, he even said so in court. Could he have broken the blockade, or at least have tried to do it? Absolutely.”

Later, the presiding judge in the original trial of the accused plotters, Anatoly Ukolov, voiced similar conclusions about Gorbachev’s alleged isolation and expressed the view that had the men not been amnestied, they would have been acquitted.14 Much other testimony supports Ukolov’s view. Yeltsin’s vice-president at the time, Alexander Rutskoi, who flew to Foros to “rescue” Gorbachev from his alleged isolation on August 21, has claimed more than once that Gorbachev was never a prisoner there. In an interview a few months ago Rutskoi recalled that he had to insist, against Gorbachev’s will, that Gorbachev come back to Moscow with him on the plane: “Mikhail Sergeevich, enough of this nonsense. You are on top of things, and where can this situation lead, how is it going to be resolved?”15

It has been suggested that the alleged coup plotters failed in their efforts to impose a state of emergency because they were inept and did not know what they were doing. But the committee members had been forced to improvise. They had expected Gorbachev to take charge, or at the very least to allow Vice President Yanayev to assume nominal control until the USSR Supreme Soviet met in a scheduled emergency session on August 26. When Gorbachev refused to go along with this plan, they were thrown into panic. Kryuchkov and Yazov even flew to Foros a second time on August 21, in a last-ditch attempt to get his support.

Although much still remains unclear about the August 1991 coup attempt, the legacy of this event now seems clear. It was not a democratic revolution of the sort that unfolded in Eastern Europe in 1989, despite the heady freedoms that were introduced in the early Yeltsin years. In a poll conducted last July by the respected Russian Levada Center, only 10 percent of the respondents described the failure of the coup attempt as a victory for democracy and close to 40 percent considered it a tragedy with fatal consequences for the country.

The respondents did not specify what these “fatal consequences” were, but for Putin the tragedy was clearly the collapse of the Soviet Union, which he said famously in 2005 was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Putin has praised Kryuchkov as a “very decent man” for whom he had “the greatest respect,” and reportedly invited him to the Kremlin on more than one occasion before he died in 2007. Another prominent member of the emergency committee, Marshal Yazov, has been presented with awards for his services to the country by both Putin and outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev. And when Varennikov died Medvedev publicly expressed his condolences to Varennikov’s family, describing the general as a “true patriot.”

With such gestures, the Kremlin leadership is apparently appealing to Russians who miss the Soviet period, when Moscow controlled a vast empire. (Last October, Putin called for the creation of a new “Eurasian Union,” incorporating several ex-Soviet states.) In fact, today’s Russian nationalists have little interest in reconstituting the Soviet empire. Their slogan is “Russia for ethnic Russians.” They oppose subsidies to the impoverished and war-torn Caucasus and want to curb immigration.

Perhaps what most Russians feel is not nostalgia for the Soviet Union but disappointment with the system they have ended up with. A blogger for Ekho Moskvy observed last August:

When members of the media were all discussing the putsch right after it collapsed, if someone had suggested that in nine years the president would be a KGB colonel [Putin] and that KGB generals would become mayors and governors, everyone would have considered this person a madman.16

Still, given that Yeltsin started reinvigorating the security services almost immediately after taking over power from Gorbachev, this outcome was perhaps inevitable.

Gorbachev, who has been harshly critical of the current leadership for impeding democracy, clearly laments the course his country has taken since 1991. Asked in a 2008 interview what would have happened if he had never introduced his reforms, Gorbachev responded: “I would have been a tsar. I would have been able, for sure, to rule for fifteen more years”—a choice he refused to make. Putin’s choice has been different. He apparently hopes to be Russia’s tsar for the next twelve years (two more consecutive presidential terms) without moving the country in the direction of democracy, if he can keep Russians complacent by meeting their economic needs.

But maybe Putin has misjudged the Russian people. Grigory Yavlinsky, founder of the democratic Yabloko Party, who was denied a place on the ballot for the presidential elections on technical grounds, made the following observation in January 2012:

The protests at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s…to put it bluntly, were protests over “sausage.” It was a consumer revolution. Today in Russia a bourgeois revolution is beginning—for freedom, human values and individual respect. I have no doubt about it, “sausage” is no longer an issue.17

The stormy reaction to Putin’s victory suggests that Yavlinsky’s assessment is right.

—March 8, 2012