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No headline I’ve ever written, no headline I’ve ever read, has brought me greater joy than the one my father held up at Victoria train station one August afternoon in 1991: THE COUP COLLAPSES.
Nearly 30 years later, I can still recall the angle of the summer light illuminating the Evening Standard, the broad grin on Dad’s face, the sheer relief flooding through my brain. Suddenly it didn’t matter that I was late meeting my family on this, the first day I’d been allowed to roam London on my own. I was late because I’d dawdled in the crowd outside Downing Street, waiting for news. “It’s such a shame,” a voice in the crowd had said. In those pre-just-pull-out-your-phone days, the voice sounded like confirmation of our deepest collective fear.
The fear in August 1991 was exactly the same as our fear in January 2021: that an anti-democratic insurrection in one of the world’s superpowers would cement its position, then drag us all back down the path towards global annihilation.
But the 1991 insurrection failed. The scales tipped. The bloody authoritarianism seen in Tiananmen Square two years earlier would not be replicated, not yet; the democratic movement that toppled the Berlin Wall two years earlier would roll on for now. The 1990s, one of the most hopeful decades in human history, truly began that summer day. Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, as Wordsworth wrote of the French Revolution, but to be young was very heaven.
And I didn’t even know then that I was about to see the U.S.S.R. first hand, in its last weeks of existence.
These days, if it is recalled at all, the one-week coup in the U.S.S.R. is remembered as a brief blip in the decline of Communism. When the Soviet Union dissolved itself at the end of 1991, the whole thing started to feel inevitable. Of course the hardliners in the Kremlin would fail; of course Russian president Boris Yeltsin would succeed in standing against them. Hindsight, once again, was 20/20.
In the heartland of America — where many didn’t know about or distrusted the democratic reforms of the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev — a dangerous myth began to take hold. It wasn’t the failure of a right-wing Russian coup, they said, but the unwavering rhetoric of the Reagan-Bush right, that had forever ended the threat of the Cold War. Besides, how dare you call the plotters right-wing, just because they looked backwards to an anti-democratic authoritarian past? Commies are all extreme leftists, aren’t they?
Now we’ve witnessed a coup attempt in the United States where more people actually died (five) than during its Soviet counterpart (three). So it’s a good time to revisit this half-forgotten week that shook the world and ended the “evil empire”. Then as now, the battle was really between authoritarians and (small-d) democrats. Then as now, democracy was fragile. Then as now, democrats were outraged and emboldened by the attempt to silence their voices. Then as now, countering the regime’s lies was key.
And then as now, the authoritarian threat wasn’t as defeated as it seemed. Arguably, you can draw a direct line between the KGB-backed coup of 1991 and the election in 2000, under suspicious circumstances, of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
There’s another connection between the coups: no matter how much anyone said afterwards that we didn’t see it coming, we saw it coming. Even teenage me saw it coming. “It had always been talked about, a coup by hardliners,” I wrote in my diary on the coup’s first day. “I suppose everyone was hoping old soldiers would fade away.”
Here’s what the old soldiers were fighting against. Gorbachev was the first Soviet leader who wasn’t a doddering old relic from the Bolshevik Revolution. He turned out to be a cautious reformer. He introduced glasnost, a policy that increased freedom of speech, and perestroika, which let people own private businesses. In spring 1989 he said he wouldn’t interfere in the politics of Eastern European countries under Soviet rule; this led directly to the wave of revolutions that toppled the Berlin Wall that November. And he brought democracy to the Soviet Union, allowing each republic (like Russia) to elect its own leadership (like Yeltsin, a former protege of Gorbachev’s).
In August 1991, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were about to sign the Union treaty, which would allow republics to control their own resources, including oil. The U.S.S.R. was about to become a collection of federal states like the U.S.A.; allowing non-communist parties was the obvious next step on the road to full democracy. The KGB put Gorbachev under surveillance.
On Aug. 18, the president was in his holiday home on the Black Sea, putting finishing touches on the treaty. If right-wing reactionaries wanted to maintain their stranglehold on Soviet society, it was now or never — just as Republicans told themselves that Jan. 6, 2021, was their last chance to hold on to power.
In America, we have just seen a mob that wanted to kill the Vice President for carrying out his legal duty of certifying an election. The Soviet coup, by contrast, was led by a Vice President who wanted to end elections. Gennady Yanayev was a hardliner who’d been forced on Gorbachev by the Communist parliament in 1990. On the morning of Aug. 19, state radio announced Yanayev had taken over because Gorbachev wasn’t feeling well, when he was in fact under house arrest. A fake 25th Amendment situation, if you will.
An “emergency committee” composed of other Soviet bosses, including the head of the KGB, was formed to deal with a manufactured crisis. They moved to control state radio and TV, and shut down non-state newspapers. They arrested Gorbachev allies whom they thought might cause trouble. But in the committee’s first and greatest error, it failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin. The Russian republic’s president barricaded himself inside his parliament building, known as the White House, and dared the regime’s tanks to come at him.
They did, rolling across Moscow just as they had rolled in to Budapest in 1956, and Prague in 1968, and Beijing in 1989 — all cities where Communist reformers seemed to have the upper hand for a brief shining moment. The crackdown was the norm, and that’s why the world expected a successful coup in 1991. We in the pro-democracy West were used to having our hopes dashed.
But in this case, sympathetic tank commanders stopped just short of the White House.
Yeltsin was an amateur politician, but he wasn’t yet the drunken oaf he became in later years. He had charisma. He had fearlessness, which he demonstrated on the coup’s first day by clambering atop a Soviet tank, surrounded by supporters, calling the coup illegitimate, and demanding a general strike. No Russians saw that on TV, but Yeltsin did an end-run around state media by broadcasting from ham radios inside the White House and dropping frequent news leaflets from its windows to the crowds below — a paper-based Twitter.
Yanayev didn’t get out in front of the cameras until later that day. He seemed every inch the lifelong bureaucrat he was, not a leader. (My sister thought he looked like Windom Earle, a rumpled FBI agent in the recently-cancelled Twin Peaks.) He wouldn’t appear without five other coup plotters beside him. Afterwards, it became increasingly clear that he was a figurehead; his fellow hardliners were pulling the strings.
But losing the charisma contest was no guarantee that the coup would fail. After all, a popular reformer, Nikita Khrushchev, had been deposed by a bunch of Communist bureaucrats in 1963. The committee still had the tanks, and history, on their side. Pro-democracy protesters tried lying in the street in front of the tanks, but lost the game of chicken, pulling themselves up at the last minute.
Watch this report from Aug. 19 to get a sense of the somber, stomach-churning mood on that day. Note how the people in the report describe the military leaders arrayed against them: “Fascists.” It was very, very clear which political wing they thought the coup belonged to.
The next day, Aug. 20, hardline victory and a return to the Cold War still seemed the most likely outcome. Leningrad was still holding out against the coup, but for how long? In Moscow, Yeltsin talked to world leaders like George Bush and John Major, but there wasn’t anything they could do. “Don’t write my obituary yet,” Yeltsin joked with a visiting American journalist. Then they filled his office with sandbags. That night, tanks fired on protesters, killing three. The most obvious comparison was to the recent deaths in Beijing.
On the night of the 20th, “I prayed this wouldn’t be another Tiananmen Square,” I wrote in my diary. “Me, an atheist!” The prayers were answered, not by heavenly intervention, but by the people of Russia. Thousands defied curfew to surround the Russian parliament. The deaths of demonstrators only made them more determined to resist the reactionaries.
More and more, the tank crews began to display the Russian flag, not the Soviet one, to show sympathy with the demonstrators. The emergency committee wavered as the military argued over its support for the coup, which the Air Force had always been against. Was this, perhaps, the beginning of a new civil war? The future seemed to hang in the balance.
Then in one day, Aug. 21, the Defense Ministry announced it was withdrawing from Moscow. Its leader, Dimitry Yazov, seemed to be unavailable with some sort of bug. That was it; the coup committee had lost its trump card. One committed suicide; the others fled the capital by air before being arrested.
Gorbachev, released from his dachau, returned to Moscow that night. But as he soon discovered, the city had changed forever. It was Yeltsin territory now. Reform could no longer proceed at Gorbachev’s slow pace.
That same week, Yeltsin humiliated Gorbachev live on state TV. It was during a meeting at the Russian Parliament which Gorbachev hoped would restore the status quo. In fact, Yeltsin started lecturing him publicly. Before the delegates, before the world, Yeltsin forced Gorbachev to read an account of the coup — revealing that only one man in Gorbachev’s entire cabinet had defended him. His voice cracked reading it. He immediately announced the appointment of Yeltsin men to replace them.
By the end of that incredible meeting, Yeltsin did something none of us alive had ever expected to see in our lifetimes. He effectively dissolved the Soviet Communist party by signing an official decree suspending all its activities in Russia. Gorbachev could only look on and splutter about how, surely, there were still some good Communists left. He may have been back in power, but most of that power evaporated at the stroke of Yeltsin’s pen.
All other parties were now legal. The Communists were not. The Republics that were ready to break away followed suit, arresting Communist officials. Statues fell like ninepins, starting with that of the hated founder of Russia’s secret police, long a symbol of KGB power. Without fear of the KGB to keep the Republics in line, the official breakup of the Soviet Union that December was set in motion.
Before the coup, Gorbachev had a shot at keeping the U.S.S.R. together in a U.S.A.-style multicultural federal democracy. Now that dream was dead. The coup had failed so hard, it had done what decades of Cold War rhetoric had failed to do. It wasn’t Reagan or Bush who ended the U.S.S.R. It was a parliament full of anger at right-wing insurrectionists, a parliament fearful that they might try to bring down their legitimate leaders again.
That October, a few of us from my school district had the good fortune to go on an exchange trip to the U.S.S.R. two months before it ceased to exist. In the conservative countryside of Kostroma, we saw a strange land of contrasts. A lot of people were getting religion, but hadn’t yet celebrated Christmas. Our hosts were Yeltsin people who eagerly devoured independent news, yet Communist symbols persisted. The neighbors gave us old Red Army medals. The statues of Lenin, always in that taxi-hailing pose, were gone in Moscow, but there were no plans yet to remove them here. But they wouldn’t be celebrating Revolution Day in November for the first time ever.
My host family’s youngest boy gave me the gift of a toy tank; his contribution to disarmament, they laughed. Meanwhile a giant statue of a tank in the center of Kostroma commemorated a local regiment that was wiped out not once, not twice, but three times in the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis. Reminders that this war had cost 20 million Russian lives were everywhere. When you’re living with the weight of that much history, even a coup must seem small potatoes.
And yet it had still been a big deal. My hosts recalled their sudden glumness in those days of the coup when suddenly, around town, everyone stopped feeling like they could talk openly again. Now they were as hopeful as Russians ever got. “God saved us from the coup,” insisted a girl my age in a pink Jesus top. The new economic reality had not yet begun to bite. Everything was on the table for the newly unshackled country. My hosts wouldn’t even rule out the appointment of a new Tsar. A purely constitutional monarch, of course.
I thought of them often in the decades since, as we saw a new kind of Tsar rise — one not bound by any constitution. Putin, an obscure former KGB officer, was suddenly appointed Prime Minister at the alcohol-soaked end of Yeltsin’s presidency. In the wake of terrorist-style apartment bombings in Moscow, the truth about which is still murky, Putin won the 2000 Presidential election. He invited his former KGB boss — yes, one of the coup plotters — to the inauguration.
The coup still reverberated in Russian culture as the country plunged into its increasingly authoritarian nightmare under Putin. If Americans have anything to learn from it all, it’s this: Don’t go easy on insurrection. The top plotters were pardoned after their treason trial by the Russian parliament, which was eager to turn the page and promote unity, in 1994.
Ten years after the coup, the plotters gathered in public again, insisting they had been right all along. Dmitry Yazov, the defense minister who had become conveniently ill towards the end of the coup, became a chief military aide to Vladimir Putin, who gave him a medal. Yazov died in 2020.
The anniversary in later years has been a source of regret for some Russians, meaning regret that it didn’t succeed. Their numbers likely include Vladimir Putin, whose sympathies are not hard to guess. Putin has called the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. And it was Putin’s KGB that helped initiate the coup in the first place — a coup that Russians still call an act of fascism.