Ten years ago this week, the world held its breath as a coup unfolded on the streets of Moscow. Seizing on President Mikhail Gorbachev's summer absence from the capital, eight of the Soviet leader's most trusted ministers attempted to take control of the government. Within three days, the poorly planned putsch collapsed and Gorbachev was returned to the Kremlin. But an era had abruptly ended. The Soviet Union, which the coup plotters had desperately tried to save, was dead. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten recounts the events as they unfolded.
Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The signs had been ominous for months. In December 1990, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze abruptly resigned, warning of a creeping coup by those opposed to reforms.
The rest of the winter, into 1991, was lived in an atmosphere of escalating tension as the then leader of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, increased his rhetoric against central Soviet institutions amid discussions of a new union treaty to loosen the bonds of the USSR.
Hard-liners -- as Shevardnadze predicted -- spoke out with increasing stridency against what they saw as the country's dissolution. Gorbachev zig-zagged in his policies, trying in vain to pick a middle course between the two camps.
On 8 March, the Kremlin unveiled a draft union treaty. The document offered the republics greater sovereignty, granting them control of economic and cultural development and allowing them to establish diplomatic ties, sign international treaties, and join international organizations. A new name for the country was to be discussed, excluding the words Socialist and Soviet. Despite the conciliatory language, six of the USSR's 15 republics chose to ignore a referendum on the issue. Undeterred, Gorbachev continued work on the treaty.
At the start of August, presidential adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev -- called by some the "architect" of perestroika -- resigned, warning his boss of the dangers of a coup. Before that, U.S. President George Bush had taken the unprecedented step of telephoning Gorbachev from Washington to warn him of the same. The Soviet president was unfazed, as he recalled in a 1996 interview with RFE/RL.
"Bush phoned me and I said: 'George, you can sleep soundly. Nothing's going to happen.' That's what I said."
On 4 August, Gorbachev left with his family for his annual vacation in the Crimea, intending to complete a new version of the union treaty. On 18 August, shortly before 5 in the afternoon, Gorbachev's chief of staff, accompanied by Politburo member Oleg Shenin and a small clutch of senior government officials, arrived at the presidential dacha. They demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Gorbachev refused to do either. The officials confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, the so-called "nuclear briefcase." Gorbachev and his family were in effect under house arrest.
The next morning, 19 August, the coup leaders went public. Tass carried an announcement that Gorbachev had been relieved of his duties for health reasons. His powers were assumed by Vice President Gennady Yanayev. A State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) was established, led by eight officials, including KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov. All strikes and demonstrations were banned.
Soon, the "gang of eight," as they were later to be dubbed, appeared on television. Yanayev seemed especially nervous -- or perhaps drunk. His hands shook. He told viewers the GKChP was forced to take control as the country faced disintegration.
Later that morning, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other key Russian politicians denounced the coup as unconstitutional and called for a general strike. A joint statement -- by Yeltsin, Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was to become chairman of the Supreme Soviet -- was issued condemning the motives of the coup-plotters:
"On the night of 18-19 August 1991, outside of the ruling power and the law, the president of the country was removed. No reasons can be given to justify this removal. This is a case of a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. We believe, and believed, that these methods of force are unacceptable. They discredit the Soviet Union before the entire world, damage our prestige in international society, and return us to the Cold War-era and the isolation of the Soviet Union from the rest of the world."
Yeltsin told a news conference the GKChP's orders will not be carried out in Russia. Demonstrators began gathering on Moscow's Manezh Square, outside the Kremlin.
At 1 p.m., Yeltsin climbed atop a tank outside parliament -- known as the White House -- and issued a call for mass resistance. Tanks took up positions on all the bridges in central Moscow. Movement on the capital's main Tverskaya Street was blocked by armored personnel carriers. Moscow military commander Nikolai Smirnov said a state of emergency had been declared and the troops had been brought in to defend order and interdict "terrorist acts."
At 4:30 p.m. Moscow Deputy Mayor Yuri Luzhkov denounced the coup and called on citizens to heed Yeltsin's call for mass protests. A few minutes later, Yeltsin issued a decree declaring all USSR government bodies located on Russian territory, including the KGB, subordinate to his authority.
Demonstrators around the White House spent the afternoon building barricades in anticipation of an army assault. That evening, Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, whose legendary military career made him a powerful spokesperson, urged his fellow soldiers to side with those fighting the coup. His words were to take an ironic significance just two years later, when Rutskoi himself was arrested for participating in an armed uprising against Yeltsin, his former ally:
"Comrades, I am an officer of the Soviet army, a colonel, a Hero of the Soviet Union, vice president of the Russian Federation. I have walked through the fiery path of Afghanistan and seen the horrors of war. I call on you, my comrade-officers, soldiers, and sailors, do not take action against the people -- against your fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. I appeal to your honor, your reason, and your heart. Today the fate of the country, the fate of its free and democratic development, is in your hands. I call on you to cross over to the side legally elected by the people, the organs of power, the president of the Russian Federation and the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federation of Soviet Socialist Republics."
That same evening, Leningrad Mayor Anatoly Sobchak called for a city-wide strike to begin the next day. Across Russia, confusion reigned, as some officials publicly declared their allegiance to Yeltsin. Others adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The night passed without incident, amid mounting tension.
On 20 August, Yeltsin spoke by telephone with U.S. President Bush, who told him Washington would not recognize the Yanayev government. In the evening, with reports of tanks moving toward the White House, Yeltsin offered amnesty to all military personnel and police who switched their allegiances and ignored the GKChP's orders.
Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who went on to cover the wars in Chechnya, filed frequent reports from inside the White House during the attempted coup. On the night of 20 August, he reported on attempts to prepare the defense of the parliament building:
"The action around the parliament building is reminiscent of an anthill. People continue to build barricades although the entrance to the building is already blocked with layers of material and all the nearest points are firmly secured. Granite blocks are surrounding the building, cars have been turned on their side. In the past several hours, security headquarters have moved to the center of the parliament building, where people are working out the plan for the defense of the building and coordinating the action of the defenders. The defenders have at their disposal automatic weapons and bottles of homemade incendiary liquid, boxes of which are standing right here."
Shortly after midnight on the morning of 21 August, a column of military vehicles approached the barricades around the White House. Clashes ensued. Two protestors attempting to block the vehicles' way were shot, a third was crushed under tank treads. Crowds swarmed the vehicles. One armored personnel carrier was set on fire. The others soon retreated. The coup had collapsed.
The next day, the "gang of eight" was arrested. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police in 1917, was toppled in front of KGB headquarters in central Moscow. Gorbachev was free to return. But the crowds were chanting Yeltsin's name.
Yeltsin and the entire Russian leadership would not give up this chance. As Gorbachev himself noted, in his 1996 interview:
"The initiative shifted fully to the Russian leadership, which had defended democracy and naturally felt itself to be in the saddle."
Within days, the USSR's republics would declare their independence, and by December, the USSR formally would formally cease to exist. Gorbachev resigned as a leader without a country.
Ten years on, many questions about the events of August 1991 remain unanswered. First, how long had the operation been planned and why was it conducted so unprofessionally. It's still not clear how much Gorbachev knew of his fellow ministers' plans. A large amount of money from the Soviet treasury is still unaccounted for.
Several key figures in the intelligence services committed suicide in the days following the unsuccessful putsch, or died under mysterious circumstances. So many of these questions may remain unanswered. Perhaps in another 10 years, more will become clear.