The plotters placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his holiday home in Crimea, and sent tanks into the streets of Moscow.
But thousands of Muscovites rallied to oppose the putsch. The protests were spearheaded by Boris Yeltsin, who climbed atop a tank to call for mass resistance.
After the coup foundered, Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find a starkly changed balance of power.
In December 1991, he resigned the presidency of the Soviet Union, which ceased to exist, and handed Russia's reins over to Yeltsin.
Putch's Lessons Ignored
Gennady Burbulis, then a political adviser to Yeltsin, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that he has mixed feelings about the putsch's legacy. "On the one hand, I'm happy that nothing similar has happened in the past 16 years," Burbulis says.
"On the other hand, my conviction is constantly confirmed that the lessons of 1991 and the assessment of the putsch are not getting the human and historic attention they deserve," he adds. "People are less and less aware that the plotters have made the collapse of our motherland irreversible, to our common, collective misfortune."
Although the events of 1991 now generate little interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union, at the time they were deeply significant.
"The Republic of Moldova stood united against the putsch," says Nicolae Tau, who was foreign minister of the Moldavian SSR at the time of the putsch, tells RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service.
"In our country, the television and the radio were not controlled by leaders of the putsch," he adds. "In fact, the countries of the USSR were informed about the putsch by our radio and television."
The anniversary of the putsch this year has for the most part gone unnoticed in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
A recent opinion poll conducted by Russia's respected Levada Center showed that 48 percent of Russians consider the 1991 coup merely an episode in the struggle for power among the ruling elite.
Time has also blurred the demarcation between the putsch plotters and the Kremlin.
In 2004, Putin awarded one of the plotters, former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Russia's Order of Merit medal for "high achievements in useful, societal activities."