From Aug. 18-21, 1991, the Soviet Union experienced its last gasp of totalitarian power politics as communist hardliners attempted a coup d'état against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev became the de facto head of the Soviet Union in 1985 after several older Communist Party leaders died in quick succession. Gorbachev was the first leader of the Soviet Union to be born after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the first Soviet leader since Lenin to have a college education.
As the Soviet standard of living steadily declined in the 1980s, Gorbachev was given a mandate by the Soviet government to make the nation economically viable. Gorbachev's answer to the USSR's economic woes was two key policies: glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”). With glasnost, Gorbachev promised a new transparency in the Soviet government and gave citizens more access to the decision-making process of the state. Perestroika allowed for the creation of limited free markets within the USSR, largely to fill the gap in consumer goods that the Soviet command economy, hard-pressed by defense spending, could not.
Soon the economic liberalization led to political liberalization. By 1989 the USSR's eastern European satellite nations were defecting from the communist bloc, and it is to Gorbachev's credit that he abandoned the policies of his predecessors, who in the '50s and '60s sent Soviet tanks into Hungary and Czechoslovakia at the slightest hint of dissension. That same year saw the Soviet government allow new political parties and contested elections. In effect, this meant that the Soviet Union ceased to be a truly communist nation.
With the Communist Party no longer the glue holding the nation together, what then would become of the Soviet Union? Over the course of the next two years, Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders attempted to craft a new Soviet Union no longer bound by traditional Marxist ideology. Under the leadership of its new, charismatic president Boris Yeltsin, Russia, the Soviet Union's largest republic, was threatening to secede from the Union.
By the summer of 1991 a new Union Treaty was being prepared which would have preserved the framework of the Soviet Union, while formally abandoning communism. At the conclusion of negotiations, Gorbachev went on vacation to his dacha in the Crimea and expected to return on Aug. 20 to sign the treaty.
Several members of the Soviet government, however, were determined that Gorbachev not sign the treaty. Counting among its members the Soviet vice president, the minister of the interior and the chairman of the KGB, these hardliners also wanted to turn back the clock to the USSR's glory days.
In his book “The Rise and Fall of Communism,” historian Archie Brown writes: “The timing of the attempted coup was determined by the need to prevent the Union Treaty being signed. Those who set out to reimpose a pre-perestroika 'order' believed that the treaty so weakened the central government that this was their last chance to prevent a slide into disintegration of the Union.”
After failing to win him to their side, the plotters placed Gorbachev and his family under house arrest, publicly stated that the Soviet president was stepping down for health reasons, and declared that they were now in control of the government. Declaring themselves the “State Committee for the State of Emergency,” the plotters ultimately failed for several reasons.
Historian David Priestland writes in his book “The Red Flag: A History of Communism”: “Rejected by Gorbachev, the coup-leaders' confidence seemed to collapse. At their TV press conference (vice-president Gennady) Ianaev stumbled over his words, seemingly drunk. They failed to attract support from the mass of police and KGB.”
Additionally, the plotters failed to stop Yeltsin from climbing onto a tank and beseeching military leaders to reject the coup. With both senior generals and KGB officers deeply divided, the coup could not be properly coordinated.
In his book “The Cold War: A New History,” John Lewis Gaddis writes: “Three chaotic days followed, at the end of which three things became clear: First, that the United States and most of the rest of the world regarded the coup as illegitimate and refused to deal with the plotters who had carried it out; second, that the plotters themselves had neglected to secure military and police support; and finally, that Boris Yeltsin ... had ensured its failure. ... Yeltsin had now replaced (Gorbachev) as the dominant leader in Moscow.”
Though Gorbachev had survived the coup, the Soviet Union ultimately proved too sick to be saved. Four months later, on Christmas Day, 1991, Gorbachev and other Soviet leaders voted the Soviet Union out of existence. Lenin's legacy was finished as Russia and its sister republics abandoned more than 70 years of communist rule.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org