The Coup and Freedom Won. August 1991
29 July 1991 – Gorbachev and Yeltsin discuss the necessity to dismiss the conservative leaders of the security services and of the army. The KGB taps the conversation.
18 August – The coup plotters put Gorbachev, who is on vacation in the Crimea, on house arrest.
20 August 1991 – The Republic of Estonia declares itself independent.
Early morning of 21 August – The plotterss give up the plan to attack the White House, Russia's parliament; the coup d'etat has failed.
8 December – The USSR is dissolved; 25 December – Gorbachev lays down the presidency.
Most interesting about the coup is not that it happened but that it happened as late as 1991. If the orthodox communists had tried to remove Gorbachev earlier, their chances of success would have been far better. In 1991, the attempt to save Communism and the USSR was very late, but it could still have succeeded.
The bureaucracy of the Communist Party had been sceptical of Gorbachev's reforms from the outset but soon scepticism was taken over by enmity. Gorbachev had succeeded in keeping a lid on the opposition by skilful manoeuvring. His constant efforts at compromise with the hard-liners put off a revolt for years. Nevertheless, under the orders of the KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, a plan for a coup d'etat had been devised already in December 1990.
The patience of the plotters ended when in July 1991 Gorbachev and Yeltsin agreed to remove many hard-liners from office. The KGB eavesdropped on the conversation. The second stimulus was Gorbachev's plan to sign on 20 August with Russia, the Ukraine and other republics a new Union Treaty, which was about to alter the whole set-up of the USSR. The leaders of the KGB, the army, the ministry of interior and the security forces resolved to act.
On 18 August 1991, the coup plotters put Gorbachev, who was resting in the Crimea, on house arrest. They had hoped that Gorbachev would give them his blessing, but the President declined. The next day the rebels established a “state committee of the state of emergency” and brought the army out from the garrisons. The group was supported by party bosses in the provinces and some radicals in Moscow. The Baltic States were blockaded from the sea; army units entered Leningrad and Moscow. After this, according to historian Stephen Kotkin, Gennadi Yanaev and Valentin Pavlov, the leaders of the coup, went home to drink.
The coup was badly organised but more importantly, the rebels lacked resolve. The biggest mistake was not to arrest Yeltsin. They also managed to make themselves laughable when they appeared at a press conference, drunk, with hands visibly shaking. Everyone could see this live on TV. The commanders of the army, leaders of Special Forces and the KGB broke allegiance and refused to attack the Russian parliament, where President Yeltsin was organising the resistance. After this the plotters gave up and travelled to the Crimea to beg for Gorbachev's pardon. They were arrested instead.
The coup gave a final blow to the USSR. Yeltsin banned the communist party in Russia. It also brought an end to Gorbachev’s career. Even more important was the fact that the power vacuum gave the Baltic States the opportunity to declare their independence. Estonia restored its independence on 20 August 1991 at 23.00.
- Estonian SSR
- Latvian SSR
- Lithuanian SSR
- Russian SSR
- Byelorussian SSR
- Ukrainian SSR
- People´s Republic of Poland
- German Democratic Republic
- Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
- People's Republic of Hungary
- Socialist Republic of Romania
- Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
- The Moldavian SSR
- The People´s Republic of Bulgaria