The Soviet Conservative Coup of 1991

by James Graham

Gorbachev was due to announce a new union treaty giving the republics limited self governance on the 20th August 1991. This forced the hardliners to act. Everybody who woke up to hear Tchaikovsky and Chopin playing on the radio knew the inevitable had happened. "Here Chopin is not music. It's a diagnosis. They always play it to calm us down" (1.) remarked a Russian after the event. Beginning just after 6:15am on Monday 19th August the decrees for so long expected and feared were read out on Soviet radio and television. The conservative hardliners had played their final card.

The biggest mistake the coup instigators made was failing to arrest Boris Yeltsin. Free he was able to lead resistance against the State Committee for the State of Emergency in the USSR, the name the hardliners gave themselves. The Russian parliament building or the white house as it is known can be seen in the background of the photograph. It was in the white house Yeltsin and other reformers made their stand. The first tanks and other army personnel arrived at the parliament about noon on the first day. Yeltsin strode out of the parliament and shook hands with the men in the first tank. Climbing on to the tank itself he proceeded in front of live microphones and cameras to denounce the coup and encourage the Soviet people to resist it at every opportunity. Protected only by his own personality it was a courageous act and a vintage Yeltsin performance. Yeltsin's action was decisive in turning the momentum against the coup so early. The resistance soon centred on the White House and demonstrators grew from a handful during Yeltsin's speech to thousands by Monday evening. In the afternoon ten tanks in a symbolic move defected and took up positions defending the parliament. In a flash of bravery Yeltsin stoped the coup in its tracks.

Within sixty hours the coup had collapsed. While Yeltsin did the most to defeat the coup he was not alone in his resistance. Gorbachev under house arrest with his phones dead, cut off from the rest of the world was issued an ultimatum by the coup leaders. He replied "To hell with you. You will not live long!" (2.). The crucial reason the coup failed was that during the past six years of glasnost and perestroika the Soviet people had lost their fear of the Communist Party. When tanks moved to break up demonstrations the protestors unarmed started attacking the tanks. The Russians had always been a courageous people, the battle of Stalingrad it testimony to that but they had up to the coup possessed a defeatist accepting attitude at home. During the coup this changed and by Tuesday more than 100,000 people were gathered at the parliament. The coup plotters own stupidity also contributed to the failure of the coup. They choose not to cut the nations phone lines allowing the resistance to keep in contact with each other and the world. The coup leaders gave in on Wednesday and the plotters either committed suicide or were arrested during a last minute plea to Gorbachev for forgiveness.

The arrest of the hardliners and the defeat of the coup removed the last barrier to reform in the USSR. Gorbachev who had tried to play the hardliners off against the reformers was left without an excuse to implement radical reform. The Soviet people however no longer wanted reform instead they now wished for a revolution. To defeat the coup Yeltsin had issued his own Russian decrees and he continued giving orders in the name of Russia after the coup. This seriously undermined the authority of the Communist Party and ultimately the USSR. Yeltsin's popularity soared after the coup and he used this to act like a head of state rather than the head of a republic he was supposed to be. He sent Gorbachev an eviction notice in December 1991 stating that the Communist Party had to leave the Kremlin. To top it all he negotiated the end of the USSR at a meeting in Bialoawieza with the Ukraine and Belarus. Together they formed the Commonwealth of Independent States and invited all the Soviet republics to join.

The coup fell apart within days as it lacked popular support. Yeltsin played a key role in the defeat of the coup and used the momentum this gave him to gain independence for Russia and an end to the USSR.


(1.) Goodbye to the USSR page 185
(2.) Goodbye to the USSR page 189

The Collapse of The Soviet Union

  1. Introduction
  2. Glasnost
  3. Perestroika
  4. Democratisation
  5. Ethnic Problems
  6. Baltic Independence
  7. The Conservative Coup