Act of Desperation – the 1991 Moscow „Putsch”

Ever since the death of Stalin, the Soviet Union had proceeded to go through a cycle of attempts at “reform”, followed by attempts to maintain the status quo, followed by another cycle and another… until its demise. But, the Communist system had an inherent block to any real reform. Perhaps the most concise explanation of that block is written in Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book”, in which he states: “communism is the most complete, progressive, revolutionary and rational system in human history” (page 23 of the 1st English Edition). How could anyone even consider that something like that would need reform? However, by the mid-1980s the creeping but steady decline of Soviet economic power relative to other major powers had reached such an obvious level that it could no longer be ignored. Mikhail Gorbachev’s rein as the General Secretary (Chairman) of the Soviet Communist Party and Premier of the Soviet Union was the final attempt at “reform”, “Soviet style”.

There is no question that Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev did try to really change the Soviet system, but it is equally fair to say after six years of his rule, that he was not succeeding. The vast majority of the nomenklatura, (Soviet bureaucracy) while paying lip-service to the statements of their Chairman were above all determined to protect their warm chairs and that meant preventing change or at least making sure that any changes that did happen, took place at a snail’s pace. To minimize resistance to his moves, Gorbachev adopted a “two steps forward, one step backward” policy much like an icebreaker pushes through ice too thick to just shove aside. Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin’s career and relations with Gorbachev were a classic example of this policy.

Gorbachev became acquainted with Yeltsin while the latter was the first secretary of the CPSU Committee   (Communist Party boss) of the Sverdlovsk Region, a relatively minor position. But Gorbachev recognized Yeltsin’s reformist ideas and when Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party he maneuvered Yeltsin into the position of First Secretary of the Moscow City  Committee of the CPSU (the “Mayor” of Moscow). At first they worked well together and Yeltsin was also allowed a taste of the privileges of high Party position, at one point for example getting to vacation with his wife at the Soviet Government guest house in the City of Jurmala, known as the “Benjamin House”, where Gorbachev and his wife had vacationed earlier. Later, Boris Yeltsin was to use the house as a haven during the struggle in the Kremlin. But at this time Yeltsin had become impatient with the slow pace of reform, spoke out about it and got sacked by Gorbachev; for the moment anyway.

However Gorbachev was making some progress with reforms, particularly in the legal field where, since laws, of necessity must be public, behind the scenes foot dragging was not as effective. Most significantly, Gorbachev successfully legislated the end of the monopoly of the Soviet Communist Party as the only legal political party. This, for the first time in its history, opened up the political process of the Soviet Union for genuine elections. The effect was dramatic; in the non-Russian “republics of the SSR”, particularly Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia along the Baltic coast, non-Russian Deputies gained majorities and started declaring “independence”. In the Russian SFSR, Boris Yeltsin was back and was able to return to Moscow.

Boris Yeltsin got elected first as a Deputy to the Russian Supreme Soviet and then, in the next elections as the President of the Russian Federation. And while Russia was not declaring “independence” yet, by now both reformist and conservative Russian politicians supported an increase in the power of the local governments (that is, their own) at the expense of the power of the Central Soviet government.

On the same day that Yeltsin won the election to be the president of Russia: 12 June, 1990, Russia declared its “sovereignty” and thereby limited the application of the laws of the USSR on Russian territory, particularly the laws concerning finance and the economy.

Gorbachev however was vehemently opposed to this trend and at one point particularly directed his anger at the Baltic States. However, faced with the centrifugal forces of nationalism but not wanting to destroy all the reforms he had spent a lifetime to initiate by resorting to Stalinist style repression, Gorbachev tried to preserve the (Soviet) Union by binding it together with a new, more liberal Union Treaty.

Old style Communists, particularly in the State Security Apparatus, were shocked, outraged and terrified by what they were seeing happening to their “beloved motherland” and they didn’t see anything wrong with Stalinist style repression either. On 11 December 1990, the Chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, made a "call for order" over the central television channel in Moscow. Then he started planning for a “state of emergency” at some future time. He invited the Defense Minister of the USSR, Dmitriy Yazov, the Interior Minister, Boris Pugo (formerly from the Latvian SSR), the Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, the Vice President, Gennady Yanayev, the deputy Chief of the Defence Council, Oleg Baklanov, the head of Gorbachev's secretariat, Valery Boldin, and a Soviet Central Committee Secretary, Oleg Shenin to participate in the conspiracy. And he placed Gorbachev under KGB surveillance.

On 29 July 1991, Gorbachev, Yeltsin and the Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarbayev held a meeting in Moscow, in which they discussed the possibility of replacing hardliners like Pavlov, Yazov, Kryuchkov and Pugo. Then, on 4 August, Gorbachev went on vacation to the Crimea.

The 29 July conversation had been eavesdropped on by the KGB. Furthermore, upon Gorbachev’s planned return to Moscow on 20 August, the Union Treaty which would redefine the balance of power in the USSR was to be signed. So the conspirators ordered 250,000 pairs of handcuffs from a factory in Pskov to be sent to Moscow, Kruchkov doubled the pay of all KGB personnel, cancelled all leaves and placed them on alert and Lefortovo prison was emptied to receive prisoners.

On 17 August the conspirators made the final decision to act. On 18 August a delegation consisting of Oleg Baklanov, Valeriy Boldin, Oleg Shenin, and Deputy Defense Minister, General Valentin Varennikov, flew to the Crimea and presented Gorbachev with an ultimatum: either declare a state of emergency, or resign and appoint Vice President Gennady Yanayev as acting president so as to allow the conspirators to “restore order” in the nation. Gorbachev refused to do either. He was then placed under house arrest by KGB personnel and cut off from all means of communication.

Upon the return of the delegation to Moscow, the conspirators announced the creation of the “State Committee of the State of Emergency”,to manage the country and to effectively maintain the regime of the state of emergency. The Committee members were: Gennady Yanayev, Valentin Pavlov, Vladimir Kryuchkov, Dmitriy Yazov, Boris Pugo, Oleg Baklanov, Vasily Starodubtsev and Alexander Tizyakov.

At 7 AM (Moscow time) on 19 August, 1991, the statement of the State Emergency Committee started getting broadcast over the Soviet central radio and TV channels. The three non-USSR transmitters (including the Russian Federation Radio Station and TV Station) were cut off the air. Four Deputies of the Russian Federation were immediately arrested, but Yeltsin was not one of the four. Military forces, including Red Army units with tanks and armored personnel carriers were sent to occupy key points in the city.
At 9 AM, Yeltsin having arrived at the Russian Supreme Soviet building (the Russian “White House”) issued a joint declaration with the Russian Federation Prime Minister Ivan Silaev and acting First Secretary of the Russian Supreme Soviet Ruslan Khasbulatov, stating that an illegal coup was taking place, urging the military not to support it and calling for a General Strike to demand that Mikhail Gorbachev address the people (which of course would have necessitated releasing him from arrest). Without access to the electronic media, this declaration was distributed the old way, by printed flyers.

Despite the building being ringed by a unit of tanks from the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division, that afternoon the people of Moscow began to gather around the White House and erect barricades. Then Major Evdokimov, commander of the tank unit, declared his loyalty to the leadership of the Russian Federation and allowed Yeltsin to climb on one of the tanks and address the crowd. Somehow, this episode got included in the evening news program broadcast by the State TV. From that time on, Boris Yeltsin was world famous.

At noon the next day: 20 August, General Kalinin, who had been appointed by Yanayev as the military commandant of Moscow, declared a curfew in Moscow, effective from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. This was considered by many to be an indication that an attack on the White House was being planned.

That afternoon Kryuchkov, Yazov and Pugo made the decision to order an attack. Kryuchkov’s second in command, KGB general Ageev and Yazov’s second in command, Army general Achalov, planned "Operation Grom" (Thunder). The units to be involved were two KGB Special Forces detachments, “Alpha” and “Vympel”, and paratroopers. These were to be backed up by OMON Special Police, KGB Internal Security troops of the Dzerzhinsky division, three tank units and a helicopter squadron.

But Yeltsin had a defense committee led by General Konstantin Kobets, an elected Russian Federation Deputy and which including a number of other retired generals who had volunteered to defend the White House; some volunteers were armed. That evening Major Evdokimov’s tank unit was withdrawn. This was understood to be the sign that the attack was imminent.

To gather intelligence for the attack, the commander, General Viktor Karpukhin and other senior officers of Detachment “Alpha” together with General Alexander Lebed, deputy commander of the Airborne Troops, mingled with the crowds near the White House. After that, Viktor Karpukhin and the commander of Detachment “Vympel” Colonel Beskov tried to convince General Ageev that the operation was not a good idea, as it would inevitably result in bloodshed. Meanwhile, Alexander Lebed, with the consent of Pavel Grachev, the commander of the Airborne Troops, returned to the White House and secretly informed Yeltsin’s defense committee that the attack would begin at 2 AM, on the 21 August.

At about 1 AM, a column of BMPs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) of the Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division moving into position for the attack, was blocked in a tunnel by barricades made of trolleybuses and street cleaning machines. In the ensuing confrontation three unarmed demonstrators: Dmitriy Komar, Vladimir Usov and Ilya Krichevskiy were shot dead and several others wounded. The lead BMP was set on fire by the crowd, further blocking the tunnel, though no soldiers were killed.

When the intended time for the attack came, Detachments “Alpha” and “Vympel” did not move on the White House as planned. When Yazov learned about this, he, no doubt fearing widespread disobedience by the rank and file Russian soldiers if further attack orders were given, ordered the Army troops to pull out of Moscow; which they did starting around 8 AM on the 21st of August, 1991. Militarily the putsch was over.

The State Emergency Committee members met in the USSR Defense Ministry building to decide what to do next. The decision was made to send another delegation to talk to Mikhail Gorbachev. This delegation was made up of Vladimir Kryuchkov, Dmitriy Yazov, Oleg Baklanov, Alexander Tizyakov, Anatoliy Lukianov and Vladimir Ivashko. They arrived in the Crimea at 5 PM, but Gorbachev simply refused to meet them. Instead, he demanded that communications be restored and when they were: declared all decisions made by the State Emergency Committee void, dismissed all its members from government positions and ordered the USSR General Prosecutors Office to start a criminal investigation of the coup attempt.

Since a number of the leaders of regional executive committees had supported the State Committee of the State of Emergency, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation by Decision Nr.1626-1, authorized President Yeltsin to appoint leaders of regional administrations, though the Russian constitution at the time did not give such authority to the President.

On 22 August, Gorbachev arrived back in Moscow. On the same day, Kryuchkov, Yazov and Tizyakov were arrested. Boris Pugo and his wife committed suicide when they came for him – or at least, that is the official version. On 23 Auguest Pavlov and Starodubtsev were arrested.

On the night of 23/24 August the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, the founder and first chief of the CHEKA, which stood in front of the KGB building at Dzerzhinskiy Square (Lubianka) was torn down.
On 24 August Baklanov, Boldin, and Shenin were arrested; Mikhail Gorbachev resigned from the office of General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party; thousands of Muscovites took part in the funeral of Dmitriy Komar, Vladimir Usov and Ilya Krichevskiy; Mikhail Gorbachev posthumously awarded them the title of Hero of the Soviet Union; Boris Yeltsin asked their relatives to forgive him for not being able to prevent their deaths and issued Decree Nr. 83 which seized the archives of the Soviet Communist Party and transferred them to the State archive authorities.

On 25 August Boris Yeltsin issued Decree Nr. 90 nationalizing the property of the Soviet Communist Party on the territory of the Russian Federation (which included not only party committee headquarters but also educational institutions, hotels, etc.).

On 6 November, 1991, Boris Yeltsin issued Decree Nr.169 terminating the activity of the Soviet Communist Party in the Russian Federation.