A heavy cloud lifts, again, from the Russian White House

I took this picture a few weeks ago, but I already knew I wanted to use it for today’s post, to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the end of the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attemptalso known as the August Putsch.

1991 was the dawn of historical changes that would affect Russia and the whole geopolitical system of the world. Although the coup collapsed in only two days and Gorbachev returned to government, the event destabilised the Soviet Union and is widely considered to have contributed to both the demise of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The background story leading to the attempted coup is complex, but to summarize it to an extreme, the then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had been aware for some time that a group of hardliners had been manoeuvring to remove him, especially after he had started talks with the leaders of the Soviet Union’s most influential republics, with a view to offering them greater powers and independence within the Union.

The conspirators had a great deal of power on their side, including the state apparatus, army, and secret services. They aimed at a return of an authoritarian state, strictly ruled by the Communist Party and clearly opposed to any influence from the West, as it had been before Gorbachev.

Starting from 7 a.m on August 19th, 1991, the state radio and television started broadcasting a document, the so-called “Declaration of the Soviet Leadership” in which the state of emergency in all of the USSR was declared and it was announced that the State Committee of the State of Emergency had been created “to manage the country and to effectively maintain the regime of the state of emergency“. At the same time armour units of the Tamanskaya Division and the Kantemirovskaya tank division rolled into Moscow along with paratroops.

The Committee included the following members:

Yanayev signed the decree naming himself as acting USSR president on the pretext of Gorbachev’s inability to perform presidential duties due to “illness“. These eight collectively became known as the “Gang of Eight“. The Committee banned all newspapers in Moscow, except for nine Party-controlled newspapers and issued a populist declaration which stated that “the honour and dignity of a Soviet man must be restored.”

Last year the on-line newspaper The Moscow Time effectively summarized the failed coup in two short sentences in a detailed article under the title “The forgotten coup“, by writing that a quarter of a century before “Those conspirators tried to jam a stick into the wheel of change […]. The stick broke, and the wheel of change moved onward“.

Boris Yeltsin standing on on the very tank that had been deployed to fire at him. The posture of the tank lieutenant, covering his face, says it all. Image source.

It might be argued that the attempted coup already failed a couple of hours after it had begun. The “man of the hour” was to be Boris Yeltsin. Although he had already served for one year as president of Russia — then still part of the Soviet Union — he did not hold any real executive authority and was mainly a popular public figure and leader. This was to change very soon after he arrived at the White House, Russia’s parliament building, at 9 am on August 19th. He had prepared a written statement condemning the coup, but rather than reading it from a studio, in a genius political intuition, he chose to read the appeal to the people of Russia, standing on the very tank that had been deployed to fire at him. That image went down in history. He read the document together with Russian SFSR Prime Minister Ivan Silayev and Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, and the incipit was straight to the point: “The legally elected president of the country has been unlawfully suspended from his duty.”

Yanayev Press Conference
The “Gang of Eight” press conference at 5:00 PM on August 19th, 1991. Picture source.

The failure of the coup became even more evident at 5:00 PM, when the “Gang of Eight” held a press conference from the Foreign Ministry Building. Gennadi Yanayev declared that Gorbachev was “resting“. He literally said: “Over these years he has got very tired and needs some time to get his health back.” But instead of looking self-asuured, victorious and proud, both Yanayev and the rest of the Committee members looked distraught and scared. Famously Yanayev couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. Anyone looking immediately and clearly understood that these men were in fact not in charge of anything and scared senseless for the consequences their actions would have once Gorbachev returned to power.

The official end of the failed coup was to come a couple of days later, though. The night of August 21st saw the return of Gorbachev to Moscow and the dissolution of the Emergency Committee (the Prosecutor General ordered the arrest of its members). Unfortunately at about 1:00 AM, not far from the White Housetrolleybuses and street cleaning machines barricaded a tunnel against oncoming Taman Guards infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) and the first real tragedy happened. Three men— Dmitry Komar, Vladimir Usov, and Ilya Krichevsky — were killed in the incident with several others wounded. The crowd later burned the IFV, but no soldiers were killed. In the recollection of journalist Sergei Parkhomenko “those deaths played a crucial role: both sides were so horrified that it brought a halt to everything.”

At noon on Aug. 22, 1991, the tricolor Russian flag was hoisted over the White House for the first time. The idea of Russia as a separate state and a world power did not yet exist, but the tricolor flag soon became a national symbol of victory over the old Soviet regime.


Would you like to take part in a photowalk or a photo tour of Moscow or any other Russian destination with an English (and Italian, Spanish and French) speaking guide (me and my wife) showing you the sights and telling you a bit about Russian history and traditions? If so, do get in touch and we’ll be happy to create an unforgettable, tailor-made experience for you!







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