The leaders of the August Coup in 1991: Boris Pugo, the Minister of the Interior Affairs of the USSR (to the left); Gennady Yanayev, the Vice President of the Soviet Union (in the middle) and Oleg Baklanov, First Deputy Chairman of the Defense Council of the USSR (to the right).
On August 18 1991 the conspiracy by the high rank officials of the Kremlin and the KGB took place. A group of Soviet hardliners tried to avert the fall of the Soviet Union. In the end because of their incompetence, cowardice in contrary to the bravery of Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yelstsin and the defenders of the White House their plot failed. Soviet Union collapsed anyway and Latvia could once again regain its independence.
The KGB 9th division was responsible for guarding and escorting the Soviet leaders and high rank officials. In Foros, Crimea where the president of the USSR resided, his guard Vasili Kravets was in his usual duty. His everyday duty was fulfilling the needs of the officials who rested in this governmental resort. Like sending back to Moscow two jackets that the Minister of the Interior affairs Boris Pugo forgot. Or arranging a limo for one guest to visit another. Suddenly in his control system the red alarm signal of the radio station “Alternativa” (Alternative) begun to flash. This meant that there is a failure in the communication line with the mansion of the president of the USSR. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Kravets immediately made contact with KGB 21st division responsible for governmental communications. They said: “We will check!”. The red signal continued to flash even more. Kravets again made contact he received the answer: “The communications have been disrupted by hill landslide, the repair works have begun!”. It was Sunday August 18 1991.
At this same moment the gates of the presidential mansion opened. The KGB codenamed this mansion as the “object Zarya”. Five Volga limos entered the mansion without invitation or announcement. The security guards could not allow such trespassing, but from the first limo the head of the KGB Security Service Yuri Plehanov and the major Vyacheslav Generalov the chief of the technical authority and the Crimea KGB chief from 9th Division colonel Lev Tolstoy stepped out. From other cars many more important Soviet officials came out. The security guards where ordered to lay down their arms and not to forget Romania where the guards defended their dictator Ceausescu and how it ended. The guards were in complete incomprehension- what it had to with Romania? There the president was deposed and the guards defended him and perished with him altogether. But here everything was suppose to be alright?
The mansion was sealed with additional guards from Moscow. The telephone lines were disrupted. Unimaginable, but the presidential mansion guarded by 500 well armed men, three defense lines, 34 border guard posts, special task force Alfa and air fleet in the Black Sea. However, all this defense personal was not really subordinated to the president himself. They were the employees of the KGB. And it was the KGB that decided to turn the tables on the Mikhail Gorbachev who got him effectively trapped in the “Golden cage”.
The president was worried about this sudden visit. He either thought they going to put a pressure again, or try to depose him from power. The two men who trapped the Gorbachev were: Vyachelav Generalov the head of the KGB special maintenance and technical authority. His task was to take over the presidential mansion and keep the president imprisoned there. He knew everything about the mansion and was fiercely loyal. His chief was Yuri Plehanov general lieutenant the head of the KGB security service.
The Gorbachev mansion at Foros or the Object Zarya
The main spokespersons of the conspirators were secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee Oleg Shenin and Oleg Baklanov the head of the Military Industrial complex. According to plan Shenin was to speak first, but Gorbachev seized the moment and started to talk with Baklanov who he thought was their leader. They wanted to convince Gorbachev to step down by his own will, implying on his bad state of health and fatigue. Gorbachev said that this was out of the question and reminded about the planned signing of the New Union Treaty on August 20. The Union Law was a last straw for Gorbachev to save the USSR, but everyone knew that the Baltic states will not going to sign it. They said to him that there will be no such treaty and the head of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic Boris Yeltsin is arrested. He then corrected himself: will be arrested! The conspirators shamefully asked “Dear Mikhail Sergeyevich! We don’t ask nothing from you. Remain here for some time. We will do all the dirty work for you!” Gorbachev insisted that he will not resign and go into any ventures. Then the chief of the USSR Land forces general Valentin Varenikov lost his patience and shouted “Resign!”. He shouted angry remarks about the bad shape of the army, the shameful retreat fro East Germany and the nationalists that do what they want. In the end Gorbachev stood firm against the plotters and asked to inform their masters in Moscow to call the Higher Council or the Party Congress. Plotters in shame left the mansion. Despite the enormous force they had, they could not force their president to resign.
The conspirators in Moscow were anxious. The Soviet defense minister Dmitri Yazov informed the army command and issued that the state of emergency is possible. Yazov announced that all resources had to be taken control of. All state services and the civil security. The Moscow Guard 2th mobile riflemen division and 4th guard tank division had to take over the city. The 106th Tula paratrooper division was called to Moscow. The conspirators who called themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency (SCTE) (Государственный комитет по чрезвычайному положению, ГКЧП) with the Minister of the Interior an ethnic Latvian Boris Pugo and the chief of the KGB Vladimir Krychkov issued a state of emergency.
These people were the hardline communists or even neo-Stalinists. Dmitri Yazov a WW2 veteran and Soviet patriot could not bear with the changes made by Gorbachev and the direction the Soviet empire is heading to. Soviet army was forced to leave East Germany and other former Eastern European satellites. Soviet army was unable to stop separatism in the Caucasus and in the Baltic states. Both the KGB and the Soviet army were ready to suppress them with extreme force. But, no direct order from Gorbachev ever followed. Gorbachev himself was against the independence of the Baltic states or other republics. But, he was caught up with the promises to the western leaders, his own mistakes and in belief that things can be solved diplomatically. After the events in Riga and Vilnius in January 1991, he was no longer trusted both by the west and his aides. His principal mistake was to fire the liberal reformers with who begun his Perestroika policy and surrounded himself with hardliners from KGB and the army.
The chief of the KGB Valentin Krychkov was constantly afraid from the “influence agents” from abroad who wants to topple the Soviet Union. He blamed them for the rotten state economy. His most paranoid belief that the western countries are trying to artificially downsize the number of the Soviet citizens. According to his “information’ the CIA plans to lower the demographics of the USSR by 150-160 million people. The Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov considered his western counterparts a “saboteurs”. The Soviet Vice President Genady Yanayev was an ambitious man who felt himself endangered by the incoming changes. All these men feared the signing of the New Union Treaty that would make for some of them to lose their jobs.
The New Union Treaty would replace 1922 Treaty on the Creation of the USSR and replace the USSR with a new country Union of Sovereign States. It would be a less centralized state with more freedoms to participating republics. However, the Baltic States, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia were not going to sign therefore fully breaking away from Moscow. Also people such as Yanayev and Pavlov would lose their jobs. After Gorbachev had removed the Communist party monopoly of power, on March 1990 a plot was born to remove the liberal reformers and encircle Gorbachev with hardliners. They succeed by removing a Gorbachev long time ally Alexander Yakovlev. Other two enemies the Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR were far tougher enemies and was on the arrest list.
After the conspirators learned that Gorbachev had rejected a plea to resign by his own will, the conspirators wanted to remove his power because of his illness. After long hesitation Gennady Yanayev wrote the directive of taking the presidential office. They had lost the legitimacy they hoped to get from Gorbachev now they were playing a dangerous game. The speaker of the Soviet parliament Anatoly Lukyanov also was dissatisfied with the New Union Treaty, however when the conspirators informed about their actions and asked to join, he denounced their actions. However, he merely just asked them to remove him from their plotter list.
First arrests begun on the morning of August 19. The head of the Human rights “Schit” Nikolay Pavlenko met the SCTE men with a tear gas canister and an ax and managed to hurt them before his arrest. However, they could not arrest Yeltsin. He was able to leave his house and with his collage Ruslan Hasbulatov open the extraordinary meeting of the RSFSR Supreme Council. Soviet tanks were present at RSFSR building also called White House, but were not willing to shoot at anyone. Yelstin used this and stepped on one their tanks and declared that the coup has taken place and the legally elected president has been deposed. He asked for all Soviet citizens not to listen to the SCTE. It was a definite moment, the conspirators now encountered a serious enemy. Meanwhile Gorbachev was sealed off from all radio and TV sources and heavily guarded. The head of the Ukrainian SSR Leonid Kravchuk accepted the coup and did nothing for the president who was imprisoned on his territory.
Boris Yeltsin leading the Russian government
However, on August 19 things were still looking bright for conspirators. Except the Baltic States no serious protests took place. Radio stations and newspapers considered rouge were closed. In theory they had enough force to suppress any kind of resistance. But, then on 15:00 first reports of protests and strikes within mainland Russia begun. Yanayev with a shaking hands took a press conference in front of Soviet and foreign journalists. He lied about Gorbachev health state. Meanwhile in the Crimea the major of Yalta where the Gorbachov lived warned Generalov who was responsible for the mansion, that since Gorbachev is no longer in office, the mansion will no longer receive food supplies. To solve this issue, Generalov summoned his employee to Yalta. There Gorbachev ordered to send a letter of two demands – 1) give an airplane to return to Moscow 2) restore communications. This packet was sent and reached Yanayev.
Meanwhile Yelstin had issued that all Interior forces, army and KGB units should subordinate to the president of RSRSR that was Yelstin himself. On the night of 19-20 August the commander of the Taman tank division major Sergei Yevdokimov was not informed why his tanks are in the city center. He only learned the true reason from the crowds that started to gather in thousands. People asked him and his men to join the Yelstin side. They placed metal bars in the tank tracks to make them immobile. He then soon met the RSFSR parliament members who convinced him that this is a conspiracy and Gorbachev is trapped in Crimea. They asked to help him to defend the White House against the possible assault. Major Yevdokimov agreed and when he went back to his men he heard the news on the radio about him joining the Yeltsin forces. He only managed to move six tanks out of 10 because first barricades were built and to escape accidents he left the remaining tanks on the bridge. He himself never acknowledged that he actually joined the Yeltsin ranks, but just agreed to move tanks closer to the White house to escape the civilian causalities.
After watching the infamous press conference on TV Gorbachev asked if Yanayev has received his demands. After not getting any affirmative answer he decided to make an unusual and a desperate step. Since all communication equipment was confiscated he used an amateur TV camera to record his message to the world. He stated that the reason for his removal was false and its an unconstitutional coup. The message was recorded perfectly, his wife and son in law then dismounted the VHS cassette and planned the way on how to send it to Moscow.
On the morning of 20 August the SCTE was aware of their worse situation. They were unable to impose order in the streets of Moscow and the main rivals were free to whatever they want. Yeltsin who was still free because of the incompetence of the capturing team, was now set to be arrested. Also the parliament building of the RSFRS had to be attacked. The plans were thought out how to do it. The operation was called “Thunder” coincidentally a same name was given to unrealized Stalin’s plan to attack Germany in 1941… However the Generals were worried about the large crowds and barricades and the armed defenders of the White House. The attack was set to start on August 21 at 3:00. The attack would involve regular soldiers, tanks, special forces and snipers.
Yeltsin had called a large rally at 12:00 despite the ban on public gathering thousands came. The Whole Soviet Union was alarmed by the never seen before manifestation. At 20:00 the SCTE held a meeting and realized they are standing on very thin base. Many soldiers joined the protesters. The Eho Moskvi Radio station was not closed because one colonel defended it and now it became the main voice of opposition. The whole square of the White House was filled with large crowds, many were armed with Molotov cocktails. Then at 21:00 a woman entered the barricades and claimed she has very important information. She was taken to the headquarters of the defenders of the White House. She claimed her husband a KGB officer has received orders to take part in the attack that would begin at 3:00. Later he masked in hood appeared himself and warned about the special task force Alpha attack. Radio issued all women to leave the square. Defenders gathered in companies and squads made a living defense line. The element of surprise was lost.
Soviet tanks near the White House
Meanwhile the Alpha team was uneasy about their given task. Many did not want to kill their own government and the people. Such an attack would cause enormous losses of life’s on both sides. And the mass media attention from the whole world was more than ever. The SCTE order was insane, and even the Alpha team understood this and in the end asked to cancel the order. At 24:20 a brief battle erupted between the Taman tank division and the protesters in the Sadovoje koļco tunnel on the way to the White house. The curfew was issued to prevent the people from entering the White House square. The Taman tank division was tasked to ensure the curfew. As they moved towards the Smolensk square, they were attacked with stones. Armored vehicles broke through the trolleybus barricades. But, a war journalist first rank captain Mihail Glovlko was standing in the way with the raised hands, he was hit by the fast moving vehicle. At that moment a 23 year old Afghan war veteran jumped Dmitri Kromar on the BMP 536 vehicle and tried to cover its sightseeing hatch to make it “blind.” The BMP tried to steer its turret to get him off and succeed. But by the hitting the pole the hatch opened. Kromar chased the BMP and jumped in it trough the open hatch. BMP made a swift move and threw him out, but his clothes get stuck in the open hatch dragging Kromar on the ground as the BMP moved backwards. 37 year old Vladimir Usov rushed to help and was shot dead by the warning shots from BMP crew. Another protester throwing rocks Krichevsky was also killed.
All this made the General Yazov to finally cancel the order to attack the White House. It was a suicide for him and the whole coup, but it was the only possible solution. Two KGB mobile brigades was just an hour from the main target. Meanwhile, a special task force landed in the Crimea and was ready to storm the Gorbachev mansion. On August 21 Yazov decided to miss the SCTE morning meeting, making things worse. Now the last chance to save something was flying back to Crimea. On 14:15 Yazov, Baklanov, Lukyanov and others took the plane to Crimea.
However, Yeltsin also wanted to visit Gorbachev. Krysckhov chief of KGB did everything to prepare the SCTE visit in time. He received a message that the SCTE time for the Gorbachev visit was over and at 16:00 the Yeltsin delegation will fly to Foros. Krychkow said that he would join the delegation and asked to postpone the flight until the evening. It was a lie and it was only discovered once the SCTE plane was already in the air. Yeltsin was unable to get there before them and only could bring the plane down which he refused. Conspirators landed at the airfield filled with marines ready to strike the presidential mansion. However, they were convinced that they will be greeted peacefully for a cup of tea.
Instead they were greeted with AK-47’s and Gorbachev refused to talk to them before the arrival of the Yeltsin delegation. Meanwhile the Yeltsin TU-154 airplane made circles around the Belbeck airfield. They were refused to land. After Gorbachev’s communications were restored, the plane landed. KGB special forces silently left the airfield. The Russian government were the ones who brought back Gorbachev home to Moscow. But this was no longer the country he once ruled.
The Baltic States declared full independence and were officially supported by the majority of the world countries. All other Soviet republics followed suit. On August 29 the Communist Party was officially shut down and made illegal. On December 8 the USSR was officially dissolved.
Protesters managed to tear down the statue of the KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky. However, the main force behind the August plot the KGB in disguise of FSB still lives on
The August Coup attempt was a heavy defeat for the KGB and the ultra patriotic army officials. However, the KGB survived and transformed into FSB the Federal Security Service. For many years these people sought to revenge on those who managed to break down the Soviet empire. In the end they succeeded – an ex KGB officer and the director of the FSB Vladimir Putin took over the modern Russia. Since then the Russian policy is based on revenge and revision. It’s a question if a similar situation where the army and security forces will choose to support the people or to attack the White House like in 1995 by the Yeltsin orders. The Putin’s Russia has not yet reached this critical point and lets hope it will not reach it the same way.