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Coup d'etat

September 25, 2010

Gennady Yanayev, a hardline Communist who declared himself acting president of the Soviet Union during a failed 1991 coup attempt has died. Russian media said 73-year-old Yanayev had been suffering from cancer.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin makes a speech from a tank
Yeltsin calls on the Russian people to resist communist hardliner Gennady YanayevImage: AP

Yanayev declared a state of emergency on August 19, 1991, telling stunned television viewers that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was under house arrest in Crimea.

Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, the then vice-president of the Soviet Union said that under these circumstances "we have no other choice than to take decisive measures in order to prevent the country from sliding towards catastrophe."

Together with seven other co-conspirators, the so-called Gang of Eight, Yanayev formed a State Emergency Situation Committee but failed to muster enough public and military support to govern the country.

Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia and an arch political rival of President Gorbachev arrived at the seat of Russia's legislature, the White House on the Moscow River, and called for a general strike to resist the coup.

Tanks entered Moscow, rallies were banned and pro-reform newspapers were shut down as the plotters sought to curb resistance. Defiant crowds massed outside the White House and the coup collapsed three days after it began after resistance led by the then Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

Protesters in Moscow during coup attempt
The failed coup sealed the fate of the Soviet UnionImage: AP

Images of Yeltsin standing on a tank have persisted as a symbol of the failure of the coup. Four months later Gorbachev resigned.

Yeltsin and the leaders of other Soviet republics declared them independent states, sealing the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Comunist regime.

Yanayev was arrested on treason charges and spent more than a year in prison before being released before his trial began. He and 11 others charged as ringleaders were later pardoned by the Russian Parliament in 1994.

No regrets

In an interview on its 10th anniversary, he defended it as a struggle against "those who wanted the collapse of a great state", saying the Soviet Union had been "in total crisis".

Yeltsin banned the Communist Party, which had ruled the Soviet Union since its inception after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but a Russian Communist Party founded after its demise has enjoyed broad minority support for years.

Its leader, Gennady Zyuganov, expressed regret at Yanayev's death on Friday and said firmer action by the coup plotters would have saved the Soviet Union.

"If they had acted much more decisively, our unified country would have been preserved," Zyuganov said in a statement on the Communist Party website.

Author: Nigel Tandy

Editor: Matt Zuvela