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Demise of a giant

August 18, 2011

In August 1991, Communist hardliners in the Soviet Union staged a coup against then leader Mikhail Gorbachev. They wanted to prevent the disintegration of the USSR - but achieved just the opposite.

Rusty hammer and sickle
The Soviet Union was in a state of collapse by 1991Image: Michael Mihin

In 1991, the Soviet Union was in free fall: Industrial output was dropping, unemployment rising and runaway inflation was eating up the savings of the citizens. Ethnic conflicts broke out in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and Lithuania had become the first Soviet republic to declare independence. Even sending the notorious KGB to Vilnius to suppress the nationalist media failed to bring Lithuania back under Soviet control. USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev was increasingly losing control over his empire.

"The Soviet Union could have - and should have - been rescued." Gorbachev says today. At the time, the Soviet leader sought a reformist course, a kind of 'USSR 2.0' in which the constituent republics were given more autonomy. Although the idea was unpopular with many within the ruling political class, in March 1991 Gorbachev held a referendum in which more than 70 percent voted for "the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics." This gave Gorbachev a strong mandate to proceed with a new Union treaty to hold the country together.

Lithuanians demonstrating in 1991
Lithuania was the first former republic to declare independence in 1990Image: dpa

In April he met in Novo-Ogarevo with the nine leaders of the republics that had participated in the referendum. Although discussions were difficult, a deal on the New Union Treaty was agreed and a symbolic signing of the treaty was scheduled for 20 August 1991. However, the signing never took place.

Attempted coup by hardliners

A day before the treaty was due to be signed, on 19 August 1991, a long-predicted coup against Gorbachev was enacted. A group of Soviet hardliners including the vice president, prime minister, defense minister, interior minister and the head of the KGB, formed a 'crisis committee,' as these old communists mistrusted Gorbachev's reforms.

"They saw that they could achieve nothing with normal political methods," said Gorbachev. "Therefore they opted for a coup."

The 'committee' claimed that Gorbachev was ill and placed him under house arrest during his holiday in the Crimea. All connections with the outside world were severed and the conspirators quickly issued an emergency decree. The coup leaders claimed they wanted to save the USSR from 'catastrophe.'

Gorbachev and Yeltsin argue
Boris Yeltsin (r.) drew power away from Mikhail GorbachevImage: picture alliance/dpa

Full throttle into the abyss

The coup failed. Newly-elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin seized his opportunity to stand up as an opponent to the communists. Tens of thousands of people gathered near his official residence in Moscow to protest against the coup. It was a peaceful protest, but the ensuing confusion led to three people being killed as a column of tanks drove through the city at night.

After three days, the state of emergency was lifted, and a visibly ailing Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22. The rebels were arrested and some of them committed suicide. The Communist Party was banned and Gorbachev was reinstated as president of the Soviet Union, however his power was compromised.

The rebels had intended the coup to save the Soviet Union, but instead it acted as a catalyst for its downfall. During the coup, Estonia declared its independence, and was followed by Ukraine and the other republics. Three months after the coup, the leaders of the three main Slavic republics (Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) agreed to meet and subsequently formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On 26 December 1991 the Soviet Union was officially dissolved and Gorbachev resigned as president.

Rope to hang themselves

Twenty years later, Gerhard Simon, an expert on Eastern Europe from the University of Cologne is still "puzzled" that the collapse of the USSR could happen in such a quick and non-violent way. "Can a world power actually cede power in this way, just throw in the towel in and go home?" asked Simon.

Boris Yeltsin speaking on top of a tank in front of the Russian parliament
Boris Yeltsin makes a speech from atop a tank in front in August 19, 1991Image: AP

Simon believes that the strength of the Soviet Union was overrated. "In terms of nuclear strength she was certainly strong, but in terms of economy, the Soviet Union could never compete with the United States."

This competition between communist and capitalist systems also played a role in the demise of the USSR, according to Simon. "The Soviet system was also ruined because of the West - with its better economy, greater freedom and the fascination with the 'Golden West,'" said Simon. Whether it was cars, shoes or cosmetics, millions of Soviet citizens were dreaming about western goods they could not afford. "The big mistake of Soviet ideology and propaganda was comparing itself with the West. They put the noose around their own necks," he said.

Yeltsin wanted to end the USSR

"It is very rare in international historical comparisons that the official state group – i.e. the Russians, the ruling political class – no longer wanted the Soviet Union," said Simon. He's referring to Boris Yeltsin who had acquired a taste for power. Yeltsin was pushing for the sovereignty of Russia and took steps to make sure no more money was paid to Soviet authorities in Moscow.. "Yeltsin wanted to bring the Soviet Union to an end - there's no doubt about it," said Simon.

Yeltsin's motivations for moving away from the Soviet Union were not altruistic. It was not because he wanted more autonomy for the republics. He hoped that by moving power away from the Soviet leadership, power would be gained by the Russian presidency. According to Simon, Yeltsin thought Moscow would be able to maintain its influence in the CIS. However, what followed showed that "Yeltsin and his people - like Gorbachev before him - did not fully anticipate the consequences of their actions."

Author: Roman Goncharenko (cb)
Editor: Susan Houlton