The Soviet Union by 1991 was in complete disarray and decline. General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, taking over in 1985, had done much to try and reform the Soviet Union in order for it to keep pace with the West. However, the declining economy and the opposition by hard-line members of the Communist Party of Soviet Union(CPSU) would prove to be formidable opponents for Gorbachev. There was an increasing shift for the republics in the Soviet Union to become more autonomous and even independent, which became evident in the New Union Treaty that was proposed. This treaty would decentralize the authority of the Soviet Union and would most likely threaten the structure of the Soviet Union(Seventeen Moments). So, in order to preserve the Soviet Union as they knew it, eight high-ranking members of the CPSU gathered together to stop the signing of the treaty at Gorbachev’s retreat in Crimea(Seventeen Moments).
With the treaty, scheduled to be signed in Moscow on August 20th, the coup leaders attempted to convince Gorbachev to delay the signing. To their dismay Gorbachev refused, forcing the leaders to launch their coup on August 19th under the pretext that Gorbachev was ill. As stated in this document written by coup leader Yanaev, “In connection with Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev’s inability, for health reasons, to carry out the responsibilities of the USSR President… responsibilities have been transferred to the USSR Vice President, Gennadii Yanaev…”(Bonnel 33). Gorbachev was effectively placed under house arrest during this time and the eight coup leaders ordered for the Soviet military to patrol the streets of Moscow and to take vital government buildings. The coup leaders then began to refer to themselves as the State Committee for the State of Emergency, and made various declarations to the Soviet people about the situation. However, the Committee would be opposed by many people, the biggest being the President of the Russian Republic Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin, who had been a member of the CPSU until 1990, was seen as the leader of the opposition to the CPSU and would find himself the enemy of Gorbachev. As Colton puts in his book, “No one has been more of a player in the breakup of the Soviet state and the inauguration of a post-Soviet reality”(Colton 56). The coup, however, was poorly executed and led leading to its defeat after only a few days but Boris Yeltsin would emerge as the the true winner afterwards. As Freeze states, “The most famous, enduring legacy of the ‘putsch’ was the image of Boris Yeltsin, astride a tank in downtown Moscow, leading those opposed to the coup…”(Freeze 464).
The aftermath of the coup attempt was felt almost immediately by the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who had been against these hard-line leaders until the very end, decided to outlaw the Communist Party of Soviet Union, effectively destroying the Soviet political apparatus(Freeze 464). This would, of course, only hasten the demise of the Soviet Union and the new era of independent republics would begin, chiefly led by the President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin. The August Coup of 1991, while not being the only cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was the factor that greatly hastened its fall and led to a new age of geopolitics for the world.
Russia A History: Gregory L. Freeze
Patterns in Post-Soviet Leadership: Timothy Colton and Robert C. Tucker
Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August 1991 Coup: Victoria E. Bonnel, Ann Cooper, and Gregory Freidin
Seventeen Moments in Soviet History