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The End of An Era?

The August Coup, with military forces pictured above, was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14579945

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).

Boris Yeltsin’s famous speech from atop a disabled tank during the August Coup of 1991. Collapse of the Soviet Union, Britannica https://cdn.britannica.com/72/121672-050-3E609B0B/Pres-Russian-front-vehicle-flag-Boris-N-August-19-1991.jpg

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.

Sources Used:

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

15 replies on “The End of An Era?”

Thanks for writing about the August Coup, which is one of those “surprise” moments that make you realize not all was as it seemed to be! When you look at how far the right wingers went to thwart the signing of the treaty, you have to ask, “what were they so worried about”? and “were those concerns legitimate”? Excellent illustrations for this post!

I very much agree that the August Coup was definitely one of those surprise moments as it seemed very spontaneous and unplanned. I think that these hard liners were mostly afraid of the change and dissolution of the Soviet Union as they knew it and were prepared to avoid this. However, by this point in history I believe any attempt to stop that would have been in vain.

I find the August Coup and the events that surround it one of the most underrated events of the 20th Century. Here you have a handful of hardliners trying to salvage the vision of what the Soviet Union should be compared to the reformist vision Gorbachev had for the Soviet Union and how this schism effectively was the final nail in the coffin for the Soviet Union.

Yes I very much agree that these leaders were not only against the various reforms, but also saw them as against their very way of life and would do anything to stop them. The August Coup I also agree was that final push needed for the Soviet Union to eventually collapse.

Hi Isaiah! I loved reading your post, and I especially enjoyed the photograph of Yeltsin beside the tank giving his speech during the August Coup. Like Chris said above, the schism between trying to reform the USSR and restore it to its former glory was clearly a big problem for the Soviet Union and its leaders. And it was clear that the threat of autonomy and sovereignty for Russian republics was not something high-ranking members of the Party were willing to take in stride.

Yeah I thought that the picture of Yeltsin was very important as he was instrumental in the entire coup’s failure. These hardline members of the Communist Party were resistant to any sort of independence that the republics wanted and sought to take what they probably saw as drastic action. I do believe that the coup leaders did believe that they were trying to “save” their country but ironically only hastened its demise.

Hi Isaiah! I loved reading your post, and I especially enjoyed the photograph of Yeltsin beside the tank giving his speech during the August Coup. Like Chris said above, the schism between trying to reform the USSR and restore it to its former glory was clearly a big problem for the Soviet Union and its leaders. The threat of autonomy and sovereignty for the Russian republics was clearly not something the leaders of the coup were willing to take in stride, but then again, it totally backfired on them.

Yeah I thought that the picture of Yeltsin was very important as he was instrumental in the entire coup’s failure. These hardline members of the Communist Party were resistant to any sort of independence that the republics wanted and sought to take what they probably saw as drastic action. I do believe that the coup leaders did believe that they were trying to “save” their country but ironically only hastened its demise.

Good post, Isaiah. It’s interesting how non violent this ‘coup’ was. It doesn’t sound like the Soviet Union of the past. I think it’s crazy how Gorbechev outlawed the Communist Party, the party that made the Soviet Union, that’s just crazy to me.

Yes, violence is something that is typically associated with the Soviet Union, which I think makes the August Coup special as it could be seen as the turning point for the Soviet Union. I was very surprised to see that Gorbachev had outlawed the Communist Party, however, to me it makes sense because I think Gorbachev knew that it was the end and wanted to avoid anymore violent actions coming from the party.

Isaiah, I found your post very interesting. Who do you think was most effected by the coup and its cascading effects? Was it the Russian people or those within the other SSRs? Great post!

I believe that the other SSRs were most affected primarily because they benefited from the aftermath. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union these republics finally achieved their independence. In Russia, Boris Yeltsin would finally be able to achieve the total power that he wanted steering Russia in an entirely different direction than it had under the Soviet Union.

Nice post. I have always wondered how the world would be different if the August Coup succeeded. Like would the USSR have been saved or would if have descended into civil war? The fact that this single event shaped the future of the country is quit perplexing to me.

Great post! I think that the August coup was definitely the final nail in the coffin for the USSR. It does make one wonder though what may have happened if it had succeeded. Would the USSR still be struggling along today?

great post! I truly wonder if those that planned the August coup realized, or had anticipated, the backlash from not only the public from political leaders across the Soviet Union. It feels like if you want a coup to succeed, you would ensure that you have enough to back you up beforehand

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