The Soviet System: From Crisis to Collapse

By Alexander Dallin; Gail W. Lapidus | Go to book overview

PART 7
From Coup to Collapse

The failed coup of August 1991 dealt a fatal blow to the Soviet system. By forcing a dramatic showdown between the pillars of the old system and the defenders of the "White House," led by Boris Yeltsin, the coup effectively undermined Gorbachev's efforts to preserve a centrist coalition, tilted the political balance decisively toward the democratic reformers, and accelerated the unraveling of the Union. The immediate catalyst for the coup was the planned signing of the Union Treaty on August 20. To secure the crucial backing of the Union republics, beginning with Boris Yeltsin's Russian Federation, Gorbachev had in the end agreed to significant concessions, ceding power over taxation and in effect acquiescing to a loose confederal arrangement.

Meanwhile, the growing frustration of the hardliners at their inability to make Gorbachev their political captive and their alarm at the imminent signing of the Union Treaty, which in their view spelled the disintegration of the country, came to a head. On August 19, with Gorbachev on vacation in the Crimea, a self-proclaimed State Emergency Committee cut off Gorbachev's communications and announced that it had assumed power because of Gorbachev's ostensible illness. Dominated by the head of the KGB, it was a powerful coalition of heads of key government institutions, including the vice president, the prime minister, the minister of defense, and the minister of the interior—ironically, almost all hand-picked by Gorbachev and enjoying his trust. Behind the scenes, the presiding officer of the Supreme Soviet, the head of Gorbachev's personal staff, and high Communist Party officials had been involved. Without a doubt, millions of Soviet citizens were prepared to support it. Why then did the attempted coup fail?

First, the plotters seem to have counted on staging a "constitutional coup," assuming they could secure Gorbachev's acquiescence or, barring that, his resignation and thus the legitimate transfer of power to the vice president. Gorbachev's refusal threw them into disarray.

Second, their planning for the coup was inept and incomplete. Virtually none of the many figures targeted for arrest was in fact picked up. Columns of tanks sent into the center of Moscow were not sent into action. Telephone lines to the White House— Yeltsin's headquarters at the Russian parliament building—were not disrupted. Foreign television companies continued to report. By the second day, the plotters—some of them quite drunk—appeared uncertain what to do.

Third, Boris Yeltsin and his colleagues at the White House galvanized the resistance to the coup by their defiance, labeling the coup an "anticonstitutional act" and calling upon citizens to resist. They rapidly became the nucleus of a courageous vol

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