August 17, 2011 / 9:57 AM / 8 years ago

Witness: A failed coup and a difficult start for Russia

The following Witness piece recalls how the hardline communist coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev unfolded in August 1991. Steve Gutterman is currently based in Moscow for Reuters and was working as an assistant for a U.S. newspaper in the Russian capital at the time of the coup.

Boris Yeltsin (C) speaks to a crowd from atop an APC surrounded by security men in this file photo taken on August 19, 1991. REUTERS/Stringer

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - My rented flat had no television or radio, and the blank faces on the bus sputtering into central Moscow betrayed no hint of the news that had broken that Monday morning in August 1991.

But there it was when I walked into the office of the U.S. newspaper where I worked as an assistant: Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was ill and something called the State Committee for the Emergency Situation had taken charge of the country.

Suddenly, a power grab by hardline communists seeking to turn back Gorbachev’s reforms and halt the disintegration of the Soviet Union turned a sleepy summer into a defining moment in the history of Russia and the world.

Like many plans in Russia, the coup plotters’ conceit went awry fast. Their abortive putsch only hastened the collapse of communist rule and the breakup of the world’s biggest country.

But on that first day, nobody knew the coup would fail — not Gorbachev, not Boris Yeltsin, who became Russia’s president, and certainly not the people I met on Moscow’s streets.

I found a mix of apprehension, hope and resignation intruding on the weary routine of survival in a country staggering under the system introduced after Russia’s other great 20th Century upheaval — the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

In the drab capital of what had become a bad parody of a workers’ paradise, Muscovites made the rounds of poorly stocked shops, looking for a rare bargain or unexpected bounty amid piles of overripe onions and tins of mystery meat.

But there was also a sense, perhaps sharpened by hindsight, of an unfolding drama with far-reaching consequences.

“It’s a real coup d’etat,” one elderly woman told me. “Nothing good will come of this.”

Real, yes, but spectacularly unsuccessful.

It took just three days for the putsch to unravel, defeated by the defiance of Yeltsin and the citizens who rallied around him outside Russia’s parliament building, desperate to avert a return to hardline rule.

Poor organization and half-hearted execution dogged the plotters. The first sign of trouble came at a Monday news conference by Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, who said he was taking over the interim presidency, and his comrades.

Yanayev’s hands trembled and his voice shook.

In front of the parliament building on the Moscow River, Yeltsin showed far more mettle, climbing on to a tank and rallying a crowd determined not to give up the relative freedoms of Gorbachev’s glasnost era.

By Wednesday, August 21, it was clear that the coup had failed.

Four months later, on December 25, the official Tass news agency ran a terse bulletin: “Gorbachev resigns presidency of the Soviet Union.”


The nuclear-armed superpower that had haunted the West from Stalin to the Sputnik had ceased to exist — something that had seemed unimaginable, on both sides of the Cold War divide, just a few years earlier.

For Russia, it was a difficult new beginning. The economic hardship that had worsened as the 1980s waned intensified in a rough-and-tumble transition to capitalism, leaving many Russians disillusioned and dampening enthusiasm for democracy.

The White House became the site of confrontation again in 1993, when Yeltsin’s tanks shelled the building to force out hard-line lawmakers, some of them his allies two years earlier.

These days, it’s hard to imagine the chaotic scenes that unfolded there in the early 1990s.

Now the headquarters of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, in power as president and then prime minister since he succeeded Yeltsin on the last day of 1999, it is closed off by a high black fence guarding groomed lawns — a symbol of the relative stability Russia has found in the Putin era.

It is an era his critics compare with the 1980s and the stagnation that came before Gorbachev’s reforms, the failed coup and the collapse of a country that had seemed destined to live on for decades at least.

Still hobbled by the legacy of the Soviet Union, Russia is grappling with a new set of problems spawned in part by its demise, from migration and ethnic tension to the frayed ties and geopolitical jostling that led to a brief with Georgia in 2008.

When the coup collapsed in 1991, I called my girlfriend — now my wife — and told her that it was all over.

She laughed. “It’s only just begun.”

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