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What Motives Lay Behind the 1991 Soviet  Coup?


On August 18, 1991, eight high-ranking Soviet officials placed Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest and took control of the government of the USSR. Less than 72 hours later, their coup had collapsed, but it would change the course of history in a way that no one, certainly not the plotters themselves, could have foreseen. Our Moscow Bureau has been talking with some of those directly involved in those tumultuous days ten years ago.

History has viewed the Emergency Committee, as the coup leaders called themselves, as hard liners who wanted to re-establish authoritarian control of the Soviet Union. But that is not how Vasily Starodubtsev remembers it. He was a member of the Soviet parliament at the time and one of the eight members of the Emergency Committee.

"The committee was created to stop the collapse of the state, to save the constitution and to save people from the "terrible experiment," he said.

That terrible experiment was the wave of unprecedented reforms that had taken place under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. He had eased censorship and political repression and had taken part in arms control talks with the United States that effectively brought an end to the Cold War. He was hailed by many in the West as a bold leader, a man with a vision whose desire for reform had led to a rebirth of an independent central and eastern Europe.

But to the members of the Emergency Committee he was a dangerous enemy.

Yevgeny Volk was on the staff of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, which was pushing for even more radical reforms than Mr. Gorbachev was proposing. He says that even though all the coup leaders owed their positions in government to Mikhail Gorbachev, they thought his reforms had gone too far.

"People in the Emergency Committee were very strong proponents of governmental regulation and indeed they never were pro-reform. In fact, they impeded the process of reforms by all means," he said.

Not so, says Emergency Committee member Starodubtsev. He says the committee wanted change and that Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian leader Boris Yeltsin were not moving fast enough.

"We needed both economic and political reform but those people in power weren't doing anything. Those reforms were our objective in 1991," Mr. Starodubtsev said.

1991 had been a tumultuous year for the Soviet Union. Lithuania had already declared independence and more Soviet states were following suit. On the 18th of August Mikhail Gorbachev was on a working holiday at his dacha in the Crimea, putting the finishing touches on a new union treaty that would give even greater independence to the Soviet states. Such a union was something the members of the Emergency Committee wanted to avoid.

But the committee's attempt to take control and halt those changes failed, due largely to indecisiveness. While they did manage to isolate Mikhail Gorbachev by cutting off his phone lines and keeping him under house arrest, they did not move against the man who turned out to be a far more dangerous opponent, Russian leader Boris Yeltsin.

He was not arrested and the military was never given explicit orders from the Emergency Committee to move against him or the crowds that had gathered in the streets in support of him. The only military action came on Moscow's Smolenskaya Street, where two young men were fatally shot by soldiers and a third was crushed to death by an armored vehicle.

Vasily Starodubtsev admits that the coup attempt was not well thought out. The committee, he says, should have tried to get more people involved, to make more people aware of what was happening to Russia.

"We didn't think about very important matters. People were so deceived they didn't realize what was going on. We tried to tell them but they, the people, were silent and the result was a catastrophe," he said.

Less than a day after the coup began, power had started to shift from Mr. Gorbachev, but it was Boris Yeltsin, not the Emergency Committee that was taking control. On August 19, in a scene that has played across TV screens around the world, he scrambled up on a tank and called for mass resistance to the coup.

It worked. Troops began going over to the Yeltsin side, and by August 21, three days after it started, the coup was effectively over.

In the end, the attempt had only hastened the collapse of the system the coup leaders wanted to preserve. By failing to act decisively the Emergency Committee allowed Boris Yeltsin to fill the vacuum they had created by arresting Mr. Gorbachev. Although official dissolution of the Soviet Union did not take place until December 25, 1991, as of August 22 the USSR existed in name only.

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