BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh

 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Three days that shook the world
Soviet armoured personnel carriers coup
Muscovites watched in shock as the coup took hold
It was a summer's day in 1991 when the Soviet Union's diehard communists decided they could take no more of perestroika.

On 19 August, the tanks rolled in to the centre of Moscow. Emergency decrees were issued declaring the death of perestroika and a return to Soviet glory.

But the plotters had reckoned without Boris Yeltsin and without the tens of thousands of people who turned themselves into a human shield around the Russian parliament building, the White House. BBC News Online's Sheila Barter tells the story of the three days that changed world history.

Day One - 19 August

Yeltsin and Gorbachev were both out of town when the plotters made their move at dawn.

Over these years Gorbachev has got very tired and needs some time to get his health back

Gorbachev's deputy Gennady Yanayev
Gorbachev was hundreds of miles away at his dacha in the Crimea. He was given the chance to go along with the hardliners, but refused, and was placed under house arrest.

The plotters announced he was ill - not deposed, but indisposed.

Yeltsin was also at his dacha - but his was close to Moscow, and his movements were not restricted. He drove straight back to the city centre and set about undermining the coup.

The plotters
Vice-president Gennady Yanayev
KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov
Interior Minister Boris Pugo
Defence Minister Dmitri Yazov
Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov
Defence Council's Oleg Baklanov
Farmers' Union's Vasily Starodubtsev
State industries' Alexander Tizyakov

Leaving Yeltsin free was the first of the coup plotters' many mistakes. The Emergency Committee contained enough top men to succeed. But Yeltsin, their own incompetence - and even poor weather conditions - combined to guarantee failure.

As the plotters ran their doomed regime from the Kremlin, Yeltsin turned the Russian Parliament, the White House, into the counter-coup headquarters.

Within hours of the first tanks appearing, protesters began gathering outside the building.

Pro-Yeltsin tank driver
Pro-Yeltsin forces waved Russian flags

Tanks flying the Russian flag rolled up to the White House to side with Yeltsin.

Barricades were built to repel any attack.

In a moment of drama which sealed his place as a hero of the people, Yeltsin climbed onto one of the "friendly" tanks and appealed for resistance and a nationwide strike.

"We are dealing with a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup," he said.

You have taken an oath to your people, and your weapons cannot be turned against the people

Yeltsin appeal to armed forces

The coup leaders issued an emergency decree suspending political activity, banning most newspapers and - in what they thought was their trump card - announcing price cuts.

Mr Gorbachev's perestroika policies, they announced, represented a "mortal danger" to the homeland.

"The policy of reform initiated by MS Gorbachev... has, for a number of reasons, come to a dead end," said their appeal.

Only yesterday, the Soviet person abroad felt himself to be a worthy citizen of an influential and respected state... pride and honour must be fully restored

Plotters' statement

Gorbachev was left impotent while his arch-rival Yeltsin took the initiative and the glory. Yeltsin telephoned world leaders with dramatic news of the events, addressed the crowd, marshalled his growing forces, and generally took on the air of people's hero.

Gorbachev remained stranded in the Crimea, cut off from the outside world for 72 hours until the coup collapsed.

No-one in the outside world could be absolutely sure where he was - or even if he was still alive.

Day Two - 20 August

About 10,000 people had camped out overnight, but Yeltsin called for a bigger demonstration for mid-morning, and tens of thousands came. In Moscow, the crowd was estimated at 150,000-strong. In Leningrad, around a quarter of a million turned out.

I am convinced that here, in democratic Moscow, aggression of the conservative forces will not win - democracy will

Yeltsin's balcony address
From the White House balcony, Yeltsin portrayed the struggle as a battle between democracy and dictatorship.

As the events unfolded, surreal moments mingled with life-or-death drama. Exiled cellist Mstislav Rostropovich flew in from Paris to play in the parliament building. In a sign of the market reforms already achieved, Pizza Hut and McDonalds takeaways were brought in by supporters to keep the counter-coup fuelled.

Women confronts soldiers during coup
Angry protesters remonstrated with Soviet soldiers
That night the coup claimed its first lives. Three protesters were killed after taking on the tanks not far from the White House.

But the White House stronghold was never stormed, despite the fact that a detailed plan was prepared on how to do it.

One top officer refused to send fighter bombers against the building. Others may well have followed his defiant line if the final order had come.

Some commentators believe even the coup leaders had themselves been changed by perestroika without realising it and could not order Soviet troops to turn against their own people.

Day Three - 21 August

The coup ended not with bang but with a whimper.

As the coup plotters realised that the will of the people was against them, and that the troops would not fire on their own people, their resolve simply seemed to dissolve.

The Emergency Committee simply imploded under the combined forces of its own incompetence, poor planning - and alcohol, downed in increasing quantity as the hours wore on.

A new plan was agreed. They would fly to the Crimea and explain their actions to Gorbachev.

I want to breathe the air of freedom in Moscow

Gorbachev, returning to Moscow from captivity
Yeltsin stayed in Moscow, but sent a Russian plane to race the plotters to the Crimea and return with Gorbachev.

The president made a dramatic early-hours return to Moscow on 22 August, exhausted but smiling.

Within days though, Yeltsin had himself brought about the end of Gorbachev's era.

Gorbachev had returned to Moscow still keeping faith with the communists. But by the end of August, he had resigned as general secretary. Yeltsin had first humiliated Gorbachev by making him read aloud the communist plotters' plans, then suspended all Soviet Communist Party activities in Russia.

Given the current situation, I am ceasing my activities as president of the USSR

Gorbachev resignation, 25 December 1991
As the autumn and winter went on, Yeltsin met leaders from other key Soviet republics, and formed a new alliance of states. By Christmas, the Soviet Union was disbanded.

The hammer and sickle flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time on 31 December, 1991.

Republics and peoples which had been lost for decades within the Soviet monolith began to re-emerge into international consciousness.

The outside world had not so much lost a superpower as gained 15 free nations.

See also:

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories