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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 15:20 GMT 16:20 UK
Three days that shook the world
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Ex-putschists defend 1991 Soviet coup
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