August coup

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Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (b. 1931) Soviet statesman, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR 1985–91 and President 1988–91

Boris Yeltsin (1931—2007) Russian statesman, President of the Russian Federation 1991–9


Central Intelligence Agency


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(19–21 Aug. 1991)

A coup attempt against the reformist Soviet leader Gorbachev. It was led by people who had personally benefited from the Gorbachev regime, such as Vice-President Yanaev and the Minister of Defence, Yazov, but who wanted to exploit the widespread resentment in the army and the state bureaucracy. They were opposed to many of Gorbachev's reforms, in particular the impending restructuring of the Soviet Union in a manner that would have weakened central control in favour of the national republics. They imprisoned Gorbachev in his holiday cottage in the Crimea, with Yanaev taking over in Gorbachev's stead. A defiant Yeltsin immediately transformed the Russian parliament, the White House, into a centre of resistance, and declared the new leaders' orders void.

The coup failed owing to popular support for Yeltsin, who was also backed by many loyal sections of the army. Yeltsin was also helped by international support, especially from the USA, whose CIA was able to record and decode the entire communication between the coup leaders. Instead of halting reform, the coup drastically accelerated it: the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), which had been occupied by Soviet troops during the coup, immediately declared their full independence, followed within days by virtually every other non-Russian constituent republic of the USSR. Moreover, the radical Yeltsin emerged as a hero, who had pushed the more hesitant Gorbachev into the sidelines.

Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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