Rough Diplomacy

The Bathhouse Plot

The 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt, also known as the August Coup (Russian: Августовский путч, tr. Avgustovsky Putsch “August Push”), was an attempt by members of the Soviet Union’s government to take control of the country from Soviet President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.


By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was creaking. The Communist Party’s absolute control from Moscow had failed to deliver for assorted nations that had been forcibly combined to create the Russianized superstate.

The economy was stagnant, poverty was endemic and the tightly controlled peoples of this disparate empire were getting restive.

Cometh the moment, cometh the man. In 1985, a visionary new leader rose to power. Mikhail Gorbachev set about implementing a two-track reform plan. On one hand, Glasnost (freedom of speech) would provide a safety valve for the frustrated people. On the other, Perestroika (rebuilding) would address economic woes. But the long-suppressed ability to speak freely led to a wave of unrest, both in Russia itself and in satellite countries, especially as perestroika failed to deliver improved living standards.

Perestroika (listen) was a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s until 1991 widely associated with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his Glasnost (meaning “openness”) policy reform.

photo London Express

A plot was made at a bathhouse in downtown Moscow. Mid morning Saturday, Aug. 17, 1991, the head of the K.G.B., Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, summoned 5 senior Soviet officials for a highly secretive meeting that he told them was vital for the future of the U.S.S.R.

Wrapped in towels in the steam room, and later while cooling down over vodka and Scotch, the half-dozen die-hard Communist apparatchiks outlined a plan to overthrow the Soviet government. For the Soviet spymaster, the prime minister, defense minister and the other paunchy, half-naked co-conspirators, the stakes could not have been higher. And they had to act quickly.

Coup d'Etat Attempt in the USSR : Photo d'actualité

The country was in a shambles, and the chaos of democracy and nationalism threatened to destroy it entirely, the K.G.B. chief warned. The Baltic states had already moved toward independence and something had to be done to silence Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, the noisy, newly elected president of the Russian republic, whose belligerent, man-of-the-people style made him by far the most popular politician in the country, mainly because of his attacks on the privileges of the Communist Party elite.

Likewise, the coup plotters insisted, the weak and spineless Soviet president and party boss, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, had to go. He had proposed signing a new treaty that would turn the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into a looser federation of autonomous states, most of which intended to turn their backs on socialism. The  hardliners who once enjoyed absolute power became restless as they saw communist control start to slip. In a desperate move to regain control, they kidnapped Mikhail Gorbachev and mounted a coup.

A picture shows Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaking in a video message taped on August 19, 1991, the second day of his captivity. Gorbachev said there had been an unconstitutional coup and that he was completely well. Photo taken on August 25, 1991. (NBC TV/AFP/Getty Images)

One group of conspirators flew to Crimea, where Mr. Gorbachev was on vacation, the goal was of forcing him to abandon the treaty or resign. If he refused, a regiment of K.G.B. troops would hold him captive indefinitely at his seaside villa. The others would stay in Moscow, ready to take over the levers of power and use force to assert their authority if challenged. On August 19 they announced that Gorbachev was ‘indisposed’ and unable to govern, but this dramatic move proved to be a serious miscalculation with disastrous consequences for their cause.

You should know: There is no evidence that Mikhail Gorbachev originally envisaged an end to the Soviet Union, but the failed coup was the last nail in the Union’s coffin and it almost immediately disintegrated into 15 separate countries… while Gorbachev himself had already won a Nobel Peace Prize for creating the conditions that allowed it to happen.

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard on his way to the parliament building surrounded by his body guards after the failed coup attempt by communist hard liners. (Photo by Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

A list was drawn up of the names of 200 people who would be immediately arrested, the first of whom was Yeltsin. The Lefortovo , a prison in Moscow was emptied in preparation for new prisoners, and 250,000 pairs of handcuffs were ordered to be sent to Moscow from a factory in Pskov.

Coup d'Etat Attempt in the USSR : Photo d'actualité

Not one of the conspirators counseled caution or seemed to consider the law of unintended consequences: within a few days their ill-prepared coup attempt would bring forward all that they feared most. Their “patriotic action” would once and for all remove their beloved U.S.S.R. from the map.

The Climbing [Monument of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky]. The Moscow landmark was torn down by pro-democracy protesters during the first days of the August 1991 coup that ended the Soviet Union. Photo: Vladimir Filonov, MT

The coup was a fiasco from the start. Mr. Gorbachev refused to resign or to shun the treaty. At dawn on Aug. 19, Muscovites woke to the announcement on radio and TV that an Emergency Committee had been formed to govern the country. Then, for several hours, the state-controlled airwaves went dead — except for a continuous loop of “Swan Lake” that played for hours. Most Muscovites were unaffected by the coup; their principal memories of it are the sound of Tchaikovsky.

The drama was confined to one small area — around the White House in Moscow, home of Russia’s Parliament — and lasted a few hours. The bungling putschists failed to arrest any of their targets or to control communications, and soldiers refused to fire on the crowds outside the Russian White House.

The Russian tricolor became the symbol of the resistance, victorious over the hated Soviet red, hammer and sickle

The plotters were horrified by the subsequent uproar, with protests erupting in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. In desperation, they turned to the traditional totalitarian solution and sent in the army to restore order. When soldiers refused to fire on their fellow countrymen – as dramatically symbolized by pictures of future leader Boris Yeltsin addressing a Moscow crowd from the top of a tank – the coup was over. This failure proved terminal for the nationalists. Instead of restoring the Soviet Union to its former centralized strength, the fiasco ensured that the entire Union finally fell apart, along with Russian control over Eastern Bloc states like East Germany.

To his own amazement, Yeltsin was not apprehended at the start of the operation. Indeed, the central image of the August coup is of a brave and vigorous Yeltsin climbing onto a tank to make a defiant statement denouncing the plotters. And he retained a telephone line enabling him to coordinate his support. This stirring scene was foolishly allowed to be shown on TV that evening, turning the obscure Yeltsin into a figure of world significance overnight.

The joke swiftly went around Moscow that you knew Communism must be through in Russia when the Bolsheviks couldn’t even mount a proper coup. At a news conference that evening, the nominal head of the Emergency Committee, the Soviet vice president, Gennadi I. Yanayev, was seen in public for the first time. A gray 53-year-old bureaucrat with nicotine-stained fingers and a shiny suit, he was visibly drunk. When he told the lie that Mr. Gorbachev was ill, his hands shook and his hairpiece began to slip.

Former Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, left, and former Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev take part in a news conference of August 1991 hardline coup organizers in Moscow.

For all the tragedy and farce of those three August days, the world has plenty for which to thank the incompetent conspirators who hastened the fall of an empire. Less than a week after the coup fizzled, two of its leaders killed themselves, the others were in jail and the Communist Party they sought to save was banned. Yeltsin, sometimes called the party’s principal assassin, was the most powerful man in the country.

For a generation, the failure of Soviet Communism had been evident for all to see. The great experiment that once bred idealism ended in food lines and prison camps. Marx believed that man could be made perfect; Communists found that people had an irritating way of refusing to be perfected.

VILNIUS, LITHUANIA – SEPTEMBER 3: Two Lithuanians display a hammer and sickle, the communist emblem which was removed from a facade of a building 03 September 1991.(VIRGIS USINAVICIUS/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet despite the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, hardly anyone in the summer of 1991 predicted that the U.S.S.R. itself would fall apart by the end of the year. It might have limped on for decades, as the Ottoman Empire did in the late 19th century, dying slowly amid civil wars.

Yet the second most powerful country in the world simply withered away, not in the classical Marxist sense, but it literally ceased to exist. And the manner of its going was one of the best things. The Soviet people destroyed the Soviet Union, not outsiders, and not through violent conflict.

Moscow coup: 23 August: Boris Yeltsin applauds Mikail Gorbachev following the coup

Despite the putsch’s failure, some Soviet ideas remains — a “coup culture” that breeds a winner-take-all view of politics. In Russia today, there is no concept of a loyal opposition, no separation of powers, no mass participation in political life and a news media that is far from free says , Victor Sebestyen , a Hungarian-born journalist and the author of “Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire.”

Sebestyen asserts there  was a fleeting opportunity for liberal democracy and genuine free markets to emerge in Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. But Yeltsin did little to develop civil society, the rule of law, the emergence of viable political parties or a modernized economy after the failed 1991 coup. Few people became very rich, adopting methods reminiscent of the 19th-century robber barons in the United States, but more ruthless and  a middle class with a stake in how the country is run barely exists.

Boris Yeltsin in 1989 (LIFE)

Yeltsin’s corrupt cronyism encouraged a gangster capitalism from which Russia is still suffering. But the few years that he and Mr. Gorbachev led the country together seem today a halcyon period for freedom in Russia.

Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, Vladimir V. Putin, reversed the few fledgling democratic reforms that had been made, turning Russia into a country that merely goes through the motions of democracy every few years while power remains concentrated in the same hands. Mr. Putin replaced a one-party state with a one-clique state of people around him — a pattern replicated elsewhere in the former Soviet Union — financed almost entirely by booming oil and gas revenues.

A T-55 tank in Moscow in 1991 during the coup attempt

Today, he is one of the few to lament the Soviet Union’s passing. Mr. Putin, who in 1991 was a middle-ranking intelligence officer in St. Petersburg, left the K.G.B. during the coup. To him the collapse of the U.S.S.R. was “a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”

But for the millions who had to endure life under the Soviet yoke — born in bloodshed and kept alive for decades through intimidation — its end was long overdue.

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