25 years ago, the State Emergency Committee failed to take into account the changing political dynamics within Russia that eventually led to the breakup of the Soviet Union

Muscovites, who shared democratic values, responded to then-President Boris Yeltsin’s calls and prevented the 1991 Soviet coup. Photo: RIA Novosti

The failed coup attempt that took place in Russia in August 1991 has become a defining historical event for the end of an era. The State Emergency Committee was the name of the self-proclaimed authority in the Soviet Union that existed for only four days, from Aug. 18-21, 1991.

It brought together the highest-ranking leaders of the former Soviet Union, including Vice President Gennady Yanaev and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, who tried to orchestrate the coup d’état in an attempt to prevent “the disintegration of the country.” A collapse of the country for them meant the ratification of the so-called Union Treaty, scheduled for Aug. 20. This new Treaty was intended to replace the Soviet Union, which was federal in theory and unitary in fact, with a confederation known as the Union of Sovereign States.

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The leading position in this new entity fell to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, but the participants of the State Emergency Committee couldn’t capitalize on a moment of weakness.  In order to prevent the ratification of the Union Treaty, they confined Gorbachev in his countryside house in Crimea, announced that Yanaev would be taking over presidential power, established a state of emergency in the country and assumed responsibility for governing the state.       

Consequently, the Emergency Committee’s members claimed that Gorbachev’s confinement was artificially staged, that he allegedly participated in all these events behind the scene, but didn’t dare to take responsibility and shifted it to his close subordinates.

However, the orchestrators of the coup don’t appear to be telling the full story. If Gorbachev had had connections with the State Emergency Committee, he would have definitely became its head. Preparing a coup and then putting forward other people just doesn’t add up.

Three reasons why the 1991 coup failed

Since the coup failed, it means the initiators simply overestimated their power and influence and underestimated the response from their opponents. There are three factors that played an important role in this failure.

First, there was a great deal of opposition to the Emergency Committee. Among them, first and foremost, was the leadership of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, including its President Boris Yeltsin and its Supreme Court. Far from recognizing the Emergency Committee, they decided to bring together democratic Muscovites to withstand the attempted coup near the Russian White House (formerly known as the House of Soviets, today it is the home of the Russian government).

Second, the very fact that Muscovites, who shared democratic values, responded to Yeltsin’s calls, accounts for the failure of the coup. And this was a very powerful force, which brought together hundreds of thousands of people who – since late 1989 – had been participating in demonstrations.

They supported Yeltsin and criticized Gorbachev for his refusal to conduct sweeping political and economic reforms. However, only several thousand people took to the streets to raise the barricades near the White House. These people were ready for the worst and were not going to scatter after the first shot.        

Finally, the third reason why the coup failed was the impact of the independent press. Despite the fact that the Emergency Committee tried to impose tough censorship, it even failed to take control of one of the main state television channels, the so-called Russian TV, which covered the attempted coup in the evening program on Aug. 19, and criticized those who sought to overthrow the regime.

The independent radio station, Echo of Moscow, became the main source of information for Muscovites during these events. The Committee of State Security (KGB, now known as the Federal Security Service, or FSB) tried to close the radio station, but failed as the journalists resumed broadcasting.

Through the lens of history: Coups in the Soviet Union and Russia

To sum up, the coup orchestrators underestimated the power of their opponents. But at the same time, they overestimated their own potential. In fact, the self-proclaimed authority, the State Emergency Committee, didn’t have any experience in organizing a coup d’état. Their predecessors – the Bolsheviks – did have such experience. They seized power in 1917 by starting a military coup. Yet this experience was to a large extent forgotten.

In January 1918, the Bolsheviks ruthlessly and violently suppressed a demonstration in support of the legitimate authorities, represented by the Constituent Assembly. Afterwards, they started purges and launched a reign of terror throughout the country. Such practice was common in the early 1930s to suppress peasants demonstrating against collectivization [a policy of forced consolidation of individual peasant households into collective farms carried out by the Soviet government in the late 1920s and early 1930s – Editor’s note].

However, after the events in 1962 in Novocherkassk, the Soviet authorities gave up suppressing protests through military means, because it was too risky: Soldiers refused to kill workers and, in contrast, started fraternizing with them. That’s why the authorities tried to find more subtle ways of dealing with protests by giving the Soviet people material incentives.

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The organizers of the 1991 coup hoped that the very fact of announcing the State of Emergency would force people to obey and fulfill all orders from above. In the majority of the union republics, except Georgia, Moldavia, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the expectations of the Emergency Committee came true, but the Russian leadership refused to submit.

Only decisive measures and an aggressive response (most likely, involving bloodshed) would have been effective in such a pivotal situation, but the soldiers did not dare to use violence against the Russian people. This circumstance was an insurmountable obstacle even for the officers, let alone private soldiers. 

The State Committee on the State of Emergency is often criticized for its indecisiveness. Skeptics argue that if it had given orders, the soldiers would have fulfilled them. However, when the orders did come, not all of them were successfully implemented.

The order to bring troops in to the city was fulfilled. However, the order to arrest the leaders of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia, including its head Yeltsin, was not fulfilled. And the order to take control over all mass media was partially fulfilled, but failed. The main reason for such failure was unwillingness of the lower echelons to fulfill incoming orders.

In fact, it demonstrated that the state system, which the Emergency Committee struggled to revive and reanimate, was hopelessly collapsing. Failure to understand that fact ultimately became the undoing of the Emergency Committee. When its members ultimately understood this, they even did not try to resist and surrendered on the night of Aug. 20-21.

Is a new coup possible in Russia?

To a large extent, the failure of the Emergency Committee reminds current Russians of the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey, where the military overestimated their capabilities and underestimated their opponents. In contrast to the Emergency Committee, the Turkish military has extensive experience in plotting coups. However, even this proved to be not enough for success.

It is quite a legitimate question to ask whether the events of 1991 could be repeated in modern Russia. The answer is – not now. The coup attempt of 1991 was made in a situation of degraded legitimacy of power. There were several power centers in the country and each of them had its own source of legitimacy.

Moscow simultaneously hosted power structures of both the U.S.S.R. and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Russia. The powers of both the U.S.S.R. and Russian Republic insisted on the priority of their authority over one another, meaning they claimed to be sovereign power structures.

In fact, by the time of the Emergency Committee, it was almost a year of struggle between the laws of Russia and the Soviet Union. But at the time when the authorities of the Russian Republic were backed by the decrees authorized by its parliament and the president, the U.S.S.R. authorities had an entire coercive apparatus at their disposal.

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That is why many local bureaucrats preferred to follow directions coming from the U.S.S.R. line of power, but in fact they tried to take maximum advantage from the confrontation of two power structures.

The failure of the Emergency Committee proved that the advantages of the Union State center were false and ineffective in the domestic political struggle. As soon as it was revealed, the Soviet Union faced a diagnosis of imminent death, which came true literally within a period of three months.

Modern Russia is more stable and has a more legitimate system of power. This system of power is written into the country’s Constitution, which makes the President the head of both the Executive and Supreme power.

However, some key constitutional principles – in particular, the principle of divisions of powers – are ignored in practice. For example, the Russian courts frequently take into account the recommendations of the executive power while ignoring the law. Moreover, the parliament is not independent, but rather a sort of rubber-stamp mechanism, which fulfills the orders coming from the Presidential Executive Office.    

The current method of governing doesn’t result in a system of checks of balances, which could lead to a schism among the political elites. Such cracks could emerge only in the case of radical personnel changes in the government and parliament. If, for example, the Kremlin lost control over the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, this might precipitate some schism within the elites.

So, a modern Emergency Committee could only emerge in Russia if its President Vladimir Putin himself decides to head it. For now, of course, there is no need to follow such a radical course.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.