1991: The coup that (not) changed history

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
19/08/21

A quotation of uncertain attribution, but often overused in the most disparate historical contexts, states that: “There are moments that make history; others change it forever ". From this point of view, the coup attempt in the Soviet Union between 19 and 22 August 1991 undoubtedly deserves to be counted among these.

In reality it must be said right away that the "August coup", as it is called in the official historiography of contemporary Russia, did not change history at all since, in itself, it was a "useless" event. Contrary to the assumptions made by some historians, analysts and various opinion leaders regarding imaginative scenarios with respect to which the "August coup" could have succeeded in its intent to preserve the Soviet Union, the author of this analysis can only disagree in deeper way.

The Soviet Union had been doomed since 1964, when the then leader Leonid Ilych Brezhnev ousted his predecessor Nikita Sergeevič Khruščëv, undoing many of the reforms and imposing on his vast "empire" the unsustainable "purge" of the "Brezhnevian stagnation". This period of economic, political and intellectual regression eroded to such an extent the foundations on which the state was based that, when after the death in rapid succession of most of the men of the so-called "old guard", in the first half of the 80s, power passed to the then fifty-four year old Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, the situation was already objectively compromised from almost every point of view.

A relatively young and energetic man, Gorbachev nevertheless attempted to change the course of events by embarking the Soviet state on a titanic program of reforms that were supposed to change, modernize and give continuity to the system at the same time. The six keywords that contained this program were:

Khozrasčët ("Economic accounting"): introduction of the concepts of accounting transparency and profit in the economic management of companies;

- Demokratizatsiya (“Democratization”): democratization within a system which in any case had to remain one-party;

- Novoe Mishlyeniye ("New political idea"): a new vision of political theories that guaranteed the coexistence of the different blocs on a global level and that at the same time renewed the socialist / communist ideal in the Soviet Union;

- Uskorenie ("Acceleration"): massive expansion of public spending to support the most disadvantaged sectors of the Soviet economy;

- Glasnost ("Transparency / openness"): relaxation of state censorship and promotion of freedom of information and expression;

- Perestroika ("Reconstruction"): complete reform both at a strictly economic and institutional level of the socialist / communist system of the Soviet Union to bring it into the "New Millennium".

This is not the place to examine in detail the aspects of the Gorbachevian reforms or the reasons that ultimately led to their failure, however it is necessary to remember that they immediately set in motion a series of "tectonic upheavals" that further destabilized a system which, as mentioned above, was already in the terminal phase. This could not fail to immediately alarm all those more conservative and extremist sectors that had instead as the first point of their agenda the preservation of the system as it had been up to that moment.

The so-called "reactionary forces" began to mobilize as early as the beginning of 1988, when the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict dramatically began to re-explode after being dormant for over sixty-five years. Over the next three years, no fewer than 19 ethnic-based conflicts broke out in various areas of the empire without the Soviet repressive apparatus and the increasingly disoriented Moscow leadership managing to contain nationalist impulses.

In the meantime, the Fall of the Berlin Wall (November 1989), the Reunification of the two Germanies (1990) and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, caused all the communist regimes of Eastern Europe to fall one after the other like skittles, thus depriving the Soviet Union of the belt of satellite states that it had formed at the end of the Second World War and which had up to that moment been considered indispensable in order to maintain the geostrategic security of the Soviet empire.

On the economic front, the situation in the USSR was, if possible, even more desperate. After the peak reached in 1988 (when it reached the 2 trillion and 660 billion dollars of GDP at the time, the second economy in the world both at nominal level and at purchasing power parity), the Soviet economy entered a phase of crisis prolonged due to both internal and external factors.

In 1991, when the crisis reached its peak, the shortage of food, medicines and other basic necessities was recorded widely throughout the territory of the Union, people had to wait long hours in single file to buy quantities always. more limited essential goods, fuel reserves could only satisfy 50% of domestic demand, inflation had reached the "fantastic" figure of 300% and factories were desperately looking for hard currency to be able to pay workers' wages and employees.

To try at the same time to relaunch his reform program, mobilize popular support and contain nationalist and centrifugal forces, Gorbačëv gathered his country's voters on March 17, 1991 in order to approve a "referendum on the future of 'Soviet Union' on the basis of a 'New Union Treaty' which provided for the transformation of the USSR into a 'Union of Sovereign States'. Although the referendum had resulted in some success for the Soviet leader, with 77,85% of the voters of the 9 participating republics approving it and also the elites of the 6 republics boycotting it (Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) showed a certain degree of openness to enter into political negotiations at the top, the content of the final text was such as to push the "extremists" to dissolve all reservations.

The conspiracy that followed affected a large section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Armed Forces, the KGB, and other security apparatuses both at the federal level and at that of the individual republics. The political body that constituted the "media" face of the "coup leaders" was renamed "State Committee for the State of Emergency" and the leadership was made up of 8 of the most powerful men of the communist nomenclature:

- Gennady Ivanovich Yanaev: (Russian), vice-president of the Soviet Union;

- Valentin Sergeyevich Pavlov: (Russian), Prime Minister of the Soviet Union;

- Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov: (Russian), head of the KGB;

- Dmitry Timofeyevich Yazov: (Russian), Marshal of the Army and Minister of Defense;

- Boris Karlovich Pugo: (Latvian), Minister of the Interior;

- Oleg Dmitrevich Baklanov: (Ukrainian), primovice-head of the Defense Council;

- Vasily Alexandrovich Starobubtsev: (Russian), head of the Union of Peasants;

- Aleksandr Ivanovich Tizyakov: (Tatar), president of the Association of State Enterprises, Industrial Plants, Construction, Transport and Communications.

Although there is an almost unanimous consensus among historians and political scientists that the main driving force behind the organization of the coup was the KGB led by the ineffable Kryuchkov, a quick look at the positions occupied by the main "conspirators" within the establishment Soviet, makes it clear how the "events of August" opposed the "new forces" freed by the reforming season inaugurated by Gorbachev to the ganglia of Soviet power that in 74 years had stratified a real "dome" that had proved to be irriformable overall and who rightly feared being "swept away" by the Perestroika reforms, also losing all its economic power.

Beyond the fact of reforming the Soviet Union into a "confederal" state, the reforms promoted by Gorbachev in the "New Treaty of the Union" would have stripped the Communist Party, the Armed and Security Forces and the KGB of their main sources. of funding as they would have to relinquish control of the sectors of the Soviet economy they had got their hands on over the decades. The motivations of the coup leaders were therefore only marginally "ideological" (in which case they would have moved two years earlier, when Communism was under attack in Eastern Europe) but more "worldly" axes, with all due respect to nostalgics and distracted readers . This was essentially the context in which "the events of August" matured.

On August 4, 1991, Gorbachev left Moscow for his summer dacha located in Foros, on the Black Sea coast not far from Yalta, in Crimea, planning to return to the capital on the occasion of the signing of the "New Union Treaty" which should have taken place on the 20th of the same month, and that was the moment in which the conspirators decided to strike!

On August 17, the conspirators met in an anonymous Moscow boarding house. The fact that post-event investigations proved the building belonged to the KGB speaks volumes about the state intelligence's deep involvement in planning and directing the rebellion against legal power.

The official purpose of the meeting was the study of the "New Treaty of the Union" but the real one was to take the irrevocable decisions and sign the documents that would then have to be used by the coup leaders to "give orders" to the organs of state. On August 18, while all the other conspirators remained in Moscow, the first deputy head of the Defense Council, Bakhlarov, flew to the Crimea accompanied by several "supporters" of the coup, among which General Valentin Ivanovich Varennikov deserves to be mentioned. , a leading figure in the military history of the Soviet Union and one of the architects of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.

At this point the certainties cease and what in the military field is called "the fog of war" begins. In fact, for intellectual correctness, although most of the history books have since accepted and reported the "official" truth resulting from the investigations of the Soviet and Russian courts conducted in the months and years following the events, there is also an "alternative" truth. supported by the coup leaders, especially by Kryuchkov and Varennikov, which diverges not a little from the "official" one in favor of Gorbachev.

According to the "official" truth, the Soviet leader would have been a "victim" of the coup leaders while according to Kryuchkov and, above all, Varennikov, after a first moment of surprise, Gorbachev would have even endorsed the work of the coup leaders, in some cases even advising them, in an effort to hetero direct them and benefit from them for himself. This is not insignificant because, if the version of the conspirators were true, the figure of Gorbachev would be completely compromised. Here there is a problem of objectivity of the sources.

Well before the writing of this analysis, the author had the opportunity to read up on the lives of many of the characters who participated in the 1991 coup and although the temptation to give credibility to the Chekist Kryuchkov is almost nil, the same cannot be said. by Varennikov.

Like most generals in the Red Army, Varennikov kept several highly detailed journals throughout his life on his record of service. Many of these diaries then turned out to be authentic "gold mines" for historians engaged in the study of various events in Soviet history, so much so that Varennikov was considered an authoritative source. He himself then made a great contribution to historical research in post-Soviet Russia with the aim of rediscovering various historical figures of Tsarist Russia, such as Pëtr Arkadyevich Stolypin.

Although Varennikov had numerous reasons to personally hate Gorbachev, whom he held personally responsible for both the inglorious end of the war in Afghanistan and the collapse of Soviet military institutions, the fact that he deliberately falsified history only to strike at his enemy (who , to tell the truth, in Russia it already enjoys very low popularity) is partially turning up one's nose.

Whatever the "real truth", after the KGB had completely cut off the Soviet leader's dacha from any communication with the nerve centers of power at 4:32 in the afternoon, Bakhlarov, Varennikov and other participants in the putsch presented themselves to the in the presence of Gorbačëv, informing him of his complete dismissal and the transfer of power to the "State Committee for the State of Emergency".

After a long period, the group left Gorbachev under "house arrest" in Foros in the hands of the KGB and, at 7:30 in the evening, flew back to Moscow where the other conspirators had already begun the formal discussions and the signing of executive documents. .

By 11:25 pm all discussions and formalities were over and Yanaev had been fully vested with presidential powers (although it was made clear early on that the responsibility for political actions would be collective in nature).

That the intentions of the coup leaders were not at all "kind" can be seen from the fact that, at the end of the session of the "Committee", they took care to order 250.000 pairs of handcuffs to be sent to Moscow from a factory located in the city of Pskov. Kryuchkov doubled the salaries of all KGB staff, recalling him from vacation and placing him on maximum alert and ordered to release all the prisoners held up to that moment in the Lefortovo prison in order to leave her "free to welcome the new guests who soon they would arrive ".

It was clear that what the conspirators wanted to carry out was not a simple defenestration of Gorbachev from his position of power as had been done in 1964 by Brezhnev against Khruščëv, but a vertical purge of the entire Soviet society in order to remove completely all the seeds of "modernization" that had been planted during those 6 years. It goes without saying that the last time the country witnessed an event of similar proportions was during the years of Stalinism.

The next day, while the "Committee" issued its directives aimed at the suppression of individual and collective freedoms for a period of six months, the tanks belonging to the 2a Division of Motorized Riflemen of the “Tamanskaya” Guards and to the 4a division of the Motorized Fusiliers of the "Kantemirovskaya" Guards, starting from their bases located respectively in Alabino and Naro-Fominsk, they crossed Moscow together with the VDV paratroopers headed for the White House, the headquarters of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic with the intention of taking control and arrest all Russian leadership, especially the president, the radical reformer Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.

However, the coup leaders had not assessed three aspects of the operation sufficiently well:

- first: Yeltsin's resolve to resist the coup. Thanks to his entangled within the structures of power, the charismatic Russian leader had long been aware that the hardliners within the CPSU were plotting to derail Perestroika and had organized within the institutions of the Federative Socialist Republic. Russian a sort of "parallel government" that was promptly "mobilized" to oppose the "State Committee for the State of Emergency" and began to issue directives aimed at invalidating those published by the conspirators;

- second: the ability of the media to circumvent censorship. Despite the fact that the country's only independent radio, "Ekho Moskvy", and the official media of Soviet Russia, "Radio Rossii" and "Televidenie Rossii", had been banned by the KGB from the early hours of the coup, they subsequently succeeded. to transmit again, becoming the sounding board of all the forces that opposed the coup;

- third: the revolt of the people, especially in the big cities of the country. Although in much of the Soviet Union (even in the so-called "rebel republics") people adopted an attitude of cautious passivity towards events, in the main cities that have always been the beating hearts of the empire, Moscow and Leningrad, people descended en masse. on the streets defying curfews and tanks. For example, in Leningrad, 100.000 people answered the call of the hugely popular mayor Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak and demonstrated on the streets starting at noon on August 20th. A general strike was proclaimed in Moscow and the population erected barricades all around the White House, fraternizing with the tankers and paratroopers who were supposed to have theoretically taken control of the building.

The hesitation on the part of the members of the coup "Committee" were cleverly exploited by Yeltsin who, in a now famous scene shot by the cameras of the whole world, got on a T-80 tank of the "Tamanskaya" division and read a proclamation entitled "To the Citizens of Russia ”in which he called the people to mobilize.

On the evening of August 19, the tankers of the two elite divisions finally yielded to popular pressure and, contrary to the orders received, they re-armed the guns of their armored vehicles, but not to fire at the White House, but to defend it; the loyalist forces had scored an important victory and remained "masters of the field".

The following day, the men of the "Committee", feeling the pressure increasingly strong both on the domestic and international fronts, planned a new act of force against Yeltsin and the defenders of the White House, now backed by the soldiers of the "Tamanskaya" and the “Kantemirovskaya”.

The new attack was supposed to be carried out this time by soldiers of the Army of the Interior of the MVD, the Ministry of the Interior of the Soviet Union, in particular by the men of the Independent Division of Motorized Riflemen for Special Purposes of the Army of the Soviet Union. Interior of the MVD of the Soviet Union “Felix Dzerzhinsky”.

This choice was by no means accidental because, traditionally, the soldiers of the Army of the Interior had been used since the birth of the USSR to suppress popular uprisings, revolts in the gulags, nationalist guerrillas and even the rare mutinies of the Forces. Regular armies. Precisely for this reason, since its inception, the leaders of Soviet power had preferred that the ranks of the Army of the Interior be fleshed out above all by conscripts from Central Asia, the Caucasus, Tatars of various origins and only secondarily Russians and Ukrainians. Easterners, while the Baltics and Soviet Jews were almost strictly excluded from service.

For the occasion, the MVD soldiers would be backed up by the VDV paratroopers and by the men of the two KGB special forces, the infamous “Alfa” and “Vympel” groups. However, after conducting an undercover reconnaissance in the area defended by the "loyalists", both the commanders of the VDV, Vladislav Alekseyevich Achalov and Aleksandr Ivanovich Lebed, and the commander of the two special forces of the KGB, Viktor Fëdorovič Karpukhin, declared that, although the blitz were technically possible, it would surely have resulted in a bloodbath. The plan was thus abandoned and, shortly after, the astute general Lebed, having understood which side the wind was blowing, decided to go over to the side of the "loyalists" taking his men with him.

Unfortunately, not everything went as planned because, around 1:00 am on August 21, a column of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (BMPs) was spotted emerging from a tunnel located in the immediate vicinity of the White House. . To date it is not clear who that column of tanks involved in the force action belonged to and several versions have been proposed. For some, they were soldiers belonging to a unit of the "Tamanskaya" who remained loyal to the "coup leaders", for others they were instead men of the Army of the Interior who had been mistaken for regular soldiers during the night, while others still speak of men of the KGB special and paramilitary units disguised on purpose in uniforms of the Soviet regular army to confuse the loyalists.

Dark is also the name of the one (or those) who gave the order to advance, although many clues seem to point the finger at Kryuchkov. In any case, once the tanks were spotted, the protesters defending the White House rushed to barricade the entrance using trolleybuses and garbage trucks and throwing Molotov cocktails at the tanks.

In the ensuing clashes, a BMP was set on fire and three White House defenders were killed by bullets fired by unidentified "gunmen". The three men who died that day (officially the only deaths caused by the coup, but some sources speak of 10 total deaths) were:

- Vladimir Aleksandrovich Usov: 37-year-old economist and son of an admiral of the Soviet fleet belonging to the Russian community of Latvia;

- Ilya Maratovich Krichevskiy: 28-year-old architect of Jewish ethnicity belonging to a family of intellectuals;

- Dmitry Alekseyevich Komar: just 22 years old, born into a military family in the Moscow area, highly decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he originally kept away from demonstrations and only changed his mind at a later time after listening to a radio appeal by Yeltsin's right-hand man, the vice-president of the Russian Federal Socialist Republic, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Rutskoy (ex-pilot of the V-VS, the Soviet Air Forces, Hero of the Soviet Union and also a veteran of the War in Afghanistan ) who called together all the "Afghantsy" (as the veterans of Afghanistan are called in post-Soviet societies) to "defend freedom and democracy and die serving Rodina (the Motherland) one last time, all together" .

The deaths of Usov, Krichevskiy and Komar were like an electric shock for the whole country. Horrified by the turn that events had taken, the men of the "Committee", who after all were nothing more than gray bureaucrats without quality who had organized everything responding more to a desperate instinct of self-preservation than to a true revolutionary-old fervor Communist, they quickly began to disengage. This decision was further accelerated by the simultaneous public stance by Yuriy Pavlovich Maksimov, Yevgeniy Ivanovich Shaposhnikov and Vladimir Nikolayevich Chernavin, respectively commander-in-chief of the Strategic Missile Forces, commander-in-chief of the Air Forces (V-VS) and commander-in-chief of the Navy, who communicated to the Minister of Defense, the coup leader Yazov, that they would not carry out orders relating to the launch of nuclear warheads in the event of an international escalation of the crisis.

Chernavin was even more outspoken than his parigrade of other branches of service in his threats when, after reaching Murmansk and joining the forces of the Northern Fleet, he ordered the entire Soviet Navy to take to the sea and apparently threatened the coup leaders to surrender. the entire Soviet Navy to the United States of America. As "the Admiral of Steel" later wrote colorfully in his memoirs: "I had half a million men, 1.100 naval units and a third of our country's nuclear warheads to shield me in case those (the coup leaders) had lost control of their nerves ".

After another day of feverish negotiations and obscure political maneuvers at the top of the state and always under constant international pressure, Gorbachev was finally released and returned to Moscow while the "State Committee for the State of Emergency" voted for his own dissolution.

In the following 48 hours all the members of the "Committee" were arrested with the exception of the Minister of the Interior, Pugo, who, according to the official reconstruction, committed suicide together with his wife (but to this day persistent reconstructions remain according to which he is on the other hand, it was removed at the explicit order of Gorbachev to eliminate an inconvenient witness to some acts of repression carried out in the period between 1988 and 1991 in Lithuania, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh which they would see the Soviet leader himself was also heavily involved).

In addition to the members of the "Committee", dozens of supporters operating in all the institutions were also arrested and, ironically, the KGB prison in Lefortovo, which the coup leaders wanted to fill with their political rivals, ended up becoming their "Pleasant abode" for the following years until an amnesty wanted in 1994 by Yeltsin himself did not set them all free again, partially covering up the Truth, which perhaps we will never know completely.

Once constitutional authority was restored, three things became clear:

- first, the various Soviet republics had seized the opportunity of the power vacuum to declare their independence by virtually ceasing to exist the unitary state;

- second, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had been so discredited by the events as to be no longer salvable, as instead Gorbachev tried to do (by way of example, as many as 70% (!) of the Party committees at all levels in the single Russian Federative Socialist Republic had supported the coup! Not to mention the other Soviet republics where, in some cases, support for the coup was almost unanimous!);

- third, the man who more than any other had contributed to the defeat of the coup, the president of Soviet Russia, Yeltsin, was now the real "strong man" of the situation and he was dictating the timing and modalities of the liquidation of the Soviet empire, an event which ultimately took place on Christmas day of the same year.

Thus a chapter of history was closed and a new one opened, which we are still living today.

Photo: TASS