August Putsch of 1991

   Opponents of Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began to plot against him in late 1990, believing that his reforms threatened the party and the Soviet state. Acoterie of conservative bureaucrats and senior police officials sought to replace him quietly and quickly, the way that party conservatives had replaced Nikita Khrushchev in 1964. They failed to consider, however, that the tactics of 1964 could not work in 1991 after six years of Gorbachev’s reforms had raised the political consciousness of the Russian people.
   KGB Chair Vladimir Kryuchkov and his senior deputies played a critical role in planning the putsch, as did MVDchief Boris Pugo. Gorbachev and his wife’s office and apartments were bugged; thousands of pairs of handcuffs were ordered, and arrest warrants were drafted for thousands of reformers and “troublemakers” across the country. The plan was to be executed on 18 August, while Gorbachev and his entourage were on vacation at their summer retreat at Foros in the Crimea. Early that morning, KGB Border Guard units surrounded his dacha, and his chief body guard took control of the Soviet “suitcase,” a computer notebook that contained the codes required to launch a nuclear strike.
   The putsch was generally successful across the country but failed in Moscow, where Russian President Boris Yeltsin made his way to the Russian White House, the parliament building, and rallied support. Efforts by the coup plotters to convince KGB Spetznaz units to storm the White House, neutralize Yeltsin, and disperse the crowd failed. An abortive effort to storm the building by a small Red Army unit killed three young Yeltsin supporters near the White House, but the plotters lacked the ruthlessness, intelligence, and craft to seize power. The putsch ended with more of a whimper than a bang on 21 August when airborne troops in Moscow withdrew to their bases. All the plotters could do was to return Gorbachev to Moscow and beg forgiveness. Gorbachev did return to Moscow that day, but without the authority to govern his country. The putsch, however, demonstrated the bankruptcy and incompetence of the Communist Party and the KGB. Within three months, power devolved from the Soviet Union to independent republics, and on 25 December 1991 the Soviet flag was replaced by Russian national colors over the Kremlin. The plotters spent more than a year in jail but never stood trial; they were released in 1993.

Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. . 2014.

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