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The August Coup

Rebirth of Civil Society

The 1990 local elections demonstrated how politics could begin to escape the control of the bureaucracy. In August 1991 the central party-state bureaucracy attempted to reassert its political control. The conservatives in the Soviet leadership decided to stage a coup and approached Gorbachev to lead it. Gorbachev refused and was put under house arrest at his residence in the Crimea. The plotters, who included the Soviet prime minister and the heads of the KGB, Interior Ministry, and Ministry of Defense—eight men in all—formed the State Emergency Committee. On 19 August the plotters took all power in their hands, reintroduced censorship, and banned all newspapers, with the exception of the Communist organs. 


The conservative putsch was the final attempt to reinstate centralist controls. Its leaders, however, had underestimated the strength of the new political forces that emerged under perestroika and that rallied behind the popularly elected president of Russia, the biggest of the Soviet Union republics.

Boris Yeltsin’s determination to resist the unlawful coup made him the symbol of popular resistance. The Muscovites built barricades in the center of Moscow, engaging in a tense three-day standoff with troops sent by the coup leaders to suppress resistance. Yeltsin and his supporters unnerved the plotters, transforming the abortive coup into a victorious popular revolution that led to the final collapse of the Soviet Communist Party.

Taking advantage of the ensuing chaos, the republics, one after another, hastened to proclaim their complete sovereignty and cessation from the union. On 1 December 1991 a referendum was held in the Ukraine at which the majority of the Ukrainians, the second biggest population after Russians in the Soviet Union, voted in favor of their country’s independence. This sealed the fate of the Soviet Union.

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The USSR's Collapse


Soviet Russia

Understanding the Soviet Period
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The Economic Structure
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The USSR in World War II
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The USSR's Collapse

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