Aug. 19, 2022

A Failed Coup in Moscow

A Failed Coup in Moscow

August 19, 1991. A group of Communist Party hardliners attempt to save the collapsing Soviet Union by staging a coup against party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.


Cold Open

It's the morning of August 19th, 1991, inside an apartment building in Moscow.

Andrei Milov, a university student, is jolted awake by the sound of his alarm clock.

Andrei heaves himself out of bed... and stumbles, bleary-eyed, across his apartment toward the kitchen.

Andrei pours himself a mug of instant coffee and takes a restorative gulp.

Through his open window, Andrei can hear the sounds of a city awakening and the distant rumble of a garbage truck.

But he frowns. Today's Monday. The trash isn't usually picked up until Wednesday. Andrei shrugs. Maybe they changed it, he thinks as he flops onto the sofa. He reaches for the remote... and turns on the television.

Andrei is expecting the morning news. So he’s surprised to see that the transmission has been interrupted by Soviet state TV, which is currently broadcasting a performance of "Swan Lake", the ballet by Tchaikovsky.

Andrei sits up, suddenly wide awake. The first time "Swan Lake" replaced ordinary programming was in 1982 when former Soviet leader Brezhnev died after nearly two decades in power. "Swan Lake" has been aired twice since then, on both occasions marking the death of a Soviet premier. For Russians like Andrei, seeing "Swan Lake" on television can only mean one thing: political upheaval. 

Andrei notices that the roar of the garbage trucks outside is getting louder, rising to an almost deafening pitch…

With a creeping sense of dread, Andrei stands and walks slowly to the window. He looks down on the street and realizes it isn't garbage trucks, it's tanks - an entire convoy, rolling steadily through Moscow. On the sides of the tanks, Andrei can see bright red star of the Soviet insignia. Moscow is not under attack by a foreign enemy but the city is being invaded by its own troops.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he believed that liberalization and modernization were essential to the USSR’s economic and political survival. Gorbachev relaxed press censorship, abolished restrictions on foreign trade, and permitted a greater degree of political dissent, allowing citizens to speak out against the Communist regime.

But Gorbachev’s attempt to strengthen the USSR had the opposite effect. Encouraged by their newfound political freedoms, many European nations that had been part of the Soviet Union for decades demanded their independence. From 1989 onwards, Poland, East Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, and other countries all held democratic elections and broke away from the Communist bloc.

Faced with the complete disintegration of the USSR, a group of hard-line Communist Party members took steps to save it. In the summer of 1991, these hard-liners staged a violent coup, ousting Gorbachev from power, and driving tanks into Moscow, in a last-ditch attempt to save the Soviet Union from collapse on August 19th, 1991.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 19th, 1991: A Failed Coup in Moscow.

Act One: Glasnost and Perestroika

It's March 13th, 1985, in Moscow; six years before the coup against Gorbachev.

Beneath gray skies, a funeral procession crosses Red Square, one of the oldest and largest plazas in the Russian capital. Lying inside an open casket, hoisted onto the shoulders of several burly Communist Party officials, is the late Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko. The Moscow State Symphony Orchestra plays a solemn dirge as the coffin is lowered into the snow-and-slush-covered ground.

From a nearby balcony, Chernenko’s successor, Mikhail Gorbachev, watches stone-faced as the coffin disappears into the crypt. In his black overcoat and fur hat, Gorbachev looks practically identical to the Soviet dignitaries standing alongside him. But Gorbachev is different from his colleagues.

At 54 years old, Chernenko's successor is the youngest leader the Soviet Union has ever known. He belongs to a new, forward-thinking generation of Communists. And like many younger people in the country, Gorbachev has lost faith in the Soviet system.

By 1985, the Soviet Union, or USSR, is in dire economic straits. The state-controlled means of production have failed to keep up with demand, resulting in bare grocery stores and long breadlines. In addition, a costly war in Afghanistan has left the government coffers empty. Unable to keep up with the rapidly growing free-market economies of the West, the USSR has become stagnant.

Gorbachev intends to change that. He wants to bring the USSR into step with the modern world by forming trade partnerships with the West. But to do so, he will need to end a conflict that has been simmering for many years. The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union has revolved around a nuclear arms race, with both sides determined to accumulate more atomic weapons than their rival. For decades, the world has lived on the brink of nuclear apocalypse. But Gorbachev believes the Soviet Union will never achieve progress if it’s forever looking over its shoulder.

So when he stands to deliver Chernenko's eulogy, Gorbachev praises his fallen comrade, but he also takes the opportunity to outline his vision for the future. Gorbachev leans into the microphone and says: "we will proceed from the conviction that the right to live in conditions of peace and freedomis the primary human right."

Following the funeral, Gorbachev stays true to his word. He begins implementing reforms aimed at modernizing and liberalizing the Soviet Union. To become a thriving, modern country, Gorbachev believes the USSR must become more tolerant and more open. For many decades, its citizens have lived under press censorship, never speaking out against the regime for fear of being arrested by the KGB - the Soviet secret police.

But after coming to power, Gorbachev relaxes press censorship. He promotes free speech and releases political dissidents from prison. He eases restrictions on foreign travel and allows Western culture slowly into the USSR - from American movies to British punk rock music. These liberalizing reforms are grouped under the slogan "glasnost"; the Russian word for "openness”.

While reforming society, Gorbachev also sets about restructuring the Soviet state. He decentralizes the economy, allowing the market forces of supply and demand to set prices and control production. These economic reforms are part of Gorbachev's campaign of "perestroika", meaning "restructuring."

Gorbachev also makes strides toward ending the Cold War. He attends several summits with US President Ronald Reagan, negotiating terms of nuclear disarmament. These meetings culminate in the Washington Summit of 1987, where Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The treaty bans all short-to-intermediate-range missile launchers, thus bringing an end to almost half a century of Cold War paranoia.

But while Gorbachev's reforms are popular in the West, there are some members of his own Party who believe Gorbachev has gone too far. Among them is Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB. Kryuchkov is concerned that Gorbachev’s reforms undermine the strong Communist state by allowing people too much freedom. And soon, Kryuchkov’s worst fears are realized.

In 1989, encouraged by Gorbachev's tolerance of political opposition, mass demonstrations against Communist rule sweep through the nations that compose the USSR. But instead of using force to repress the revolutions, Gorbachev allows the will of the people to prevail.

The first country to break away from the Eastern Bloc is Poland, holding contested elections in June of 1989. Hungary, Estonia, and Lithuania soon follow, roundly rejecting the Communists and electing democratic factions in their stead. Then in November, the Berlin Wall comes down, signifying the collapse of the "Iron Curtain" between East and West.

Finally, in 1991, elections are held in the largest remaining Soviet republic: Russia. The election is for the newly-created role of Russian President. And to dismay of Kryuchkov, a non-Communist wins by a landslide: a pro-democracy politician named Boris Yeltsin. Gorbachev remains in charge as head of the Communist Party. But without the popular mandate, Gorbachev’s authority is beginning to look increasingly illegitimate.

So on August 17th, 1991, two months after Yeltsin’s election as Russian President, Kryuchkov summons five senior Communist Party members for a secret meeting in a bathhouse in Moscow. Wrapped in towels in the steam room, these paunchy, half-naked officials hatch a plan to salvage what’s left of the Soviet Union. Among those in attendance are the Soviet vice-president, Gennady Yennayev, along with the defense minister and the minister of the interior.

Kryuchkev warns his comrades about the spreading danger of democracy, and they are running out of time to act. Gorbachev is too soft to repress the independence movements. Kryuchkov believes violence is the only way. If they want to save the Soviet Union, they will have to get rid of Gorbachev… and they will have to do it swiftly.

Act Two: The Gang of Eight

It’s Sunday, August 18th, 1991 in Crimea; the day before the coup.

Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev is on vacation with his family on the coast of the Black Sea in his dacha or vacation home. Gorbachev is in desperate need of some rest and relaxation. Over the last few years, his reforms have drastically backfired, leaving the Soviet Union in a state of political chaos. By now, only nine of the original fifteen Soviet republics remain. So to shore up the fragments of the USSR, Gorbachev has proposed a new treaty, granting some degree of autonomy to the remaining republics while retaining central authority in Moscow.

Gorbachev intends to sign the treaty into law in two days' time. He knows there are many in the Communist Party who oppose it, fearing this treaty will relinquish too much power to the republics. But Gorbachev is convinced it's the only peaceful solution to saving what's left of the Soviet Union.

But as he ponders the treaty and its consequences, Gorbachev's thoughts are interrupted by the doorbell. 

When he answers it, he is surprised to find four government ministers standing on his doorstep. They push past a speechless Gorbachev and step inside. They declare that Gorbachev's failure to prevent the disintegration of the Soviet Union has undermined their faith in his leadership. They present him with an ultimatum: either declare a state of emergency and impose martial law... or resign. 

Gorbachev trembles with fury. When he refuses to accept the ultimatum, the ministers enact the second stage of their plan. They place Gorbachev under house arrest. They cut his phone lines. They station a detail of KGB guards outside the gates. And for the moment, Gorbachev is trapped while the future of the Soviet Union is in the hands of the conspirators.

Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Vladimir Kryuchkov - head of the KGB and chief architect of the coup - anxiously awaits news. Bespectacled and soft-spoken, Kryuchkov seems an unlikely leader of a violent military takeover. But Kryuchkov is a ruthless political tactician, and he is prepared to do anything to save his beloved USSR from the threat of democracy.

When Kryuchkov and the other plotters hear about Gorbachev's refusal to cooperate, they act swiftly. Vice-president Gennady Yennayev is appointed acting president of the Soviet Union. Then they mobilize KGB arrest squads across the city. As soon as day breaks, these squadrons begin rounding up supporters of Boris Yeltsin and other opponents of the Communist Party. Finally, the leaders of the coup declare themselves “the State Committee of the State of Emergency”. They will soon become known by a different name: the Gang of Eight.


The following morning, August 19th, 1991, citizens of Moscow wake to blue skies and bright sunshine. But when they turn on their televisions and radios, they discover that the Soviet state media has taken over the airwaves. Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" is playing on a loop. And as the opening orchestral strains are broadcast to the nation, the first tanks enter Moscow.

Around 4,000 troops, 350 tanks, and 700 armored vehicles roll into the city. This is a show of force by the Gang of Eight, a means of intimidating any would-be opponents of the coup. At first, the public doesn’t know what’s happening. Many assume they’re under attack by a foreign enemy. Only gradually does the news filter through that Gorbachev has been overthrown, and that a committee of Soviet hard-liners has taken control of the government and the military.

KGB officers spread out across the city, detaining several members of the new democratic Russian parliament. Meanwhile, elite KGB forces head to the residence of Boris Yeltsin on the outskirts of Moscow. They surround the property, their automatic weapons trained on the windows and doors.

Inside the house, Yeltsin considers his options. The sixty-year-old Russian President is tough and strong-willed. He believes the Soviet Union has reached its end. The people have spoken, and they have rejected Communism in favor of democracy. Having been elected President, Yeltsin believes it’s his job to stand up for the Russian people and resist the coup. He also believes the KGB commander outside will not murder him in cold blood out in the open for all to see. So Yeltsin takes a risk. He and his entourage step out of the house, confronting the KGB operatives head-on. And when confronted, the KGB commander buckles and orders his men to stand down.

Yeltsin proceeds across the city to the Russian parliament building. From there, Yeltsin issues a proclamation to the Russian people, denouncing the coup and urging the military not to participate. Yeltsin’s words galvanize the citizens of Moscow. Thousands of them pour into the streets. They stand in the way of the tanks and encourage the soldiers to defect. Many civilians head to the Russian parliament, where they erect defensive barricades to protect Yeltsin.

The coup is not going the way the conspirators hoped. By 5 PM, the Gang of Eight gives a press conference on Soviet state television. The purpose of the conference is to show strength; to calm the Russian people, and to reassure them that the country is safe in their hands. But Acting president Gennady Yennayev’s speech has the opposite effect. As he addresses the cameras, he is visibly nervous. His voice cracks and his hands shake. To many watching at home, it seems the conspirators are losing confidence in their coup.

Later that evening, Yeltsin climbs onto a tank outside the Russian parliament building and delivers a rousing speech, encouraging the soldiers to put down their weapons and switch sides.

Kryuchkov and his fellow conspirators know they’re fighting a losing battle. But they refuse to give up. Soon, they will order their remaining loyal troops to besiege the Russian parliament and make one final, bloody stand.

Act Three: The End of History

It’s the early hours of August 21st, 1991, in Moscow; two days after the coup began.

A young Soviet infantry private advances toward the Russian parliament building. A convoy of tanks trundles alongside him. Their objective is simple: capture the building and place Boris Yeltsin under arrest. But as the young private and his battalion approach the outer gates, he realizes that achieving that objective won’t be straightforward at all.

Thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators stand between the advancing troops and the parliament building. The demonstrators have erected a makeshift barricade around the building. And the air smells like warm asphalt and spilled diesel. The young private feels his heart-rate quicken as the protestors rush forward into the street.

Some civilians prostrate themselves in front of an approaching tank. When the vehicle grinds to a halt, the civilians swarm. The young private watches as the protestors force open the gun hatch and pull the tank's driver out. In the melee, a protestor falls backward onto the path of another fast-moving tank. The private can hear the man’s dying screams, and the cries of outrage from the crowd, which surges forward with renewed hostility…

The private’s hands tremble as he flips the safety of his rifle and lifts the barrel toward the crowd. But he can’t bring himself to shoot.

Just then, the private hears the sharp crackof gunfire, and another civilian falls to the ground, blood spilling on the concrete. The crowd roars with anger again and presses further in on the soldiers throwing rocks and bricks. Many of the soldiers lower their weapons, not wanting civilian blood on their hands. And frightened, the private turns to his commanding officer, who signals that it’s time to leave. An order has come through from the Minister of Defense calling off the military incursion.

By sun-up, the coup is over. Gorbachev has re-established lines of communication with Moscow and regained control of the military. He declares the coup illegal and orders the arrest of Kryuchkov, Yennayev, and the rest of the Gang of Eight.

Rather than saving the Soviet Union, the actions of the Gang of Eight will hasten its decline. In the days that follow the failed August Coup, the legislative body of the USSR will suspend the activities of the Communist Party. With the governing authority of the Soviet Union now in tatters, the remaining Soviet Republics will declare their independence, leaving Russia as the only country remaining in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

On December 25th, Gorbachev resigns as President of the now-hollow USSR, and Boris Yeltsin emerges as the sole leader of Russia. After almost 70 years, the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union is removed from the Kremlin, and replaced by the red, white, and blue flag of the newly-established Russian Federation, an unintended consequence of the August Coup, which began on this day, August 19th, 1991.


Next onHistory Daily.August 22, 1964, Activist Fannie Lou Hamer delivers one of the most important speeches in civil rights history at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. 

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser