A group of top Soviet officials made an attempt to seize power on 19 August 1991 to stop the collapse of the great power, which was already gaining momentum.
Coupists even isolated Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for a few days, declared a state of emergency and set up the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP), a new governing body. The author of this article interviewed not only modern political analysts during his journalistic career but also witnesses and participants in those events (the latter have passed away.) Today, we publish their opinions.
“Was it possible to preserve the USSR, and could it all have been different?” Sergei Mikheev, political scientist and TV and radio presenter, said in a special interview with wek.ru. “Yes, it could, if the authorities had acted differently then. Maybe, they could not have acted otherwise or maybe they were just scared. Generally speaking, it makes no sense to speculate about it now. What if the revolution of 1917 had never happened, if the Byzantine Empire had not collapsed; if ifs and ands…
The Soviet Union could have been reformed and continued to exist: everybody knows that Gorbachev was working on a union treaty. At the very least, we would not have suffered such an overwhelming foreign policy defeat then, as, for example, in Eastern Europe. We would have kept the country and domestic market in one piece and avoided the devastating local wars. A large part of the economy would have survived. There is practically nothing left of it now.
It is also useless to speculate that if Putin had been in Gorbachyov’s place, we would have kept the USSR intact. What if we had had Alexander II or Alexander the Great for Gorbachev? At least we can see that Putin is trying to stop all these separatist tendencies towards disintegration, and has so far been succeeding.”
“Unfortunately there was no chance to preserve the Soviet Union,” Political Information Centre CEO Alexei Mukhin told wek.ru. “The country was betrayed by all the party and Soviet elites from top to bottom which ignored the results of the referendum on the preservation of the USSR. There was a huge dissonance between what was going on in the corridors of power and what was happening in the streets, and the Soviet party leaders could do nothing about it. So both the collapse of the Soviet Union and a change in the legal form of its existence were inevitable. From my point of view, the ugliest and most perverse form of these changes was chosen!
If there had been a person in power, let us say, equally weighted to Putin instead of Gorbachev... I am sorry, I do not use the word “if” in terms of the historical process, and this is a very important point for me as a historian. Everything happened the way it was supposed to happen. As the saying goes, everyone gets his fun here.”
Viktor Anpilov, leader of the Trudovaya Rossiya movement: “I prefer to pay attention to other dates. Just a few days after the coup, we went out to the Lenin Museum demanding that both the museum itself and, of course, the Lenin's Mausoleum be protected from attacks! In other words, a new people's movement was being born, not affiliated with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), not with Yeltsin, and not with other scoundrels.
Of course, I remember that there was a force during the coup which represented the people and did at least something against the coup and coupists. The coupists are a very broad notion. It includes not only the GKChP but Yeltsin's inner circle as well. At that moment, Spartacus, not Swan Lake should have been shown on television to call us to fight! I always watch the Spartacus ballet with great pleasure.
“The GKChP was unprepared only because no one was going to stage some kind of 'coup',” said Dmitry Yazov, a member of the GKChP, the last Defense Minister of the USSR, and Marshal of the Soviet Union. “They made fools of us to find a pretext to justify the collapse of the USSR. The KGB was no good. Well, why was Pavel Grachev tasked with keeping the detainees Gdlyan, Pristavkin and some others in the communication regiment of the Airborne Troops based in Medvezhye Ozera on August 19-21, 1991? After all, both the KGB and the Interior Ministry have their own prisons! If they arrested the elite, that is, those who had been ruining the state, everything would have been fine.
“Whom do I mean? There was the so-called Interregional Deputies' Democratic Group in the Supreme Soviet, headed by Afanasyev and Gavriil Popov. They played into U.S. hands all along, and Gorbachev had betrayed the USSR even before he became General Secretary. He had visited Margaret Thatcher and Alexander Yakovlev, the then Soviet ambassador to Canada who was an ardent anti-Soviet propagandist. After that Gorbachev “worked over” people individually and never in front of everyone. USSR Minister of Agriculture Valentin Mesyats told me that Gorbachev had repeatedly called him to his office to praise Canada’s lifestyle and criticize the socialist system…”
“The democrats demonized us with the allegations that the GKChP had decided to storm the White House,” said Gennady Yanayev, a GKChP member and Vice-president of the USSR (December 1990 - August 1991).
“The truth is the GKChP never made any decision to storm the White House! Yes, there were certain plans, because the situation had to be considered on a wider and deeper scale, but they were never implemented, because a political decision was required. We had the technical solutions for taking the White House, and there would not have been so much bloodshed as in October 1993. However, we had no desire or ambition to implement such a scenario. <...>
“There was also a version that the security forces allegedly refused to carry out the order. This is just nonsense. No security agency could defy orders at that time. There is this “hero”, a former head of the Alpha group [Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center], on all our TV channels. Unfortunately I forgot his name... He says that “our officers would never have stormed the White House.”
We bumped into each other one day on a TV program and I said to him: “You could not have disobeyed! If you had, you would have been put out on the street in a heartbeat. If there had been an order, all the officers and generals would have obeyed it. But the thing is that there was no order. If I was a political cynic and hung on to power like the now-deceased, we would have moved to attack. May he rest in peace! (Gennady Yanayev was talking about Boris Yeltsin – ed. note) By the way, history and life would have vindicated us because we just have come to what we were warned about.
As for the fact that my hands were shaking at the press conference on 19 August 1991, I can say that yes, my hands did shake and the explanation could be as simple as that the old man had got drunk the day before. The democratic cynics exploited this topic. In fact, the decision to introduce the State Committee on the State of Emergency was made in circumvention of me. I learned about it at the very last moment at 9 p.m., when a group of comrades had already visited Gorbachev in Foros. I was literally talked around until 12 p.m. to sign the relevant documents, and only after midnight I did it. A sleepless night, a non-standard decision (it's not a piece of cake!), and a press conference at which I had to announce that Gorbachev was ill. I rescheduled it to 5 p.m. because I did not have any document about his illness. So I had a normal human reaction. What am I, a robot or something?!
I was sitting in front of millions of Soviet people, in front of the whole world, and could not say anything in answer to the question what the President was ill with. Of course, I was worried. If I was not worried and was sitting like a statue it would be clear that the game was over. I am a living person and every day I let all these events pass through my heart.”
P.S. The conversation with Viktor Anpilov, Dmitry Yazov and Gennady Yanayev, who have already passed away, took place in the early 2000s, but their memories are an important evidence of what was going on in August 1991.