By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was creaking. The Communist Party’s absolute control from Moscow had failed to deliver for assorted nations that had been forcibly combined to create the Russianized superstate.
The economy was stagnant, poverty was endemic and the tightly controlled peoples of this disparate empire were getting restive.
Cometh the moment, cometh the man. In 1985, a visionary new leader rose to power. Mikhail Gorbachev set about implementing a two-track reform plan. On one hand, glasnost (freedom of speech) would provide a safety valve for the frustrated people. On the other, perestroika (rebuilding) would address economic woes. But the long-suppressed ability to speak freely led to a wave of unrest, both in Russia itself and in satellite countries, especially as perestroika failed to deliver improved living standards.
By 1991, hardliners who once enjoyed absolute power became restive as they saw communist control start to slip. In a desperate move to regain control, they kidnapped Mikhail Gorbachev and mounted a coup. On August 19 they announced that Gorbachev was ‘indisposed’ and unable to govern. But this dramatic move proved to be a serious miscalculation with disastrous consequences for their cause.
The plotters were horrified by the subsequent uproar, with protests erupting in major cities throughout the Soviet Union. In desperation, they turned to the traditional totalitarian solution and sent in the army to restore order. When soldiers refused to fire on their fellow countrymen – as dramatically symbolized by pictures of future leader Boris Yeltsin addressing a Moscow crowd from the top of a tank – the coup was over. This failure proved terminal for the nationalists. Instead of restoring the Soviet Union to its former centralized strength, the fiasco ensured that the entire Union finally fell apart, along with Russian control over Eastern Bloc states like East Germany.
When: August 19 to August 21 1991
Where: Moscow, Russia, Soviet Union
Toll: The thwarted aspirations of the old guard to restore the Communist Party’s totalitarian control of the Soviet Union.
You should know: There is no evidence that Mikhail Gorbachev originally envisaged an end to the Soviet Union, but the failed coup was the last nail in the Union’s coffin and it almost immediately disintegrated into 15 separate countries… while Gorbachev himself had already won a Nobel Peace Prize for creating the conditions that allowed it to happen.