'His hands were shaking': Moscow's 1991 coup

16th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Soviet citizens woke up on the morning of August 19, 1991 to find "Swan Lake" playing on their televisions, their leader apparently deposed and tanks in the streets.

But the memorable image of the trembling hands of the chief of the coup against reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev already hinted that their action might not last long.

Soviet vice president Gennady Yanayev's hands shook visibly as he sought to explain to a news conference that Gorbachev was gravely ill and therefore he was taking over the country.

Three days later after resistance from the people and the army, Gorbachev returned to Moscow from Crimea where he had been on holiday and the coup collapsed. But the Soviet Union had by now been fatally weakened.

The first official news of the coup broke at 6:20 am when the state news agency TASS reported that Gorbachev had stepped aside "for health reasons".

A committee for the state of emergency that was imposed for six months said Gorbachev's attempts at reform had fallen into an impasse. Tanks arrived in the centre of Moscow which retained a surreal calm.

But groups of people were already gathering in the square in front of the Kremlin as the military moved in and civilians boldly climbed onto tanks and famously put flowers in their gun turrets.

Meanwhile, at the White House on the other side of Moscow the charismatic president of the USSR's Russian component, Boris Yeltsin, climbed onto a tank, denounced the action as a coup d'etat and urged civil disobedience.

As night fell, thousands of people remained outside the White House and strangely images of Yelstin on a tank were shown that evening on state television, indicating the coup leaders were not in complete control of media.

The next morning, Elena Bonner, the widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, addressed a crowd that had now swollen to 50,000 people.

As more cracks appeared in the coup, three military units took Yeltsin's side and unfurled a Russian tricolour which had become the symbol of popular resistance to the coup.

Although rumours that the army would storm the protestors were not fulfilled, three men were killed in a clash with a tank column. They were the only people to lose their lives in the coup.

By August 22 it emerged that the coup leaders had tried to meet Gorbachev in Crimea but he refused to receive them and on the evening of that day he returned to Moscow.

The evening news showed him declaring that he was "in total control of the situation" and ordering soldiers to return to their barracks.

Yet Gorbachev's own power had been fatally weakened and Yeltsin had emerged as the new hero of Russians. Two days later, he signed a decree dissolving the Communist Party.

Four months later, the entire Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev resigned and the Russian tricolour replaced the Soviet red flag on the towers of the Kremlin.

© 2011 AFP

0 Comments To This Article