The failed coup that sealed the fate of the Soviet Union

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The failed Communist coup of August 1991, in which Gennady Yanayev, who died Friday aged 73, was a key player, helped provoke the collapse of the Soviet Union that its organisers hoped to avoid.

It began on August 19, when then Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday in Crimea, with official news agency TASS announcing that Gorbachev's "inability for health reasons" prevented him from performing his duties as president.

His vice-president, Yanayev, quickly took over as president.

Supported by KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and defence minister Dmitry Yazov, the coup plotters -- or "putchists" as they came to be known -- declared a six-month state of emergency, re-imposed state censorship and deployed tanks in Moscow.

Barricaded in the Russian parliament, Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Soviet republic, emerged from the building, climbed onto a tank and called on supporters to mount a campaign of civil disobedience.

On August 20, tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow and Saint Petersburg while miners in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus went on strike.

On August 21, tensions escalated after three young civilian men were killed by government forces as army vehicles tried to break through the barricades around the Russian parliament, also known in Russia as the White House.

That night Gorbachev -- whom the putchists had placed under house arrest in Crimea -- returned to Moscow and announced that he was back in control of the government.

The coup plotters were arrested on August 22 and 100,000 Muscovites took to the streets to celebrate, tearing down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, from outside KGB headquarters on Lubyanka Square.

The failed coup sealed the fate of the Soviet Union, already weakened by independence movements in its republics, and the empire collapsed in December 1991.

Nineteen years later, the circumstances surrounding the coup remain controversial, with some alleging that Gorbachev himself had been involved in plans to declare a state of emergency, a claim he has always denied.

© 2010 AFP

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