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Cold War Files: All Units: Events: August Coup against Gorbachev fails

August 19, 1991
August Coup against Gorbachev fails

On August 19, 1991, one day before Gorbachev and a group of republic leaders were due to sign the Union Treaty, a group calling itself the State Emergency Committee attempted to seize power in Moscow. The group announced that Gorbachev was ill and had been relieved of his state post as president. The committee named Soviet Union vice president Gennady Yanayev acting president. The committee's eight members included KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Defense Minister Dmitriy Yazov, and Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, all of whom had risen to their posts under Gorbachev.

Large public demonstrations against the coup leaders took place in Moscow and Leningrad, and divided loyalties in the defense and security establishments prevented the armed forces from crushing the resistance that Russian President Boris Yeltsin led from Russia's parliament building. At one point during the demonstrations, Yeltsin stood on top of a tank to condemn the 'junta'. This image, broadcast throughout the world on television news, became one of the most enduring images of the coup, and strengthened Yeltsin's position immensely. On August 21, the great majority of troops sent to Moscow openly sided with the demonstrators or called off the siege. The coup collapsed, and Gorbachev - who had been held under house arrest at his dacha in the Crimea - returned to Moscow.

Once back in Moscow, Gorbachev acted as if he were oblivious to the changes that had occurred in the preceding three days. As he returned to power, Gorbachev promised to purge conservatives from the CPSU. He resigned as general secretary but remained president of the Soviet Union. The coup's failure brought a series of collapses of all-union institutions. Boris Yeltsin took control of the central broadcasting company and key economic ministries and agencies, and in November he banned the CPSU and the Russian Communist Party.

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