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 Boris Yeltsin in front of the Parliament 08.19.1991

The August 1991 Coup in Moscow, 20 Years Later

Documents Show Hardliners Tried to Topple Gorbachev but Brought Down the Soviet Union

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 357

By Svetlana Savranskaya

For more information contact:
Svetlana Savranskaya - 202/994-7000 or by email

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Previous Chernyaev Diary Postings

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, 1991
Top Gorbachev Adviser Chronicles Final Year of the Soviet Union

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, 1990
Fifth Installment of Former Top Soviet Adviser's Journal Available in English for First Time

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev 1989
Archive Publishes Fourth Installment of Former Top Soviet Adviser's Journal

The Diary of Anatoly S. Chernyaev: 1987-1988

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev
Archive Publishes Second Installment of Former Top Soviet Adviser's Journal

The Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev
Former Top Soviet Adviser's Journal Chronicles Final Years of the Cold War

 

Washington D.C., August 19, 2011 -The hardline coup d’etat 20 years ago today in Moscow surprised its plotters with unexpected resistance from Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, from Russian democratic opposition forces, and from the international community including the Bush administration, according to documents posted today by the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).

 The documents include the most complete account of the coup by a Gorbachev insider, the British ambassador’s immediate skeptical analysis of the plot, the Russian Supreme Soviet’s debate as the coup dissipated on August 21, and telcons of President Bush’s talks during the coup with foreign leaders including Gorbachev and Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

 The posting marks the 20th anniversary of the August 19, 1991 announcement by the so-called Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP), as USSR state television replaced regular programming with the ominous chords of “Swan Lake,” that Gorbachev was allegedly sick and the Committee was taking power in the country.  The coup pre-empted the scheduled August 20 signing of the new Union Treaty, intended to create a new decentralized and democratic Union.  The plotters, led by KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov and Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, held Gorbachev under house arrest at his dacha in Foros, Crimea; but as the diary of Gorbachev aide Anatoly Chernyaev shows, Gorbachev refused to cooperate with the coup plotters and demanded that he return to Moscow and face the Supreme Soviet.

 However, already on August 19, demonstrators surrounded the tanks sent by the coup plotters to guard the White House – the building of the democratically elected Russian Parliament.  The freshly elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin assumed leadership of the opposition and demanded that Gorbachev be reinstalled as the lawful President of the Soviet Union.  Yeltsin standing on a tank (actually an armored personnel carrier) outside the White House became the symbol of the Russian democratic revolution, which prevented the right-wing takeover, but also led directly to the collapse of the Union.  In effect, the coup plotters speeded up the outcome they were trying to prevent.

 The Chernyaev diary provides the most complete account of the Foros experience of the Gorbachev circle; excerpts have appeared in Foreign Policy (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/06/21/three_days_in_foros) while the Archive has published the full text.  The August 20 telegram from British Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite describes the indecisiveness of the coup plotters and prescribes a policy of the strongest possible support for Gorbachev.  The memoranda of telephone conversations with foreign leaders from the Bush Library show that the Bush administration was carefully following the developments in Moscow and projecting clear support for Gorbachev.

 The final document published in today’s posting – for the first time anywhere – brings the reader into the halls of the legendary Russian White House, to the extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation at the exact moment of the triumph of the democratic resistance to the coup.  The discussions show the resoluteness of the democratic opposition and the decisive role of the Soviet army, in which key units ultimately disobeyed orders and sided with the democratic forces.


Document 1.  “Three Days in Foros,” excerpt from Anatoly Chernyaev Diary.
[Source:  Diary of Anatoly Chernyaev, Donated Manuscript, on file at the National Security Archive, translated by Anna Melyakova]

Document 2.  Rodric Braithwaite, “Moscow, August 19:  The First Day of the Coup,” Telegram of 20 August 1991.
[Source:  Rodric Braithwaite, Correspondence, 1988 to 1993, Donated Manuscript, on file at the National Security Archive]

Document 3.  George Bush-Felipe Gonzalez Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 19, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 4.  George Bush-Vaclav Havel Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 19, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 5.  George Bush-Jozsef Antall Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 19, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 6.  George Bush-Boris Yeltsin Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 20, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 7.  George Bush-Boris Yeltsin Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 21, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 8.  George Bush-Mikhail Gorbachev Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, August 21, 1991.
[Source;  Bush Presidential Library, NSArchive foia 1999-0303-F]

Document 9.  Transcript of the First Extraordinary Session of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, August 21, 1991.
[Source:  State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), Fond 10026, Translated by Matthew McGorrin]

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