Moscow 1991: A coup that seemed doomed from the start

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Tanks on Red Square, 1991

On Monday 19 August 1991, I was woken early by the phone ringing. I groaned inwardly.

I was aware of political tensions simmering. But it was that sleepy sluggish part of August in Moscow when nothing seems to happen.

The Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, was relaxing at his villa in the Crimea, the Soviet parliament was in recess and I had booked a game of tennis. London, calling for some obscure story, was an inconvenience I could do without.

Immediately, though, it was clear this was not a trivial story.

Down the line, the duty editor read out the statement from Tass, the Soviet state news agency. It sounded ominous - the vice-president had declared a state of emergency and Gorbachev, still in the Crimea, had allegedly been taken ill.

I pulled on a tracksuit and grabbed a pair of sneakers - there was no time to get dressed properly - and rushed to our BBC radio office, less than a minute away.

Inside, the wire copy machines were clattering. We had no computers in those days. The Tass machine was spewing out the coup leaders' decree in full and an endorsement from the chairman of the Soviet parliament.

Swan Lake

I remember wondering if it was a coup on paper only. The increasingly weak central authorities of that late Soviet era were always making announcements that turned out to be make-believe.

Image caption,
Mikhail Gorbachev maintains that the plotters were too cowardly and incompetent to succeed

In my first report I carefully said, "This has all the hallmarks of a classic Soviet coup," without confirming that it was true.

I got on our one direct-dial telephone to call Lithuania - all the other telephones in the office were restricted to local numbers and this was before the days of cell phones or email.

I reasoned that if this really was a coup, either communications to the rebellious Baltic republics would be cut off, or Soviet tanks and troops would already be on the streets there. After all, there had already been one abortive attempt to use Soviet military force to bring Lithuania back into line in January. Perhaps this time there was a real crackdown?

But a sleepy voice in Vilnius answered my phone call in puzzlement. No, all was quiet in Lithuania.

Then I turned on the television. Scheduled programmes had been replaced by the ballet Swan Lake, interspersed with news flashes, read out by a man in spectacles, awkwardly reading off a piece of paper without autocue.

It was so typically Soviet, such a cliche, I could hardly believe it.

In the old days of Brezhnev, sombre music and terse news statements were always the sign that a Kremlin leader had died and a new regime was about to start. It was as though the coup plotters believed that if they went through the motions of behaving like the old Soviet Union, somehow magically the clock would turn back to a former epoch.


Before long I got a phone call from a friend on Kutuzovsky Prospect, west of the city centre, to say that tanks were rolling down the street towards the Kremlin. Three days of surreal, mad events were starting to unfold.

Image caption,
On the first night we really did wonder if there would be a bloody battle with many casualties

My BBC colleagues arrived in the office. One correspondent rushed to the White House, the Russian parliament building and the centre of Boris Yeltsin's resistance to the coup.

Outside our office block we found a young soldier had parked his tank near an underpass. He just sat there looking stunned, unable or unwilling to respond to our questions. Our elderly cleaning lady, Masha, gently chastised him and told him to go home to his mother.

There was an air of theatre about it all: the display of military force; the ominous TV announcements; the moment when Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank to defy the coup leaders and declare their action illegal; and the drama of ordinary people clutching briefcases and shopping bags, rushing to the White House to make a visible show of defiance.

It somehow felt as though the coup, badly thought out and only half-heartedly executed, was doomed from the start.

At stake, though, we should not forget, was something very important - the future of democracy in Russia and its relations with the outside world. And on the first night, when we really did wonder if there would be a bloody battle with many casualties, three young men did lose their lives.

Empty shops

What is more, it all looked much more precarious from the provinces.

In subsequent years I've met quite a few Soviet officials who watched events unfold from outside Moscow and who say that in their view it was more finely balanced than appeared at the time.

The country was teetering towards economic anarchy. Trade relations between republics were grinding to a halt. Many people had lost patience with reforms. Local party officials and even some republican leaders were sitting on the fence, waiting for orders or watching to see which way events would turn.

If the coup leaders had managed to carry out their plan to arrest Yeltsin, if they had flooded empty shops with food - which some say was their plan - and if they had kept their nerve and reasoned with the population that they were bringing back order and stability... who knows, could the coup, maybe, for a while have been successful?

It is true that after six years of perestroika many people, especially in the capital, had lost their fear of the old regime and were no longer so easily cowed into submission.

Gorbachev maintains to this day that, faced with this popular opposition, the coup plotters were too cowardly and incompetent to see it through. And there were plenty of other indications that the old Communist-led system was crumbling from within and unlikely to last.

But think of the messy lessons from some of the uprisings this year in the Middle East.

Even in the 21st Century, when social media networks can fuel and unite protesters, staging a successful uprising to topple a dictator or counter a coup is often a matter of luck and sheer nerve - and the outcome is by no means always predictable.