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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putsch: Five Years Later

I well remember that sunny morning of Aug. 19, 1991. The voice on the radio and television announced the sensational news: Due to ill health, Mikhail Gorbachev could not perform his duties as president of the Soviet Union. Vice president Gennady Yanayev stepped in to perform those duties. To normalize the situation in the country -- rocked by interethnic conflicts, separatist tendencies, growth in crime -- the Soviet leadership created the Government Committee on the State of Emergency, GKChP. Its members included Yanayev, the head of the Cabinet of Ministers Valentin Pavlov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, Minister of Internal Affairs Boris Pugo, Minister of Defense Dmitry Yazov, and other parties close to the Kremlin.

Somewhat later we learned that the GKChP was supported by Supreme Soviet chairman Anatoly Lukyanov and Politburo secretary Oleg Shenin, whom Gorbachev had left in charge of "the farm" when he left for the Crimean resort of Foros on vacation.

In documents on the GKChP, there is mention of the strict requirement on observing the laws and constitution of the Soviet Union. And the tanks on the streets of Moscow frightened no one ...

The heads of some Soviet republics -- Nursultan Nazarbayev, Leonid Kravchuk and others -- supported the extreme measures of the Soviet leadership. But the Russian leadership, which had long conducted a war against the "hateful center," entered into a bitter confrontation with the GKChP.

Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin, atop a tank stationed at the White House, called upon the people of Russia to repulse the "putschists" and declared the top leaders "traitors of the Motherland" who had organized a coup d'etat.

After his return from Foros, Gorbachev resigned as general secretary, and Yeltsin in an illegal decree banned the Communist Parties of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. This was made possible by the fact that Russian Communist Party secretaries Valentin Kuptsov and Gennady Zyuganov did not support the GKChP but sided with Yeltsin. Public Prosecutor Valentin Stepankov, in a completely illegal move, ordered the arrests of the highest leaders of the Soviet Union. And on Dec. 8, 1991, the heads of the three Slavic republics -- Yeltsin, Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich -- pronounced the death penalty on the Soviet Union in the Belovezhsky accords.

What led the Soviet leaders to hastily create this GKChP? Yanayev put forth his position: "On Aug. 20, a Union agreement was set to be signed, the draft of which Gorbachev had worked on in Novo-Ogaryovo with a small group of leaders from the Union republics, without the knowledge of the Supreme Soviet. Instead of a powerful centralized government, the idea was to create a sort of 'cloud in trousers,' an insipid, amorphous creation, in which the leaders of the 'sovereign' republics would no longer be subject to the laws of the Soviet Union. If one considers that the Union agreement would have been signed not by all 15 republic leaders, but by only six or seven, it was clear: After Aug. 20, 1991, the Soviet Union would cease to exist. We could not let that happen."

"I saw the August drama," said Lukyanov after his release from prison, "as a conflict between a weakened socialism and the forces of nascent Russian capitalism. There were no moral or legal boundaries set up against the home-grown, cheeky bourgeois. Taking advantage of the indecisiveness of the GKChP, they seized the initiative and toppled the highest leadership of the Soviet Union, destroyed the country's constitutional structure, thus performing a coup, of which they then accused me and my comrades."

Many people are still tormented by the question, Why, with all military and administrative might at their disposal, did the GKChP members lose? Why did they allow their own arrests? To me, the answer is obvious: As products of the post-war Soviet system, they were incapable of cruelty and violence; they tried to preserve the Union using the "mildest methods." When the first blood was shed, when they sensed Gorbachev's betrayal, they stepped aside, disbanded the committee themselves. Yazov, a participant in the Great Patriotic War, could never have given an order to shoot at the Russian parliament.

But Yeltsin did not stand on ceremony, ordering the arrests of the Soviet leaders. If the governor of California stripped President Bill Clinton of his post and sent the vice president, secretary of defense, CIA and FBI chiefs to prison, then announced the division of the nation into "sovereign" states, this "loony" would be packed off to the nut house. But in Russia, this was called "victory of democracy."

After 1991, Russia and other republics rushed headlong into "wild capitalism" with all its "delights." And the score after five years? Six hundred thousand dead in interethnic conflicts, 3 million refugees, destruction of the economies of the "independent" states, pauperization of millions of former Soviet citizens, unprecedented growth in crime and corruption of highly placed officials ...

The Ukrainians and Belarussians understood this situation perfectly well and drove the "Belovezhsky die-hards" Kravchuk and Shushkevich out of office. And if the third die-hard, Yeltsin, retained his throne through the recent presidential elections, then we should extend our "thanks" first to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which put its money on Zyuganov. Here is a personalty so gray, faceless, timorous, smelling of Gorbachevian idiocy and blather a mile off, that the Russian voters thought it best to leave the ailing Yeltsin in place for a second term. They forgave him the Soviet Union's breakup, the shooting of parliament and the war in Chechnya.

Thus you have the inscrutability, the mystery -- the tragedy -- of the Russian soul.

Alexander Golovenko, a member of the CPSU from 1974 to 1986, is a special correspondent for Pravda. On Tuesday, Aug. 20, Sergei Yushenkov, a State Duma deputy and adviser to Russia's Democratic Choice, will give his view on the 1991 coup.