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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Botched Coup Settled the Fates of Gorbachev and Yeltsin

The bungled coup 10 years ago has forever linked the fates of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, peacemaker, charmer and reformer eclipsed by the raw courage of Russia's most instinctive politician.

Betrayed by eight men he'd promoted, Gorbachev was detained for three days in his Crimean dacha by conservatives in what became their final attempt to oppose reforms that were leading inexorably to the break up of the Soviet Union.

But whatever Gorbachev's personal bravery in resisting the attempt to topple him, it was Yeltsin's defiance atop tanks sent to crush him that symbolized opposition to the coup and revealed just how deeply Gorbachev had transformed his country.

As an act of bravado and sheer political theater it was hard to beat, and his continued defiance helped break the resolve of the nerveless plotters, whose failure to arrest him at the outset proved fatal to their designs.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
On his return to Moscow, Gorbachev was in another country. And his ill-advised comment that the Communist Party could be reformed despite the coup showed that he was still a prisoner of his past.

Rather than thank the crowds outside the Russian parliament, and thereby reap some of the political capital for the coup's defeat, Gorbachev headed for the Kremlin and began sacking people and phoning regional Soviet and world leaders.

"Gorbachev was more a man of the suites, rather than the streets, working the telephones, manipulating power," said Jonathan Steele, an assistant editor at Britain's Guardian newspaper who was present at Gorbachev's liberation. "He didn't really have that understanding of how ordinary Russians thought and felt. That was his problem."

The man of the moment was Yeltsin. At a meeting of the parliament of Russia, then still within the Soviet Union, he forced Gorbachev to read the minutes of the Soviet government meeting showing it had gone along with the coup.

Then with a theatrical flourish he signed a decree suspending the Communist Party in the Russian Federation and confiscating Soviet Communist Party property on federation territory, ignoring Gorbachev's abject pleadings.

Four months on, the Soviet Union was dead and Gorbachev out of a job. Far from saving the union, the coup leaders had only quickened its demise.

Six years earlier, crowds had mobbed Gorbachev and his elegant wife, Raisa, after the 54-year-old became the youngest Communist Party first secretary since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The antithesis of the sick, senile old men who had ruled for decades, Gorbachev launched reforms from above (perestroika) and below (glasnost, or openness), eased censorship and political repression at home and embarked on bold arms control talks with the United States.

Encouraging Soviet satellite states to follow his lead, he acted as midwife to the rebirth of an independent central and eastern Europe. "Gorbymania" raged in the West.

At home, economic reforms stalled and an anti-alcohol drive alienated millions. Yeltsin, a brash, bear of a man from the Urals brought to Moscow to boost Gorbachev's reform efforts, clashed head on with conservatives threatened by his populist focus on bread-and-butter issues and party privilege.

Gorbachev eventually dumped Yeltsin, irritated by his maverick outbursts and tactical clumsiness. But the very reforms he had launched to overcome his conservative opponents allowed Yeltsin a comeback unprecedented in Soviet history.

In 1989 Yeltsin rode a wave of popular support to win a landslide victory for a seat in the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies. A year later, he became speaker of the parliament of Russia.

Gorbachev was now under pressure from Yeltsin reformers and nationalists who, after 1990 elections, dominated parliaments in the other Soviet republics. Gorbachev battled to push through a new union treaty, enshrining reduced powers for the center and greater freedoms for the republics.

To hard-liners, though, it was anathema and it was the imminent signature of the new treaty that sparked the coup. But Yeltsin, fortified by his convincing election in June as president of Soviet Russia, the first such direct vote for a leader in 1,000 years, proved crucial. His popular mandate and the authority of his office split the military.

"A man must live like a great bright flame and burn as brightly as he can," Yeltsin told one interviewer.

But he ended his tenure a physically beaten man whose full-blooded embrace of economic reforms only accentuated the collapse in living standards begun under his rival Gorbachev.

Both ended their Kremlin days with microscopic poll ratings, and history has yet to deliver its final verdict on their era.

"I have no doubt that in 50 years … they will be viewed, for all their personal animosities and differences, as two key figures in one process," said Robert Nurick, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Each critical in his own particular way."

Over time, Yeltsin's authoritarian instincts compromised his democratic credentials, witnessed two wars in Chechnya and the use of tanks to quell a parliamentary revolt in 1993.

Gorbachev too had blood on his hands after attempted Soviet crackdowns in Georgia and Lithuania. But he refused to use tanks to stay in power.

"After leaving the Kremlin," he wrote in his memoirs, "my conscience was clear. The promise I gave to the people when I started the process of perestroika was kept. I gave them freedom."