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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Coup That Changed Our World

At about 1 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1991, Sergei Yevdokimov, a major in the Soviet army's elite Tamanskaya division, was roused from his bed by a messenger who told him to report immediately to the division's grounds.

When Yevdokimov arrived, other officers who also had been called in were hanging around, chatting and smoking while waiting for further commands. "Maneuvers were to start in a day, so we figured it was just part of that," he said in a recent interview.

They were wrong.

At 4 a.m. they were told to get the vehicles ready to march, and at about 7:40 a.m. the battalion commander arrived to give them their orders: Start moving toward Moscow.

"He said something about the president being replaced and about some sort of committee being formed," Yevdokimov said.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
Yevdokimov was puzzled and didn't know what to make of it, but he did as ordered and joined the column following Minskoye Shosse to Moscow, 50 kilometers away.

Even people who heard the state news reports that morning had trouble making sense of the stunning announcement that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on vacation on the Crimea, had been replaced because of ill health. Power was transferred to Vice President Gennady Yanayev and the State Committee for a State of Emergency, or GKChP, whose members included the heads of the KGB, the military and police.

Outside people's windows, hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers were passing by, sent by the GKChP to occupy the city.

Was this what many had feared would happen? That Gorbachev's experiment with glasnost and perestroika would eventually be brought to an end and the country would sink back into the old Soviet ways?

Boris Yeltsin, the new president of the Russian republic, also was jolted from his sleep that morning. He wrote in his memoirs that his daughter Tanya came running into his room screaming, "Papa, get up! There's a coup!"

"She began to tell me about the GKChP, Yanayev and [KGB chief Vladimir] Kryuchkov. It was all so stupid. I said to Tanya, 'Are you kidding me?'" Yeltsin wrote in "The Struggle for Russia," published in 1994.

Although Yeltsin knew the conservative Communists around Gorbachev were itching to take power, he seemed as surprised as anyone by their coup. But Yeltsin immediately went into action to lead the resistance. He counted on the Russian people, who only two months before had elected him president in an unprecedented democratic election, to stand by him and defend their dreams of an independent, democratic Russia.

The White House, which then housed the Russian republic's parliament, quickly became the headquarters of the resistance.

Nemtsov Gets the Call

"By some coincidence I was in Moscow, stopping over on my way to Sochi," recalled Boris Nemtsov, the head of the Union of Right Forces, who at the time was a deputy in the Russian parliament and lived in Nizhny Novgorod.

"I arrived in the city on the morning of Aug. 19 at about 5:30 a.m. The city looked pretty normal, except for more than the usual number of police on the street. It was still early, so my wife and I checked into a hotel and fell asleep," he said in a recent interview.

Their sleep was soon disturbed. Nemtsov said one of his colleagues from parliament banged on the door at about 7 a.m. and shouted: "There is a coup, tanks are in the city. We need to go and save democracy at the White House."

Nemtsov said he was dumbfounded, and his wife accused him of purposely spoiling her Black Sea vacation.

He went straight to the White House, where remarkably no measures had been taken to prevent deputies from going in and out. Even the telephones were never cut off.

State Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalyov, also a deputy at the time, said the telephones were crucial for communicating with journalists, and thus the outside world. "Somebody just had to be by the phone at any given moment," he said.

When Nemtsov arrived at the White House, everyone was still waiting for Yeltsin, who had been staying with his family at the Arkhangelskoye state dacha outside of Moscow.

"We were at a loss over what to do," Nemtsov said.

But shortly before 10 a.m., wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, Yeltsin came charging in. "We were standing in the stairwell smoking. I noticed Yeltsin coming — he was coming up the stairs, flying over every second step and looking determined.

"As he passed by me he said, 'Nemtsov, what are you doing hanging around doing nothing as usual? Go and get yourself a gun.'"

Nemtsov said he was a little shocked but nevertheless asked where. "In the corridor," Yeltsin answered.

The weapons were shortened versions of the Kalashnikov and most likely were from the White House's own reserves, said independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, who was among those in the White House.

Yeltsin drafted an appeal denouncing the putsch. "Storm clouds of terror and dictatorship are gathering over the whole country," he said. "They [the GKChP] must not be allowed to bring eternal night."

He addressed his appeal to the "citizens of Russia," giving people a new identity to cling to. "Citizens" with its associations with a civil society. "Of Russia," as distinct from the Soviet masses.

Yeltsin made a special appeal to the military: "I believe in this tragic hour you can make the right choice. The honor and glory of Russian men of arms shall not be stained with the blood of the people."

The White House sent out armies of volunteers to spread Yeltsin's appeal. Copies were handed out on the street and in the metro. They were posted on walls and lampposts.

Yeltsin on the Tank

As the armored column of the Tamanskaya division made its way into the city along Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the tanks, designed for rougher terrain, slid around on the road, occasionally knocking down lampposts.

By late morning, the column was approaching the White House. Yevdokimov's company of 10 tanks and an APC was ordered to stop and take up position just across from the Parliament building on the embankment near the spot where the new British Embassy building now stands. Their task was to be in place to block Kalininsky Prospekt, now Novy Arbat.

The rest of the division was told to proceed and seize control of the mass media. The tanks set off for the TASS building on Tverskoi Bulvar, the Izvestia building on Pushkin Square and Ulitsa Pravdy, where leading newspapers Pravda, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Sovietskaya Rossia had their offices.

The convoy turned left after the bridge and continued onto the embankment that runs directly in front of the White House. There, its dozen or so tanks were stopped by the Yeltsin-supporters outside the White House. There were only a few hundred people there at that time.

Yeltsin was watching from the window. "People were not afraid to approach the tanks; in fact, they were even throwing themselves under them," he later wrote. "They weren't afraid — although they were Soviet people.

"Suddenly, I felt a jolt inside. I had to be out there right away, standing with those people."

In what became the enduring image of those history-making days, Yeltsin walked down the front steps of the White House and climbed up onto one of the Tamanskaya division's T-72 tanks. He shook hands with the driver.

With the battalion commander standing silently by, Yeltsin, flanked by his chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and other trusted guards, made a short but impassioned appeal to the "citizens of Russia."

He accused the GKChP of staging a "right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup" and declared the committee illegal. He urged citizens to "demand the return of the country to normal, constitutional development" and appealed to the military not to participate in the coup.

He demanded that Gorbachev, who was under house arrest in Crimea, be allowed to speak to the nation.

The crowd cheered him with shouts of "Yeltsin! Yeltsin!"

Yeltsin slipped back inside to safety, and the tank convoy continued on its way. The White House defenders then turned their attention to Yevdokimov's tanks, parked on the other side of the road, and began talking to the soldiers.

"I still believe that our great luck was that we ended up at this very location — by the White House. We were literally at the very source of information," said Yevdokimov.

All over town, people were approaching the soldiers in the tanks. They gave them leaflets with Yeltsin's appeal and stuck flowers in the guns. Some just wanted to get a look at the tanks.

For the defenders of the White House, the main thing was to make sure the soldiers would not fire on their own people.

One man, Sergei Bratchikov, went a step further and asked Yevdokimov to change sides and join Yeltsin.

"I just listened to all this talk. After all, how could I know whether this guy was sincere and honest or whether he was a KGB spy or provocateur," Yevdokimov said.

Eventually Yevdokimov told the defenders that such a discussion must take place only between officers. Scrambling to find an officer, the defenders found Parliament Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, who taught at a military academy and had the rank of lieutenant colonel.

"I had come to the White House that day in a new uniform. I think I was wearing it for the first time," Yushenkov, now a Duma deputy, recalled.

Yushenkov agreed to negotiate with Yevdokimov. "I went up to him and said something rather emotional along the lines of, 'officer, it is your chance to choose between eternal glory and eternal shame,'" Yushenkov said, smiling at the memory.

Yevdokimov Makes Move

By that time, however, Yevdokimov had already made his choice and all he wanted was to make it official. Yevdokimov had decided to disobey orders and defy the defense minister and rest of the GKChP. He now says that it seemed an obvious thing to do, but at the time, he was risking his epaulets and his life.

He was taken to the White House to meet with Russian Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, and they were joined by Konstantin Kobets, the head of parliament's defense and security committee. "We sat and talked for a while figuring out what to do," Yevdokimov said.

After agreeing on the basics, the officers used a model of the White House to work out where to place the tanks.

Yevdokimov knew it would be tricky to maneuver the tanks through the crowd of agitated, worried and potentially aggressive people. Throughout the day, the numbers of defenders had grown to several thousand, and they had blocked the approaches to the White House with barricades made from whatever they could get hold of: trolley buses, cars, pieces of metal and stones ripped from the road.

"I asked for a few deputies to accompany me to explain to people what was going on and organize a path for the tanks," Yevdokimov said.

Another complication was that it had gotten dark. "It was pretty scary. People were standing just 30 to 40 centimeters from moving tanks. One push from the crowd and it could all end in a tragedy," he said.

Finally, six tanks were moved to key points around the White House and the crowd cheered as they turned the barrels of their guns away from the parliament. Soviet soldiers were now ready to defend Yeltsin, and for the defenders the tanks were a clear sign of hope.

Inside the White House, there were hundreds of people — parliament deputies and other Yeltsin supporters — waiting anxiously for news and unsure what would happen next.

A couple dozen military officers headed by Kobets were working the telephones, calling the home numbers of every officer they knew, Felgenhauer said. They were trying to determine which units had been deployed and persuade commanders not to fight for the GKChP.

Felgenhauer estimated that the total number of troops in the city was 20,000, with about 100 tanks and 1,000 other armored vehicles.

Time for a Drink

Yeltsin, according to Nemtsov, "behaved bravely, but as usual was a bit flighty."

Fearing that the White House would be attacked, Yeltsin worked hard to ready the building for a siege.

"He wrote appeals to the nation and signed a bunch of decrees. But by the time evening arrived, he got tired and said: 'OK, it's time to have a drink,'" Nemtsov recalled.

"He called the U.S. Embassy [located nearby] and told them: 'We have no wine, no food, so we are not going to last long this way,'" Nemtsov said.

According to Nemtsov, American diplomats responded promptly by shipping supplies across the road in a trailer.

A U.S. diplomat who was in Moscow at the time said the embassy itself did not send over food, although some people in the embassy community, acting independently, took over their own food parcels.

The next day, men carrying stacks of pizzas from Pizza Hut were seen going into the White House.

"Pizzas were lying around all of the offices," Felgenhauer said. "People just kept picking at them, sometimes eating just certain ingredients from the toppings."

Throughout that first night and into the next day, more and more people came to defend the White House. On Aug. 20, the number of defenders was estimated at 50,000 or more.

Advised not to leave the building because of snipers, Yeltsin appeared on the balcony of the White House surrounded by a tight ring of bodyguards at about 3 p.m. to speak to the crowd.

He pledged to remain in the White House for as long as it took to "block this junta from power and bring it to justice." He called for a boycott of the GKChP's orders and asked the protesters to remain calm and disciplined.

The rally continued for hours with one prominent speaker after another. Yevgeny Yevtushenko read a poem and much-loved comic Gennady Khazanov imitated Gorbachev and Yanayev. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, holding a Kalashnikov, just told the crowd "I love you. And I am proud of you."

Rostropovich, exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, had come to Moscow to attend the Congress of Compatriots, at which hundreds of emigres had gathered in Moscow on the very day the emergency situation began.

The crowd responded to the speeches by cheering and waving the Russian tri-colored flag. But as the festive pro-democracy rally continued, fears grew that the new regime was getting ready to use military force to crush the resistance.

Night of Fear

The coup plotters fostered fears that the White House would be stormed. The GKChP-appointed military commandant for Moscow, General Nikolai Kalinin, imposed a curfew from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. and said the GKChP intended to "prevent the escalation of illegal activities." "Illegal activities" is how the coup plotters had been referring to the actions of the White House defenders.

"It did look pretty serious," Felgenhauer recalled. "For military officers within the White House, it was clear that should the building be stormed, the defenders had no chance and there would be blood."

Women were advised to leave for their own safety, but few did. As darkness fell, the defenders formed multiple rings around the White House and stood firmly through the rainy night. Some clutched stones torn from the pavement or scraps of metal to be used as weapons. Gas masks were given out to those inside the building.

The night passed quietly at the White House.

Not far away, though, three men were killed while trying to stop some of the armored vehicles that were moving through the city. One of the protesters threw a tarpaulin over one of them as it passed through the tunnel at the intersection of the Garden Ring and Novy Arbat, blinding the driver. When the vehicle came to a halt, he jumped on top of it and tried to get inside, but was met by a gun shot. He died instantly. The two other protesters rushed to pull the body away and were hit by ricocheting bullets.

The deaths of the three men — Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov — shocked the country and threatened to spark uncontrollable violence. The coup leaders balked and the coup attempt began to unravel.

On the morning of Aug. 21, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, a member of the GKChP, ordered the troops to pull out of the city.

Yevdokimov's tanks remained at their posts until the morning of Aug. 22, when, decorated with flowers and with the Russian flag flying from the antenna of the lead vehicle, they returned to the grounds of the Tamanskaya division.

Yevdokimov, though, had accomplished his mission on the first day, when his tanks gave a tremendous moral boost to the defenders, for whom they were a clear sign of hope.

The tank commander never met Yeltsin and never got any special praise for what he had done. In 1992, sort of as an afterthought, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel, the last promotion he ever received. Then in 1993 a Defender of the White House medal arrived by mail.

"But I do not regret anything or feel hurt. I did what I thought was right and that is it," Yevdokimov said.