August 18, 1991 (a Sunday)

Yeltsin stands on a military tank to defy the August Coup in 1991.

On this date, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was placed under house arrest during an attempted coup d’état (known as the August Putsch or August Coup) by high-ranking members of his own government, military and police forces.

Since becoming secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1988, Gorbachev had pursued comprehensive reforms of the Soviet system, greatly improving Soviet relations with Western democracies, particularly the United States. However, within the USSR, Gorbachev faced powerful critics. Conservative, hard-line politicians and military officials thought he was driving the Soviet Union toward its downfall and making it a second-rate power, while more radical reformers – particularly Boris Yeltsin, president of the most powerful socialist republic, Russia – complained that Gorbachev was just not working fast enough.

The August 1991 coup was carried out by the hard-line elements within Gorbachev’s own administration, as well as the heads of the Soviet army and the KGB, or secret police. Detained at his vacation villa in the Crimea, he was placed under house arrest and pressured to give his resignation, which he refused to do. Claiming Gorbachev was ill, the coup leaders, headed by former vice president Gennady Yanayev, declared a state of emergency and attempted to take control of the government.

Yeltsin and his backers from the Russian parliament then stepped in, calling on the Russian people to strike and protest the coup. When soldiers tried to arrest Yeltsin, they found the way to the parliamentary building blocked by armed and unarmed civilians. Yeltsin himself climbed aboard a tank and spoke through a megaphone, urging the troops not to turn against the people and condemning the coup as a “new reign of terror.” The soldiers backed off, some of them choosing to join the resistance. After thousands took the streets to demonstrate, the coup collapsed after only three days.

Gorbachev was released and flown to Moscow, but his regime had been dealt a deadly blow. Over the next few months, he dissolved the Communist Party, granted independence to the Baltic states, and proposed a looser, more economics-based federation among the remaining republics. In December 1991, Gorbachev resigned. Yeltsin capitalized on his defeat of the coup, emerging from the rubble of the former Soviet Union as the most powerful figure in Moscow and the leader of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Surprisingly, no one predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Chas Freeman, a former diplomat who served as Richard Nixon​’s interpreter during his visit to mainland China in 1972, once recalled conversations he had had when living in Taiwan in the 1970s, before Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party had moved from quasi-military rule to open elections:

People would say they are corrupt, they have no vision, they have a ridiculous ideology we have to kowtow to, but that no one believes in practice.

And I would say, ‘If they’re so bad, why don’t you get rid of them?’ That would be greeted with absolute incredulity.

Taiwanese of that era would tell him that, corrupt or not, the party was steadily bringing prosperity. Or that there was no point in complaining, since the party would eliminate anyone who challenged its rule. A generation later, Taiwan had become democratized.

People predicted the fall of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989, but it didn’t happen. The point of this post is, as the Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885 – 1962) once said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”

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