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August 1991 coup d’etat attempt in USSR still fuels disputes

August 17, 2015, 18:31 UTC+3 Zamyatina Tamara
© Alexander Chumichev/Fotokhronika TASS

MOSCOW, August 17. /TASS/. Twenty-four years after a coup d’etat attempt in the former USSR on August 19-21, 1991, the independent pollster Levada Center has found that over 50% of respondents view this event as a tragedy for the country.

Another 32% consider the coup d’etat as an episode in the struggle for power in the country’s leadership and only 10% as the victory of democracy over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Experts polled by TASS who eye-witnessed the putsch assess this event from the opposite points of view.

The Soviet central TV channels showed Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet in the morning of August 19, 1991 instead of the usual news programs. People thought that someone had died in the country’s leadership. But soon a report came that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev could not run the country for health reasons and the power would pass to the State Committee on the Emergency Situation (GKChP). This self-proclaimed body suspended the activity of political parties and some newspapers, imposed censorship and banned rallies and strikes.

The team of Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin refused to obey the GKChP’s decrees. Thousands of Muscovites blocked approaches to the building of the Russian parliament where Yeltsin and his close associates had stayed during all the days of the putsch. GKChP members were demoralized and decided against storming the Supreme Soviet of Russia to avoid casualties.

On August 21, 1991, former Vice-President of Russia Alexander Rutskoi flew to Crimea where Gorbachev had stayed on vacation. The Soviet president returned to Moscow that night but his fate and the fate of the entire Soviet Union were predetermined. The former Soviet republics proclaimed their independence one after another and the Soviet Union ceased to exist in December 1991.

According to Head of the Center for Military and Political Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) Alexey Podberezkin, he was an adviser to Vice-President Rutskoi in August 1991 and stayed in the building of Russia’s Supreme Soviet.

"Owing to my official duties, I held contacts both with the Yeltsin team and GKChP representatives in the Kremlin and in the CPSU Central Committee, i.e. I witnessed the situation from both sides," Podberezkin told TASS.

"There was no coup d’etat those days. The establishment of the GKChP was a constitutional act prepared with the participation of Mikhail Gorbachev already six months before those events with the aim to preserve the Soviet Union. Thousands of support telegrams were sent to the GKChP," the expert said.

"The situation changed when radical democrats set up barricades around the Supreme Soviet and urged citizens to defend the Yeltsin team. They were ready to arm "human ring" participants and it took me great efforts to store and hide arms held in the Supreme Soviet’s building behind boxes and gas masks to avoid bloodshed," Podberezkin said.

"GKChP members felt at a loss and were afraid of displaying the political imitative. The events of those days became a tragedy for the country because the persons who had taken power for several days acted indecisively and were unable to accomplish their task, the expert said.

Academician Yury Ryzhov was one of the founders of the interregional deputy group in the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1991. This group eventually brought Yeltsin to power.

"In the morning of August 19, 1991, I arrived in the building of the Russian parliament, called Yeltsin’s countryside residence and suggested dictating the text of the appeal to Russian citizens prepared by him because Yeltsin might be detained on his way to Moscow. But Yeltsin managed to arrive in the Supreme Soviet. I stayed next to him during all the three days that the GKChP was in power," Yury Ryzhov told TASS.

"Of course, all of us, the defenders of the Supreme Soviet and the Yeltsin team, were gripped with euphoria those days. We thought that a great victory over the GKChP would come and a bright democratic future along with it. But everything turned out to be quite different," the academician said.

Russia’s democratic forces defeated the CPSU in August 1991, Head of the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences Alexey Arbatov said.

"An attempt of the forceful retention of the Communist nomenclature’s power was prevented. Actually a coup d’йtat took place," Academician Arbatov told TASS.

"The GKChP inflicted the last blow on the USSR. Yeltsin made an abrupt move and liquidated the Soviet Union instead of carrying out long and hard work for creating the Union of sovereign states in place of the Soviet empire," the expert said.

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