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Remembering the Overthrow of Gorbachev, 20 Years Later

August 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Twenty years ago, the stunning overthrow of USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev by a Communist coup dominated the news. The coup eventually backfired and led to the end of the Soviet Union. Jeffrey Brown takes a look back at the last days of the USSR.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember a dramatic day in history, 20 years later, as it unfolded on the NewsHour.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Good evening.

The stunning overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev by communist hard-liners dominates the news this Monday.

Gorbachev was reported under house arrest, as Soviet tanks took up positions throughout Moscow.

JEFFREY BROWN: That was how Robert MacNeil described the shocking developments of Aug. 19, 1991, on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, a coup that would backfire and lead to the end of the Soviet Union.

ROBERT MOORE, Independent Television News: There were scenes of desperation in Moscow.

JEFFREY BROWN: A report from Robert Moore of Independent Television News showed the chaos on the ground.

ROBERT MOORE: The Red Army tanks had rolled into the heart of the city, and not even heroic gestures could stop them.

Workers and shoppers quickly surrounded the security forces.

The man who has taken over is Vice President Gennady Yanayev, whose reputation as a hard-liner is matched only by his image as a gray man who would serve loyally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then came a description of what would become the most iconic image of the day.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Early in the day, Russian President Boris Yeltsin called on the Soviet people to challenge the coup leaders. The onetime Gorbachev rival made the appeal on top of a tank near the Russian Parliament building.

JEFFREY BROWN: Judy Woodruff reported on the swift U.S. reaction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bush issued a statement tonight condemning what he called an unconstitutional resort to force.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: It seems clearer all the time that, contrary to official statements out of Moscow, that this move was extra constitutional, outside of the constitutional provisions for governmental change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then-NewsHour correspondent Roger Mudd identified the men behind the coup, who were strangers to most Americans.

ROGER MUDD: Instead of the single charismatic Gorbachev the world had become accustomed to over the past six years, it was once again eight men in gray suits who held the power. It was the first appearance of the State Committee for the State of Emergency, and it included the head of the KGB, the defense minister, the interior minister and the police.

GENNADY YANAYEV, acting Soviet president (through translator): To do nothing at this crucial period means to take grave responsibility for tragic and very unpredictable circumstances.

ROGER MUDD: When Yanayev was finished, the very first question, of course, was, where is Mikhail Gorbachev? Yanayev’s answer drew derisive laughter from the press.

GENNADY YANAYEV (through translator): Let me say that Mikhail Gorbachev is now on vacation. He is very tired after these many years, and he will need some time to get better.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, Russia watchers weighed in, in a panel discussion.

VITALY KOROTICH, “Ogonyok”: They’re acting strongly against the right of national republic. This commission is illegal, those leaders absolutely criminal people.

DIMITRI SIMES, senior affairs analyst: My concern is that, while acting in the name of law and order, they may trigger a civil war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two former KGB officers predicted the coup wouldn’t succeed.

STANISLAV LEVCHENKO, former KGB official: I do believe that within few months, probably within a year, all of them will be gone. The problem, however, is that they can cause great civil unrest and maybe civil war in the Soviet Union and before they will be kicked out of power.

VICTOR SHEYMOV, former KGB official: Well, I have seen quite a few KGB-orchestrated coups while being in the center. And I must say that this is a very, very unusual coup.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of our commentators that day was Madeleine Albright, who would become secretary of state six years later.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, former National Security Council staff: I think that the coup will not last. I think the issue here is that the Soviet Union is unraveling. What we’re seeing are very deep splits within the public. They’re unclear about what direction to go in. They treasure their democratization and glasnost.

JEFFREY BROWN: She was right. In the next two days, protesters rallied against the coup, which quickly fell apart. By the end of the week, Gorbachev had returned to Moscow and to power. The Communist Party was disbanded, and, by the end of the year, the Soviet Union itself had been dismantled.