By Brigid McCarthy
Twenty years ago Friday, residents of Moscow awoke to the sound of tanks in the streets. There was a coup in the USSR.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was on vacation in the Crimea, had been put under house arrest by members of his own government.
Just about everyone in the former Soviet Union remembers where they were on August 19, l991.
Andrei Grachev, who was Gorbachev's press secretary and foreign policy adviser at the time, was at his dacha, or summer home, just outside of Moscow.
"My mother called me at 6:00 in the morning on the l9th," he said. She told him that Gorbachev was gravely ill or had been arrested. No one knew for sure.
So Grachev switched on his radio, and he heard an announcer say, "Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev, for health reasons, is unable to perform his duties as President of the USSR." The statement went on to say that in order to prevent the nation from sliding into a national catastrophe, an Emergency Committee, led by former vice president Gennady Yanayev and the heads of the KGB, the Soviet military, and interior ministry, is now in charge.
"And my first psychological, rather than political reaction, was to say to myself, so finally it happened," Grachev said.
By which Grachev means their luck had run out. In just five years since Gorbachev had come to power, the Soviet leader and his team had done the unthinkable: Lifted Soviet censorship. Abolished the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Introduced multi-candidate elections. Helped end the Cold War.
Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, said it was a time like no other in the Soviet Union. "It was historical, it was revolutionary, it was exhilarating for many people actually. For many, this was not obvious that the Soviet Union was falling apart, but that something very important was happening."
On August 20th, Gorbachev was about to take another historic step — signing a new union treaty that would give more autonomy to the 15 Soviet republics that comprised the USSR.
This was too much for hardliners in the Kremlin.
On August 18th, a group of Soviet ministers paid a surprise visit to Gorbachev's vacation home on the Black Sea coast. They severed the phone lines, and held him captive for three days.
"It came as a great shock to the Embassy. Nobody had expected it," said former US Ambassador James Collins. At the time of the coup, he was the chargé d'affairs, and the most senior person at the Embassy.
"My reaction is one I don't think I can say on the radio," Collins recalls, "but it was obviously not something someone in a position of charge wants to deal with."
Later that morning, the coup leaders held a press conference. Soviet citizens turned on their televisions to see six dour men sitting side by side at a long conference table.
The press conference didn't go very well. Political analyst Masha Lipman said "they didn't know what they were doing! They were a bunch of people with shaking hands." At one point, former Vice President Gennady Yanaev's hands were visibly trembling.
Then a pretty young reporter in a green checkered dress raised her hand. "And she asked them, 'Are you aware of the fact that you have just committed a state coup?' " said political analyst Masha Lipman.
She didn't know that she was supposed to be afraid of them.
"Which made her historical," Lipman continued. "She was 18, she was a kid! She was the one who said the word. They didn't say that we have just committed a coup. They said the Secretary General is sick, and they pretended this was business as usual."
Earlier that morning, the coup plotters began sending tanks and soldiers into the capital, to surround key government buildings, including Russia's parliament, the White House.
Masha Lipman was working for the Washington Post as a translator and researcher back in l991. On the morning of the coup, she grabbed her notebook and ran downtown.
She was stunned by the scene unfolding in front of her: tens of thousands of citizens streaming into the streets to protest the overthrow of Gorbachev. There were even bigger public protests in St. Petersburg, and mass gatherings in Kiev.
"We were standing in the square in front of the White House, and I saw a crowd moving toward the White House," said Lipman. "Many people who'd been in the square at the time, mostly reporters, had tears in their eyes. These were people who organized themselves, who in a unique circumstance in Russian history, and realized that they could make a difference. They were coming in a throng."
The protesters erected barricades and formed a human chain around the White House, seat of the Russian parliament.
Boris Kapustin, who's now a visiting professor at Yale University, spent two days camped out in front of the White House.
"I would say that the army, even the elite forces of the army, were absolutely peaceful, I mean you cannot imagine the spirit of this event. It was like, how to say, like a carnival! I saw girls exchanging flowers with those guys sitting on tanks, and exchanging ice creams. The atmosphere was absolutely unforgettable," Kapustin recalls. It was only discovered much later that many of the soldiers had no ammunition.
Then, Boris Yeltsin, the newly elected president of the Russian republic, climbed on top of a tank and gave his famous speech denouncing the coup.
Yeltsin supplied the coup with its most iconic image. And he became the leader of the resistance.
One of the great mysteries is why the coup organizers didn't arrest Yeltsin. It would prove to be their most costly mistake. Yeltsin was a former Communist Party boss and Gorbachev protege, until the two men had a falling out.
Andrei Grachev said the coup leaders sent an envoy to meet with Yeltsin on the night of August 18th.
They intended to ask him, are you with us or against us? Still, they were confident that Yeltsin would be an ally.
"They thought that the personal rivalry between Yeltsin and Gorbachev would push Yetsin to join them in order to get rid of Gorbachev."
And if he stood up to them? They'd arrest him. "And there was even a place where he would be taken by a KGB unit," said Grachev.
Grachev, who's written two critically acclaimed books on the Gorbachev era, said the coup organizers had contacted all the other leaders of the Soviet republics ahead of time, too. None put up any resistance.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was the speaker of the Russian Parliament in l991 and a Yeltsin ally back then, was astonished to see how scared everyone was, and how easily intimidated they were.
"Even the Baltic politicians, who were constantly and very adamantly campaigning for autonomy, even they all fell silent," Khasbulatov said, in between puffs on his pipe. "Not a single sound of dissent from them, not one! They thought, oh, those were games with Gorbachev. But these guys are Stalinists, they will execute everyone. They all behaved like rabbits, like scared rabbits!"
So what happened when the coup plotters tried to meet with Yeltsin on the night of August 18th? According to former Gorbachev spokesman Andrei Grachev, "things all went wrong. "
Grachev chose his next words carefully.
"The initial discussion with Yeltsin couldn't take place because he arrived in his plane from a visit in Kazakhstan in a state that made it impossible to negotiate the options with him," he said.
They couldn't wake him up. Or perhaps sober him up. So the meeting had to be postponed.
Grachev said "maybe these several hours played a crucial, probably a historic role. Because the next morning, when he was back to his shape and capacities, he was already surrounded by his team of political advisors, who already realized what was the danger for them, and this danger made them brave and resolute and determined."
Unprepared for resistance, the coup collapsed within 72 hours. The military leaders weren't willing to fire on their own people.
But Gorbachev returned from captivity a broken man. He gave a brief, perfunctory speech at the Moscow airport on the night of August 22nd.
Then, instead of addressing his cheering supporters gathered at the White House, Gorbachev went straight home. He was soon to discover that power had shifted to his former ally turned nemesis, Boris Yeltsin. And over the next several months, he used that power to destroy the remnants of the Soviet Union.
In their attempt to preserve their own power, Communist Party hardliners helped precipitate the death of the Soviet Union. Boris Kapustin of Yale University said the coup "revealed the weakness of the regime, and moreover, its rotten character."
By December of l991, the Soviet empire was no more; in its place,15 newly independent countries with the Russia, and its president, Boris Yeltsin, at the center.
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