The Soviet coup: best reads


A man holds a picture during a rally of "The White house defenders" on Aug. 19, 2011 in front of the White House parliament building as Russia marks two decades since Soviet hardliners precipitated the demise of the USSR with a botched coup.


Alexey Sazonov

Dear reader, we do not blame you for having anniversary fatigue. As the “This Day in History” feature in your hometown newspaper makes perfectly clear, every day is an anniversary of something.

Two years ago you endured months of coverage on the 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions in eastern Europe, so you probably were happy to let this weekend’s 20th anniversary of the Soviet coup pass by unmarked. After all, the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, is in just a few weeks, and you would be wise to save emotional energy to take in the flood of journalism that will mark that event.

Nevertheless, the events that led to the end of the USSR are worth knowing about, especially because of the questionable results. To save you time, we parsed through the stories on the coup anniversary to find those worth reading — on the anniversary or any day:

In 1991, the Soviet Union encompassed more than 290 million people and what are now 15 countries. It had enough nuclear weapons pointed toward the United States to obliterate the country. With that in mind, imagine how scary these photos of the events in Moscow, compiled by The Montreal Gazette and The Guardian among others, were to the world that first saw them.

For a gripping account of what happened, read NBC News correspondent Jim Maceda’s account of Aug. 19-21, 1991.

For a Russian perspective, read the account of Gennady Burbulis in Foreign Policy. Burbulis, aide to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, writes that “Americans watching the events unfold live on CNN knew more about what was going on in Russia than we Russians did.”

The lack of communications, of cell phones and internet, makes the resistance to the coup that much more remarkable, especially after watching how this year’s Middle East protesters have come together.

How did Yeltsin and his supporters circumvent this lack of communication? Sergei Filatov tells The Moscow Times that the first thing he did after the coup was turn on the copy machines, which he used to distribute Yeltsin’s message to Muscovites.

But communications in Soviet Russia weren’t entirely archaic. AFP reports that a precursor to the internet helped spread Yeltsin’s words of defiance to the world.

The question now is whether the heroic actions chronicled by the Moscow press — including those by coup resisters who gave their lives — were for naught, given the current state of Russian democracy.

In the Wall Street Journal, one of American’s leading Russia scholars explains why the regime of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the natural progression of Russia’s revolution.

“Russians like strong leaders, autocratic leaders: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin,” Richard Pipes said. “They have contempt for weak leaders, leaders who don't impose their will but who listen to the people.” Pipes does not shy away from strong arguments, which makes this interview an engaging read, and he nods toward future geopolitics, focusing on Russia’s rivalry with China.

Finally, Mikhail Gorbachev himself, the leader of the Soviet Union who was trapped by the plotters while vacationing in Crimea, explains to Der Spiegel what a different country the USSR was from what we might be familiar with today, and defends his attempts to gradually transform his country.

“I joined the Communist Party at 19, when I was still in school,” Gorbachev said. “My father had been on the front and my grandfather was an old communist — and I was supposed to blow the whole thing up?”

For the rest of the story stay tuned for excerpts from GlobalPost correspondent Conor O’Clery’s new book, “Moscow, December 25, 1991: The last day of the Soviet Union.”