Twenty-five years ago, an unsuccessful coup attempt, known as the August Coup, was launched by a group of hawkish Communist Party members and security elites against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, in what was widely seen as one of the key moments that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The coup's ring leaders, known as the Gang of Eight, were dissatisfied with Gorbachev's liberalization plans and the balancing act between the Soviet republics and Moscow. Similar conversations are being had in Moscow today — and within the Kremlin are very familiar divides.
Since he launched glasnost and perestroika to save the Soviet Union, resentment toward Gorbachev had been building among the Soviet hard-liners for years. Gorbachev tried to buy support for his liberalization efforts by bringing those discontent hawks further into the government. When six of the Soviet republics virtually seceded in 1990-91, Gorbachev attempted to hold onto the remaining eight through a series of decentralization methods. Those hard-liners in the government, however, banded together to demand that Gorbachev call a state of emergency and militarily lock down the Soviet republics.
When the Soviet leader refused and flew out to his villa in Crimea, the Gang of Eight launched a coup back in Moscow. The plotters consisted of hard-line Party members, ministers, military chiefs and, most important, the chairman of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, who likely led and masterminded the coup. The group thought it covered all its bases. While Gorbachev was on a plane, the men went into a flurry, calling on elite forces in both the KGB and Russian military. Tanks deployed to Moscow, Gorbachev's villa and the dacha of Boris Yeltsin, who was then the president of Russia within the new decentralized Soviet constituencies. The coup plotters cut all phone lines to Gorbachev (including the one controlling the red button), tapped the phones of every senior member of the government, had all television channels play Swan Lake on a loop and shut down the remaining media.
But instead of reasserting Moscow's dominance in the Soviet Union as the plotters had hoped, the attempted coup triggered a popular uprising, the final descent of the Soviet Union and an even greater liberalization of Russia beyond the fears of even the conspirators. It was the coup plotters' worst nightmare. While Gorbachev stayed at his villa, Yeltsin broke through the military cordon to get into central Moscow and called on the people to rise against the "reactionary coup." Tens of thousands flooded the streets, and the military and KGB forces began to dissent, refusing to fire on or strike against the Russian people.
The coup dissolved in just three days, but its effects rippled throughout the Soviet Union and shook Gorbachev's attempt to balance what remained of the union. Within the next four months, many of the remaining Soviet states, such as Ukraine and Belarus, began to distance themselves from the union and Moscow. The Soviet Union officially dissolved in December. With the hard-liners arrested, the Communist Party fizzled, and Yeltsin was eventually able to take control from a weakened Gorbachev. The newly minted Russian Federation began a series of rapid and chaotic liberalizations, socially, economically and politically. Gorbachev would later say the 1991 August Coup was a major contributor to the collapse of the Soviet Union, believing his gradual decentralizations could have kept some semblance of its predecessor.
A keen student of history, Vladimir Putin has called the collapse of the Soviet Union the "major geopolitical disaster of the century." But although Putin has reformed his country back into a major geopolitical power, even he must see the similarities between the pressures building on his country today and those that led up to the August Coup. For 16 years, Putin has balanced between liberal and conservative power factions, much like Gorbachev did, forcing him to vacillate between both camps' domestic and foreign policies. Putin has been a masterful arbitrator for nearly two decades, but still the discontent from within is rising.
Public criticism of the leader's policy choices from among the Russian elite is growing — something unheard of in previous years. The liberal factions want him to open the economy and warm relations with the West. The hawks want Putin to move fully into Ukraine and sever foreign economic ties altogether. Putin's ability to maintain a balance has grown uncertain, as he has purged his own internal circle of some of the most powerful men in Moscow over the past year. He is even fearful for his own safety, creating his own private military.
But forces within the Kremlin that could band together against the Russian president are not blind to their history either. They know just as well as their political opponents that dire circumstances can lead to extreme actions, but those extreme actions can also leave a broken system in their wake.