21 August 1991: coup to oust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev fails

The Soviet Union’s communist economic system was generally a failure. By the early 1980s, even exaggerated official data put the USSR’s GDP per head at half that of Western Europe. There were long waiting lists for consumer goods, and even food and clothing shortages. So in 1985, new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instigated limited economic and political reforms – Perestroika and Glasnost – to boost growth and ease public discontent.

However, within five years he was trapped between popular demands for the end of communism and hardliners who opposed all change. Gorbachev reluctantly continued reforms, trying to encourage the USSR’s survival as a looser federation, authorising limited crackdowns in Georgia and Azerbaijan. This satisfied no one – on 19 August 1991, the hardliners attempted a coup. While Gorbachev was on holiday, senior officials arrested him at his villa.

They declared a state of emergency, sending troops into Moscow’s streets. But the coup unravelled when protesters blockaded the main government building, aiming to protect the president,
Boris Yeltsin. Facing possible bloodshed, and themselves divided, the army refused to fire on protesters. The conspirators resigned and released Gorbachev on 21 August.

However, the coup destroyed both his authority and that of the remaining hardliners, amid lingering suspicions that he had tacitly encouraged the coup as a way to get rid of Yeltsin. He resigned as Communist Party Secretary days later and the party was abolished on 29 August. He finally resigned as Soviet president on Christmas Day 1991, bringing the Soviet Union to an end the following day.

Also on this day

21 August 1911: The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre

On this day in 1911, Italian outcast Vincenzo Perrugia slipped out of a closet at the Louvre and made off with the Mona Lisa. Read more here.