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

Communist hardliners arrested Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev while he was on holiday, hastening the end of the USSR, on this day in 1991.

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. And 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.

Recommended

I wish I knew what contagion was, but I’m too embarrassed to ask
Too embarrassed to ask

I wish I knew what contagion was, but I’m too embarrassed to ask

Most of us probably know what “contagion” is in a biological sense. But it also crops up in financial markets. Here's what it means.
21 Sep 2021
Why is the UK short of CO2 and what does it mean for you?
UK Economy

Why is the UK short of CO2 and what does it mean for you?

The UK is experiencing a carbon dioxide shortage that could lead to empty shelves in supermarkets. Saloni Sardana explains what’s going on and how it …
21 Sep 2021
What to invest in to beat soaring energy prices
Investment strategy

What to invest in to beat soaring energy prices

As gas and electricity prices hit the roof, John Stepek explains how to invest to offset higher energy bills.
21 Sep 2021
Are Spacs just for suckers?
Investment strategy

Are Spacs just for suckers?

This year has seen a big boom in activity by special purpose acquisition companies (Spacs) in the US and the Spac craze is spreading to other markets…
21 Sep 2021

Most Popular

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest
Small cap stocks

The times may be changing, but don’t change how you invest

We are living in strange times. But the basics of investing remain the same: buy fairly-priced stocks that can provide an income. And there are few be…
13 Sep 2021
Two shipping funds to buy for steady income
Investment trusts

Two shipping funds to buy for steady income

Returns from owning ships are volatile, but these two investment trusts are trying to make the sector less risky.
7 Sep 2021
Should investors be worried about stagflation?
US Economy

Should investors be worried about stagflation?

The latest US employment data has raised the ugly spectre of “stagflation” – weak growth and high inflation. John Stepek looks at what’s going on and …
6 Sep 2021