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 hyperinflation was, but I’m too embarrassed to ask
Too embarrassed to ask

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

Mention hyperinflation and many of us will think of wheelbarrows full of cash in Weimar Germany. Or, more recently, Zimbabwe or Venezuela. But what ex…
11 May 2021
The return to the old nine-to-five is a matter for business, not government
UK Economy

The return to the old nine-to-five is a matter for business, not government

Should we stay working from home or go back to the office? Whatever we decide, let’s keep Whitehall out of the question, says Matthew Lynn.
9 May 2021
Three lessons from football’s European Super League disaster
Economy

Three lessons from football’s European Super League disaster

Businesses can learn from the failed attempt to create a European Super League, says Matthew Lynn.
2 May 2021
The V-shaped recovery looks to be here at last
Economy

The V-shaped recovery looks to be here at last

The world is certainly not a Panglossian paradise. But the recovery is under way and there is plenty of good news about.
29 Apr 2021

Most Popular

Inflation is taking off in the US and markets really don’t like it
Inflation

Inflation is taking off in the US and markets really don’t like it

US inflation is at its highest for 25 years. Stockmarkets – and tech stocks in particular – have taken the news badly. John Stepek explains why, and w…
13 May 2021
Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting
Inheritance tax

Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting

There are plenty of legal ways to minimise an inheritance tax bill. Perhaps the simplest is to give away assets to reduce the size of your estate. Dav…
11 May 2021
Is it time to top up on gold? Or should you wait for a better opportunity?
Gold

Is it time to top up on gold? Or should you wait for a better opportunity?

Fears of inflation, money-printing and a global pandemic are all conditions that should drive the gold price higher. But it has been struggling. Domin…
12 May 2021