People Standing against Tanks: The Civil Resistance of August 1991 and Its Ambiguous Legacy
by John Whitehead
Nonviolent civil resistance helped change history 30 years ago this month. When a group of hardline communists within the Soviet Union attempted a coup in August 1991, they were met with significant resistance from other Soviet citizens, including both ordinary people and elites. The civil resisters ultimately prevailed over the coup plotters. The failed coup set the stage for the Soviet Union’s dissolution later that year.
The thwarted Soviet coup is an inspiring example of what nonviolent civil resistance achieved. Viewed three decades later, in light of subsequent, grimmer historical events, this episode also provides an occasion to reflect on what civil resistance failed to achieve.
A Fracturing Nation
The August 1991 coup and the resulting resistance were the climax of years of change in the historically repressive Soviet Union overseen by the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1989, elections to a national assembly took place in which candidates not affiliated with the ruling Communist Party could run for office. These non-establishment candidates won a significant minority of seats. The following year, the regime moved further away from one-party rule by allowing greater freedom for non-Communist political parties to operate. Later in 1990, multiparty local elections brought more non-establishment candidates to power, including reformist mayors of the major cities Moscow and Leningrad. In June 1991, 80 million Soviet voters elected a new president for the most important Soviet republic, Russia. The winner was Boris Yeltsin, a former Communist turned regime opponent.
These changes were accompanied by greater popular willingness to challenge the Soviet regime. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people participated in an anti-government demonstration in Moscow in February 1990, the largest such protest in Soviet history. The protest may have influenced that year’s decision to allow for greater electoral freedom. A similar demonstration took place in Moscow in March 1991, in open defiance of a government ban and despite the presence of police and troops on hand to repress demonstrators. However, the protest occurred without violence.
Journalist Vitaly Korotich described the change taking place: “The people in this country have always been afraid of power . . . Now, maybe, the powerful are becoming a little afraid of the people.” (quoted in David Remnick, Lenin’s Tomb, p. 222)
Popular resistance was met with violence elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Non-Russian Soviet republics that defied the Russia-dominated regime became flashpoints for conflict. In 1989, troops attacked a crowd of nationalists in Georgia, killing 19 people. In early 1991, government forces responded to independence movements in Lithuania and Latvia with violent crackdowns that left 20 people dead.
Faced with an increasingly rebellious, divided nation, Gorbachev compromised. He agreed to a new structure for the Soviet Union, in which the various Soviet republics would have more autonomy and those republics who wished to leave the Union altogether could more easily do so. A treaty establishing this new structure was scheduled to be signed on August 20, 1991. Then the coup intervened.
Coup and Resistance
Members of Gorbachev’s inner circle such as Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov and KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov formed a plan to take power before the new Union Treaty could be signed. Gorbachev was then away from Moscow on vacation; on August 18, the conspirators cut off his communication with the outside world and placed the Soviet leader under house arrest. Early the following morning, the conspirators broadcast a TV announcement of a state of emergency in the country. On Yazov’s orders, military units occupied Moscow, taking positions around the parliament, city hall, and TV and radio stations.
Resistance to the coup swiftly took shape, helped by the conspirators’ failure either to arrest all potential opponents or to gain control of all communications and media outlets. Yeltsin rushed to the Moscow parliament building and, together with other Russian politicians, issued an appeal denouncing the coup and calling for a country-wide strike. Yeltsin was even bold enough to venture outside, stand on one of the hostile tanks around the parliament, and declare “[W]e proclaim all decisions and decrees of [the conspirators] to be illegal…We appeal to citizens of Russia to give an appropriate rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.” (Lenin’s Tomb, p. 466]
Russians of all kinds joined in the resistance. Tens of thousands of people gradually converged around the parliament, setting up barricades made out of debris. A printer’s strike at the newspaper Izvestia forced the paper’s management to print Yeltsin’s appeal. Some military units sent by the conspirators were met by people shouting “Don’t shoot your own people! Turn against your officers!” People brought soldiers food, flowers, and resistance leaflets.
The resistance wasn’t philosophically nonviolent. Many of those who defended the parliament carried weapons. Yet in practice the civil resisters remained largely nonviolent. (One notable exception was when a clash between demonstrators and a tank led to three protestors being killed; other protestors then set fire to tanks.) A line of women protected the parliament while holding a sign reading: “Soviet Soldiers: Don’t Shoot Your Mothers.”
Nadezhda Kudinova, a seamstress who joined the protestors, later commented, “The people in the [parliament] ordered us to step aside, not to jump on the tanks if they came . . . But we knew that if the tanks came, we would step in front of them.” Another woman protestor, Regina Bogachova, said simply, “I am ready to die right here, right on this spot. I will not move.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 478, 481-482)
The stand-off dragged on for days. The conspirators faced the problem that they could prevail only by violently overrunning the resistance at the parliament. However, they couldn’t count on general support for such action: military commanders and even KGB officials expressed skepticism about the coup. They eventually decided to quit: on August 21, Yazov and the military commanders sent the troops in Moscow back to barracks. In the early morning hours, Kryuchkov called the parliament to say, “It’s okay now . . . You can go to sleep.” (Lenin’s Tomb, pp. 484-485)
Most of the coup conspirators went to prison. By December 1991, most Soviet republics had agreed to bypass any new Union Treaty and simply become independent nations. The Soviet Union ceased to exist by the year’s end.
At the time, all these events seemed a near-miraculous triumph for freedom and democracy over repression. Viewed 30 years later, the August 1991 coup and its defeat seem more bittersweet.
As president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin proved far less devoted to democracy and nonviolence than he had been as a rebel. A little over two years after facing down tanks in Moscow, Yeltsin would send tanks against the Russian parliament building he had once defended, now to crush his own political opposition. The 1990s brought terrible political and economic chaos to Russia. Meanwhile, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, moved early in his tenure to curtail independent Russian TV media. Putin’s 20-plus-year career as president reached a culmination of sorts earlier this year when he amended Russian law to allow him to continue as president until 2036.
Does this dismal history mean that the nonviolent civil resistance of 1991 was a failure? In one sense, the answer is clearly “no.” The civil resisters succeeded in their primary, immediate goal of thwarting the attempted coup. Their nonviolent resistance was likely far more effective, and certainly less bloody, than violent resistance to the coup would have been. Further, the persistence of repressive politics in the region indicates that more civil resistance, not less, is needed in post-Soviet nations.
Nevertheless, what recent history also suggests is that civil resistance by itself is not sufficient to bring justice and peace to a society. The possibilities that civil resistance opens up must be used wisely to build a new, stable, non-repressive political system. This requires activists to cultivate an additional set of political skills beyond mastery of resistance. In nonviolent resistance as much as violent resistance, one can “win the war but lose the peace.” The resistance of August 1991 thus is both an inspirational and cautionary tale for activists today.
For similar posts from John Whitehead, see:
Making a Nonviolent Revolution: Review of Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know