MOSCOW – The world held its breath 30 years ago when a group of top Communist officials ousted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and flooded Moscow with tanks.
But instead of bringing a rollback of liberal reforms and a return to Cold War confrontations, the August 1991 coup collapsed in just three days and precipitated the breakup of the Soviet Union a few months later, an event the plotters claimed they were trying to prevent.
The putsch began when several of Gorbachev's top lieutenants arrived at his Black Sea vacation home on Aug. 18 to urge him to impose a nationwide state of emergency. They were trying to stop the signing of a union treaty between Soviet republics set for two days later, which Gorbachev saw as a way to shore up the crumbling Soviet Union.
After he refused to endorse the state of emergency, the coup plotters cut off the Soviet leader's communications and left him isolated at his residence.
The next day — Aug. 19, 1991 — Soviet Union residents woke up to the televised broadcast of the Bolshoi Theater's “Swan Lake” ballet and state TV anchors reading a terse statement declaring that Gorbachev was unfit to govern for health reasons. The statement said the State Committee on the State of Emergency was created to save the country from sliding into “chaos and anarchy.”
At the same time, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles rolled into Moscow in a massive show of force.
Thousands of people opposed to the coup quickly gathered around the government building for the Russian Federation, one of 15 Soviet republics, which was led by Boris Yeltsin, who enjoyed broad popularity as the leader of pro-democracy forces. The orchestrators of the coup, meanwhile, were hesitant.
Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB chief and top mastermind behind the coup, had the KGB's Alpha commando unit surround Yeltsin's residence near Moscow but never issued an order to detain him, allowing Yeltsin to drive to his headquarters.
“We decided to try to get to the office despite the risks,” Yeltsin's top associate, Gennady Burbulis, said.
Some troops surrounding the Russian government building even joined the protesters. After arriving, Yeltsin climbed atop a tank deployed to block the building and passionately urged people to stand up to the coup.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Burbulis said he tried to discourage Yeltsin from getting on the tank because of the high risk, but Yeltsin dismissed his warning.
"It was in Yeltsin's character to resolutely and unabashedly defend what he considered right," Burbulis said.
Within hours, it became clear the coup was crumbling.
When the coup instigators showed up at a press conference, they were sweating and stuttering. Some couldn't prevent their hands from trembling as they struggled to fend off sharp questions from the media.
Later that evening, state TV showed the nervous, indecisive coup plotters along with a defiant Yeltsin atop a tank — images that could not contrast more.
“They lacked the political will and the willingness to take responsibility for the country,” Viktor Alksnis, a hardline member of the Soviet parliament who backed imposing a state of emergency, said of the coup plotters.
The following day, up to 200,000 people rallied near the Russian government headquarters to defy the coup, building barricades, roaming the streets and ignoring a curfew imposed by the coup leaders.
“There was a lot of excitement, enthusiasm, resolve and a strong belief in our consolidation and eventual victory,” Burbulis said.
Another Yeltsin ally, Andrei Dunayev, quickly ordered about 1,000 police cadets to come to Moscow to protect Yeltsin’s headquarters with weapons. He said that helped discourage the coup plotters from using force.
“They decided there would be too much blood,” he said.
Amid the tensions, a violent clash between troops and protesters in a tunnel less than 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the Russian government building left three protesters dead and others wounded. Protesters, fearing a convoy of armored vehicles was heading to storm the Russian building, blocked the street with buses.
Speaking to the AP in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Gennady Veretilny said he was wounded as he tried to save Dmitry Komar, a protester killed when he got stuck in one of the armored vehicles.
“The armored vehicles were ramming the electric buses, trying to shove them away,” Veretilny recalled, adding that he saw a man hanging from the rear hatch of an armored vehicle. “I ran up to him, reached my hands (to pull him out), and then a gunshot rang from over there and I felt burning and pain.”
Hours after the clash, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov ordered troops to pull back from Moscow. Later on Aug. 21, some of the coup organizers flew to Gorbachev's Black Sea residence to try to negotiate, but he refused to meet with them.
The coup plotters were arrested and Gorbachev flew back to Moscow on Aug. 22 only to see his power dwindle and Yeltsin calling the shots.
“He was kept prisoner for three days by the organizers of the coup, but when he was freed and had the possibility to return to Moscow, he was already the hostage of Yeltsin, because he owed to him his liberation," said Andrei Grachev, who served as Gorbachev's spokesman in 1991. “Yeltsin became the No. 1 political actor on the Soviet scene.”
Less than four months later, Yeltsin and leaders of other Soviet republics declared the Soviet Union defunct, and Gorbachev stepped down on Dec. 25, 1991. The arrested coup plotters faced trial but received amnesty in 1994.
Grachev argued that Gorbachev underestimated the danger that his hard-line lieutenants posed to his rule.
“He considered them to be too mediocre, incapable of organizing anything serious or challenging him,” Grachev said.
Gorbachev, 90, has spoken about the coup with bitterness, describing it as the fatal blow to the Soviet Union.
“Those three days of imprisonment were the hardest test in my life,” he wrote in his memoir.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Gorbachev said the coup organizers “bear a large share of responsibility for the country's breakup.”
Burbulis, meanwhile, lamented his country's failure to get rid of its authoritarian past.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has described the Soviet collapse as the “greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century,” has been accused by critics of steadily rolling back post-Soviet freedoms during his two decades in power.
In the last few months, Russian authorities have intensified a crackdown on opposition activists and independent media ahead of the country's Sept. 19 parliamentary election, which is widely seen as a key part of Putin's efforts to cement his rule for years to come.
“Thirty years later, we are still stuck in the post-imperial mindset,” Burbulis said. “Power has become the ultimate value for some, along with restrictions of freedoms and controls over civil society, not to mention direct restrictions of freedom of election.”
Kostya Manenkov and Anna Frants in Moscow and Yuras Karmanau in Kyiv, Ukraine contributed to this report.