August 18

This Day in History

Cold War

Aug 18, 1991:

Coup attempt against Gorbachev begins

Hard-line elements of the Soviet government and military begin a coup attempt against President Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup attempt signified a decline in Gorbachev's power and influence, while one of his most ardent opponents, Boris Yeltsin, came out of the event with more power than ever.

Since coming to power in 1985, Gorbachev had pressed forward with significant reforms on two fronts. First, he called for a liberalization of the Soviet government's economic and political policies. He pushed for an economy that would rely more on free market policies and argued that the closed communist political system would need to be democratized. Second, he strenuously pursued better relations with the West, particularly the United States. His efforts were acclaimed in the West, and President Ronald Reagan, an avowed anticommunist, came to consider Gorbachev a friend and respected colleague. In the Soviet Union, however, Gorbachev found his policies attacked twofold. On one side were hard-line communists who believed that Gorbachev's policies were leading the Soviet Union to ruin and a status as a second-class world power. On the other side were more radical reformers such as Boris Yeltsin, who served as president of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic. Yeltsin constantly complained that Gorbachev was not moving fast or far enough with his reforms; in July 1990, Yeltsin demonstrated his dissatisfaction by announcing that he was resigning from the Communist Party.

By August 1991, hard-line elements of the Soviet government and military decided to act and staged a coup against Gorbachev. Gorbachev was put under house arrest, and his enemies demanded that he resign as leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev refused, but many outside of Russia began to feel that his government could not survive. Yeltsin and many of his supporters, who had taken refuge in the Russian Parliament, then stepped in. Yeltsin correctly perceived that if the coup were successful, even the limited reforms begun by Gorbachev would be destroyed. He called on the Russian people to strike and take to the streets to oppose the coup. The people responded by the thousands, and the poorly organized coup collapsed only a few days later. The damage to the Gorbachev regime was nonetheless disastrous. In December 1991, with the Soviet Union crumbling around him, he resigned as leader of the nation.

Yeltsin emerged from the crisis as Gorbachev's heir apparent. When Gorbachev announced his resignation in December, Yeltsin immediately removed all flags of the former Soviet Union from government buildings in the state of Russia and continued to serve as the leader of the most powerful of the former soviet socialist republics.

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