August 19, 1991: Boris Yeltsin helps foil hardline coup against Soviet reformer Gorbachev

Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against Soviet hardliners, with Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin climbing onto a tank and appealing to the army not to turn on the protesters.

A coup by hardline communist members of the Soviet government against president Mikhail Gorbachev was staged on this day in 1991 in a turn of events which threatened to reverse his policies of glasnost and perestroika.

The coup’s leaders, who included former vice-president Gennady Yanayev (below, with Gorbachev in March 1991) as well as the heads of the Army, the KGB and the police, were against Mr Gorbachev’s radical reform programme and the devolution of power from the Soviet government to its republics.

The plotters, calling themselves the State Committee on the State of Emergency, held the president under house arrest at his holiday home in the Crimea, and took over state radio and television to announce that they were saving the country from “a national catastrophe”.

Mikhail Gorbachev, right, speaks with Vice President Gennady Yanayev during a break in session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow on Thursday, March 7, 1991

But as their tanks rolled into central Moscow in a show of force, thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against them – including Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin, who (as can be seen in the video above) climbed onto a tank and appealed to the army not to turn on them.

[December 22, 1989: Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu overthrown in bloody revolution]

In a statement, Yeltsin accused the hardliners of staging an “irresponsible” coup d’etat, calling for civil disobedience and the implementation of a general strike in order to show them that their actions were against the will of the people.

The plotters imposed a curfew in Moscow and planned an attack on the White House, home of the government of the Russian Federation, in spite of opposition from some army commanders who were convinced that such a course of action would lead to bloodshed.

In the face of growing dissent against them, the coup leaders backed down; Gorbachev was returned to power within three days and the plotters were removed from office, effectively ending the power of the Communist Party in the country and putting in motion events that would herald the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

[November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall falls, taking much of Communist Eastern Europe with it]

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