It’s August, 1991. The Soviet Union is in crisis – but for the past few years it’s always been in crisis. Yet – this seems different.
Mikhail Gorbachev has not been heard from. The KGB has him under “protective custody”. The Soviet Army is in the streets. No one knows what is going on. State TV is playing the “Swan Lake” ballet non-stop and nothing else.
It is announced, finally, that the “State Committee On The State Of The Emergency” (a name which is as bureaucratically nonsensical in Russian as in English) will hold a press conference.
Five men appear, addressing a nervous country, as pictured. The leader, Vice President Gennady Yanayev, says Gorbachev is “resting” for “health reasons”. Everything is normal. Obey orders.
Except… Yanayev can’t stop his hands from shaking. He slurs his words. He’s frightened. And drunk.
Then… a reporter speaks up. An 18 year old young woman, Tatiana Malinka. She asks a question which is carried live over the Soviet Union:
“Sir, are you aware of the fact that you have just committed a state coup?”
Something breaks. And that something was the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin, who had broken with Gorbachev and been exiled to an apparently parochial position leading the Russian (not Soviet) government, stood atop a tank and told the generals to stand down. And they did.
The coup ended, and the four putschists were carted off to jail (the fifth shot himself in the head first). Gorbachev returned to Moscow.
Except the coup did not end. It had just begun. Yeltsin, triumphantly, announced that the Communist party was now outlawed. That the Soviet Union would be abolished, replaced with its member states, the largest of which Yeltsin happened to run. A few months later, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin one last time, and the Russian tricolor raised in its place. Gorbachev was out of a job, and the USSR was gone.
And everyone lived happily ever after.
No, wait. They didn’t.
Yeltsin, faced with another coup led by the same group of people two years later, responded by shelling the Russian version of Congress – the very same building Yeltsin stood in front of, on top of a tank, and faced down the KGB and the Army – with tanks of his own.
Broken by this pretty clear repudiation of everything he stood for, he then proceeded to quite literally drink himself to death, while his family looted the country.
His last act, almost exactly 21 years ago, was to resign in favor of his successor, a completely unknown apparatchik from St. Petersburg, named Vladimir Putin.
Coups never end. Once you cross the line of legitimacy, it is forever gone.