Coup de Grace: The End of the Soviet Union

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev waves a bouquet of flowers, November 10, 1990. He is flanked by his wife Raisa and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Joachim Herrmann / Reuters

On August 24, 1991, three days after the collapse of an attempted coup by a group of high Soviet officials in Moscow, Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev killed himself in his Kremlin office. Mikhail Gorbachev’s special adviser on military affairs left a suicide note: "Everything I have worked for is being destroyed."

Akhromeyev had devoted his life to three institutions: the Soviet army, in whose service he had been wounded at Leningrad in 1941 and through whose ranks he had risen to the position of chief of the General Staff (1984-88); the Communist Party, which he had joined at 20 and on whose Central Committee he had served since 1983; and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics itself, officially founded a year before his birth in 1923. In the wake of the failed coup all three were disintegrating.

The armed forces were divided and disgraced. Entire units had refused to take part in the coup. A number of the troops sent to beseige the Russian parliament building—where a crowd that ultimately numbered 100,000 had gathered to defend the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and his government—defected to Yeltsin’s side. After the coup had failed Defense Minister Dimitri Yazov and his deputy, Valentin Varennikov, were arrested. Yevgeny I. Shaposhnikov, the newly appointed minister, announced that 80 percent of the army’s officers would be replaced because they were politically suspect.

The Communist Party was shattered. As jubilant crowds cheered, statues of communist heroes were pulled down all over Moscow. Gorbachev, shortly after his return from his ordeal in the Crimea, resigned as leader of the party, dissolved the Central Committee, ordered an end to party activity in the military, the security apparatus and the government, and told local party organizations that they would have to fend for themselves.

The union of 15 republics was itself dissolving. In Moscow people began to wave the blue, white and red flag of prerevolutionary Russia. The republics scrambled to declare their independence, the Ukrainian parliament voting for full independence by 321 to 1. For 75 years the

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