Yeltsin on a tank
Diane-Lu Hovasse/AFP/Getty Images
Itar / Tass / Reuters
On August 19, 1991, the hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by the then-Vice President Gennady Yanayev, put the pro-reform General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest. The party also sent tanks to suppress the people’s revolts for democracy.
At that critical juncture, Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, defied the hardliners. He made a speech from the turret of a tank, calling on the military to refrain from firing on the people. The Communist hardliners originally planned to occupy the Parliament at 3 a.m. on August 20, 1991. The plan was aborted after the Alpha Group, an elite unit of the KGB, refused to follow orders. In the defeat of the August Coup, the consciences of KGB agents played an important role–some KGB agents had their weapons aimed at Yeltsin on the tank but refrained from firing.
From the moment he scrambled atop the tank, it was clear Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin knew how to seize the day. Russia’s first freely elected leader in 1,000 years, he was the man who consigned the Soviet Union to history’s dustbin, and one who drove Russia’s chaotic transformation into a fledgling democracy during the ’90s. To cope, Yeltsin turned to vodka. After lunch during an official visit to Germany in ’94, he snatched the baton from a conductor and began to lead the band. A 1996 bypass operation seemed to check his drinking, but his health remained precarious. Public opinion turned against him as crime flourished and tycoons took control of state assets. By the time he resigned in 1999, the elements of suppression he fought were already returning. When he died in 2008, Bill Clinton remembered, “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him.”