Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (1937 – 2010)

Yanayev, second from right, was as dour as any Soviet apparatchik

Along with Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, it was one of the iconic images of the dying Soviet Union’s comic opera coup in August 1991: Gennady Yanayev, the new figurehead president, facing the world’s press for the first and only time, stammering out one inept and bumbling answer after another, his voice quivering and his hands shaking from nerves and too much vodka. It was a performance that confirmed the coup was amateurish and helped undermine it.

A coup by hard-liners had been in the air since the previous December, but few would have guessed that Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev — the man described by David Remnick in his magestrial history of the end of the Soviet Union Lenin’s Tomb as “a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk” — would be at the helm of the USSR. Whether Yanayev ever bothered to sober up during the three-day coup is unknown. Although he was not one of the principle players in the coup, as the USSR’s vice-president, he was the palace coup’s veneer of constitutionality. On 19th August, 1991 — the day after he declared a state of emergency — Yanayev held a disastrous press conference at the Foreign Ministry, in which the ruling ‘State Committee’ projected nothing but hesitancy and weakness. Ironically, the plotters, who viewed themselves as patriots, merely quickened the demise of the Soviet Union. The coup quickly withered, and with it the Soviet Union itself.

Yanayev was initially imprisoned and charged with high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. But as disillusion with new Russia grew — and with it nostalgia for the Soviet Union — he and other coup leaders were pardoned by the parliament in 1994. Yanayev returned to the obscurity — from which he had briefly but so dramatically been plucked — and died there last week, virtually a forgotten man trampled by a wave of history he never understood yet struggled in vain to resist.

— the obituary adapted from the Independent. See his trembling hands here. I don’t speak Russian that well but people who do should comment.

Thailand, 1976

Thailand is descending into some sort of chaos again recently, it seems. I may be just ignorant, i don’t understand what pouring human blood on the government buildings accomplishes but it seems very gruesome and medieval. Since its transition into democracy in 1932, there had been 18 coup d’etats and nearly 60 prime ministerial administrations in Thailand. Yet, compared to its neighbors it is pretty democratic and stable. Sir Humphrey would have called it ‘unstable sort of stability’ I guess.

No other period in its history had been as tumultuous as the 70s. In 1973, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and his cadre who ruled for much of the 1960s and early 1970s were ousted by a student-led uprising. In 1976, Thanom decided to return to Thailand as a monk in a controversial act widely protested by the students. Thanks to partisans accusing student movements of being communist, the protests turned ugly. At least 46 student protesters are killed and hundreds more are wounded by the police and army which turned violent and staged its own coup.

One iconic picture to come out of this conflict was the above, taken by Neal Ulevich for AP. A leftist student was so angry that he was striking the lifeless body of a hanged student outside the Thammasat University in this Oct. 6, 1976 photo. (At least 15 persons were killed when police stormed the campus where students barricaded themselves in). Ulevich won the Pulitzer and World Press Photo Award for the photo, and he reflects on the irony: “When I won the Pulitzer, the Bangkok papers noted it on page one. They were very proud that a photographer from Bangkok had won the Pulitzer. They didn’t show the pictures.”

Allende’s Last Stand

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Salvador Allende (1908 – 1973) was the first democratically elected Marxist socialist to become president of a state in the Americas. After running unsuccessful in three previous elections, a physician Allende won the election in 1970. In early September 1973, Allende decided to resolve the constitutional crisis with a plebiscite on 11 September. On that fateful day, the Chilean military staged a US-backed coup against Allende, ending democracy in Chile.

Prior to the capture of La Moneda Presidential Palace, with gunfire and explosions clearly audible in the background, Allende gave his famous farewell speech on live radio, speaking of himself in the past tense, of his love for Chile and of his deep faith in its future. Shortly afterwards, an official announcement was sent out that he had committed suicide. To this day, his supporters believe that he was killed by the generals staging the coup.

The anonymous photo of Allende surfaced four months after the coup. The New York Times‘ Latin American correspondent, Marvine Howe, was given the photograph by an intermediary who said the photographer must remain anonymous. The Times ran the photo of Allende wearing a metal combat helmet and carrying a Soviet-made automatic rifle given to him by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, on the front page. It may be the last photo of Allende. The photo won the World Press photo award in 1973, but it has been alleged that it was taken at a previous coup attempt, one which failed.

In February 2007, the Chilean newspaper La Nación revealed that the photographer was Luis Orlando Lagos Vásquez, aka “Chico” Lagos, at the time La Moneda’s official photographer, who had passed away in the previous month at the age of 94.