Gennady Yanayev: Politician who acted as figurehead in the attempted Soviet coup of 1991

Along with Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, it was the defining image of the dying Soviet Union's comic opera coup in August 1991: Gennady Yanayev, the new figurehead president, facing the world's press in Moscow for the first and only time, stammering out one inept answer after another, his hands shaking from nerves and too much vodka.

As Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika descended into anarchy, a coup by hard-liners had been in the air since the previous December, when Eduard Shevardnadze, foreign minister and one of Gorbachev's closest reformer allies, stunningly resigned, warning that "a dictatorship is coming."

Until that moment, though, few would have guessed that the successor of Gorbachev, who for approximately 60 hours would nominally be at the helm of the world's other superpower, would be Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev. He was the quintessential Soviet bureaucrat, who had risen through the ranks of the youth organisation Komsomol and the government-run Soviet trade union movement. In 1990, as a sop to the hardliners, he was appointed first to the ruling Politburo in July 1990 and then to the newly created post of vice-president the following December, at the same Congress of People's Deputies at which Shevardnadze stepped down.

In the following months rumours of a coup intensified, and Yanayev was in on the plotting. Don't worry, he wrote reassuringly to an anxious Fidel Castro in July 1991, "soon there will be a change for the better."

In fact, the coup's prime movers were Vladimir Kryuchkov, the chairman of the KGB, the defence minister Dimitri Yazov and the chief defence industry bureaucrat Oleg Baklanov. Yanayev's role, however, was equally essential. He would be the conspiracy's face to the world – the vice-president whose "temporary" replacement of Gorbachev on account of the latter's "state of health," would lend the enterprise a veneer of constitutionality.

The veneer, such as it was, disappeared the moment the spotlight descended on Yanayev. On the night of 18 August he had signed the decrees declaring a state of emergency, and setting up a "State Committee" to run the country. He seems to have spent most of the time smoking and drinking, listening as Kryuchkov and the others gave the orders.

But late in the afternoon the following day, the man described in Lenin's Tomb, David Remnick's masterful account of the end of the Soviet Union, as "a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk" held centre stage at the press conference at the Foreign Ministry.

It was a disaster. These last representatives of a vanishing order projected not authority but bumbling weakness; they could not even muster Soviet Communism's most basic ingredients, the ability to steal power and inspire fear. The journalists were openly snickering as Yanayev's hands trembled and his voice quivered.

"Do you realise you have carried out a state coup?" asked a young lady from Nezavisimaya Gazeta, before enquiring whether "the model is 1917 or 1964" – in other words the original Bolshevik takeover or the palace coup that ousted that earlier reformer, Nikita Krushchev? From that moment the cause was lost.

The coup collapsed on 21 August, and Gorbachev returned to a Moscow where real power was in the hands of Yeltsin, and where the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist, on Christmas Day 1991. Yanayev was initially imprisoned and charged with high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty.

In the event, he spent little more than a year in jail and was released before his trial began. In 1994, as disillusion with Yeltsin grew – and with it nostalgia for the iron certainties of the Soviet Union – he and other coup leaders were pardoned by the Russian Parliament.

Thereafter Yanayev returned to the obscurity from which he had briefly but so dramatically been plucked. Only once did he speak in public about the coup, in an interview on its 10th anniversary in 2001. The plot was intended to thwart "those who wanted the collapse of a great state," he said, and the Soviet Union at the time was "in total crisis." In that last judgement at least, he was correct.

Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev, Soviet official and politician: born Perevoz, Russia 26 August 1937; Vice-President of the Soviet Union December 1990-August 1991, President 19-21 August 1991; death announced Moscow 24 September 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...