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.

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