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?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
peopleMathematician John Nash inspired the film Beautiful Mind
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine