On This Day

boris yeltsin tank speech
Boris Yeltsin voices his opposition to the Aug. 19 coup from atop a tank.

On This Day: Supreme Soviet Bans Communist Party

August 29, 2011 06:00 AM
by James Sullivan
On Aug. 29, 1991, the Soviet Parliament voted to suspend the activities of the Communist Party in the USSR. Ten days earlier party officials staged a coup in an attempt to remove President Mikhail Gorbachev from office.

An Ill-Fated Coup

The vote made by the Supreme Soviet on Aug. 29 ended the activities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which had dominated the Soviet political landscape for decades. The vote was called in response to a failed coup launched by senior Soviet officials on Aug. 19.

Throughout the 1980s, President Mikhail Gorbachev enacted a number of policy changes that threatened the vanguard status of the Communist Party. Most notably was “perestroika,” an economic, social and political restructuring of the Soviet Union that shook the state’s foundations. The liberal reforms included the introduction of multi-candidate local elections, the expansion of civil liberties for Soviet citizens and the inclusion of free-market elements within the Soviet system.

The day before Gorbachev was to sign the “New Union Treaty,” which would convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics, he was detained by his vice president, defense minister and high level officials while vacationing in Crimea. O

rganizers of the coup opposed the treaty on the grounds that it would weaken the Soviet State. They seized the seat of government, expecting broad support, but instead met staunch opposition from the public and from Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

The coup fell apart after three days. The organizers were arrested, and ultimately the party they aimed to preserve was dismantled.

Dissolution of the USSR

Following the coup, Gorbachev was restored to his office, though his authority was effectively destroyed. Yeltsin, who had climbed atop a tank outside the Russian parliamentary building and called for resistance against the coup, emerged a hero. He had won the support of the Russian people and the Russian government, and began to take control of Soviet government ministries.

On Dec. 8, 1991, Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus declared the death of the Soviet Union and formed a Commonwealth of Independent States.

The announcement effectively ended the authority of Gorbachev. The Russian legislature ratified the agreement on Dec. 12 and eight other Soviet republics joined the CIS nine days later. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day and the Soviet Union was officially dissolved the following day.

Key Player: Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985 and installed liberal reforms such as “glasnost” and “perestroika” to repair the crumbling union. However, the policies undercut his power and weakened the union; a string of Eastern Bloc countries declared their independence in 1989 and nationalist movements in Soviet republics grew. His own reforms helped lead to his downfall and the downfall of the Soviet Union.

This man with the stain on his forehead attempted simultaneously to contain and transform the country, to destroy and reconstruct, right on the spot,” wrote Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstaya in Time. “One can be Hercules and clean the Augean stable. One can be Atlas and hold up the heavenly vault. But no one has ever succeeded in combining the two roles.”

Key Player: Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin will be remembered as the man who defied a coup attempt and took over as Russia’s first freely elected leader. But he was also known as a man who was subject to alcohol-driven diatribes and bouts of poor health. He served as Russian president until 1999, when he resigned and ceded power to Vladimir Putin.

“Mr. Yeltsin was at once the country’s democratic father and a reviled figure blamed for most of the ills and hardships after the Soviet collapse,” wrote The New York Times following his death in 2007.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines