MOSCOW — The week that followed the failure of the hard-line Soviet coup 20 years ago accomplished exactly what the coup’s leaders had hoped to prevent: Boris Yeltsin became the country’s most powerful man.
Mikhail Gorbachev remained president of the Soviet Union, but Yeltsin, as leader of its largest constituent part, the Russian republic, had the upper hand. Gorbachev came back from house arrest in the Crimea looking confused and uncomprehending. At a later news conference, he said he still had faith in communism. Yeltsin, at a public meeting, forced Gorbachev to read off the names of those who had conspired against him.
On Aug. 23, 1991, Yeltsin suspended all Communist Party activity. Party files were seized and sealed. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, was removed from its pedestal in front of the KGB’s headquarters. Moscow was jubilant.
Yeltsin was a onetime Communist boss who had developed a deep loathing for the party. He made common cause with democratic dissidents — though he was not by temperament anything like them. When the coup fell apart, he had his opportunity, and he obliterated the Communist Party apparatus in the Soviet Union. Hard-liners, conservatives and anti-democrats have regained their footing since then, but not the party. Russian Communists today remain an almost-powerless minority.
That was Yeltsin’s doing. He has often been described as someone who was good at destroying things but not so gifted at building. That last week of August 1991 was a time for destroying, and Yeltsin carried out his role with gusto.