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August 19, 1991 – Radio Moscow – BBC World Service – News reports/comments in English – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
August 19, 1991 – “Gorbachev relinquished his Presidency because of health reasons”. The statement had a familiar ring to it to anyone who was around or was familiar with the events in 1964. The word that a Russian President had suddenly “taken ill” was suspect at best. It 1964 it meant Nikita Khrushchev had been effectively removed from office by a group of hardliners who saw Khrushchev as being weak and leaning too much towards the West. In 1991 hardliners saw Gorbachev as fundamentally trying to dismantle the Soviet form of government through a series of perceived progressive moves; Glasnost and Perestroika. This new “openness” was seen as a threat to the establishment, in much the same manner as Prague Spring was in 1968 or Solidarity in Warsaw was in 1981. In 1968 and 1981 these movements were met with crackdowns and consequences. With Gorbachev, as with Khrushchev it meant swift removal from office and replacement with ostensibly a mouthpiece for the hardline faction in the Kremlin.
This time it was different – those hardliners represented an echo of a bygone age; the age of Stalin, whose members were considerably older now yet still clinging on to Communist ideals that were becoming hopelessly outmoded, with an economy on the verge of collapse and a military in the grips of being demoralized from an ill-fated excursion into Afghanistan and the debilitating 10-year occupation and guerrilla war. In short, Communist Russia in 1991 was a far cry from Communist Russia of the 1950s.
But for the first few hours, the world was stunned and the news sent shockwaves everywhere. Everywhere except for perhaps Moscow where news of this coup was met with resistance that would only grow over the coming hours.
Here are the first series of reports via Radio Moscow’s English service and the BBC World Service presenting the news as it was unfolding.
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