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Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (1937 – 2010)

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Yanayev, second from right, was as dour as any Soviet apparatchik

Along with Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank, it was one of the iconic images of the dying Soviet Union’s comic opera coup in August 1991: Gennady Yanayev, the new figurehead president, facing the world’s press for the first and only time, stammering out one inept and bumbling answer after another, his voice quivering and his hands shaking from nerves and too much vodka. It was a performance that confirmed the coup was amateurish and helped undermine it.

A coup by hard-liners had been in the air since the previous December, but few would have guessed that Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev — the man described by David Remnick in his magestrial history of the end of the Soviet Union Lenin’s Tomb as “a witless apparatchik, philanderer and drunk” — would be at the helm of the USSR. Whether Yanayev ever bothered to sober up during the three-day coup is unknown. Although he was not one of the principle players in the coup, as the USSR’s vice-president, he was the palace coup’s veneer of constitutionality. On 19th August, 1991 — the day after he declared a state of emergency — Yanayev held a disastrous press conference at the Foreign Ministry, in which the ruling ‘State Committee’ projected nothing but hesitancy and weakness. Ironically, the plotters, who viewed themselves as patriots, merely quickened the demise of the Soviet Union. The coup quickly withered, and with it the Soviet Union itself.

Yanayev was initially imprisoned and charged with high treason, a crime that carried the death penalty. But as disillusion with new Russia grew — and with it nostalgia for the Soviet Union — he and other coup leaders were pardoned by the parliament in 1994. Yanayev returned to the obscurity — from which he had briefly but so dramatically been plucked — and died there last week, virtually a forgotten man trampled by a wave of history he never understood yet struggled in vain to resist.

— the obituary adapted from the Independent. See his trembling hands here. I don’t speak Russian that well but people who do should comment.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 28, 2010 at 7:45 am

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