Russia: a short history of failed coups

  • Themes: History, Russia

In Russia, failed coups are usually harbingers of chaos and collapse. Three examples spring to mind: the 1991 attempted coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev, Lavr Kornilov’s 1917 march on St. Petersburg, and the murky upheavals of the early seventeenth century, known to Russians as the Times of Troubles.

Poster from the Russian Civil War.
Poster from the Russian Civil War. Credit: Granger - Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s daring raid on Moscow ended before it even properly began. By the terms of an unclear deal that he appears to have struck with Putin, Russia’s would-be Robin Hood folded his banners and drove away in an unknown direction (ostensibly to Belarus). His battle-tried troops – the notorious Wagner group – was ordered back to their ‘camps’. The coup that briefly gripped imaginations of so many a Russia watcher seemingly fizzled out without consequence – or has it?

Russia has a difficult history with failed coups. They are usually harbingers of chaos and collapse. Three examples spring to mind: the 1991 attempted coup d’état against Mikhail Gorbachev, Lavr Kornilov’s 1917 march on St. Petersburg, and the murky upheavals of the early seventeenth century, known to Russians as the Times of Troubles. These historical cases indicate that whatever happens to Prigozhin, Russia may well see hard times ahead: growing uncertainties, the breakdown of authority, eventual chaos. History by no means determines the future but it does serve as a valuable guide to the range of available options. Let’s take a closer look.


By the turn of 1990s, the once mighty Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. Its challenges were of a systemic nature but, as historian Vladislav Zubok recently argued, they were magnified by Mikhail Gorbachev’s incompetent handling of much-needed reforms. By 1991 Gorbachev was beginning to lose his grip on the situation as rival political players – most fatefully of course Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin – worked to assert themselves at Gorbachev’s expense.

The Soviet leader attempted to reverse his declining fortunes by negotiating a new Union treaty that would lead to a dramatic shift in the balance of power between the centre and the republics. In August 1991, worried that the USSR was hanging by a thread, Gorbachev’s conservative detractors attempted to remove him from power. The haphazard effort was spearheaded by the head of the KGB, the minister of interior, and the minister of defence, and included prominent figures from Gorbachev’s own entourage.

On August 18, Gorbachev – then on a vacation in Crimea – was effectively disconnected from the outside world. The coup plotters attempted – but failed – to secure his cooperation. Minister of Defence Dmitrii Yazov ordered troops into Moscow. But, in what turned out to be a major error of planning, Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin managed to evade arrest. He then put up a spirited resistance to the coup at the Russian White House, including that famous performance of climbing a tank to address the crowd that turned up to support democracy and oppose the coup.

Although they held all the levers of power in their hands, the coup plotters lacked the determination to persist. Within days, the pathetic coup failed, and Gorbachev was released from his de facto house arrest in Crimea. He owed his survival to Yeltsin’s bravery and political acumen.

Yet Gorbachev emerged from the coup fatally weakened. In early December, Yeltsin conspired with the Belarussian and Ukrainian leaders in concluding the Belovezha Accords, which consigned the USSR to oblivion.

There are important differences between the failed 1991 coup and Prigozhin’s raid. The main difference is that the coup plotters held all the cards in their hands, including the entire security and military apparatus. They failed due to their utter incompetence and paralysis of will. They were insiders, not mavericks like Prigozhin. And still they failed and, indeed, through their failure they precipitated the collapse of the state they plotted to save.


Another interesting parallel that bears at least passing resemblance to Prigozhin’s misadventure is the September 1917 march on the then Russian capital of Petrograd (St Petersburg) by the armies of General Lavr Kornilov.

Russia had been in the state of upheaval for months. Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March, following public protests and military insurrection in Petrograd. The fragile republic faced daunting challenges in restoring order, feeding the people, and quelling unrest among troops, even while prosecuting an increasingly difficult war against Germany. In June 1917 the demoralized Russians attempted their last great offensive against the German lines. Dubbed the Kerensky offensive (named after Aleksandr Kerensky, who in July 1917 became the head of the provisional government), the offensive failed miserably.

In July, the Bolsheviks spearheaded anti-war protests in the capital which threatened to turn into a revolutionary uprising. The provisional government, increasingly in disarray, was unable to establish order in the capital. Lavr Kornilov, the self-made no-nonsense military man of a humble, peripheral background, and now head of the Russian army, perceived an opportunity and a moral obligation to put an end to what he saw as Bolshevik treachery. He pressed Kerensky to proclaim a military dictatorship to ‘save’ Russia, launching an abortive march on the capital with loyal forces.

The attempt fizzled out, partly because of Bolshevik agitation, and also because railroad workers dismantled the tracks in an effort to stop Kornilov’s forces from advancing on Petrograd.

Kerensky, who had manoeuvred between Kornilov on the one hand and the Bolsheviks on the other, perceived Kornilov’s moves as an outright mutiny, an effort to oust him from power (which it may well have been). But after Kornilov’s defeat in September, Kerensky’s position also weakened. The Bolsheviks consolidated their control of the Petrograd Soviet, and soon captured power outright. Pressed by the Germans, the Bolsheviks threw in the towel, yielding large territories in the peace of Brest-Litovsk.

By then Russia was already descending into a civil war, which lasted for several years and resulted in widespread destruction and famine.

The memory of 1917 still lingers. Putin referred to the experience in his angry tirade on June 24, when he accused Prigozhin of treachery. ‘Russia received the same blow in 1917,’ he said, ‘when the country fought in the First World War. Victory was stolen. Intrigues, squabbles, and politicking behind the backs of the army and the people led to the greatest shock, the destruction of the army and the demise of the state, the loss of gigantic territories.’

Indeed, there are striking parallels: an unpopular war in the West, calls by self-proclaimed patriots to ‘save’ Russia from fragmentation, and finally an abortive march on the capital. But there are differences, too: today, the Tsar remains in control, and he enjoys support, however weary, of the elites. There is no parallel government in Moscow that seeks to exploit Putin’s weaknesses and organise a popular revolution. Putin’s problems are grave and many, but they pale in comparison with the utter chaos of Kerensky’s government, or even the challenges of Gorbachev’s final years.

The Times of Troubles

Prigozhin’s march on Moscow prompted soul-searching among Russia’s politicians, propagandists, and the military brass. The disturbing word – smuta – has bubbled up to the surface. Smuta is an evocative Russian word that has no clear English equivalent. It refers to a rebellion, an insurrection, fratricidal conflicts, something rather unsettling and murky, ‘mere anarchy loosed upon the world,’ to borrow from W.B. Yeats.

Russia experienced such a murky time after the death of Tsar Feodor, Ivan the Terrible’s son, and the last of the Rurik dynasty, in 1598. Feodor, who fathered no children and reportedly suffered from mental incapacity, was succeeded by Boris Godunov, whose short reign was plagued by the inter-elite rivalry and mounting economic difficulties made worse by years of imperial conquest, wars, and famine. He died in 1605, having failed to consolidate power in his hands. His son and only successor – Feodor II – was murdered by rivals.

Russia’s enemies took advantage of the deepening crisis in Moscow. In 1604-05 Sigismund III of Poland and Lithuania sponsored a pretender who claimed to be the surviving child of Ivan the Terrible, Dimitry, in his invasion of Russia. The real Dimitry was slain in Uglich in 1591. The False Dimitry, backed by Polish arms and likely enjoying at least a tacit support of some of Moscow’s nobility, marched to Moscow, where he was crowned the Tsar in June 1605, weeks after Godunov’s death.

False Dimitry’s reign proved short: he was murdered in 1606. There soon followed an outright Polish invasion of Moscow, and years of war, misery, and chaos.

Putin referred to the smuta in his statements both on 24 June and 27 June, 2023. His listeners – the Russian public – may only vaguely understand the complex plots of Russia’s Times of Troubles. But they share a deep-seated fear of an upheaval, making it all that much easier for Putin to exploit these historical precedents to maintain his hold on power.

And here we come to the most important point. Russia’s long history is rich in coups, insurrections, and wars. This history offers a useful perspective on current events: not in the sense of prescribing how they will unfold but in the sense of reminding observers how they could unfold. Putin understands the role of historical memory, which is why his pronouncements draw on evocative examples from the murky past. His aim is to remind his listeners that Russia has seen worse, and could yet see worse if the Russians fail to heed the Tsar.

The public – the boyars and the peasants – accept his reasoning. For, despite the horrors of the war in Ukraine, many continue to live out their lives amid relative if superficial normality. Restaurants and bars remain open. Parks are full of children. Busy shoppers scurry to and fro. Pensioners look after their gardens. Life goes on.

Prigozhin’s mutiny showed just how fragile this reality has become. It briefly opened a window into a very different world. Those who poked out their heads and looked into the unknown, saw unclear shadows from the past, echoes of something long forgotten, a whiff of bloodbath, war, and anarchy. Perhaps some even sensed hints of fresh air, and glimpsed outlines of a different Russia, still struggling to be born. Something rather amorphous, menacing and promising in equal parts.

Putin slammed the window shut. ‘Do not worry. You are safe while I am with you.’


Sergey Radchenko