An unsuccessful coup

Why the best-laid plans of Soviet plotters often go awry, and what we could – and what we really shouldn’t – learn from Boris Yeltsin

Thirty years ago, in August 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev went on holiday to his dacha in the Crimea for a well-earned break. He was beset with problems and unpopular with the general public, but his position as leader of the Soviet Union was still secure. His perestroika and glasnost reforms had taken hold, he had forged a productive relationship with the US President, George H. W. Bush, and he was in the process of agreeing a new treaty to redefine the relationship between the Soviet Union’s constituent republics – one that he thought might just save that fragile union.

While he was gone, though, hard-liners opposed to his reforms took the opportunity to launch a coup. The plotters put Gorbachev under house arrest, cut his communications with the outside world, and announced a state of emergency. They had control of the military and the KGB; with Gorbachev out of the picture, everything should have fallen into place for them.

And yet the coup flopped, and its failure was mainly down to one man: Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was the President of Russia – at that point merely one of fifteen republics within the Soviet Union – and had few formal powers. He didn’t have control of the military or the ability to make laws. But he did have bags of charisma, a useful distance from the regime, a willingness to take borderline-insane risks, and an almost preternatural ability to read the mood of the public, instinctively sense the course of events, and predict which way the wind was about to blow.

Rather than hiding out, or taking on the plotters directly, Yeltsin headed straight into Moscow and occupied the White House, then the home of the Soviet parliament. He called upon the Moscow public to take to the streets, and they responded in huge numbers, building barricades around the White House. When the army were deployed, the public charmed them into submission:

“Muscovites, initially shocked by the appearance of tanks in their city, soon adopted a strategy that proved devastating for the coup: they simply charmed ‘the boys.’ Casual discussions with army veterans, pretty girls, and kindly grandmothers who shared whatever they had with the soldiers made them psychologically unfit for the task of crushing civilian unrest.”1

Wrong-footed by Yeltsin and facing a military who would rather mutiny than fire upon their fellow Russians, the plotters called off the assault on the White House, and the coup fizzled out. Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find the coup in disarray. But rather than returning to his previous role and to the priorities he’d left behind in early August, he found his former rival Boris Yeltsin in the driving seat, controlling the newly outspoken public and seizing power in what amounted to a coup of his own. Gorbachev would never again wield his former power, and his hopes of revitalising the Soviet Union were dashed; by Christmas, it was no more.

Working for IBM in the 1990s, Dave Snowden developed the cynefin framework, a way of making sense of the world and of complex systems within it. (Cynefin is a difficult-to-translate Welsh word meaning “the place of your multiple belongings”. The idea is that we ourselves are quite complex, with many disparate and competing influences that we’re only ever partially aware of, and that acknowledging that helps us make sense of the world.)

Cynefin identifies four different “domains” – different situations or contexts. Each one calls for a different approach, a different way of making sense of the situation, and a different way of making decisions:

  • Clear – clear situations are stable, the relationship between cause and effect is clear, and there are rules in place. It’s the domain of “known knowns”. Success comes from correctly identifying the sort of situation you’re facing, and then applying the current best practice. Examples might be fulfilling an order in a warehouse, or cooking a meal in a fast food restaurant.

  • Complicated – like the “clear” domain, this is a world of predictable relationships between cause and effect, but working in this domain requires more knowledge and expertise. Building a jet plane, for example, involves calculations and processes that are predictable and repeatable; you build the 100th plane the same as the first, give or take a few improvements. But doing so nevertheless requires an enormous amount of highly specialised and technical knowledge.

  • Complex – the complex domain involves “unknown unknowns”, murky relationships between cause and effect, and no “right” answers. In particular, complex situations are ones in which your actions change the situation itself. In these situations, cause and effect can be established in hindsight, but that relationship isn’t repeatable in future situations. Examples might include figuring out a response to climate change, or managing the economy; both are constantly in flux, changing in response to our actions, and in need of gradual, emergent solutions.

  • Chaotic – the chaotic domain is like the complex domain when everything’s on fire and you’re facing an emergency. Your job isn’t to figure out what’s going on, but rather to “staunch the bleeding” as Snowden puts it; success involves stabilising the situation and moving it from chaos to complexity. Examples might include a nuclear power plant at the first moment of meltdown, or police responding in the first few seconds of an emergency.

Diagram outlining the four domains of the cynefin framework.
Cynefin’s four domains; the central section depicts “disorder”, where it’s unclear which domain applies.

The coup plotters failed because they thought they were in the complicated domain, where their expertise and knowledge of the structures of power would make the difference. They planned ahead and they followed the coup playbook; they thought that there would be a simple and predictable relationship between cause and effect, and that if they did the right things in the right order (establish a committee, declare a state of emergency, get Gorbachev to resign, derail the Union Treaty, retain power) then success was sure to follow.

Yeltsin was successful because he correctly identified that the situation was chaotic, and that any outcomes were far from certain. He sensed where there was stability (the mood of the people, the power of mass demonstrations on the street) and where there wasn’t (the political institutions of the centre). He pushed the situation from “chaotic” to “complex” by building on those points of stability, and by creating a focal point around himself and his occupation of the White House.

The result was that when events shifted, the plotters were thrown off course. It wasn’t that their plan was bad, and that if they’d had a better one they might have succeeded; they fundamentally failed to cope with changing events. Yeltsin, on the other hand, leapt from ice floe to ice floe, and eventually found himself on solid ground. But cynefin teaches us that Yeltsin’s advantage was only situational, it wasn’t absolute:

“Leaders who are highly successful in chaotic contexts can develop an overinflated self-image, becoming legends in their own minds. When they generate cultlike adoration, leading actually becomes harder for them because a circle of admiring supporters cuts them off from accurate information.”2

This was certainly true of Yeltsin. He was superb in a crisis. But when the crisis passed, he found himself at a loss. When he was forced to rule the Russia he’d prised out of the Soviet Union, it was a disaster. Economic shock therapy wiped out the savings of millions. The privatisation of state industry enriched a tiny cabal of plutocrats and impoverished the country as a whole. Corruption bloomed, and the country quickly returned to autocracy under Vladimir Putin.

Cynefin teaches us that knowing what domain we’re in, and applying the right sense-making approach, can mean the difference between triumph and disaster. But we also need to know our own capabilities, and the capabilities of those around us. Sometimes it’s good to ask “what would Boris Yeltsin do?” – and sometimes it’s very bad indeed.

Further reading

Dave Snowden. “The Cynefin Framework”. CognitiveEdge (YouTube), 2010

Dave Snowden and Mary Boone. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making”. Harvard Business Review, November 2007

Serhii Plokhy. “The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union”. Oneworld, 2015

“In Photos: The August Coup Attempt that Heralded USSR’s End”. Moscow Times, 18 August 2021

Felix Light. “It Was All For Nothing: Russia Marks August Coup With Regret, Indifference”. Moscow Times, 19 August 2021

Ivan Gutterman. “The Coup that Killed the USSR”. Radio Free Europe, 16 August 2021

Main photo:, CC BY 3.0

  1. Serhii Plokhy, The Last Empire 

  2. Dave Snowden and Mary Boone, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making