Gennady Ivanovich Yanayev (August 26th, 1937 - September 24th, 2010), the first and only Vice-President of the Soviet Union, was one of eight hardline Communist Party members, who, on August 19th, 1991, tried to oust Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and take over the government in an attempted coup d'etat.
Yanayev grew up in Gorky Oblast (now Nizhny Novgorod Oblast), where he studied agriculture and law. He joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in his 20s and worked with the Komsomol youth organization before becoming head of the Central Council of Trade Unions. He was later named Politburo secretary in charge of foreign policy, and in December 1990, he unexpectedly received Gorbachev’s support as a compromise choice for the new post of Vice-President. Yanayev was one of those arrested after the abortive three-day coup failed and was convicted of high treason. He was granted amnesty, however, by the Russian legislature in 1994 and released from prison.
On 27 December 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed Yanayev as Vice-President of the Soviet Union. He was Gorbachev's third choice for the post; Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev had turned the offer down.
Yanayev had initially been rejected by the Supreme Soviet, but he was finally approved due to Gorbachev's insistence, only days after Shevardnadze had resigned from office due to Gorbachev's willingness to give leeway to conservatives. Some weeks after Yanayev's election, a senior Soviet official described Yanayev as "Gorbachev's Quayle — a conservative nonentity, no threat to Gorbachev, and his selection would pacify the right-wing". At the beginning of January 1991, Yanayev headed a committee working on the formation of a new cabinet. Later, he was sent to the Soviet city of Kuznetsk to negotiate with a newly formed independent trade union, making this the first time since 1917 that a Russian government official had negotiated with a trade union. However, after gaining the attention of the Soviet government, the unionists withdrew their plans for a strike.
Shortly after taking office, Yanayev joined a group of more conservative Communist politicians who hoped to persuade Gorbachev to declare a state of emergency, led by KGB chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov.
After Gorbachev announced his proposal for a New Union Treaty to form the Union of Sovereign States, as a reorganisation of the Soviet Union into a new confederation, he went on vacation to his dacha in the Crimea. Believing that this new Union treaty would lead to the disintegration of the USSR, the State Committee of the State of Emergency placed Gorbachev under house arrest on August 19th, one day before the treaty was due to be signed. On that same day, the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (TASS) issued the coup plotters' decree, which stated: "Owing to the conditions of his health, Mikhail Gorbachev is no longer capable of carrying on the duties of the President of the USSR. In accordance with article 127, clause 7 of the USSR constitution, Vice President Gennady Yanayev has assumed the duties of the President of the USSR." The decree made references to the growing problems facing the country such as ethnic tensions, political confrontations and chaos, which, according to the coup leaders, threatened the very existence of Soviet life and the territorial integrity of the USSR. Yanayev further claimed that the danger of collapse was imminent, and if the economic situation was not handled quickly, the Soviet Union would collapse. In addition, Yanayev and the rest of the state committee ordered the Cabinet of Ministers to alter the then-current five-year plan to relieve the housing shortage. All city-dwellers were given one third of an acre each to combat winter food shortages by growing fruit and vegetables.
When asked about Gorbachev, Yanayev replied "Let me say that Mikhail Gorbachev is now on vacation. He is undergoing treatment, himself, in our country. He is very tired after these many years and he will need some time to get better." At a press conference, Yanayev's hands were shaking rather violently, leading many journalists to focus on Yanayev's apparent drunkenness instead of Gorbachev's allegedly bad health.
On 19 August, citizens of Moscow gathered around Russia's White House and began to erect barricades around it, to which, at 16:00, Yanayev responded by declaring a state of emergency in Moscow. Yanayev declared at the press conference at 17:00 that Gorbachev was "resting". He said "Over these years, he has become very tired and needs some time to get his health back." Yanayev said the Emergency Committee was committed to continuing his reforms. However, Yanayev's weak posture, trembling hands and shaky expressions made his words unconvincing. According to some historians, Yanayev was the most visible and powerful member of the Emergency Committee but was not its mastermind; Kryuchkov has been described as the "heart and soul of the conspiracy". Yanayev only agreed to head the Emergency Committee on 20th August. Like many of the other coup leaders, such as Premier Valentin Pavlov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Yanayev was dismissed as Vice-President and later jailed for his "crimes" against the Soviet state.
In 1993, Novyy Vzglyad quoted Yanayev as admitting that he was drunk when he signed the decree which made him the Acting President, but saying that inebriation had not affected his judgment. In an interview from 2008, Yanayev said he regretted making himself Acting President, further claiming that he was pressured by the more conservative members to sign the documents which declared his own presidency. He described the events of 1991 as a burden for the rest of his life.
Three years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yanayev was freed by an amnesty of the Russian State Duma in 1994. He would eventually become the head of the Department of History and International Relations of the Russian International Academy of Tourism. On 20th September 2010, he fell ill and was hospitalised at the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow, where he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died on 24th September 2010.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) expressed their condolences to Yanayev's family. Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the CPRF, said of him: "Yanayev lived an interesting, complicated and worthy life." The CPRF officially praised him as "a highly professional specialist [...] a dear and trustworthy comrade". In another statement made by the CPRF, this time on their official website, they claimed: "If they had acted much more decisively, our unified country would have been preserved." He was buried at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery, in a ceremony attended by several prominent CPRF members. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.