Gennedy Yanayev who had been suffering from a serious and long-lasting illness maintained a low profile after the 1991 coup attempt that accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union. Image Credit: AP

Moscow: Gennady Yanayev, a hardline Communist who declared himself acting president of the Soviet Union during the 1991 coup attempt that hastened the country's collapse, has died, Russia's Communist Party said on Friday.

Yanayev, 72, had been suffering from a "serious and long-lasting illness", Interfax news agency cited a medical source as saying. The Communist Party confirmed he died but gave no cause of death.

He declared a state of emergency on August 19, 1991, telling stunned television viewers Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was under house arrest in Crimea, was "resting" and "needs some time to get his health back".

Yanayev's trembling hands and shaky voice made viewers suspicious. He and his co-conspirators, dubbed the "Gang of Eight", formed a State Emergency Situation Committee to govern but could not muster sufficient public and military support.

Boris Yeltsin, president of what was then the Soviet republic of Russia, arrived at the seat of its legislature, the White House on the Moscow River, and called for a general strike to resist the coup.

Tanks entered Moscow, rallies were banned and pro-reform newspapers were shut down as the plotters sought to curb resistance. Defiant crowds massed outside the White House and the coup collapsed three days later.

Symbol of failure

Images of Yeltsin standing on a tank have persisted as a symbol of the failure of the coup which accelerated the disintegration of the Soviet Union, sealed when Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991.

Yanayev, the Soviet vice-president at the time, faced the death penalty on high treason charges. He spent more than a year in prison but was released before his trial began.

He and 11 others charged as ringleaders were pardoned by the Russian Parliament in 1994 during the trial, as dissatisfaction with Yeltsin's painful economic reforms and nostalgia for the Soviet era grew.

Yanayev maintained a low profile after the attempt.

In an interview on its tenth anniversary, he defended it as a struggle against "those who wanted the collapse of a great state", saying the Soviet Union had been "in total crisis".

Yeltsin banned the Communist Party, which had ruled the Soviet Union since its inception after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, but a Russian Communist Party founded after its demise has enjoyed broad minority support for years.