Truckload of excited soldiers during Russian Revolution. St. Petersburg, 1917.

Coup D'Etat

A coup d’etat is the term used to describe the overthrow of a country’s government. The term is French in origin. In the context of the term “coup d’etat,” the word “coup” means a sudden blow, strike, or attack. The French word “etat” means state, and “d’etat” literally “of state.” Thus, the term coup d’etat can literally be translated as an attack of (or on) the state.

Communism In Russia

Bronze head of ruined statue of Czar Alexander III during Russian Revolution. 1917.

Coups d’etat are often conducted through means of violence, though not always. In most cases, the country’s military is somehow involved. Coups d’etat are still common in many parts of the world, especially in less developed countries without a track record of effective governance. There are some coups d’etat that have changed the course of history, not just for the country in which it occurred, but for the entire world.

For instance, in November of 1917, communist revolutionary forces led by Vladimir Lenin took over the government of the Russian Empire. The ultimate result was the establishment of the first communist state in the world’s history, the Soviet Union, which would go on to become one of the world’s superpowers. In fact, for the better part of the 20th century, from the end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, world history was largely defined by the struggle for global domination between the West, led by the US, and the communist eastern bloc, led by the USSR, in what was known as the Cold War.

Collapse Of The Soviet Union

Unlike the coup d’etat that brought the communists to power in Russia, however, not all coups are successful. In 1991, for example, the Soviet Union witnessed an attempted coup d’etat against its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The perpetrators of this coup d’etat were unhappy about Gorbachev’s reforms, which made the country more open and democratic. But this attempted coup d’etat had neither the support of the Soviet military, nor the support of the Soviet people. Thus, it ultimately failed, and triggered the events that eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

Fall Of The Government In Chile In 1973

Collage of the newspapers issued in 1973 during Chilean coup d'etat taken in Santiago, Chile. Editorial credit: Dmitry Chulov /

Oftentimes, coups d’etat are supported by foreign governments. In September of 1973, for example, Chile’s military staged a coup d’etat, overthrowing the country’s president, Salvador Allende, and installing a military dictatorship. The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was deeply involved in this coup d’etat. In fact, the US intelligence agency had been trying to overthrow President Allende for three years, under the direction of the US government, which saw Allende as a threat to Chile and Latin America as a whole because of his socialist politics. At the time, it did not matter to the US that Allende was democratically elected by his people. More often than not, when a coup d’etat occurs, it is usually followed by a crackdown on voices of opposition and the suspension of democratic rights.

Dictatorship To Democracy

There have, however, been cases in which coups d’etat have done the opposite, and brought democracy to a country. In 1974, for example, a military coup was staged in Portugal, bringing an end to the Estado Novo dictatorship that had ruled the country since 1933, and precipitating a peaceful transition to democracy. More recently, in 2011, a popular uprising occurred in the North African state of Tunisia, targeting its president, Zine al Abedine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years. During the uprising, the country’s military turned on the president, refusing his orders to shoot the protesters. As a result, President Ben Ali fled the country and Tunisia soon made a transition to democracy.


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