21 August 1991

Coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev collapses.

1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt

1991 Soviet coup attempt
August Coup/August Putsch
Part of the Revolutions of 1989, the Cold War,
and the dissolution of the Soviet Union
August Coup montage.png
Date19 – 22 August 1991 (3 days)
Caused by
  • Gorbachev's resignation
  • Abolish the New Union treaty proposal
  • Stop political reforms
Resulted in
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures

Minister of Interior Boris Pugo committed suicide

Military advisor to Gorbachev Sergey Akhromeyev committed suicide

Administrator of Affairs of the Central Committee Nikolay Kruchina committed suicide[8][9]
3 civilians killed on 21 August 1991
^a Placed under house arrest by GKChP at Foros, Crimea.

The 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt, also known as the August Coup (Russian: Августовский путч, tr. Avgustovskiy Putch "August Putsch"), was an attempt made by members of the government of the USSR to take control of the country from Soviet President and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The coup leaders were hard-line members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) who were opposed to Gorbachev's reform program and the new union treaty that he had negotiated which decentralized much of the central government's power to the republics. They were opposed, mainly in Moscow, by a short but effective campaign of civil resistance[10] led by Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who had been both an ally and critic of Gorbachev. Although the coup collapsed in only two days and Gorbachev returned to power, the event destabilized the USSR and is widely considered to have contributed to both the demise of the CPSU and the dissolution of the USSR.

After the capitulation of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP), popularly referred to as the "Gang of Eight", both the Supreme Court of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev described their actions as a coup attempt.


Since assuming power as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev had embarked on an ambitious program of reform, embodied in the twin concepts of perestroika and glasnost, meaning economic/political restructuring and openness, respectively.[11] These moves prompted resistance and suspicion on the part of hardline members of the nomenklatura. The reforms also unleashed some forces and movements that Gorbachev did not expect.[citation needed] Specifically, nationalist agitation on the part of the Soviet Union's non-Russian minorities grew, and there were fears that some or all of the union republics might secede. In 1991, the Soviet Union was in a severe economic and political crisis. Scarcity of food, medicine, and other consumables was widespread,[12] people had to stand in long lines to buy even essential goods[13], fuel stocks were up to 50% less than the estimated need for the approaching winter, and inflation was over 300% per year, with factories lacking in cash needed to pay salaries.[14] In 1990, Estonia,[15] Latvia,[16] Lithuania,[17] Armenia and Georgia had already declared the restoration of their independence from the Soviet Union. In January 1991, there was an attempt to return Lithuania to the Soviet Union by force. About a week later, there was a similar attempt by local pro-Soviet forces to overthrow the Latvian authorities. There were continuing armed ethnic conflicts in Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia.[citation needed]

Russia declared its sovereignty on 12 June 1990 and thereafter limited the application of Soviet laws, in particular the laws concerning finance and the economy, on Russian territory. The Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR adopted laws which contradicted Soviet laws (the so-called War of Laws).

In the unionwide referendum on 17 March 1991, boycotted by the Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova, the majority of the residents of the rest of the republics expressed the desire to retain the renewed Soviet Union. Following negotiations, eight of the nine republics (except Ukraine) approved the New Union Treaty with some conditions. The treaty would make the Soviet Union a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan were to sign the Treaty in Moscow on 20 August 1991.


On 11 December 1990, KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov, made a "call for order" over Central television in Moscow.[18] That day, he asked two KGB officers[19] to prepare a plan of measures that could be taken in case a state of emergency was declared in the USSR. Later, Kryuchkov brought Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, Internal Affairs Minister Boris Pugo, Premier Valentin Pavlov, Vice-President Gennady Yanayev, Soviet Defense Council deputy chief Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev secretariat head Valery Boldin [ru], and CPSU Central Committee Secretary Oleg Shenin into the conspiracy.[20][21]

The members of the GKChP hoped that Gorbachev could be persuaded to declare the state of emergency and to "restore order".

On 23 July 1991, a number of party functionaries and literati published in the hardline newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya a piece entitled A Word to the People which called for decisive action to prevent disastrous calamity.

Six days later, Gorbachev, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev discussed the possibility of replacing such hardliners as Pavlov, Yazov, Kryuchkov and Pugo with more liberal figures. Kryuchkov, who had placed Gorbachev under close surveillance as Subject 110 several months earlier, eventually got wind of the conversation.[22][23][24]

On 4 August, Gorbachev went on holiday to his dacha in Foros, Crimea. He planned to return to Moscow in time for the New Union Treaty signing on 20 August.

On 17 August, the members of the GKChP met at a KGB guesthouse in Moscow and studied the treaty document. They believed the pact would pave the way to the Soviet Union's breakup, and decided that it was time to act. The next day, Baklanov, Boldin, Shenin, and USSR Deputy Defense Minister General Valentin Varennikov flew to Crimea for a meeting with Gorbachev. They demanded that Gorbachev either declare a state of emergency or resign and name Yanayev as acting president to allow the members of the GKChP "to restore order" in the country.[21][25][26]

Gorbachev has always claimed that he refused point blank to accept the ultimatum.[25][27] Varennikov has insisted that Gorbachev said: "Damn you. Do what you want. But report my opinion!"[28] However, those present at the dacha at the time testified that Baklanov, Boldin, Shenin, and Varennikov had been clearly disappointed and nervous after the meeting with Gorbachev.[25] With Gorbachev's refusal, the conspirators ordered that he remain confined to the Foros dacha; at the same time the dacha's communication lines (which were controlled by the KGB) were shut down. Additional KGB security guards were placed at the dacha gates with orders to stop anybody from leaving.

The members of the GKChP ordered 250,000 pairs of handcuffs from a factory in Pskov to be sent to Moscow[29] and 300,000 arrest forms. Kryuchkov doubled the pay of all KGB personnel, called them back from holiday, and placed them on alert. The Lefortovo Prison was emptied to receive prisoners.[23]

The coup chronology

The members of the GKChP met in the Kremlin after Baklanov, Boldin, Shenin and Varennikov returned from Crimea. Yanayev, Pavlov and Baklanov signed the so-called "Declaration of the Soviet Leadership" in which they declared the state of emergency in all of the USSR and announced that the State Committee on the State of Emergency (Государственный Комитет по Чрезвычайному Положению, ГКЧП, or Gosudarstvenniy Komitet po Chrezvichaynomu Polozheniyu, GKChP) had been created "to manage the country and to effectively maintain the regime of the state of emergency". The GKChP included the following members:

Yanayev signed the decree naming himself as acting USSR president on the pretext of Gorbachev's inability to perform presidential duties due to "illness".[30] These eight collectively became known as the "Gang of Eight".

The GKChP banned all newspapers in Moscow, except for nine Party-controlled newspapers.[30] The GKChP also issued a populist declaration which stated that "the honour and dignity of the Soviet man must be restored."[30]

19 August

All of the State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) documents were broadcast over the state radio and television starting from 7 a.m. The Russian SFSR-controlled Radio Rossii and Televidenie Rossii, plus "Ekho Moskvy", the only independent political radio station, were cut off the air.[31] Armour units of the Tamanskaya Division and the Kantemirovskaya tank division rolled into Moscow along with paratroops. Four Russian SFSR people's deputies (who were considered the most "dangerous") were detained by the KGB at an army base near Moscow.[20] The conspirators considered detaining Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin upon his arrival from a visit to Kazakhstan on 17 August, or after that when he was at his dacha near Moscow, but for an undisclosed reason did not do so. The failure to arrest Yeltsin proved fatal to their plans.[20][32][33]

U.S. map of Moscow with 1980s street names

Yeltsin arrived at the White House, Russia's parliament building, at 9 am on Monday 19 August. Together with Russian SFSR Prime Minister Ivan Silayev and Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov, Yeltsin issued a declaration that condemned the GkChP's actions as a reactionary anti-constitutional coup. The military was urged not to take part in the coup. The declaration called for a general strike with the demand to let Gorbachev address the people.[34] This declaration was distributed around Moscow in the form of flyers.

In the afternoon, the citizens of Moscow began to gather around the White House and to erect barricades around it.[34] In response, Gennady Yanayev declared the state of emergency in Moscow at 16:00.[26][30] Yanayev declared at the press conference at 17:00 that Gorbachev was "resting". He said: "Over these years he has got very tired and needs some time to get his health back."[26]

Meanwhile, Major Evdokimov, chief of staff of a tank battalion of the Tamanskaya Division guarding the White House, declared his loyalty to the leadership of the Russian SFSR.[34][35] Yeltsin climbed one of the tanks and addressed the crowd. Unexpectedly, this episode was included in the state media's evening news.[36]

20 August

Tanks at the Red Square

At noon, Moscow military district commander General Kalinin, whom Yanayev appointed as military commandant of Moscow, declared a curfew in Moscow from 23:00 to 5:00, effective from 20 August.[21][31][34] This was understood as the sign that the attack on the White House was imminent.

The defenders of the White House prepared themselves, most of them being unarmed. Evdokimov's tanks were moved from the White House in the evening.[26][37] The makeshift White House defense headquarters was headed by General Konstantin Kobets, a Russian SFSR people's deputy.[37][38]

In the afternoon, Kryuchkov, Yazov and Pugo finally decided to attack the White House. This decision was supported by other GKChP members. Kryuchkov and Yazov's deputies, KGB general Ageyev and Army general Vladislav Achalov, respectively, planned the assault, codenamed "Operation Grom" (Thunder), which would gather elements of the Alpha and Vympel elite special force units, with the support of the paratroopers, Moscow OMON, the Internal Troops of the Dzerzhinsky division, three tank companies and a helicopter squadron. Alpha Group commander General Viktor Karpukhin and other senior officers of the unit together with Airborne Troops deputy commander Gen. Alexander Lebed mingled with the crowds near the White House and assessed the possibility of such an operation. After that, Karpukhin and Vympel commander Colonel Beskov tried to convince Ageyev that the operation would result in bloodshed and should be canceled.[20][21][22][39] Lebed, with the consent of his immediate superior, Pavel Grachev, returned to the White House and secretly informed the defense headquarters that the attack would begin at 2:00.[22][39]

While the events were unfolding in the capital, Estonia's Supreme Council declared at 23:03 the full reinstatement of the independent status of the Republic of Estonia after 41 years.

21 August

At about 1:00, not far from the White House, trolleybuses and street cleaning machines barricaded a tunnel against oncoming Taman Guards infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). Three men were killed in the incident, Dmitry Komar, Vladimir Usov, and Ilya Krichevsky, while several others were wounded. Komar, a 22 year old veteran from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was shot and crushed trying to cover a moving IFV's observation slit. Usov, a 37 year old economist, was killed by a stray bullet whilst coming to Komar's aid. The crowd set fire to an IFV and Krichevsky, a 28 year old architect, was shot dead as the troops escaped.[40][26][38][41] According to Sergey Parkhomenko, a journalist and democracy campaigner who was in the crowd defending the White House, “Those deaths played a crucial role: Both sides were so horrified that it brought a halt to everything.”[42] Alpha Group and Vympel did not move to the White House as had been planned and Yazov ordered the troops to pull out from Moscow.

The troops began to move from Moscow at 8:00. The GKChP members met in the Defence Ministry and, not knowing what to do, decided to send Kryuchkov, Yazov, Baklanov, Tizyakov, Anatoly Lukyanov, and Deputy CPSU General Secretary Vladimir Ivashko to Crimea to meet Gorbachev, who refused to meet them when they arrived. With the dacha's communications to Moscow restored, Gorbachev declared all the GKChP's decisions void and dismissed its members from their state offices. The USSR General Prosecutors Office started the investigation of the coup.[22][34]

During that period, the Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia declared its sovereignty officially completed with a law passed by its deputies, confirming the independence restoration act of 4 May as an official act.[43] In Tallinn, just a day after the resitution of independence, the Tallinn TV Tower was taken over by the Airborne Troops, while the television broadcast was cut off for a while, the radio signal was strong as a handful of Estonian Defence League (the unified paramilitary armed forces of Estonia) members barricaded the entry into signal rooms.[44] In the evening, as news of the failure of the coup reached the republic, the paratroopers departed from the tower and left the capital.

22 August

Gorbachev and the GKChP delegation flew to Moscow, where Kryuchkov, Yazov, and Tizyakov were arrested upon arrival in the early hours. Pugo committed suicide along with his wife the next day. Pavlov, Vasily Starodubtsev, Baklanov, Boldin, and Shenin would be in custody within the next 48 hours.[22]


Since several heads of the regional executive committees supported the GKChP, on 21 August the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR adopted Decision No. 1626-1, which authorized Russian President Boris Yeltsin to appoint heads of regional administrations, although the Russian constitution did not empower the president with such authority.[45] It passed another decision the next day which declared the old imperial colors as Russia's national flag.[45] It eventually replaced the Russian SFSR flag two months later.

On the night of 24 August, the Felix Dzerzhinsky statue in front of the KGB building at Dzerzhinskiy Square (Lubianka) was dismantled, while thousands of Moscow citizens took part in the funeral of Dmitry Komar, Vladimir Usov and Ilya Krichevsky, the three citizens who died in the tunnel incident. Gorbachev posthumously awarded them with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin asked their relatives to forgive him for not being able to prevent their deaths.[22]

End of the CPSU

Gorbachev resigned as CPSU General Secretary on 24 August.[22] Vladimir Ivashko replaced him as acting General Secretary but resigned on 29 August when the Supreme Soviet terminated all Party activities in Soviet territory. Around the same time, Yeltsin decreed the transfer of the CPSU archives to the state archive authorities, as well as nationalizing all CPSU assets in the Russian SFSR (which included not only the headquarters of party committees but also educational institutions, hotels, etc.).[45] Yeltsin decreed the termination and banning of all Party activities on Russian soil as well as the closure of the Central Committee building in Staraya Square.[45]

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

On 24 August, Mikhail Gorbachev created the so-called "Committee for the Operational Management of the Soviet Economy" (Комитет по оперативному управлению народным хозяйством СССР), to replace the USSR Cabinet of Ministers headed by Valentin Pavlov, a GKChP member. Russian prime minister Ivan Silayev headed this committee. On the same day the Verkhovna Rada adopted the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine and called for a referendum on support of the Declaration of Independence. The Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, the third most powerful republic in the union, also declared its independence the next day on 25 August which then established the Republic of Belarus.[46]

On 5 September, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union adopted Soviet Law No. 2392-1 "On the Authorities of the Soviet Union in the Transitional Period" under which the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union had replaced Congress of People's Deputies and was reformed. Two new legislative chambers—the Soviet of the Union (Совет Союза) and the Soviet of Republics (Совет Республик)—replaced the Soviet of the Union and the Soviet of Nationalities (both elected by the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies). The Soviet of the Union was to be formed by the popularly elected USSR people's deputies. The Soviet of Republics was to include 20 deputies from each union republic plus one deputy to represent each autonomous region of each union republic (both USSR people's deputies and republican people's deputies) delegated by the legislatures of the union republic. Russia was an exception with 52 deputies. However, the delegation of each union republic was to have only one vote in the Soviet of Republics. The laws were to be first adopted by the Soviet of the Union and then by the Soviet of Republics.

Also created was the Soviet State Council (Государственный совет СССР), which included the Soviet President and the presidents of union republics. The "Committee for the Operational Management of the Soviet Economy" was replaced by the USSR Inter-republican Economic Committee (Межреспубликанский экономический комитет СССР), also headed by Ivan Silayev.[47]

On 27 August, the first state became independent, when the Supreme Soviet of Moldova declared the independence of Moldova from the Soviet Union. The Supreme Soviets of Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan did the same on 30 and 31 August respectively. Afterwards, on 6 September the newly created Soviet State Council recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.[48] Estonia had declared re-independence on 20 August, Latvia on the following day, while Lithuania had done so already on 11 March 1990. Three days later, on 9 September the Supreme Soviet of Tajikistan declared the independence of Tajikistan from the Soviet Union. Furthermore, in September over 99% percent of voters in Armenia voted for a referendum approving the Republic's commitment to independence. The immediate aftermath of that vote was the Armenian Supreme Soviet's declaration of independence, issued on 21 September. By 27 October the Supreme Soviet of Turkmenistan declared the independence of Turkmenistan from the Soviet Union. On 1 December Ukraine held a referendum, in which more than 90% of residents supported the Act of Independence of Ukraine.

By November, the only Soviet Republics that had not declared independence were Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. That same month, seven republics (Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan) agreed to a new union treaty that would form a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States. However, this confederation never materialized.

On 8 December Boris Yeltsin, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich—respectively leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (which adopted that name in August 1991)—as well as the prime ministers of the republics met in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they signed the Belavezha Accords. This document declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist "as a subject of international law and geopolitical reality." It repudiated the 1922 union treaty that established the Soviet Union, and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in the Union's place. On 12 December, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR ratified the accords and recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. Although this has been interpreted as the moment that Russia seceded from the Union, in fact Russia took the line that it was not possible to secede from a state that no longer existed. The lower chamber of the Supreme Soviet, the Council of the Union, was forced to halt its operations, as the departure of the Russian deputies left it without a quorum.

Doubts remained about the legitimacy of the signing that took place on 8 December, since only three republics took part. Thus, on 21 December in Alma-Ata on 21 December, the Alma-Ata Protocol expanded the CIS to include Armenia, Azerbaijan and the five republics of Central Asia. They also pre-emptively accepted Gorbachev's resignation. With 11 of the 12 remaining republics (all except Georgia) having agreed that the Union no longer existed, Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable and said he would resign as soon as the CIS became a reality (Georgia joined the CIS in 1993, only to withdraw in 2008 after conflict between Georgia and Russia; the three Baltic states never joined instead going on to join the European Union and NATO in 2004.)

On 24 December 1991, the Russian SFSR—now renamed the Russian Federation—with the concurrence of the other republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States, informed the United Nations that it would inherit the Soviet Union's membership in the UN—including the Soviet Union's permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.[49] No member state of the UN formally objected to this step. The legitimacy of this act has been questioned by some legal scholars as the Soviet Union itself was not constitutionally succeeded by the Russian Federation, but merely dissolved. Others argued that the international community had already established the precedent of recognizing the Soviet Union as the legal successor of the Russian Empire, and so recognizing the Russian Federation as the Soviet Union's successor state was valid.

On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev announced his resignation as Soviet president. The red hammer and sickle flag of the Soviet Union was lowered from the Senate building in the Kremlin and replaced with the tricolor flag of Russia. The next day, 26 December 1991, the Council of Republics, the upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet, formally voted the Soviet Union out of existence (the lower chamber, the Council of the Union, had been left without a quorum after the Russian deputies withdrew), thus ending the life of the world's first and oldest socialist state. All former Soviet embassies became Russian embassies while Russia received the nuclear weapons from the other former republics by 1996. A constitutional crisis occurred in 1993 had been escalated into violence and the new constitution adopted officially abolished the entire Soviet government.

Beginning of radical economic reforms in Russia

On 1 November 1991, the RSFSR Congress of People's Deputies issued Decision No. 1831-1 On the Legal Support of the Economic Reform whereby the Russian president (Boris Yeltsin) was granted the right to issue decrees required for the economic reform even if they contravened the laws. Such decrees entered into force if they were not repealed within 7 days by the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR or its Presidium.[45] Five days later, Boris Yeltsin, in addition to the duties of the President, assumed the duties of the prime minister. Yegor Gaidar became deputy prime minister and simultaneously economic and finance minister. On 15 November 1991 Boris Yeltsin issued Decree No. 213 On the Liberalization of Foreign Economic Activity on the Territory of the RSFSR whereby all Russian companies were allowed to import and to export goods and to acquire foreign currency (previously all foreign trade had been tightly controlled by the state).[45] Following the issuing of Decree No. 213, on 3 December 1991 Boris Yeltsin issued Decree No. 297 On the Measures to Liberalize Prices whereby from 2 January 1992 most previously existing price controls were abolished.[45]

Trial of the members of the GKChP

The GKChP members and their accomplices were charged with treason in the form of a conspiracy aimed at capturing power. However, by the end of 1992 they were all released from custody pending trial. The trial in the Military Chamber of the Russian Supreme Court began on 14 April 1993.[50] On 23 February 1994 the State Duma declared amnesty for all GKChP members and their accomplices, along with the participants of the October 1993 crisis.[45] They all accepted the amnesty, except for General Varennikov, who demanded the continuation of the trial and was finally acquitted on 11 August 1994.[22]

Commemoration of the civilians killed

Russian stamps commemorating Ilya Krichevsky, Dmitry Komar and Vladimir Usov respectively.

Thousands of people attended the funeral of Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov on the 24 August 1991. Gorbachev made the three men posthumous Heroes of the Soviet Union, for their bravery "blocking the way to those who wanted to strangle democracy.".[51]

Parliamentary commission

In 1991 the Parliamentary Commission for Investigating Causes and Reasons of the coup attempt was established under Lev Ponomaryov, but in 1992 it was dissolved at Ruslan Khasbulatov's insistence.

International reactions

 United States

George H.W. Bush, left, is seen with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990. Bush condemned the coup and the actions of the "Gang of Eight".

During his vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush made a blunt demand for Gorbachev's restoration to power and said the United States did not accept the legitimacy of the self-proclaimed new Soviet Government. He returned to the White House after rushing from his vacation home. Bush then issued a strongly-worded statement that followed a day of consultations with other leaders of the Western alliance and a concerted effort to squeeze the new Soviet leadership by freezing economic aid programs. He decried the coup as a "misguided and illegitimate effort" that "bypasses both Soviet law and the will of the Soviet peoples." President Bush called the overthrow "very disturbing," and he put a hold on U.S. aid to the Soviet Union until the coup was ended.[6][52]

The Bush statement, drafted after a series of meetings with top aides at the White House, was much more forceful than the President's initial reaction that morning in Maine. It was in keeping with a unified Western effort to apply both diplomatic and economic pressure to the group of Soviet officials seeking to gain control of the country.

Former President Ronald Reagan had said:

"I can't believe that the Soviet people will allow a reversal in the progress that they have recently made toward economic and political freedom. Based on my extensive meetings and conversations with him, I am convinced that President Gorbachev had the best interest of the Soviet people in mind. I have always felt that his opposition came from the communist bureaucracy, and I can only hope that enough progress was made that a movement toward democracy will be unstoppable."[6]

On September 2, 1991, the United States re-recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania when Bush delivered the press conference in Kennebunkport.[53]

 United Kingdom

The British Prime Minister John Major had expressed feelings in a 1991 interview on behalf of the UK about the coup and said "I think there are many reasons why it failed and a great deal of time and trouble will be spent on analysing that later. There were, I think, a number of things that were significant. I don't think it was terribly well-handled from the point of view of those organising the coup. I think the enormous and unanimous condemnation of the rest of the world publicly of the coup was of immense encouragement to the people resisting it. That is not just my view; that is the view that has been expressed to me by Mr. Shevardnadze, Mr. Yakovlev, President Yeltsin and many others as well to whom I have spoken to the last 48 hours. The moral pressure from the West and the fact that we were prepared to state unequivocally that the coup was illegal and that we wanted the legal government restored, was of immense help in the Soviet Union. I think that did play a part."[54]

Major met with his cabinet that same day on 19 August to deal with the crisis. He added, "There seems little doubt that President Gorbachev has been removed from power by an unconstitutional seizure of power. There are constitutional ways of removing the president of the Soviet Union; they have not been used. I believe that the whole world has a very serious stake in the events currently taking place in the Soviet Union. The reform process there is of vital importance to the world and of most vital importance of course to the Soviet people themselves and I hope that is fully clear. There is a great deal of information we don't yet have, but I would like to make clear above all that we would expect the Soviet Union to respect and honor all the commitments that President Gorbachev has made on its behalf, he said, echoing sentiments from a litany of other Western leaders."[6]

However, the British Government had frozen $80 million in economic aid to Moscow, and the European Community scheduled an emergency meeting in which it was expected to suspend a $1.5 billion aid program.[52]

Other sovereign states

  •  Australia: Prime Minister Bob Hawke said "The developments in the Soviet Union ... raise the question as to whether the purpose is to reverse the political and economic reforms which have been taking place. Australia does not want to see repression, persecution or vindictive actions against Gorbachev or those associated with him."[6]
  •  Bulgaria: President Zhelyu Zhelev has stated "Such anti-democratic methods can never lead to anything good neither for the Soviet Union, nor for Eastern Europe, nor for the democratic developments in the world."[6]
  •  Canada: Several reactions to coup quickly happened such as the Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney had huddled with his top advisers discussed the toppling of Mikhail Gorbachev, but his officials said the Prime Minister will likely react cautiously to the stunning development. Mulroney condemned the coup and suspended food aid and other assurances with the Soviet Union.[55] External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall suggested on August 20, 1991 that "Canada could work with any Soviet junta that promises to carry on Gorbachev's legacy, Lloyd Axworthy and Liberal Leader Jean Chretien said Canada must join with other Western governments to back Russian President Boris Yeltsin, former Soviet foreign minister and Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze and others fighting for Soviet democracy." McDougall met with the chargé d'affaires of the Soviet embassy, Vasily Sredin.[56]
  •  China: The Chinese government appeared tacitly to support the coup when it issued a statement saying the move was an internal affair of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China released no immediate comment. Confidential Chinese documents have indicated that China's hardline leaders strongly disapprove of Gorbachev's program of political liberalization, blaming him for "the loss of Eastern Europe to capitalism." Several Chinese people said that a key difference between the Soviet coup leaders' failed attempts to use tanks to crush dissent in Moscow and the hard-line Chinese leaders' successful use of tank-led forces to smash the 1989 protest movement was that the Soviet people had a powerful leader like Russian President Boris Yeltsin to rally around, whereas the Chinese protesters did not. The Soviet coup collapsed in three days without any major violence by the Soviet army against civilians; in June 1989, the People's Liberation Army killed hundreds of people to crush the democracy movement. "People all over Beijing are celebrating the failure of the coup tonight," said a young intellectual reached in Beijing today after word of the coup's collapse spread through the Chinese capital, mostly by way of foreign radio broadcasts. "I personally know of some Communist Party members who are also celebrating."[6][57]
  • Czechoslovakia: Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovak president, warned his nation could face a possible "wave of refugees" crossing its border with the Ukrainian SSR. However, Havel said "It is not possible to reverse the changes that have already happened in the Soviet Union. We believe democracy will eventually prevail in the Soviet Union."[6] Interior Ministry spokesman Martin Fendrych said an unspecified number of additional troops had been moved to reinforce the Czechoslovak border with the Soviet Union.[6]
  •  Denmark: Foreign Minister Uffe Ellemann-Jensen said the process of change in the Soviet Union could not be reversed. In a statement he said, "So much has happened and so many people have been involved in the changes in Soviet Union that I cannot see a total reversal."[6]
  •  France: President François Mitterrand called on the new rulers of the Soviet Union to guarantee the life and liberty of Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was "Gorbachev's rival in the changing Soviet Union." Mitterrand added, "France attaches a high price to the life and liberty of Messrs. Gorbachev and Yeltsin being guaranteed by the new Moscow leaders. These will be judged by their acts, especially on the fashion in which the two high personalities in question will be treated."[6]
  •  Germany: Chancellor Helmut Kohl cut his vacation short in Austria and returned to Bonn for an emergency meeting. Kohl had said he was sure Moscow would withdraw its remaining 272,000 troops from the former East Germany on schedule.[58] Björn Engholm, leader of Germany's opposition Social Democratic Party, urged member states of the European Community "to speak with one voice" on the situation and said "the West should not exclude the possibility of imposing economic and political sanctions on the Soviet Union to avoid a jolt to the right," in Moscow."[6]
  •  Greece: Greece described the situation in the Soviet Union as "alarming". The Communist-led Alliance of the Left and former Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou both issued statements condemning the coup.[6]
  •  Hungary: Deputy Speaker of Parliament Mátyás Szűrös said the coup increased the risk of a civil war in the Soviet Union. "Undoubtedly, the Soviet economy has collapsed but this has not been the result of Gorbachev's policy but of the paralyzing influence of conservatives" Szűrös said. "Suddenly, the likelihood of a civil war in the Soviet Union has increased."[6]
  •  Iraq: Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a close ally of the Soviet Union until it condemned Baghdad during the Gulf War. One Iraqi spokesman quoted by the official Iraqi News Agency: "It is natural that we welcome such change like the states and people who were affected by the policies of the former regime." [6]
  •  Israel: Israeli officials said they hoped Gorbachev's attempted removal had not derailed the conference held in Madrid or a slower Soviet Jewish immigration. The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, which has coordinated the massive flow of Jews arriving from the Soviet Union, called an emergency meeting to assess how the coup would affect Jewish immigration. "We are closely following what is happening in the Soviet Union with concern," Foreign Minister David Levy said. "One might say that this is an internal issue of the Soviet Union, but in the Soviet Union ... everything internal has an influence for the entire world."[6]
  •  Italy: Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti released a statement and said "I'm surprised, embittered and worried. We all know the difficulties that Gorbachev encountered. But I don't know how a new president, who, at least for now, doesn't have (Gorbachev's) prestige and international connections, can overcome the obstacles." Achille Occhetto, the head of the Democratic Party of the Left, direct heir of the Italian Communist Party, called the ouster of Gorbachev "a most dramatic event of world proportions (which) will have immense repercussions on international life. I am personally and strongly struck, not only for the incalculable burden of this event, but also for the fate of comrade Gorbachev."[6]
  •  Japan: Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu ordered the Foreign Ministry to analyze the developments. "I strongly hope that the leadership change will not influence the positive policies of perestroika and new thinking diplomacy." said Chief Cabinet Secretary .[6] In addition, Soviet aid and technical loans from Japan was frozen.[7]
  •  South Korea: President Roh Tae-woo welcomed the coup's collapse as a symbolic victory for the Soviet people. He quoted "It was a triumph of the courage and resolve of the Soviet citizens towards freedom and democracy."[7]
  •  Philippines: Philippine President Corazon Aquino expressed "grave concern" and said "We hope that the progress toward world peace... achieved under the leadership of President Gorbachev will continue to be preserved and enhanced further."[6]
  •  Poland: In a statement released by the President Lech Walesa, whose Solidarity union helped prompt the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, appealed for calm. "May unity and responsibility for our state gain the upper hand." Walesa said in a statement read on Polish radio by spokesman Andrzej Drzycimski, "The situation in the U.S.S.R. is significant for our country, It can affect our bilateral relations. We want then to be friendly." But he emphasized Poland kept its hard-won sovereignty while it pursued its economic and political reforms.[6]
  •  South Africa: Foreign Minister Pik Botha said: "I very much hope that (developments in the Soviet Union) will neither give rise to large-scale turbulence within the Soviet Union itself or more widely in Europe, nor jeopardize the era of hard-won international cooperation upon which the world has embarked."[6]
  •  Yugoslavia: The country, consumed by its own internal dissent, followed the coup closely. "I am afraid that conservatives in Yugoslavia may now try to grab power in our country, when they see how conservatives removed Gorbachev," a 51-year-old schoolteacher said. "Gorbachev has done the most to bring a sort of democracy to both Eastern European countries and to the Soviet Union." Dragan Radic, 57, an economist, had said: "Gorbachev has done a lot for world peace and helped replace hard-line communist regimes in the past few years. Yet, the West failed to support Gorbachev financially and economically and he was forced to step down because he could not feed the Soviet people."[6]

Supranational bodies and organizations

  •  NATO: The alliance held an emergency meeting in Brussels condemning the Soviet coup. "If indeed this coup did fail, it will be a great victory for the courageous Soviet people who have tasted freedom and who are not prepared to have it taken away from them." the United States Secretary of State James A. Baker III said "It will also, to some extent, be a victory, too, for the international community and for all those governments who reacted strongly to these events." NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner also said, "We should see how the situation in the Soviet Union develops. Our own plans will take into account what happens there."[6][59]
  •  Palestine Liberation Organization – The Palestinian Liberation Organization was dissatisfied with the coup. , who was a member of the PLO Executive Committee, said he hoped the putsch "will permit resolution in the best interests of the Palestinians of the problem of Soviet Jews in Israel."[6]

Further fate of GKChP members

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a party led by the nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovskyhttp://www.lenta.ru/lib/14159799/full.htm. Accessed 13 September 2009. Archived 16 September 2009-.
  2. ^ a b Ольга Васильева, «Республики во время путча» в сб.статей: «Путч. Хроника тревожных дней». // Издательство «Прогресс», 1991. (in Russian). Accessed 14 June 2009. Archived 17 June 2009.
  3. ^ Solving Transnistria: Any Optimists Left? by Cristian Urse. p. 58. Available at http://se2.isn.ch/serviceengine/Files/RESSpecNet/57339/ichaptersection_singledocument/7EE8018C-AD17-44B6-8BC2-8171256A7790/en/Chapter_4.pdf
  4. ^ a b "Би-би-си - Россия - Хроника путча. Часть II". news.bbc.co.uk.
  5. ^ Р. Г. Апресян. Народное сопротивление августовскому путчу (recuperato il 27 novembre 2010 tramite Internet Archive)
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y Isherwood, Julian M. (19 August 1991). "World reacts with shock to Gorbachev ouster". United Press International. Retrieved 31 May 2017.
  7. ^ a b c R.C. Gupta. (1997) Collapse of the Soviet Union. p. 57. ISBN 9788185842813,
  8. ^ https://www.upi.com/Archives/1991/08/26/Third-Soviet-official-commits-suicide/5619683179200/ . Retrieved 7 March 2019.
  9. ^ https://www.deseretnews.com/article/179916/THE-CENTRAL-COMMITTEE-CHIEF-OF-ADMINISTRATION-KILLS-HIMSELF.html . Retrieved 7 March 2019.
  10. ^ Mark Kramer, "The Dialectics of Empire: Soviet Leaders and the Challenge of Civil Resistance in East-Central Europe, 1968–91", in Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash (eds.), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present, Oxford University Press, 2009 pp. 108–09.
  11. ^ "Gorbachev and Perestroika. Professor Gerhard Rempel, Department of History, Western New England College, 1996-02-02, accessed 2008-07-12". Mars.wnec.edu. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008. Retrieved 31 March 2010.
  12. ^ Sarker, Sunil Kumar (1994). The rise and fall of communism. New Delhi: Atlantic publishers and distributors. p. 94. ISBN 978-8171565153. Retrieved 4 January 2017.
  13. ^ "USSR: The food supply situation" (PDF). CIA.gov.
  14. ^ Gupta, R.C. (1997). Collapse of the Soviet Union. India: Krishna Prakashan Media. p. 62. ISBN 978-8185842813. Retrieved 4 January 2017.
  15. ^ Ziemele (2005). p. 30.
  16. ^ Ziemele (2005). p. 35.
  17. ^ Ziemele (2005). pp. 38–40.
  18. ^ Yevgenia Albats and Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia – Past, Present, and Future. 1994. ISBN 0-374-52738-5, pages 276-293.
  19. ^ KGB Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Zhizhin and KGB Col. Alexei Yegorov, The State Within a State, p. 276–277.
  20. ^ a b c d (in Russian) September 1991 internal KGB report on the involvement of KGB in the coup
  21. ^ a b c d (in Russian) "Novaya Gazeta" No. 51 of 23 July 2001 (extracts from the indictment of the conspirators)
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h (in Russian) Timeline of the events Archived 27 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine, by Artem Krechnikov, Moscow BBC correspondent
  23. ^ a b Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin (2000). The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West. Gardners Books. ISBN 0-14-028487-7, pages 513–514.
  24. ^ The KGB surveillance logbook included every move of Gorbachev and his wife Raisa Gorbacheva, Subject 111, such as "18:30. 111 is in the bathtub."The State Within a State, page 276–277
  25. ^ a b c (in Russian) Novaya Gazeta No. 59 of 20 August 2001 (extracts from the indictment of the conspirators)
  26. ^ a b c d e f Kommersant, 18 August 2006 (in Russian)
  27. ^ Gorbachev's interview to the Russian Service of BBC of 16 August 2001 (in Russian)[1]
  28. ^ "Варенников Валентин Иванович/Неповторимое/Книга 6/Часть 9/Глава 2 — Таинственная Страна". www.mysteriouscountry.ru.
  29. ^ Revolutionary Passage by Marc Garcelon p. 159
  30. ^ a b c d e (in Russian) GKChP documents
  31. ^ a b (in Russian) another "Kommersant" article, 18 August 2006
  32. ^ (in Russian) "Novaya Gazeta" No. 55 of 6 August 2001 (extracts from the indictment of the conspirators)
  33. ^ (in Russian) "Novaya Gazeta" No. 57 of 13 August 2001 (extracts from the indictment of the conspirators)
  34. ^ a b c d e "Путч. Хроника тревожных дней". old.russ.ru.
  35. ^ "Izvestia", 18 August 2006 (in Russian)[2]
  36. ^ "Moskovskie Novosty", 2001, No.33 "Archived copy" (in Russian). Archived from the original on 27 November 2007. Retrieved 26 June 2007.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  37. ^ a b (in Russian) "Nezavisimoe Voiennoye Obozrenie", 18 August 2006
  38. ^ a b "Усов Владимир Александрович". www.warheroes.ru.
  39. ^ a b "Argumenty i Facty"[permanent dead link], 15 August 2001
  40. ^ "Calls for recognition of 1991 Soviet coup martyrs on 20th anniversary". The Guardian Online. 16 August 2011. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  41. ^ A Russian site on Ilya Krichevsky "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 11 August 2011. Retrieved 25 December 2010.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link). Accessed 15 August 2009. Archived 17 August 2009.
  42. ^ "Russia's Brightest Moment: The 1991 Coup That Failed". The Moscow Times. 19 August 2016. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  43. ^ Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR (21 August 1991). "Constitutional law On statehood of the Republic of Latvia" (in Latvian). Latvijas Vēstnesis. Retrieved 7 January 2008.
  44. ^ http://www.estonica.org/en/The_August_coup_and_Estonian_independence_1991/
  45. ^ a b c d e f g h Konsultant+ (Russian legal database)[full citation needed]
  46. ^ Fedor, Helen (1995). "Belarus – Prelude to Independence". Belarus: A Country Study. Library of Congress. Retrieved 22 December 2007.
  47. ^ "Закон СССР от 05.09.1991 N 2392-1 об органах государственной". pravo.levonevsky.org. Archived from the original on 13 July 2010. Retrieved 27 June 2007.
  48. ^ "6 сентября". 5 September 2005.
  49. ^ Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations from the President of the Russian Federation
  50. ^ "Vzgliad", 18 August 2006 (in Russian)[3]
  51. ^ "SOVIET TURMOIL; Moscow Mourns And Exalts Men Killed by Coup". The New York Times. 25 August 1991. Retrieved 8 March 2018.
  52. ^ a b Rosenthal, Andrew (20 August 1991). "THE SOVIET CRISIS; Bush Condemns Soviet Coup And Calls For Its Reversal". The New York Times.
  53. ^ "SOVIET TURMOIL; Excerpts From Bush's Conference: 'Strong Support' for Baltic Independence". The New York Times. 3 September 1991.
  54. ^ "Mr Major's Comments on the Soviet Coup - 21st August 1991". www.johnmajor.co.uk.
  55. ^ Farnsworth, Clyde H. (25 August 1991). "Canadian Is Attacked for Remarks on Soviet Coup". The New York Times.
  56. ^ "archives". thestar.com.
  57. ^ Southerl, Daniel; Southerl, Daniel (23 August 1991). "CHINESE DISSIDENTS HAIL MOSCOW EVENTS" – via washingtonpost.com.
  58. ^ "archives". thestar.com.
  59. ^ "Nato's Response Covers All Bases".
  60. ^ "Gennady Yanayev". 12 October 2010.
  61. ^ [4]"LA Times", March 2015
  62. ^ Simon Saradzhyan Coup Leader May Join Defense Team, "The Moscow Times", March 2015
  63. ^ [5]"Find A Grave", March 2015
  64. ^ Rupert Cornwell [6]"Vasily Starodubtsev: Politician who tried to topple Gorbachev in 1991", March 2015
  65. ^ Vladimir Socor [7]"The Jamestown Foundation", March 2015


  • Ziemele, Ineta (2005). State Continuity and Nationality: The Baltic States and Russia. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 90-04-14295-9.

External links

20 August 1882

Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture debuts in Moscow, Russia.

1812 Overture

A performance of the Overture, complete with cannon fire, performed at the 2005 Classical Spectacular in Melbourne, Australia

The Year 1812 Solemn Overture, festival overture in E major, Op. 49, popularly known as the 1812 Overture,[1] is a concert overture written in 1880 by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to commemorate the successful Russian defence against Napoleon's invading Grande Armée in 1812.

The overture debuted in Moscow on August 20, 1882,[2] conducted by Ippolit Al'tani under a tent near the then-unfinished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which also memorialized the 1812 defence of Russia.[3] Tchaikovsky himself conducted another performance at the dedication of Carnegie Hall in New York City.[4] That was one of the first times a major European composer visited the United States.[5]

The 15 minute overture is best known for its climactic volley of cannon fire, ringing chimes, and brass fanfare finale. It has also become a common accompaniment to fireworks displays on the United States' Independence Day. The 1812 Overture went on to become one of Tchaikovsky's most popular works, along with his ballet scores to The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake.[6]


The 1812 Overture is scored for an orchestra that consists of the following:[7]

The carillon is sometimes replaced with tubular bells or recordings of carillons, or even church bells. In the sections that contain cannon shots, actual cannons are sometimes replaced by recorded cannons or played on a piece of staging, usually with a large wooden mallet or sledgehammer as in the Mahler 6th. The bass drum and gong/tam-tam are also regularly used as cannon substitutes or adjuncts in indoor performances.


Historical background: Napoleon's invasion of Russia

A scene depicting the French retreat from Russia in 1812, painting by Illarion Pryanishnikov (1874)

On September 7, 1812, at Borodino, 120 km (75 mi) west of Moscow, Napoleon's forces met those of General Mikhail Kutuzov in a concerted stand made by Russia against the seemingly invincible French Army. The Battle of Borodino saw casualties estimated as high as 100,000 and the French were masters of the field. It was, however, ultimately a pyrrhic victory for the French invasion.[8]

With resources depleted and supply lines overextended, Napoleon's weakened forces moved into Moscow, which they occupied with little resistance. Expecting capitulation from the displaced Tsar Alexander I, the French instead found themselves in a barren and desolate city, parts of which the retreating Russian Army had burned to the ground.[citation needed]

Deprived of winter stores, Napoleon had to retreat. Beginning on October 19 and lasting well into December, the French Army faced several overwhelming obstacles on its long retreat: famine, typhus, frigid temperatures, harassing cossacks, and Russian forces barring the way out of the country. Abandoned by Napoleon in November, the Grande Armée was reduced to one-tenth of its original size by the time it reached Poland and relative safety.[9]


In 1880, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, commissioned in 1812 by Tsar Alexander I to commemorate the Russian victory, was nearing completion in Moscow; the 25th anniversary of the coronation of Alexander II would be at hand in 1881; and the 1882 All-Russia Arts and Industry Exhibition at Moscow was in the planning stage. Tchaikovsky's friend and mentor Nikolai Rubinstein suggested that he write a grand commemorative piece for use in related festivities. Tchaikovsky began work on the project on October 12, 1880, finishing it six weeks later.[citation needed]

Organizers planned to have the overture performed in the square before the cathedral, with a brass band to reinforce the orchestra, the bells of the cathedral, and all the others in downtown Moscow playing "zvons" (pealing bells) on cue—and cannons, fired from an electric switch panel to achieve the precision the musical score required. However, this performance did not take place, possibly due in part to the over-ambitious plan. Regardless, the assassination of Alexander II that March deflated much of the impetus for the project. In 1882, during the All-Russia Arts and Industry Exhibition, the Overture was performed in a tent next to the unfinished cathedral.[3] The cathedral was completed on May 26, 1883.[10]

Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky complained to his patron Nadezhda von Meck that he was "... not a conductor of festival pieces," and that the Overture would be "... very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love." He put it together in six weeks. It is this work that would make the Tchaikovsky estate exceptionally wealthy, as it is one of the most performed and recorded works from his catalog.[11][12][13]

In Russia during the Communist era, the Tsar's anthem melody was replaced with the chorus "Glory, Glory to you, holy Rus'!" (Славься, славься, святая Русь!) from the finale of Mikhail Glinka's opéra A Life for the Tsar; a historical drama about a patriotic commoner, Ivan Susanin. With the end of the Soviet Union, the original score returned.[14]

Adaptation in other contexts

As a rousing patriotic hymn, the Overture has subsequently been adapted into and associated with other contexts than that of the Russian fighting. The 1812 Overture is popularly known[15] in the United States as a symbol of the United States Independence Day, a tradition that dates to a 1974 choice made by Arthur Fiedler for a performance of July 4 of the Boston Pops.[16][17]

The piece was parodied by composer Malcolm Arnold in A Grand, Grand Overture which features 4 rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners (two uprights in B♭and one horizontal with detachable sucker in C), and an electric floor polisher in E♭; it is dedicated to President Hoover.[citation needed]


\relative c' {
\key ges \major \time 4/4 
bes''8-. \p bes16( ces bes8-.) as( ges) ges-. as( es)
ges-. ges-. es4-> ges8( f16 ges as8-.) es-.
bes'4->( es,8) es-. es( ges) f-. es-.
bes'4->(\< es,8) es-. es( ges) f-. es-.\!
bes'-.(_\markup{\italic{poco più}\dynamic f} bes-. bes-. bes-.) bes-> des16( bes as8-.) f(
ges) ges-. es4-> ges8( f16 ges as8-.) es-.
bes'4->( es,8) es-. es( ges) f-. es-.
bes'4->( es,8) es-. es16(\> f) ges-. ges-. f( es) des-. ces-.\!
U Vorot, Vorot is a folk song brought up in the piece representing the Russian people

The piece begins with the simple, plaintive Russian melody of the Eastern Orthodox hymn of the Holy Cross (also known as "O Lord, Save Thy People") played by four cellos and two violas.[18] This represents the Russian people praying for a swift conclusion to the invasion. Then, the French National anthem, La Marseillaise, is heard, representing the invading French army.[19] Then, the melody of the Marseillaise is heard competing against Russian folk music, representing the two armies fighting each other as the French got closer and closer to Moscow. At this point, five cannon shots are heard, representing the Battle of Borodino. This is where the Marseillaise is most prominent, and seems to be winning. After this, a long descending run represents the French army retreating out of Moscow. At the end of this run the hymn that the piece begins with is repeated. This can be interpreted as prayers being answered. The grand finale culminates with eleven more cannon shots and the melody of God Save the Tsar!.[20]

Anachronism of nationalist motifs

Although La Marseillaise was chosen as the French national anthem in 1795, it was banned by Napoleon in 1805 and would not have been played during the Russian campaign. It was reinstated as the French Anthem in 1879—the year before the commission of the overture—which can explain its use by Tchaikovsky in the overture.[21] "Veillons au salut de l'Empire", which served as the unofficial anthem of Napoleon I's regime, had been largely forgotten by 1882, while educated Russians of the time were likely to be familiar with the tune of La Marseillaise and recognize its significance.[original research?]

Although God Save the Tsar! was the Russian national anthem in Tchaikovsky's time, it had not been written in 1812. There was no official Russian anthem until 1815, from which time until 1833 the anthem was Molitva russkikh, "The Prayer of the Russians," sung to the tune of God Save the King.[22]


\clef bass \key c \minor \time 3/4
\set Score.tempoHideNote = ##t
\tempo 4 = 60
r4 r4 \clef tenor <bes es'>8-.( <bes es'>-.) \mf
<d' f'>4(\< <es' g'>)\! <bes es'>8-.( <bes es'>-.)
<d' f'>8(\< <es' g'>) <es' as'>-.( <es' as'>-.) <es' as'>4\!~
<es' as'>2.\>
<es' g'>8-.( \mf <es' g'>-. <es' g'>-. <es' g'>-.)  <es' g'>4~
<es' g'>\< <es' g'> <es' g'>
<d' f'>4.\f <d' f'>8-.( <d' f'>8-. <d' f'>8-.)
<es' g'>2 <c' es'>4 \mf
<d' f'>(\< <es' g'>) <bes es'>\!
<d' f'>8\<( <es' g'>) <es' as'>-.( <es' as'>-. <es' as'>-. <es' as'>-.\!)
<es' as'>-.(_\markup{\italic{cresc.}} <es' as'>-. <es' as'>-. <es' as'>-.\!) <es' as'>-.( <es' as'>-.
<es' as'>-. <es' as'>-.\!)  <es' as'> <es' g'> <es' as'>4~
<es' as'>2.

O Lord, Save thy People represents the praying for deliverance from the invading army. A part of this hymn translates to "Grant victory to all Orthodox Christians over their enemies."[23] By including this hymn in the piece, Tchaikovsky is suggesting that God granted the Orthodox Russians victory over the French imperial troops. Later in the piece when La Marseillaise is played, it seems as though the Russians will lose the battle. Then O Lord, Save thy People, along with God Save the Tsar!, is played powerfully in the brass section with a strong display of chimes in the background. The ringing chimes are written to represent the bells of Moscow.[24] The Bells of Moscow hold significance, because in the Russian Orthodox religion, the bells symbolize the voice of God.[25]

Performance practice


In a live performance, the logistics of safety and precision in placement of the shots require either well-drilled military crews using modern cannon, or the use of sixteen pieces of muzzle-loading artillery, since any reloading schemes, to attain the sixteen shots, or even a semblance of them, in the two-minute time span involved, makes safety and precision impossible with 1800s artillery. Time lag alone precludes implementation of cues for the shots for fewer than sixteen 1812-era field pieces.[26]

Fidelity to the original score

Musicologists[who?] questioned across the last third of a century[when?] have given no indication that the composer ever heard the Overture performed in authentic accordance with the 1880 plan. It is reported[according to whom?] that he asked permission to perform the piece as planned in Berlin, but was denied it. Performances he conducted on U.S. and European tours were apparently done with simulated or at best inexact shots, if with shots at all, a custom universal until recent years.[citation needed]

Antal Doráti and Erich Kunzel are the first conductors to have encouraged exact fidelity of the shots to the written score in live performances,[failed verification] beginning in New York and Connecticut as part of Doráti's recording, and Kunzel in Cincinnati in 1967 with assistance from J. Paul Barnett, of South Bend, Indiana.[27] Doráti uses an actual carillon called for in the score and the bells are rung about as close to a zvon as then known. The art of zvon ringing was almost lost because of the Russian Revolution, when many of the bells were destroyed.[28]

Recording history

The earliest traceable orchestral recording, which does not include the shots and features no percussion apart from bells, was by the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra conducted by Landon Ronald, was issued by His Master’s Voice on three 12-inch 78rpm sides in 1916.[29] A Royal Opera Orchestra recording of about the same time similarly contains no shots at all.[30]

Antal Doráti's 1954 Mercury Records recording with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, partially recorded at West Point, and using the Yale Memorial Carillon in New Haven, Connecticut, uses a Napoleonic French single muzzleloading cannon shot dubbed in 16 times as written. On the first edition of the recording, one side played the Overture and the other side played a narrative by Deems Taylor about how the cannon and bell effects were accomplished. (Later editions placed the commentary after the performance on side 1 and the Capriccio Italien on side 2.) A stereophonic version was recorded on April 5, 1958, using the bells of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Carillon, at Riverside Church. On this Mercury Living Presence Stereo recording, the spoken commentary was also given by Deems Taylor and the 1812 was coupled with Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien. Later editions coupled the 1812 Overture with Dorati's recording of Beethoven's Wellington's Victory, which featured the London Symphony Orchestra and real cannon.[31]

Kenneth Alwyn's early stereo recording for Decca used a recording of slowed-down gunfire instead of cannon fire. Robert Sharples and the London Festival Orchestra released a recording in 1963, later remastered in quadrophony by Decca.[citation needed]

The Black Dyke Band has recorded a brass band arrangement of the piece. This recording on their album Symphonic Brass includes the cannon shots as originally written.[32]

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert Von Karajan, and the Don Cossacks Choir recorded the piece in 1967 for Deutsche Grammophon.[33]

In 1971, CBS released a recording[34] with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy, also featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Valley Forge Military Academy band and real artillery shots. British rock drummer Cozy Powell sampled the overture at the end of the track "Over The Top" in his eponymous 1979 studio album. In 1989, the Swingle Singers recorded an a cappella version of the overture as part of an album whose title is 1812.[35]

In 1990, during a worldwide celebration of the 150th anniversary of Tchaikovsky's birth, the Overture was recorded in the city of his youth by the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra using 16 muzzleloading cannons fired live as written in the 1880 score. That recording was done within earshot of the composer's grave. The festival was televised for the first time in USA on March 9, 1991.[36][37] The Texan band "The Invincible Czars" released a rock version of 1812 Overture for the bicentennial of the Battle of Borodino in September 2012.[38] The band had already debuted their arrangement of the piece at the 20th annual OK Mozart classical music festival at Bartlesville, Oklahoma, with professional orchestra musicians, in June 2009, complete with fireworks at the finale.[39]

In popular culture

The overture is the title screen music for the 2000 PC game Risk II.[citation needed]

In the sci-fi fantasy show Farscape, John Crichton converts a DRD to belt out the overture in order to ground him and help maintain his focus. He even paints the French flag on the droid and labels it "1812".[citation needed]

The piece is featured prominently in the film V for Vendetta.[40] The melody of Dan Fogelberg's top ten hit "Same Old Lang Syne" is drawn from the distinctive leitmotif that represents the Russian forces in the piece.[41]

In Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, the RYNO V weapon plays the 1812 Overture while firing.[citation needed]

In Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, part of the overture's finale plays when the Claptrap character enters Pirate Ship Mode.[citation needed]

Tommy Wiseau's 2015 sitcom The Neighbors uses the overture as its intro theme.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "Tchaikovsky Research : The Year 1812, Op. 49 (TH 49)". Retrieved June 21, 2015.
  2. ^ Lax, Roger; Frederick Smith (1989). The Great Song Thesaurus. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 230. ISBN 978-0-19-505408-8.
  3. ^ a b Felsenfeld, Daniel. Tchaikovsky: A Listener's Guide, p. 54. Amadeus Press, 2006.
  4. ^ Cross, Milton (1969). The Milton Cross New Encyclopedia of the Great Composers and Their Music, Volume 2. Doubleday. p. 1034.
  5. ^ Ewen, David (1978). Musicians since nineteen hundred: performers in concert and opera. Hw Wilson Company. p. 186. ISBN 0-8242-0565-0.
  6. ^ Robinson, Harlow (2012). Rzhevsky, Nicholas (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Russian Culture. Cambridge University Press. p. 268. ISBN 1-107-00252-4.
  7. ^ Tchaikovsky, Piotr Ilyich (1996). 1812 overture: Marche slave, and ; Francesca da Rimini. Courier Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-29069-7. Retrieved December 29, 2009.
  8. ^ "Battle of Borodino". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Archived from the original on January 21, 2010. Retrieved January 6, 2010.
  9. ^ Zamoyski, Adam (2004). Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March. London: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-00-712375-2.
  10. ^ "Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: History". Archived from the original on May 15, 2011. Retrieved September 26, 2010.
  11. ^ "Official website of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour". Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Archived from the original on April 1, 2015. Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  12. ^ "Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow: A Russian Allegory". Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  13. ^ "Churches Around the World Archive". Retrieved January 10, 2010.
  14. ^ Russian national anthem "God Save the Tsar" in Tchaikovsky's music Archived July 10, 2006, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ Andrew Druckenbrod. "How a rousing Russian tune took over our July 4th". Post-Gazette. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  16. ^ Everett Evans. "How did the '1812 Overture,' become a Fourth tradition?". Hearst Newspapers. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  17. ^ Matthew Linder. "Independence Day Staple, the "1812 Overture" is a Story of God's Sovereignty Over Human History". Christ and Pop Culture. Retrieved July 4, 2015.
  18. ^ "Lord Save Thy People and the 1812 Overture". orthodoxwoman. September 14, 2012. Retrieved June 18, 2018.
  19. ^ In Napoleon's time, the Marseillaise was not the national anthem of France, but audiences were more familiar with La Marseillaise, so that is what Tchaikovsky wrote
  20. ^ Green, Aaron (January 30, 2018). "The History of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture". ThoughtCo. Retrieved April 13, 2018.
  21. ^ Ross, Stewart (2002). The French Revolution Events and outcomes. Evans Brothers, p. 69. ISBN 0-237-52292-6.
  22. ^ Bohlman, Philip Vilas (August 2004). The Music of European Nationalism: Cultural Identity and Modern History. ABC-CLIO. p. 157. ISBN 978-1-85109-363-2. Retrieved September 13, 2011.
  23. ^ Micholic, Peter. "Aftershocks of 1812: Nationalism and Censorship in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture". Adventures in Music History and Literature at St. Olaf. Retrieved December 12, 2014.[full citation needed]
  24. ^ Starmer, W. (1916). "The Great Bell of Moscow". The Musical Times. 57 (887): 442.
  25. ^ Batuman, Elif. "The Bells". The New Yorker.[full citation needed]
  26. ^ Mordden, Ethan (1986). A guide to orchestral music: the handbook for non-musicians (Reprint, illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press US. ISBN 978-0-19-504041-8.
  27. ^ "Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture: The New Recording". Telarc International. Archived from the original on March 27, 2008. Retrieved July 20, 2008.
  28. ^ "Rescued Russian bells leave Harvard for home". Harvard University Gazette. danilovbells.com. July 7, 2008. Archived from the original on October 17, 2017. Retrieved January 13, 2010.
  29. ^ "Landon Ronald" at damians78s.co.uk Archived November 5, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  30. ^ Smith, Alfred Emanuel (1927). "New Outlook-Volume 145". Outlook Publishing Company, Inc. p. 24. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  31. ^ Kozinn, Allan (September 24, 2009). "Wilma Cozart Fine, Classical Music Record Producer, Dies at 82". New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2010.
  32. ^ "Symphonic Brass". Naxos.com. Retrieved August 19, 2017.
  33. ^ "Peter Tchaikovsky*, Don Cossack Choir Serge Jaroff*, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra*, Herbert von Karajan - Overture 1812 • Marche Slave • Romeo And Juliet". Discogs. Retrieved September 26, 2017.
  34. ^ "Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra*, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Valley Forge Military Academy Band – Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture". Discogs. Retrieved August 15, 2016.
  35. ^ "1812 – The Swingle Singers".
  36. ^ Americans Do Tchaikovsky in Russia by Daniel Cariaga
  37. ^ Review/Television; Soviet Concert Honors a Favorite Son By James R. Oestreich
  38. ^ Napoleon's 1812 Bicentennial Indoor Picnic Archived September 27, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ OKMozart! Archived August 7, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  40. ^ "SoundtrackINFO: V for Vendetta Soundtrack". www.soundtrackinfo.com. Retrieved August 15, 2015.
  41. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". Dan Fogelberg. 2003. Retrieved June 14, 2011.

External links

19 August 1854

The First Sioux War begins when United States Army soldiers kill Lakota chief Conquering Bear and in return are massacred.

Sioux Wars

Sioux Wars
Part of the American Indian Wars
Custer's last charge.jpg
"Custer's Last Stand" during the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Like most battles between the Lakotas and the U.S. Army, it took place on ground not recognized as Lakota territory. (The battle stood in the Crow Indian Reservation).[2][3][4][5]
Date1854 (1854)–1891 (1891)
Great Plains, United States, partly in 1851 Lakota treaty territory, but mainly in 1851 Crow treaty guaranteed country.[6]
Result United States victory, Sioux moved to reservations.

 United States




Commanders and leaders
United States John M. Chivington
United States George Crook
United States George A. Custer 
United States Nelson A. Miles
United States Marcus Reno
Plenty Coups (Crow) (?)
Alligator-Stands-Up (Crow war-chief) [7]
Washakie (Shoshone chief)
Little Crow
Red Cloud
Crazy Horse 
Sitting Bull
Black Kettle  

The Sioux Wars were a series of conflicts between the United States and various subgroups of the Sioux people which occurred in the later half of the 19th century. The earliest conflict came in 1854 when a fight broke out at Fort Laramie in Wyoming, when Sioux warriors killed several American soldiers in the Grattan Massacre, and the final came in 1890 during the Ghost Dance War.

First Sioux War

The First Sioux War was fought between 1854 and 1856 following the Grattan Massacre.[8] The punitive Battle of Ash Hollow was fought in September 1855.

Dakota War of 1862

The Santee Sioux or Dakotas of Western Minnesota rebelled on August 17, 1862 after the Federal Government failed to deliver the annuity payments that had been promised to them in the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux of 1851. The Indians pillaged the nearby village of New Ulm and attacked on Fort Ridgely. They killed over 800 German farmers, including men, women and children. After the Battle of Birch Coulee on September 2, the Indians were eventually defeated on September 23 in the Battle of Wood Lake.

Most of the warriors who took part in the fighting escaped to the west and north into Dakota Territory to continue the conflict, while the remaining Santees surrendered on September 26 at Camp Release to the US Army. In the following murder trials 303 Indians were sentenced to death. After closer investigation from Washington, eventually 38 were hanged on December 26 in the Town of Mankato in America's largest mass-execution.[9]

In the aftermath, battles continued between Minnesota regiments and combined Lakota and Dakota forces through 1864 as Col. Henry Sibley's troops pursued the Sioux. Sibley's army defeated the Lakota and Dakota in four major battles in 1863: the Battle of Big Mound on July 24, 1863, the Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake on July 26, 1863; the Battle of Stony Lake on July 28, 1863; and the Battle of Whitestone Hill on September 3, 1863. The Sioux retreated further, but faced a United States army again in 1864. General Alfred Sully led a force from near Fort Pierre, South Dakota, and decisively defeated the Sioux at the Battle of Killdeer Mountain on July 28, 1864 and at the Battle of the Badlands on August 9, 1864.

The survivors were forced to move to a small reservation on the Missouri river in central South Dakota. There, on the Crow Creek Reservation their descendants still live today.

Colorado War

The Colorado War began in 1863 and was primarily fought by American militia while the United States Army played a minor role. Several Native American tribes attacked American settlements in the Eastern Plains, including the Lakota Sioux who raided in northeast Colorado. On November 29, 1864 under the command of Colonel John Chivington attacked a peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village camped on Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Under orders to take no prisoners the militia killed an estimated 150 men, women, and children, mutilating the dead and taking scalps and other grisly trophies of battle.[10] The Indians at Sand Creek had been assured by the U.S. Government that they would be safe in the territory they were occupying, but anti-Indian sentiments by white settlers were running high. Later congressional investigations resulted in short-lived U.S. public outcry against the slaughter of the Native Americans.

Following the massacre the survivors joined the camps of the Northern Cheyenne on the Smokey Hill and Republican rivers. There the war pipe was smoked and passed from camp to camp among the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped in the area and an attack on the stage station and fort, Camp Rankin at that time, at Julesburg on the South Platte River was planned and carried out in January, 1865.[11] This successful attack, the Battle of Julesburg, led by the Sioux, who were most familiar with the territory, was carried out by about a thousand warriors and was followed up by numerous raids along the South Platte both east and west of Julesburg and a second raid on Julesburg in early February. Following the first raid on January 7, 500 troops under the command of General Robert B. Mitchell consisting of the Seventh Iowa Cavalry, the First Nebraska Veteran Volunteer Cavalry, and Companies "B" and "C," First Nebraska Militia (mounted)[12] had been removed from the Platte and were engaged in a fruitless search for hostile Indians on the plains south of the Platte. They found the camp on the Republican River occupied by the tribes only after they had left.[13] A great deal of loot was captured and many whites killed. The bulk of the natives then moved north into Nebraska on their way to the Black Hills and the Powder River but paused to burn the telegraph station on Lodgepole Creek then attacked the station at Mud Springs on the Jules cutoff. There were 9 soldiers stationed there, the telegraph operator and a few other civilians. The Indians began the attack by running the stock off from the station's corral along with a herd of cattle. Alerted by telegraph, the Army dispatched men from Fort Mitchell and Fort Laramie on February 4, about 150 men in all. Arriving on February 5 the first party of reinforcements of 36 men found themselves facing superior forces, estimated to number 500 warriors and with two men wounded were forced to retreat into the station. The second party of 120 troops under the command of Colonel William Collins, commandant of Fort Laramie, arrived on the 6th and found themselves facing 500 to 1,000 warriors. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles the soldiers were able to hold their own and a standoff resulted. After about 4 hours of fighting the war party left and moved their village to the head of Brown's Creek on the north side of the North Platte. Collins' forces were soon reinforced by 50 more men from Fort Laramie who had towed a mountain howitzer with them. With a force of about 185 men Collins followed the trail of the Indians to their abandoned camp at Rock Creek Spring, then followed their plain trail to the south bank of the North Platte at Rush Creek where they encountered a force of approximately 2,000 warriors on the north side of the river. An inconclusive fight followed and the decision was made to abandon pursuit of the war party. In his report Colonel Collins correctly predicted that the party was en route to the Power River Country and would continue to raid along the North Platte. His estimate of Indian casualties during the two engagements was 100 to 150, many more than reported by George Bent a participant in the war party.[14][15]

In the spring of 1865, raids continued along the Oregon trail in Nebraska. January 27, 1865 while a brisk northwest wind was blowing the army fired the prairie from Fort McPherson to Denver.[16] The Sioux, the Northern Cheyenne, the Northern Arapaho together with the warriors who had come north after the Sand Creek massacre raided the Oregon Trail along the North Platte River, and in July, 1865 attacked the troops stationed at the bridge across the North Platte at the present site of Casper, Wyoming, the Battle of the Platte Bridge Station.[17][18]

Powder River War

Map indicating the battlefields of the Lakota wars (1851–1890) and the Lakota Indian territory as described in the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851). Most battles "between the army and the Dakota [Lakota] were on lands those Indians had taken from other tribes since 1851",[19][20] and the ongoing conflict between the United States and the buffalo seeking Lakotas in the 1860s and the 1870s was a "clash of two expanding empires".[21][22] The steady Lakota invasion into treaty areas belonging to smaller tribes[23] ensured the United States firm Indian allies in the Arikaras[24] and the Crows during the Lakota Wars.[21][25][26]

In 1865 Major General Grenville M. Dodge ordered a punitive expedition against the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes that lived in the Black Hills region. General Patrick E. Connor was placed in command with hundreds of regular and volunteer soldiers at his disposal. Connor divided his force into three columns, the first was under Colonel Nelson Cole and was assigned to operate along the Loup River of Nebraska. The second column, under Lt Col , would travel north from Fort Laramie to occupy an area west of the Black Hills while the third, led by General Connor and Colonel , would march up the Powder River. Only minor skirmishing occurred until August 29, 1865 when Connor's column of about 400 men encountered about 500 Arapahos of Chief in the Battle of the Tongue River. That morning Connor's men charged and captured a village and routed the defenders who counterattacked unsuccessfully. A few days later a small party of soldiers and civilian surveyors was attacked by the Arapaho in what became known as the Sawyers Fight, three Americans were killed and it marked the last skirmish of the Powder River War.

Red Cloud's War

Due to increasing demand of safe travel along the Bozeman Trail to the Montana gold fields, the US government tried to negotiate new treaties with the Lakota Indians who were legally entitled to the Powder River country, through which the trail led, by the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Because the military sent simultaneously two battalions of the 18th Infantry under the command of Colonel Henry B. Carrington to establish new forts to watch over the Bozeman Road, the Indians refused to sign any treaty and left Fort Laramie determined to defend their land.

Carrington reinforced Fort Reno and established two additional forts further north (Fort Phil Kearny and Fort C. F. Smith) in the summer of 1866. His strategy, based on his orders from higher headquarters, was to secure the road, rather than fight the Indians. At the same time Red Cloud and the other chiefs soon became aware that they were unable to defeat a fully defended fort, so they kept to raiding every wagon train and traveling party they could find along the road.[27]

Young eager warriors from the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes formed war parties who would attack woodcutting parties near the forts as well as freight trains to cut their supplies. Crazy Horse from the Oglala, Gall from the Hunkpapas and from the Miniconjous were the best known ones among them.[27] On December 21, 1866, Indians fired on woodcutters working near Fort Phil Kearny. The relief party was commanded by Captain William J. Fetterman. Fetterman's party was drawn into an ambush by an estimated 1,000–3,000 Indians and wiped out. Due to the high casualties on the American side, the Indians called the fight the "Battle of the Hundred Slain" ever since; among the Whites, it was called the "Fetterman Massacre".[27]

The US government came to the conclusion after the Fetterman Fight that the forts along the Bozeman Trail were expensive to maintain (both in terms of supplies and manpower) and did not bring the intended security for travelers along the Road. However Red Cloud refused to attend any meeting with treaty commissions during 1867. Only after the army evacuated the forts in the Powder River country and the Indians burned down all three of them, did he travel to Fort Laramie in the summer of 1868,[27] where the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) was signed. It established the Great Sioux Reservation which included all South Dakota territory west of the Missouri river. It also declared additional territory reaching as far as the Yellowstone and North Platte rivers as unceded territory for sole use by the Indians.

The early 1870s fights

On May 7, 1868, the Crow tribe ceded land to the United States, including areas along the Yellowstone, Montana.[2] The army came under attack by Lakotas in 1872, while it protected surveying expeditions for the Northern Pacific Railway down the river.[28] The next year, the Lakotas carried out attacks on the U.S. army in the five years old U.S. territory at Honsinger Bluff[29] and Pease Bottom.[30] Further east, soldiers and Arikara scouts from Fort McKeen at the Missouri had to fight attacking Lakotas on August 26, 1872.[31][32] Nearly 300 Lakotas attacked the fort on October 14.[31] Around 100 Lakotas attacked close by Fort Abraham Lincoln on May 7, 1873.[33] Both forts were located in former Lakota territory, which the tribe had ceded to the United States at the same time as the establishment of the Great Sioux Reservation in 1868.[34]

Especially after the Lakota massacre on the Pawnee Indians in the south-western Nebraska on August 5, 1873, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs advocated a firmer line against all Lakotas harassing people, both Indians and whites, outside the recognized 1868 Lakota domain.[35][36] "In his 1873 annual report he recommended ... that those [Sioux] Indians roaming west of the Dakota line be forced by the military to come in to the Great Sioux Reservation".[37] "The Great Sioux War" could have started in 1873, but nothing came about.

Great Sioux War

The Great Sioux War refers to series of conflicts from 1876 to 1877 involving the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne tribes. Following the influx of gold miners to the Black Hills of South Dakota, war broke out when the native followers of Chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse left their reservations, apparently to go on the war path and defend the sacred Black Hills. In the first major fight of the war, on March 17, 1876, about 300 men under Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds attacked approximately 225 Northern Cheyenne warriors in the Battle of Powder River which ended with a United States victory. During the fighting, the Cheyenne were forced to retreat with their families further up the Powder River, leaving behind large quantities of weapons and ammunition. Next came the major Battle of Rosebud on June 17 when 1,500 Cheyenne warriors, led by Crazy Horse himself, defeated a force of 1,300 Americans under General George Crook. Crook retreated which helped lead to the infamous Battle of Little Big Horn beginning on June 25. Lieutenant Colonel George Custer, commanding a force of over 600 troops, was badly defeated with the loss of over 300 men killed or wounded, including himself. The next major engagement occurred at Slim Buttes on September 9 and 10. While moving toward Deadwood to secure supplies for Crook's command, elements of the 1st Cavalry commander by Capt Anson Mills located and attacked a Sioux village. The Dull Knife Fight, on November 25, and the Battle of Wolf Mountain on January 8, 1877 were the last major fights in the conflict. During the latter, Nelson A. Miles defended a ridge from a series of failed attacks led by Crazy Horse, who shortly thereafter surrendered at Camp Robinson, thus ending the war.[38]

Ghost Dance War

From November 1890 to January 1891, unresolved grievances led to the last major conflict with the Sioux. A lopsided engagement that involved almost half the infantry and cavalry of the Regular Army caused the surviving warriors to lay down their arms and retreat to their reservations.

That autumn, the Sioux were moved to a large reservation in the Dakota Territory, but the government pressured them to sign a treaty giving up much of their land. Sitting Bull had returned from Canada and held the Sioux resistance together for a few years. But in the summer of 1889, the reservation agent, James McLaughlin, was able to secure the Sioux's signatures by keeping the final treaty council a secret from Sitting Bull. The treaty broke up their 35,000 acres (142 km²) into six small reservations.

In October 1890, Kicking Bear and Short Bull brought the Sioux one last hope of resistance. They taught them the Ghost Dance, something they had learned from Wovoka, a Paiute medicine man. He told them that in the spring, the earth would be covered with a new layer of soil that would bury the white men while the Native Americans who did the Ghost Dance would be suspended in the air. The grass and the buffalo would return, along with the ghosts of their dead ancestors. The Ghost Dance movement spread across western reservations. The U.S. government considered it a threat and sent out its military.

On the Sioux reservations, McLaughlin had Kicking Bear arrested, while Sitting Bull's arrest on December 15, 1890, resulted in a struggle between reservation police and Ghost Dancers in which Sitting Bull was killed. Two weeks later, the military intercepted Big Foot's band of Ghost Dancers. They were Minneconjou Sioux, mostly women who had lost husbands and other male relatives in the wars with the U.S. military. When Colonel Forsyth tried to disarm the last Minneconjou of his rifle, a shot broke out, and the surrounding soldiers opened fire. Hotchkiss guns shredded the camp on Wounded Knee Creek, killing, according to one estimate, 300 of 350 men, women, and children.

Stranded 9th Cavalry

The battalion of 9th Cavalry was scouting near the White River (Missouri River tributary) about 50 miles north of Indian agency at Pine Ridge when the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred, and rode south all night to reach the reservation. In the early morning of December 30, 1890, F, I, and K Troops reached the Pine Ridge agency, however, their supply wagon guarded by D Troop located behind them was attacked by 50 Sioux warriors near Cheyenne Creek (about 2 miles from the Indian agency). One soldier was immediately killed. The wagon train protected itself by circling the wagons. Corporal William Wilson volunteered to take a message to the agency at Pine Ridge to get help after the Indian scouts refused to go. Wilson took off through the wagon circle with Sioux in pursuit and his troops covering him. Wilson reached the agency and spread the alarm. The 9th Cavalry within the agency came to rescue the stranded troopers and the Sioux dispersed. For his actions, Corporal Wilson received the Medal of Honor.[39]

Drexel Mission Fight

The Drexel Mission Fight followed later in the day.

Winter guards

The 9th Cavalry were stationed on the Pine Ridge reservation through the rest of the winter of 1890–1891 until March 1891, lodging in their tents. By then, the 9th Cavalry was the only regiment on the reservation after being the first to arrive in November of 1890.[39]

See also


  1. ^ Libby, Orin G. (1920): The Arikara Narrative. Bismarck.
  2. ^ a b Kappler, Joseph C. (1904): Indian Affairs. Laws and Treaties. Vol. 2. pp. 1008–1011: Treaty with the Crows, May 7, 1868.
  3. ^ Dunlay, Thomas W. (1982). Wolves for the Blue Soldiers. Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90. Lincoln and London. p. 113.
  4. ^ Hoxie, Frederick E. (1995): Parading Through History. The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805–1935. Cambridge. p. 108 and map p. 99.
  5. ^ Medicine Crow, Joseph (1992): From the Heart of the Crow Country. The Crow Indians' Own Stories. New York. Map facing p. xxi.
  6. ^ Kappler, Joseph C. (1904): Indian Affairs. Laws and Treaties. Vol. 2. p. 595.
  7. ^ Linderman, Frank B. (1962): Plenty Coups. Chief of the Crows. Lincoln and London. p. 155.
  8. ^ Ball, Durwood (September 1, 2006). "Blue Water Creek and the First Sioux War, 1854–1856". Journal of American History. 93 (2): 529–530. doi:10.2307/4486288 – via academic.oup.com.
  9. ^ Brown, Dee (1970): Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston
  10. ^ Pages 148 to 163, Life of George Bent: Written From His Letters, by George E. Hyde, edited by Savoie Lottinville, University of Oklahoma Press (1968), hardcover, 390 pages; trade paperback, 280 pages (March 1983) ISBN 978-0-8061-1577-1
  11. ^ An arbitrary dividing line between the Colorado War and the Sioux Indian War of 1865 Long Soldier Winter Count, 1864–65 The Winter Count of Crazy Horse's Life
  12. ^ Chapter 32, Ware, Eugene, The Indian War of 1864: Being a Fragment of the Early History of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming", Crane & Company (1911) was the most junior officer in the Seventh Iowa Cavalry when on September 19, 1863 it was deployed to Omaha en route to the Indian Wars.
  13. ^ Footnote 6, p. 188, The Fighting Cheyenne, George Bird Grinnell, University of Oklahoma Press (1956 original copyright 1915 Charles Scribner's Sons), hardcover, 454 pp.
  14. ^ Pages 168 to 155, Life of George Bent: Written From His Letters, by George E. Hyde, edited by Savoie Lottinville, University of Oklahoma Press (1968), hardcover, 390 pages; trade paperback, 280 pages (March 1983) ISBN 978-0-8061-1577-1
  15. ^ Pages 35 to 44, Chapter 3 "Mud Springs and Rush Creek" Chapter 3 "Mud Springs and Rush Creek" Circle of Fire: The Indian war of 1865 by John Dishon McDermott, Stackpole Books (August, 2003), hardcover, 304 pages, ISBN 978-0-8117-0061-0
  16. ^ Chapter 34, Ware, Eugene, The Indian War of 1864
  17. ^ Pages 201 to 207 and 212 to 222, Life of George Bent: Written From His Letters, by George E. Hyde, edited by Savoie Lottinville, University of Oklahoma Press (1968), hardcover, 390 pages; trade paperback, 280 pages (March 1983) ISBN 978-0-8061-1577-1
  18. ^ Pages 46 to 62, Chapter 4 "Hanging of the Chiefs" Circle of fire: the Indian war of 1865 by John Dishon McDermott, Stackpole Books (August, 2003), hardcover, 304 pages, ISBN 978-0-8117-0061-0
  19. ^ Ewers, John C.: Intertribal Warfare as a Precursor of Indian-White Warfare on the Northern Great Plains. Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Oct. 1975), pp. 397–410, p. 408.
  20. ^ Stands In Timber, John and Margot Liberty (1972): Cheyenne Memories. Lincoln and London. P. 170, note 13.
  21. ^ a b Calloway, Colin G.: The Inter-tribal Balance of Power on the Great Plains, 1760–1850. Journal of American Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (April 1982), pp. 2–47, p. 46.
  22. ^ White, Richard: The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. The Journal of American History, Vo. 65, No. 2 (Sep. 1987), pp. 319–343, p. 342.
  23. ^ Medicine Crow, Joseph (1992): From the Heart of the Crow Country. The Crow Indians' Own Stories. New York. pp. 64, 84.
  24. ^ Dunlay, Thomas W. (1982). Wolves for the Blue Soldiers. Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90. Lincoln and London. P. 132.
  25. ^ Dunlay, Thomas W. (1982). Wolves for the Blue Soldiers. Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90. Lincoln and London. pp. 112–114.
  26. ^ Medicine Crow, Joseph (1992): From the Heart of the Crow Country. The Crow Indians' Own Stories. New York. p. xi.
  27. ^ a b c d Brown, Dee (1970): Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, ch. 6. Bantam Books. ISBN 0-553-11979-6
  28. ^ Webb, G.W. (1939): Chronological List of Engagements Between the Regular Army Of The United States And Various Tribes Of Hostile Indians Which Occurred During The Years 1790 To 1898, Inclusive. St. Joseph. pp. 61–62.
  29. ^ Custer, Elizabeth B. (1968): "Boots and Saddles" or, Life in Dakota with General Custer. Norman, pp. 237 ff.
  30. ^ Webb, G.W. (1939): Chronological List of Engagements Between the Regular Army Of The United States And Various Tribes Of Hostile Indians Which Occurred During The Years 1790 To 1898, Inclusive. St. Joseph. p. 66.
  31. ^ a b Webb, G.W. (1939): Chronological List of Engagements Between the Regular Army Of The United States And Various Tribes Of Hostile Indians Which Occurred During The Years 1790 To 1898, Inclusive. St. Joseph. p. 62.
  32. ^ Dunlay, Thomas W. (1982). Wolves for the Blue Soldiers. Indian Scouts and Auxiliaries with the United States Army, 1860–90. Lincoln and London. p. 49.
  33. ^ Webb, G.W. (1939): Chronological List of Engagements Between the Regular Army Of The United States And Various Tribes Of Hostile Indians Which Occurred During The Years 1790 To 1898, Inclusive. St. Joseph. p. 65.
  34. ^ Kappler, Joseph C. (1904): Indian Affairs. Laws and Treaties. Vol. 2. p. 1002.
  35. ^ Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1873, Washington, 1874. p. 6.
  36. ^ McGinnis, Anthony (1990): Counting Coup and Cutting Horses. Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738–1889. Evergreen. p. 129.
  37. ^ Kvasnicka, Robert M. and Herman J. Viola (1979): The Commissioners of Indian Affairs, 1824–1977. Lincoln and London. p. 145.
  38. ^ "Cheyenne Primacy". www.friendslittlebighorn.com.
  39. ^ a b Schubert, Frank N. (1997). Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Honor, 187–1898. Scholarly Resources Inc. pp. 121–132. ISBN 978-0842025867.


  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. N.Y.: W.W. Norton, 1987.
  • Smith, Duane A. Rocky Mountain West: Colorado, Wyoming, & Montana, 1859–1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
  • Williams, Albert N. Rocky Mountain Country. N.Y.: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1950.

External links

18 August 1868

French astronomer Pierre Janssen discovers helium.


Helium,  2He
Helium discharge tube.jpg
Pronunciation/ˈhliəm/ (HEE-lee-əm)
Appearancecolorless gas, exhibiting a gray, cloudy glow (or reddish-orange if an especially high voltage is used) when placed in an electric field
Standard atomic weight Ar, std(He)4.002602(2)[1]
Helium in the periodic table
Hydrogen Helium
Lithium Beryllium Boron Carbon Nitrogen Oxygen Fluorine Neon
Sodium Magnesium Aluminium Silicon Phosphorus Sulfur Chlorine Argon
Potassium Calcium Scandium Titanium Vanadium Chromium Manganese Iron Cobalt Nickel Copper Zinc Gallium Germanium Arsenic Selenium Bromine Krypton
Rubidium Strontium Yttrium Zirconium Niobium Molybdenum Technetium Ruthenium Rhodium Palladium Silver Cadmium Indium Tin Antimony Tellurium Iodine Xenon
Caesium Barium Lanthanum Cerium Praseodymium Neodymium Promethium Samarium Europium Gadolinium Terbium Dysprosium Holmium Erbium Thulium Ytterbium Lutetium Hafnium Tantalum Tungsten Rhenium Osmium Iridium Platinum Gold Mercury (element) Thallium Lead Bismuth Polonium Astatine Radon
Francium Radium Actinium Thorium Protactinium Uranium Neptunium Plutonium Americium Curium Berkelium Californium Einsteinium Fermium Mendelevium Nobelium Lawrencium Rutherfordium Dubnium Seaborgium Bohrium Hassium Meitnerium Darmstadtium Roentgenium Copernicium Nihonium Flerovium Moscovium Livermorium Tennessine Oganesson


Atomic number (Z)2
Groupgroup 18 (noble gases)
Periodperiod 1
Element category  Noble gas
Electron configuration1s2
Electrons per shell
Physical properties
Phase at STPgas
Melting point0.95 K ​(−272.20 °C, ​−457.96 °F) (at 2.5 MPa)
Boiling point4.222 K ​(−268.928 °C, ​−452.070 °F)
Density (at STP)0.1786 g/L
when liquid (at m.p.)0.145 g/cm3
when liquid (at b.p.)0.125 g/cm3
Triple point2.177 K, ​5.043 kPa
Critical point5.1953 K, 0.22746 MPa
Heat of fusion0.0138 kJ/mol
Heat of vaporization0.0829 kJ/mol
Molar heat capacity20.78 J/(mol·K)[2]
Vapor pressure (defined by ITS-90)
P (Pa) 1 10 100 1 k 10 k 100 k
at T (K)     1.23 1.67 2.48 4.21
Atomic properties
Oxidation states0
ElectronegativityPauling scale: no data
Ionization energies
  • 1st: 2372.3 kJ/mol
  • 2nd: 5250.5 kJ/mol
Covalent radius28 pm
Van der Waals radius140 pm
Color lines in a spectral range
Spectral lines of helium
Other properties
Natural occurrenceprimordial
Crystal structurehexagonal close-packed (hcp)
Hexagonal close-packed crystal structure for helium
Speed of sound972 m/s
Thermal conductivity0.1513 W/(m·K)
Magnetic orderingdiamagnetic[3]
Magnetic susceptibility−1.88·10−6 cm3/mol (298 K)[4]
CAS Number7440-59-7
Namingafter Helios, Greek Titan of the Sun
DiscoveryPierre Janssen, Norman Lockyer (1868)
First isolationWilliam Ramsay, Per Teodor Cleve, Abraham Langlet (1895)
Main isotopes of helium
Iso­tope Abun­dance Half-life (t1/2) Decay mode Pro­duct
3He 0.0002% stable
4He 99.9998% stable
| references

Helium (from Greek: ἥλιος, romanizedHelios, lit. 'Sun') is a chemical element with the symbol He and atomic number 2. It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, non-toxic, inert, monatomic gas, the first in the noble gas group in the periodic table. Its boiling point is the lowest among all the elements. Helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the observable universe (hydrogen is the lightest and most abundant). It is present at about 24% of the total elemental mass, which is more than 12 times the mass of all the heavier elements combined. Its abundance is similar to this in both the Sun and in Jupiter. This is due to the very high nuclear binding energy (per nucleon) of helium-4, with respect to the next three elements after helium. This helium-4 binding energy also accounts for why it is a product of both nuclear fusion and radioactive decay. Most helium in the universe is helium-4, the vast majority of which was formed during the Big Bang. Large amounts of new helium are being created by nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars.

Helium is named for the Greek Titan of the Sun, Helios. It was first detected as an unknown, yellow spectral line signature in sunlight, during a solar eclipse in 1868 by Georges Rayet,[5] Captain C. T. Haig,[6] Norman R. Pogson,[7] and Lieutenant John Herschel,[8] and was subsequently confirmed by French astronomer, Jules Janssen.[9] Janssen is often jointly credited with detecting the element, along with Norman Lockyer. Janssen recorded the helium spectral line during the solar eclipse of 1868, while Lockyer observed it from Britain. Lockyer was the first to propose that the line was due to a new element, which he named. The formal discovery of the element was made in 1895 by two Swedish chemists, Per Teodor Cleve and Nils Abraham Langlet, who found helium emanating from the uranium ore, cleveite. In 1903, large reserves of helium were found in natural gas fields in parts of the United States, which is by far the largest supplier of the gas today.

Liquid helium is used in cryogenics (its largest single use, absorbing about a quarter of production), particularly in the cooling of superconducting magnets, with the main commercial application being in MRI scanners. Helium's other industrial uses—as a pressurizing and purge gas, as a protective atmosphere for arc welding and in processes such as growing crystals to make silicon wafers—account for half of the gas produced. A well-known but minor use is as a lifting gas in balloons and airships.[10] As with any gas whose density differs from that of air, inhaling a small volume of helium temporarily changes the timbre and quality of the human voice. In scientific research, the behavior of the two fluid phases of helium-4 (helium I and helium II) is important to researchers studying quantum mechanics (in particular the property of superfluidity) and to those looking at the phenomena, such as superconductivity, produced in matter near absolute zero.

On Earth it is relatively rare—5.2 ppm by volume in the atmosphere. Most terrestrial helium present today is created by the natural radioactive decay of heavy radioactive elements (thorium and uranium, although there are other examples), as the alpha particles emitted by such decays consist of helium-4 nuclei. This radiogenic helium is trapped with natural gas in concentrations as great as 7% by volume, from which it is extracted commercially by a low-temperature separation process called fractional distillation. Previously, terrestrial helium—a non-renewable resource, because, once released into the atmosphere it readily escapes into space—was thought to be in increasingly short supply.[11][12] However, recent studies suggest that helium produced deep in the earth by radioactive decay can collect in natural gas reserves in larger than expected quantities,[13] in some cases, having been released by volcanic activity.[14]


Scientific discoveries

The first evidence of helium was observed on August 18, 1868, as a bright yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nanometers in the spectrum of the chromosphere of the Sun. The line was detected by French astronomer Jules Janssen during a total solar eclipse in Guntur, India.[15][16] This line was initially assumed to be sodium. On October 20 of the same year, English astronomer, Norman Lockyer, observed a yellow line in the solar spectrum, which, he named the D3 because it was near the known D1 and D2 Fraunhofer line lines of sodium.[17][18] He concluded that it was caused by an element in the Sun unknown on Earth. Lockyer and English chemist Edward Frankland named the element with the Greek word for the Sun, ἥλιος (helios).[19][20]

Picture of visible spectrum with superimposed sharp yellow and blue and violet lines.
Spectral lines of helium

In 1881, Italian physicist Luigi Palmieri detected helium on Earth for the first time through its D3 spectral line, when he analyzed a material that had been sublimated during a recent eruption of Mount Vesuvius.[21]

Sir William Ramsay, the discoverer of terrestrial helium
The cleveite sample from which Ramsay first purified helium.[22]

On March 26, 1895, Scottish chemist, Sir William Ramsay, isolated helium on Earth by treating the mineral cleveite (a variety of uraninite with at least 10% rare earth elements) with mineral acids. Ramsay was looking for argon but, after separating nitrogen and oxygen from the gas, liberated by sulfuric acid, he noticed a bright yellow line that matched the D3 line observed in the spectrum of the Sun.[18][23][24][25] These samples were identified as helium, by Lockyer, and British physicist William Crookes.[26][27] It was independently isolated from cleveite, in the same year, by chemists, Per Teodor Cleve and Abraham Langlet, in Uppsala, Sweden, who collected enough of the gas to accurately determine its atomic weight.[16][28][29] Helium was also isolated by the American geochemist, William Francis Hillebrand, prior to Ramsay's discovery, when he noticed unusual spectral lines while testing a sample of the mineral uraninite. Hillebrand, however, attributed the lines to nitrogen.[30] His letter of congratulations to Ramsay offers an interesting case of discovery, and near-discovery, in science.[31]

In 1907, Ernest Rutherford and Thomas Royds demonstrated that alpha particles are helium nuclei, by allowing the particles to penetrate the thin, glass wall of an evacuated tube, then creating a discharge in the tube, to study the spectrum of the new gas inside.[32] In 1908, helium was first liquefied by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes by cooling the gas to less than five Kelvin.[33][34] He tried to solidify it, by further reducing the temperature, but failed, because helium does not solidify at atmospheric pressure. Onnes' student Willem Hendrik Keesom was eventually able to solidify 1 cm3 of helium in 1926 by applying additional external pressure.[35][36]

In 1913, Niels Bohr published his "trilogy"[37][38] on atomic structure that included a reconsideration of the Pickering–Fowler series as central evidence in support of his model of the atom.[39][40] This series is named for Edward Charles Pickering, who in 1896 published observations of previously unknown lines in the spectrum of the star ζ Puppis[41] (these are now known to occur with Wolf–Rayet and other hot stars).[42] Pickering attributed the observation (lines at 4551, 5411, and 10123 Å) to a new form of hydrogen with half-integer transition levels.[43][44] In 1912, Alfred Fowler[45] managed to produce similar lines from a hydrogen-helium mixture, and supported Pickering's conclusion as to their origin.[46] Bohr's model does not allow for half-integer transitions (nor does quantum mechanics) and Bohr concluded that Pickering and Fowler were wrong, and instead assigned these spectral lines to ionised helium, He+.[47] Fowler was initially skeptical[48] but was ultimately convinced[49] that Bohr was correct,[37] and by 1915 "spectroscopists had transferred [the Pickering–Fowler series] definitively [from hydrogen] to helium."[40][50] Bohr's theoretical work on the Pickering series had demonstrated the need for "a re-examination of problems that seemed already to have been solved within classical theories" and provided important confirmation for his atomic theory.[40]

In 1938, Russian physicist Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa discovered that helium-4 has almost no viscosity at temperatures near absolute zero, a phenomenon now called superfluidity.[51] This phenomenon is related to Bose–Einstein condensation. In 1972, the same phenomenon was observed in helium-3, but at temperatures much closer to absolute zero, by American physicists Douglas D. Osheroff, David M. Lee, and Robert C. Richardson. The phenomenon in helium-3 is thought to be related to pairing of helium-3 fermions to make bosons, in analogy to Cooper pairs of electrons producing superconductivity.[52]

Extraction and use

Historical marker, denoting a massive helium find near Dexter, Kansas

After an oil drilling operation in 1903 in Dexter, Kansas produced a gas geyser that would not burn, Kansas state geologist Erasmus Haworth collected samples of the escaping gas and took them back to the University of Kansas at Lawrence where, with the help of chemists Hamilton Cady and David McFarland, he discovered that the gas consisted of, by volume, 72% nitrogen, 15% methane (a combustible percentage only with sufficient oxygen), 1% hydrogen, and 12% an unidentifiable gas.[16][53] With further analysis, Cady and McFarland discovered that 1.84% of the gas sample was helium.[54][55] This showed that despite its overall rarity on Earth, helium was concentrated in large quantities under the American Great Plains, available for extraction as a byproduct of natural gas.[56]

This enabled the United States to become the world's leading supplier of helium. Following a suggestion by Sir Richard Threlfall, the United States Navy sponsored three small experimental helium plants during World War I. The goal was to supply barrage balloons with the non-flammable, lighter-than-air gas. A total of 5,700 m3 (200,000 cu ft) of 92% helium was produced in the program even though less than a cubic meter of the gas had previously been obtained.[18] Some of this gas was used in the world's first helium-filled airship, the U.S. Navy's C-7, which flew its maiden voyage from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to Bolling Field in Washington, D.C., on December 1, 1921,[57] nearly two years before the Navy's first rigid helium-filled airship, the Naval Aircraft Factory-built USS Shenandoah, flew in September 1923.

Although the extraction process, using low-temperature gas liquefaction, was not developed in time to be significant during World War I, production continued. Helium was primarily used as a lifting gas in lighter-than-air craft. During World War II, the demand increased for helium for lifting gas and for shielded arc welding. The helium mass spectrometer was also vital in the atomic bomb Manhattan Project.[58]

The government of the United States set up the National Helium Reserve in 1925 at Amarillo, Texas, with the goal of supplying military airships in time of war and commercial airships in peacetime.[18] Because of the Helium Act of 1925, which banned the export of scarce helium on which the US then had a production monopoly, together with the prohibitive cost of the gas, the Hindenburg, like all German Zeppelins, was forced to use hydrogen as the lift gas. The helium market after World War II was depressed but the reserve was expanded in the 1950s to ensure a supply of liquid helium as a coolant to create oxygen/hydrogen rocket fuel (among other uses) during the Space Race and Cold War. Helium use in the United States in 1965 was more than eight times the peak wartime consumption.[59]

After the "Helium Acts Amendments of 1960" (Public Law 86–777), the U.S. Bureau of Mines arranged for five private plants to recover helium from natural gas. For this helium conservation program, the Bureau built a 425-mile (684 km) pipeline from Bushton, Kansas, to connect those plants with the government's partially depleted Cliffside gas field near Amarillo, Texas. This helium-nitrogen mixture was injected and stored in the Cliffside gas field until needed, at which time it was further purified.[60]

By 1995, a billion cubic meters of the gas had been collected and the reserve was US$1.4 billion in debt, prompting the Congress of the United States in 1996 to phase out the reserve.[16][61] The resulting Helium Privatization Act of 1996[62] (Public Law 104–273) directed the United States Department of the Interior to empty the reserve, with sales starting by 2005.[63]

Helium produced between 1930 and 1945 was about 98.3% pure (2% nitrogen), which was adequate for airships. In 1945, a small amount of 99.9% helium was produced for welding use. By 1949, commercial quantities of Grade A 99.95% helium were available.[64]

For many years, the United States produced more than 90% of commercially usable helium in the world, while extraction plants in Canada, Poland, Russia, and other nations produced the remainder. In the mid-1990s, a new plant in Arzew, Algeria, producing 17 million cubic meters (600 million cubic feet) began operation, with enough production to cover all of Europe's demand. Meanwhile, by 2000, the consumption of helium within the U.S. had risen to more than 15 million kg per year.[65] In 2004–2006, additional plants in Ras Laffan, Qatar, and Skikda, Algeria were built. Algeria quickly became the second leading producer of helium.[66] Through this time, both helium consumption and the costs of producing helium increased.[67] From 2002 to 2007 helium prices doubled.[68]

As of 2012, the United States National Helium Reserve accounted for 30 percent of the world's helium.[69] The reserve was expected to run out of helium in 2018.[69] Despite that, a proposed bill in the United States Senate would allow the reserve to continue to sell the gas. Other large reserves were in the Hugoton in Kansas, United States, and nearby gas fields of Kansas and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. New helium plants were scheduled to open in 2012 in Qatar, Russia, and the US state of Wyoming, but they were not expected to ease the shortage.[69]

In 2013, Qatar started up the world's largest helium unit,[70] although the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis severely affected helium production there.[71] 2014 was widely acknowledged to be a year of over-supply in the helium business, following years of renowned shortages.[72] Nasdaq reported (2015) that for Air Products, an international corporation that sells gases for industrial use, helium volumes remain under economic pressure due to feedstock supply constraints.[73]


The helium atom

Picture of a diffuse gray sphere with grayscale density decreasing from the center. Length scale about 1 Angstrom. An inset outlines the structure of the core, with two red and two blue atoms at the length scale of 1 femtometer.
The helium atom. Depicted are the nucleus (pink) and the electron cloud distribution (black). The nucleus (upper right) in helium-4 is in reality spherically symmetric and closely resembles the electron cloud, although for more complicated nuclei this is not always the case.

Helium in quantum mechanics

In the perspective of quantum mechanics, helium is the second simplest atom to model, following the hydrogen atom. Helium is composed of two electrons in atomic orbitals surrounding a nucleus containing two protons and (usually) two neutrons. As in Newtonian mechanics, no system that consists of more than two particles can be solved with an exact analytical mathematical approach (see 3-body problem) and helium is no exception. Thus, numerical mathematical methods are required, even to solve the system of one nucleus and two electrons. Such computational chemistry methods have been used to create a quantum mechanical picture of helium electron binding which is accurate to within < 2% of the correct value, in a few computational steps.[74] Such models show that each electron in helium partly screens the nucleus from the other, so that the effective nuclear charge Z which each electron sees, is about 1.69 units, not the 2 charges of a classic "bare" helium nucleus.

The related stability of the helium-4 nucleus and electron shell

The nucleus of the helium-4 atom is identical with an alpha particle. High-energy electron-scattering experiments show its charge to decrease exponentially from a maximum at a central point, exactly as does the charge density of helium's own electron cloud. This symmetry reflects similar underlying physics: the pair of neutrons and the pair of protons in helium's nucleus obey the same quantum mechanical rules as do helium's pair of electrons (although the nuclear particles are subject to a different nuclear binding potential), so that all these fermions fully occupy 1s orbitals in pairs, none of them possessing orbital angular momentum, and each cancelling the other's intrinsic spin. Adding another of any of these particles would require angular momentum and would release substantially less energy (in fact, no nucleus with five nucleons is stable). This arrangement is thus energetically extremely stable for all these particles, and this stability accounts for many crucial facts regarding helium in nature.

For example, the stability and low energy of the electron cloud state in helium accounts for the element's chemical inertness, and also the lack of interaction of helium atoms with each other, producing the lowest melting and boiling points of all the elements.

In a similar way, the particular energetic stability of the helium-4 nucleus, produced by similar effects, accounts for the ease of helium-4 production in atomic reactions that involve either heavy-particle emission or fusion. Some stable helium-3 (2 protons and 1 neutron) is produced in fusion reactions from hydrogen, but it is a very small fraction compared to the highly favorable helium-4.

Binding energy per nucleon of common isotopes. The binding energy per particle of helium-4 is significantly larger than all nearby nuclides.

The unusual stability of the helium-4 nucleus is also important cosmologically: it explains the fact that in the first few minutes after the Big Bang, as the "soup" of free protons and neutrons which had initially been created in about 6:1 ratio cooled to the point that nuclear binding was possible, almost all first compound atomic nuclei to form were helium-4 nuclei. So tight was helium-4 binding that helium-4 production consumed nearly all of the free neutrons in a few minutes, before they could beta-decay, and also leaving few to form heavier atoms such as lithium, beryllium, or boron. Helium-4 nuclear binding per nucleon is stronger than in any of these elements (see nucleogenesis and binding energy) and thus, once helium had been formed, no energetic drive was available to make elements 3, 4 and 5. It was barely energetically favorable for helium to fuse into the next element with a lower energy per nucleon, carbon. However, due to lack of intermediate elements, this process requires three helium nuclei striking each other nearly simultaneously (see triple alpha process). There was thus no time for significant carbon to be formed in the few minutes after the Big Bang, before the early expanding universe cooled to the temperature and pressure point where helium fusion to carbon was no longer possible. This left the early universe with a very similar ratio of hydrogen/helium as is observed today (3 parts hydrogen to 1 part helium-4 by mass), with nearly all the neutrons in the universe trapped in helium-4.

All heavier elements (including those necessary for rocky planets like the Earth, and for carbon-based or other life) have thus been created since the Big Bang in stars which were hot enough to fuse helium itself. All elements other than hydrogen and helium today account for only 2% of the mass of atomic matter in the universe. Helium-4, by contrast, makes up about 23% of the universe's ordinary matter—nearly all the ordinary matter that is not hydrogen.

Gas and plasma phases

Illuminated light red gas discharge tubes shaped as letters H and e
Helium discharge tube shaped like the element's atomic symbol

Helium is the second least reactive noble gas after neon, and thus the second least reactive of all elements.[75] It is chemically inert and monatomic in all standard conditions. Because of helium's relatively low molar (atomic) mass, its thermal conductivity, specific heat, and sound speed in the gas phase are all greater than any other gas except hydrogen. For these reasons and the small size of helium monatomic molecules, helium diffuses through solids at a rate three times that of air and around 65% that of hydrogen.[18]

Helium is the least water-soluble monatomic gas,[76] and one of the least water-soluble of any gas (CF4, SF6, and C4F8 have lower mole fraction solubilities: 0.3802, 0.4394, and 0.2372 x2/10−5, respectively, versus helium's 0.70797 x2/10−5),[77] and helium's index of refraction is closer to unity than that of any other gas.[78] Helium has a negative Joule–Thomson coefficient at normal ambient temperatures, meaning it heats up when allowed to freely expand. Only below its Joule–Thomson inversion temperature (of about 32 to 50 K at 1 atmosphere) does it cool upon free expansion.[18] Once precooled below this temperature, helium can be liquefied through expansion cooling.

Most extraterrestrial helium is found in a plasma state, with properties quite different from those of atomic helium. In a plasma, helium's electrons are not bound to its nucleus, resulting in very high electrical conductivity, even when the gas is only partially ionized. The charged particles are highly influenced by magnetic and electric fields. For example, in the solar wind together with ionized hydrogen, the particles interact with the Earth's magnetosphere, giving rise to Birkeland currents and the aurora.[79]

Liquid helium

Liquefied helium. This helium is not only liquid, but has been cooled to the point of superfluidity. The drop of liquid at the bottom of the glass represents helium spontaneously escaping from the container over the side, to empty out of the container. The energy to drive this process is supplied by the potential energy of the falling helium.

Unlike any other element, helium will remain liquid down to absolute zero at normal pressures. This is a direct effect of quantum mechanics: specifically, the zero point energy of the system is too high to allow freezing. Solid helium requires a temperature of 1–1.5 K (about −272 °C or −457 °F) at about 25 bar (2.5 MPa) of pressure.[80] It is often hard to distinguish solid from liquid helium since the refractive index of the two phases are nearly the same. The solid has a sharp melting point and has a crystalline structure, but it is highly compressible; applying pressure in a laboratory can decrease its volume by more than 30%.[81] With a bulk modulus of about 27 MPa[82] it is ~100 times more compressible than water. Solid helium has a density of 0.214±0.006 g/cm3 at 1.15 K and 66 atm; the projected density at 0 K and 25 bar (2.5 MPa) is 0.187±0.009 g/cm3.[83] At higher temperatures, helium will solidify with sufficient pressure. At room temperature, this requires about 114,000 atm.[84]

Helium I

Below its boiling point of 4.22 kelvins and above the lambda point of 2.1768 kelvins, the isotope helium-4 exists in a normal colorless liquid state, called helium I.[18] Like other cryogenic liquids, helium I boils when it is heated and contracts when its temperature is lowered. Below the lambda point, however, helium does not boil, and it expands as the temperature is lowered further.

Helium I has a gas-like index of refraction of 1.026 which makes its surface so hard to see that floats of Styrofoam are often used to show where the surface is.[18] This colorless liquid has a very low viscosity and a density of 0.145–0.125 g/mL (between about 0 and 4 K),[85] which is only one-fourth the value expected from classical physics.[18] Quantum mechanics is needed to explain this property and thus both states of liquid helium (helium I and helium II) are called quantum fluids, meaning they display atomic properties on a macroscopic scale. This may be an effect of its boiling point being so close to absolute zero, preventing random molecular motion (thermal energy) from masking the atomic properties.[18]

Helium II

Liquid helium below its lambda point (called helium II) exhibits very unusual characteristics. Due to its high thermal conductivity, when it boils, it does not bubble but rather evaporates directly from its surface. Helium-3 also has a superfluid phase, but only at much lower temperatures; as a result, less is known about the properties of the isotope.[18]

A cross-sectional drawing showing one vessel inside another. There is a liquid in the outer vessel, and it tends to flow into the inner vessel over its walls.
Unlike ordinary liquids, helium II will creep along surfaces in order to reach an equal level; after a short while, the levels in the two containers will equalize. The Rollin film also covers the interior of the larger container; if it were not sealed, the helium II would creep out and escape.[18]

Helium II is a superfluid, a quantum mechanical state (see: macroscopic quantum phenomena) of matter with strange properties. For example, when it flows through capillaries as thin as 10−7 to 10−8 m it has no measurable viscosity.[16] However, when measurements were done between two moving discs, a viscosity comparable to that of gaseous helium was observed. Current theory explains this using the two-fluid model for helium II. In this model, liquid helium below the lambda point is viewed as containing a proportion of helium atoms in a ground state, which are superfluid and flow with exactly zero viscosity, and a proportion of helium atoms in an excited state, which behave more like an ordinary fluid.[86]

In the fountain effect, a chamber is constructed which is connected to a reservoir of helium II by a sintered disc through which superfluid helium leaks easily but through which non-superfluid helium cannot pass. If the interior of the container is heated, the superfluid helium changes to non-superfluid helium. In order to maintain the equilibrium fraction of superfluid helium, superfluid helium leaks through and increases the pressure, causing liquid to fountain out of the container.[87]

The thermal conductivity of helium II is greater than that of any other known substance, a million times that of helium I and several hundred times that of copper.[18] This is because heat conduction occurs by an exceptional quantum mechanism. Most materials that conduct heat well have a valence band of free electrons which serve to transfer the heat. Helium II has no such valence band but nevertheless conducts heat well. The flow of heat is governed by equations that are similar to the wave equation used to characterize sound propagation in air. When heat is introduced, it moves at 20 meters per second at 1.8 K through helium II as waves in a phenomenon known as second sound.[18]

Helium II also exhibits a creeping effect. When a surface extends past the level of helium II, the helium II moves along the surface, against the force of gravity. Helium II will escape from a vessel that is not sealed by creeping along the sides until it reaches a warmer region where it evaporates. It moves in a 30 nm-thick film regardless of surface material. This film is called a Rollin film and is named after the man who first characterized this trait, .[18][88][89] As a result of this creeping behavior and helium II's ability to leak rapidly through tiny openings, it is very difficult to confine liquid helium. Unless the container is carefully constructed, the helium II will creep along the surfaces and through valves until it reaches somewhere warmer, where it will evaporate. Waves propagating across a Rollin film are governed by the same equation as gravity waves in shallow water, but rather than gravity, the restoring force is the van der Waals force.[90] These waves are known as third sound.[91]


There are nine known isotopes of helium, but only helium-3 and helium-4 are stable. In the Earth's atmosphere, one atom is 3
for every million that are 4
.[16] Unlike most elements, helium's isotopic abundance varies greatly by origin, due to the different formation processes. The most common isotope, helium-4, is produced on Earth by alpha decay of heavier radioactive elements; the alpha particles that emerge are fully ionized helium-4 nuclei. Helium-4 is an unusually stable nucleus because its nucleons are arranged into complete shells. It was also formed in enormous quantities during Big Bang nucleosynthesis.[92]

Helium-3 is present on Earth only in trace amounts. Most of it has been present since Earth's formation, though some falls to Earth trapped in cosmic dust.[93] Trace amounts are also produced by the beta decay of tritium.[94] Rocks from the Earth's crust have isotope ratios varying by as much as a factor of ten, and these ratios can be used to investigate the origin of rocks and the composition of the Earth's mantle.[93] 3
is much more abundant in stars as a product of nuclear fusion. Thus in the interstellar medium, the proportion of 3
to 4
is about 100 times higher than on Earth.[95] Extraplanetary material, such as lunar and asteroid regolith, have trace amounts of helium-3 from being bombarded by solar winds. The Moon's surface contains helium-3 at concentrations on the order of 10 ppb, much higher than the approximately 5 ppt found in the Earth's atmosphere.[96][97] A number of people, starting with Gerald Kulcinski in 1986,[98] have proposed to explore the moon, mine lunar regolith, and use the helium-3 for fusion.

Liquid helium-4 can be cooled to about 1 kelvin using evaporative cooling in a 1-K pot. Similar cooling of helium-3, which has a lower boiling point, can achieve about 0.2 kelvin in a helium-3 refrigerator. Equal mixtures of liquid 3
and 4
below 0.8 K separate into two immiscible phases due to their dissimilarity (they follow different quantum statistics: helium-4 atoms are bosons while helium-3 atoms are fermions).[18] Dilution refrigerators use this immiscibility to achieve temperatures of a few millikelvins.

It is possible to produce exotic helium isotopes, which rapidly decay into other substances. The shortest-lived heavy helium isotope is helium-5 with a half-life of 7.6×10−22 s. Helium-6 decays by emitting a beta particle and has a half-life of 0.8 second. Helium-7 also emits a beta particle as well as a gamma ray. Helium-7 and helium-8 are created in certain nuclear reactions.[18] Helium-6 and helium-8 are known to exhibit a nuclear halo.[18]


Structure of the helium hydride ion, HHe+
Structure of the suspected fluoroheliate anion, OHeF

Helium has a valence of zero and is chemically unreactive under all normal conditions.[81] It is an electrical insulator unless ionized. As with the other noble gases, helium has metastable energy levels that allow it to remain ionized in an electrical discharge with a voltage below its ionization potential.[18] Helium can form unstable compounds, known as excimers, with tungsten, iodine, fluorine, sulfur, and phosphorus when it is subjected to a glow discharge, to electron bombardment, or reduced to plasma by other means. The molecular compounds HeNe, HgHe10, and WHe2, and the molecular ions He+
, He2+
, HeH+
, and HeD+
have been created this way.[99] HeH+ is also stable in its ground state, but is extremely reactive—it is the strongest Brønsted acid known, and therefore can exist only in isolation, as it will protonate any molecule or counteranion it contacts. This technique has also produced the neutral molecule He2, which has a large number of band systems, and HgHe, which is apparently held together only by polarization forces.[18]

Van der Waals compounds of helium can also be formed with cryogenic helium gas and atoms of some other substance, such as LiHe and He2.[100]

Theoretically, other true compounds may be possible, such as helium fluorohydride (HHeF) which would be analogous to HArF, discovered in 2000.[101] Calculations show that two new compounds containing a helium-oxygen bond could be stable.[102] Two new molecular species, predicted using theory, CsFHeO and N(CH3)4FHeO, are derivatives of a metastable FHeO anion first theorized in 2005 by a group from Taiwan. If confirmed by experiment, the only remaining element with no known stable compounds would be neon.[103]

Helium atoms have been inserted into the hollow carbon cage molecules (the fullerenes) by heating under high pressure. The endohedral fullerene molecules formed are stable at high temperatures. When chemical derivatives of these fullerenes are formed, the helium stays inside.[104] If helium-3 is used, it can be readily observed by helium nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.[105] Many fullerenes containing helium-3 have been reported. Although the helium atoms are not attached by covalent or ionic bonds, these substances have distinct properties and a definite composition, like all stoichiometric chemical compounds.

Under high pressures helium can form compounds with various other elements. Helium-nitrogen clathrate (He(N2)11) crystals have been grown at room temperature at pressures ca. 10 GPa in a diamond anvil cell.[106] The insulating electride Na2He has been shown to be thermodynamically stable at pressures above 113 GPa. It has a fluorite structure.[107]

Occurrence and production

Natural abundance

Although it is rare on Earth, helium is the second most abundant element in the known Universe, constituting 23% of its baryonic mass. Only hydrogen is more abundant.[16] The vast majority of helium was formed by Big Bang nucleosynthesis one to three minutes after the Big Bang. As such, measurements of its abundance contribute to cosmological models. In stars, it is formed by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in proton-proton chain reactions and the CNO cycle, part of stellar nucleosynthesis.[92]

In the Earth's atmosphere, the concentration of helium by volume is only 5.2 parts per million.[108][109] The concentration is low and fairly constant despite the continuous production of new helium because most helium in the Earth's atmosphere escapes into space by several processes.[110][111][112] In the Earth's heterosphere, a part of the upper atmosphere, helium and other lighter gases are the most abundant elements.

Most helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay. Helium is found in large amounts in minerals of uranium and thorium, including cleveite, pitchblende, carnotite and monazite, because they emit alpha particles (helium nuclei, He2+) to which electrons immediately combine as soon as the particle is stopped by the rock. In this way an estimated 3000 metric tons of helium are generated per year throughout the lithosphere.[113][114][115] In the Earth's crust, the concentration of helium is 8 parts per billion. In seawater, the concentration is only 4 parts per trillion. There are also small amounts in mineral springs, volcanic gas, and meteoric iron. Because helium is trapped in the subsurface under conditions that also trap natural gas, the greatest natural concentrations of helium on the planet are found in natural gas, from which most commercial helium is extracted. The concentration varies in a broad range from a few ppm to more than 7% in a small gas field in San Juan County, New Mexico.[116][117]

As of 2011 the world's helium reserves were estimated at 40 billion cubic meters, with a quarter of that being in the South Pars / North Dome Gas-Condensate field owned jointly by Qatar and Iran.[118] In 2015 and 2016 additional probable reserves were announced to be under the Rocky Mountains in North America[119] and in the East African Rift.[120]

Modern extraction and distribution

For large-scale use, helium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which can contain as much as 7% helium.[121] Since helium has a lower boiling point than any other element, low temperature and high pressure are used to liquefy nearly all the other gases (mostly nitrogen and methane). The resulting crude helium gas is purified by successive exposures to lowering temperatures, in which almost all of the remaining nitrogen and other gases are precipitated out of the gaseous mixture. Activated charcoal is used as a final purification step, usually resulting in 99.995% pure Grade-A helium.[18] The principal impurity in Grade-A helium is neon. In a final production step, most of the helium that is produced is liquefied via a cryogenic process. This is necessary for applications requiring liquid helium and also allows helium suppliers to reduce the cost of long distance transportation, as the largest liquid helium containers have more than five times the capacity of the largest gaseous helium tube trailers.[66][122]

In 2008, approximately 169 million standard cubic meters (SCM) of helium were extracted from natural gas or withdrawn from helium reserves with approximately 78% from the United States, 10% from Algeria, and most of the remainder from Russia, Poland and Qatar.[123] By 2013, increases in helium production in Qatar (under the company RasGas managed by Air Liquide) had increased Qatar's fraction of world helium production to 25%, and made it the second largest exporter after the United States.[124] An estimated 54 billion cubic feet (1.5×109 m3) deposit of helium was found in Tanzania in 2016.[125][14]

In the United States, most helium is extracted from natural gas of the Hugoton and nearby gas fields in Kansas, Oklahoma, and the Panhandle Field in Texas.[66][126] Much of this gas was once sent by pipeline to the National Helium Reserve, but since 2005 this reserve is being depleted and sold off, and is expected to be largely depleted by 2021,[124] under the October 2013 Responsible Helium Administration and Stewardship Act (H.R. 527).[127]

Diffusion of crude natural gas through special semipermeable membranes and other barriers is another method to recover and purify helium.[128] In 1996, the U.S. had proven helium reserves, in such gas well complexes, of about 147 billion standard cubic feet (4.2 billion SCM).[129] At rates of use at that time (72 million SCM per year in the U.S.; see pie chart below) this would have been enough helium for about 58 years of U.S. use, and less than this (perhaps 80% of the time) at world use rates, although factors in saving and processing impact effective reserve numbers.

Helium must be extracted from natural gas because it is present in air at only a fraction of that of neon, yet the demand for it is far higher. It is estimated that if all neon production were retooled to save helium, 0.1% of the world's helium demands would be satisfied. Similarly, only 1% of the world's helium demands could be satisfied by re-tooling all air distillation plants.[130] Helium can be synthesized by bombardment of lithium or boron with high-velocity protons, or by bombardment of lithium with deuterons, but these processes are a completely uneconomical method of production.[131]

Helium is commercially available in either liquid or gaseous form. As a liquid, it can be supplied in small insulated containers called dewars which hold as much as 1,000 liters of helium, or in large ISO containers which have nominal capacities as large as 42 m3 (around 11,000 U.S. gallons). In gaseous form, small quantities of helium are supplied in high-pressure cylinders holding as much as 8 m3 (approx. 282 standard cubic feet), while large quantities of high-pressure gas are supplied in tube trailers which have capacities of as much as 4,860 m3 (approx. 172,000 standard cubic feet).

Conservation advocates

According to helium conservationists like Nobel laureate physicist Robert Coleman Richardson, writing in 2010, the free market price of helium has contributed to "wasteful" usage (e.g. for helium balloons). Prices in the 2000s had been lowered by the decision of the U.S. Congress to sell off the country's large helium stockpile by 2015.[132] According to Richardson, the price needed to be multiplied by 20 to eliminate the excessive wasting of helium. In their book, the Future of helium as a natural resource (Routledge, 2012), Nuttall, Clarke & Glowacki (2012) also proposed to create an International Helium Agency (IHA) to build a sustainable market for this precious commodity.[133]


A large solid cylinder with a hole in its center and a rail attached to its side.
The largest single use of liquid helium is to cool the superconducting magnets in modern MRI scanners.

Estimated 2014 U.S. fractional helium use by category. Total use is 34 million cubic meters.[134]

  Cryogenics (32%)
  Pressurizing and purging (18%)
  Welding (13%)
  Controlled atmospheres (18%)
  Leak detection (4%)
  Breathing mixtures (2%)
  Other (13%)

While balloons are perhaps the best known use of helium, they are a minor part of all helium use.[61] Helium is used for many purposes that require some of its unique properties, such as its low boiling point, low density, low solubility, high thermal conductivity, or inertness. Of the 2014 world helium total production of about 32 million kg (180 million standard cubic meters) helium per year, the largest use (about 32% of the total in 2014) is in cryogenic applications, most of which involves cooling the superconducting magnets in medical MRI scanners and NMR spectrometers.[135] Other major uses were pressurizing and purging systems, welding, maintenance of controlled atmospheres, and leak detection. Other uses by category were relatively minor fractions.[134]

Controlled atmospheres

Helium is used as a protective gas in growing silicon and germanium crystals, in titanium and zirconium production, and in gas chromatography,[81] because it is inert. Because of its inertness, thermally and calorically perfect nature, high speed of sound, and high value of the heat capacity ratio, it is also useful in supersonic wind tunnels[136] and impulse facilities.[137]

Gas tungsten arc welding

Helium is used as a shielding gas in arc welding processes on materials that at welding temperatures are contaminated and weakened by air or nitrogen.[16] A number of inert shielding gases are used in gas tungsten arc welding, but helium is used instead of cheaper argon especially for welding materials that have higher heat conductivity, like aluminium or copper.

Minor uses

Industrial leak detection

Photo of a large, metal-framed device (about 3×1×1.5 m) standing in a room.
A dual chamber helium leak detection machine

One industrial application for helium is leak detection. Because helium diffuses through solids three times faster than air, it is used as a tracer gas to detect leaks in high-vacuum equipment (such as cryogenic tanks) and high-pressure containers.[138] The tested object is placed in a chamber, which is then evacuated and filled with helium. The helium that escapes through the leaks is detected by a sensitive device (helium mass spectrometer), even at the leak rates as small as 10−9 mbar·L/s (10−10 Pa·m3/s). The measurement procedure is normally automatic and is called helium integral test. A simpler procedure is to fill the tested object with helium and to manually search for leaks with a hand-held device.[139]

Helium leaks through cracks should not be confused with gas permeation through a bulk material. While helium has documented permeation constants (thus a calculable permeation rate) through glasses, ceramics, and synthetic materials, inert gases such as helium will not permeate most bulk metals.[140]


The Good Year Blimp
Because of its low density and incombustibility, helium is the gas of choice to fill airships such as the Goodyear blimp.

Because it is lighter than air, airships and balloons are inflated with helium for lift. While hydrogen gas is more buoyant, and escapes permeating through a membrane at a lower rate, helium has the advantage of being non-flammable, and indeed fire-retardant. Another minor use is in rocketry, where helium is used as an ullage medium to displace fuel and oxidizers in storage tanks and to condense hydrogen and oxygen to make rocket fuel. It is also used to purge fuel and oxidizer from ground support equipment prior to launch and to pre-cool liquid hydrogen in space vehicles. For example, the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo program needed about 370,000 m3 (13 million cubic feet) of helium to launch.[81]

Minor commercial and recreational uses

Helium as a breathing gas has no narcotic properties, so helium mixtures such as trimix, heliox and heliair are used for deep diving to reduce the effects of narcosis, which worsen with increasing depth.[141][142] As pressure increases with depth, the density of the breathing gas also increases, and the low molecular weight of helium is found to considerably reduce the effort of breathing by lowering the density of the mixture. This reduces the Reynolds number of flow, leading to a reduction of turbulent flow and an increase in laminar flow, which requires less work of breathing.[143][144] At depths below 150 metres (490 ft) divers breathing helium–oxygen mixtures begin to experience tremors and a decrease in psychomotor function, symptoms of high-pressure nervous syndrome.[145] This effect may be countered to some extent by adding an amount of narcotic gas such as hydrogen or nitrogen to a helium–oxygen mixture.[146]

Helium–neon lasers, a type of low-powered gas laser producing a red beam, had various practical applications which included barcode readers and laser pointers, before they were almost universally replaced by cheaper diode lasers.[16]

For its inertness and high thermal conductivity, neutron transparency, and because it does not form radioactive isotopes under reactor conditions, helium is used as a heat-transfer medium in some gas-cooled nuclear reactors.[138]

Helium, mixed with a heavier gas such as xenon, is useful for thermoacoustic refrigeration due to the resulting high heat capacity ratio and low Prandtl number.[147] The inertness of helium has environmental advantages over conventional refrigeration systems which contribute to ozone depletion or global warming.[148]

Helium is also used in some hard disk drives.[149]

Scientific uses

The use of helium reduces the distorting effects of temperature variations in the space between lenses in some telescopes, due to its extremely low index of refraction.[18] This method is especially used in solar telescopes where a vacuum tight telescope tube would be too heavy.[150][151]

Helium is a commonly used carrier gas for gas chromatography.

The age of rocks and minerals that contain uranium and thorium can be estimated by measuring the level of helium with a process known as helium dating.[16][18]

Helium at low temperatures is used in cryogenics, and in certain cryogenics applications. As examples of applications, liquid helium is used to cool certain metals to the extremely low temperatures required for superconductivity, such as in superconducting magnets for magnetic resonance imaging. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN uses 96 metric tons of liquid helium to maintain the temperature at 1.9 kelvins.[152]

As a contaminant

While chemically inert, helium contamination will impair the operation of microelectromechanical systems such that iPhones may fail.[153]

Inhalation and safety


Neutral helium at standard conditions is non-toxic, plays no biological role and is found in trace amounts in human blood.

The speed of sound in helium is nearly three times the speed of sound in air. Because the fundamental frequency of a gas-filled cavity is proportional to the speed of sound in the gas, when helium is inhaled there is a corresponding increase in the resonant frequencies of the vocal tract.[16][154] The fundamental frequency (sometimes called pitch) does not change, since this is produced by direct vibration of the vocal folds, which is unchanged.[155] However, the higher resonant frequencies cause a change in timbre, resulting in a reedy, duck-like vocal quality. The opposite effect, lowering resonant frequencies, can be obtained by inhaling a dense gas such as sulfur hexafluoride or xenon.


Inhaling helium can be dangerous if done to excess, since helium is a simple asphyxiant and so displaces oxygen needed for normal respiration.[16][156] Fatalities have been recorded, including a youth who suffocated in Vancouver in 2003 and two adults who suffocated in South Florida in 2006.[157][158] In 1998, an Australian girl (her age is not known) from Victoria fell unconscious and temporarily turned blue after inhaling the entire contents of a party balloon.[159][160][161] Inhaling helium directly from pressurized cylinders or even balloon filling valves is extremely dangerous, as high flow rate and pressure can result in barotrauma, fatally rupturing lung tissue.[156][162]

Death caused by helium is rare. The first media-recorded case was that of a 15-year-old girl from Texas who died in 1998 from helium inhalation at a friend's party; the exact type of helium death is unidentified.[159][160][161]

In the United States only two fatalities were reported between 2000 and 2004, including a man who died in North Carolina of barotrauma in 2002.[157][162] A youth asphyxiated in Vancouver during 2003, and a 27-year-old man in Australia had an embolism after breathing from a cylinder in 2000.[157] Since then two adults asphyxiated in South Florida in 2006,[157][158][163] and there were cases in 2009 and 2010, one a Californian youth who was found with a bag over his head, attached to a helium tank,[164] and another teenager in Northern Ireland died of asphyxiation.[165] At Eagle Point, Oregon a teenage girl died in 2012 from barotrauma at a party.[166][167][168] A girl from Michigan died from hypoxia later in the year.[169]

On February 4, 2015 it was revealed that during the recording of their main TV show on January 28, a 12-year-old member (name withheld) of Japanese all-girl singing group 3B Junior suffered from air embolism, losing consciousness and falling in a coma as a result of air bubbles blocking the flow of blood to the brain, after inhaling huge quantities of helium as part of a game. The incident was not made public until a week later.[170][171] The staff of TV Asahi held an emergency press conference to communicate that the member had been taken to the hospital and is showing signs of rehabilitation such as moving eyes and limbs, but her consciousness has not been sufficiently recovered as of yet. Police have launched an investigation due to a neglect of safety measures.[172][173]

On July 13, 2017 CBS News reported that a political operative who reportedly attempted to recover e-mails missing from the Clinton server, Peter W. Smith, "apparently" committed suicide in May at a hotel room in Rochester, Minnesota and that his death was recorded as "asphyxiation due to displacement of oxygen in confined space with helium".[174] More details followed in the Chicago Tribune.[175]

The safety issues for cryogenic helium are similar to those of liquid nitrogen; its extremely low temperatures can result in cold burns, and the liquid-to-gas expansion ratio can cause explosions if no pressure-relief devices are installed. Containers of helium gas at 5 to 10 K should be handled as if they contain liquid helium due to the rapid and significant thermal expansion that occurs when helium gas at less than 10 K is warmed to room temperature.[81]

At high pressures (more than about 20 atm or two MPa), a mixture of helium and oxygen (heliox) can lead to high-pressure nervous syndrome, a sort of reverse-anesthetic effect; adding a small amount of nitrogen to the mixture can alleviate the problem.[176][145]

See also


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External links


More detail


Helium shortage