Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Tanks in Red Square during 1991 Soviet coup d'etat attempt
Tanks at Red Square during the 1991 Soviet coup d'état attempt
Participants People of the Soviet Union
Federal government
Republican governments
Autonomous SSRs
Location Soviet Union
Date 11 Mar 1985 – 25 Dec 1991
Result Dissolution of the Soviet Union into independent republics
Post-Soviet states in alphabetical order:
1. Armenia, 2. Azerbaijan, 3. Belarus, 4. Estonia,
5. Georgia, 6. Kazakhstan, 7. Kyrgyzstan, 8. Latvia,
9. Lithuania, 10. Moldova, 11. Russia, 12. Tajikistan,
13. Turkmenistan, 14. Ukraine, 15. Uzbekistan

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the disintegration of the federal political structures and central government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), resulting in the independence of all fifteen republics of the Soviet Union between March 11, 1990 and December 25, 1991. The dissolution of the world's largest socialist state also marked a formal end to the Cold War.

In order to revive the stagnant Soviet economy, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a process of increasing political liberalization (glasnost/perestroika) in the erstwhile totalitarian, communist one-party state. However, this liberalization led to the emergence of long-repressed nationalist movements and ethnic disputes within the diverse republics of the Soviet Union. The Revolutions of 1989 led to the fall of the socialist states allied to the Soviet Union and increased pressure on Gorbachev to introduce greater democracy and autonomy for the Soviet Union's constituent republics. Under Gorbachev's leadership, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union subsequently introduced direct elections, formed a new central legislature and ended its ban on political parties. Although a March 1991 referendum showed a large majority of Soviet citizens voting to retain the Union, its legitimacy was marred by a boycott from the Baltic republics. The legislatures of the Soviet republics began passing laws undermining the control of the central government and endorsing independence.

The increasing political unrest led the conservative establishment of the Soviet military and the Communist Party to attempt a coup d'état to oust Gorbachev and re-establish an authoritarian and strong central regime in August 1991. Although foiled by popular agitation led by Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian SFSR, the coup attempt led to heightened fears that the reforms would be reversed, and most of the constituent republics began declaring outright independence. On December 22, 1991 the presidents of the Soviet republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus met secretly and agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union, replacing it with a loose, voluntary form of union known as the Commonwealth of Independent States. Increasingly powerless in the face of events, Gorbachev resigned from his office and the Soviet Union formally ended its existence on December 25, 1991. In international law, Russia was recognized as the successor state of the Soviet Union, and took complete possession of its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

The Revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the end of decades-long hostility between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which had been the defining feature of the Cold War. It marked the fall of Marxism-Leninism as a governing ideology, and the only two remaining Marxist-Leninist governments today are those of North Korea and Cuba (although many more non-governing parties in other countries continue to subscribe to Marxism-Leninism). These two former Soviet allies managed to survive despite the loss of the Soviet economic aid and political support on which they had depended. In the countries of the former USSR, the outcomes of the dissolution were mixed. Although the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia established democratic systems of government, Ukraine, Belarus and the Central Asian republics saw the retention of authoritarian rulers. Russia underwent a period of political instability and economic decline before achieving stability and economic growth during the presidency of Vladimir Putin. Even as independent nations, the former Soviet republics have retained close links with Russia and formed multilateral organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Community and the Union State to enhance economic and security cooperation.



Soviet Union Centre - The new General Secretary

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo on March 11, 1985, only three hours after Konstantin Chernenko's death. Upon his accession at age 54, he was the youngest member of the Politburo. Gorbachev's primary goal as General Secretary was to revive the Soviet economy after the stagnant Brezhnev years.

In 1985, he announced that the Soviet economy was stalled and that reorganization was needed. Gorbachev soon realized that fixing the Soviet economy would be nearly impossible without reforming the political and social structure of the Communist nation.[1] The reforms began in personnel changes. On 23 April 1985 Gorbachev brought his two proteges Yegor Ligachev, and Nikolai Ryzhkov into the Politburo as full members, and sensibly took the opportunity to keep the 'power' ministries happy by promoting KGB Head Viktor Chebrikov from candidate to full member of the Politburo, and appointing Minister of Defence Marshall Sergei Sokolov a Politburo candidate member. Nikonov was brought into the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat.

In May 1985 in Leningrad Gorbachev made a speech advocating widespread reforms. One of the first reforms Gorbachev introduced was the anti-alcohol campaign, begun in May 1985, which was designed to fight widespread alcoholism in the Soviet Union. Prices of vodka, wine, and beer were raised, and their sales were restricted.[2] It was a serious blow to the state budget-a loss of approximately 100 billion rubles according to Alexander Yakovlev-after alcohol production migrated to the black market economy.[2] The purpose of reform, however, was to prop up the centrally-planned economy, not transition to market socialism.

On 1 July 1985 Gorbachev promoted Eduard Shevardnadze First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party to full member of the Politburo, and the following day appointed Shevardnadze as Minister of Foreign Affairs replacing Andrei Gromyko. Gromyko, disparaged as "Mr Nyet" in the West, had served for 28 years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and was considered an 'old thinker' who was kicked upstairs to the mainly ceremonial position of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet which was officially Soviet Head of State. Also on 1 July 1985 Gorbachev took the opportunity to dispose of his main rival by removing Grigory Romanov from the Politburo, and brought Boris Yeltsin and Lev Zaikov into the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat.

In the Autumn Gorbachev continued his program to bring forward younger and more energetic men into government. On 27 September 1985 Nikolai Ryzhkov replaced 79 year old Nikolai Tikhonov as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, effectively the Soviet Prime Minister, and on 14 October 1985 Nikolai Talyzin replaced Nikolai Baibakov as Chairman of the State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN). At the next Central Committee meeting on 15 October 1985 Nikolai Tikhonov retired from the Politburo and Nikolai Talyzin became a candidate member.

Finally on 23 December 1985 Gorbachev appointed Boris Yeltsin First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party replacing Viktor Grishin.


Baltic Republics

Latvia – Helsinki-86 and First Demonstration

Figure of Liberty on the Riga Freedom Monument the gathering place of Pro-Independence demonstrations.

The CTAG (Latvian: Cilvēktiesību aizstāvības grupa, Human Rights Defense Group) Helsinki-86 was founded in July, 1986 in the Latvian port town of Liepāja by three workers: Linards Grantiņš, Raimonds Bitenieks, and Mārtiņš Bariss. Its name refers to the Helsinki Accords and the year of its founding. Helsinki-86 was the first openly anti-Communist organization, and the first openly organized opposition to the Soviet regime in the Soviet Union, setting an example for other ethnic minorities' pro-independence movements.[3]

In Riga, Latvia, on December 26, 1986, in the early morning hours after a rock concert, some 300 working-class Latvian youths gathered in Riga’s Cathedral Square and marched down Lenin Avenue toward the Freedom Monument shouting, "Soviet Russia out! Free Latvia!" Security forces confronted the marchers, and several police vehicles were overturned[4]

Central Asian Republics

Kazakhstan – Jeltoqsan riots

The Dawn of Liberty monument in Almaty.

The "Jeltoqsan" or "December" or 1986 were riots[5] that took place in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan in response to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's dismissal of Dinmukhamed Konayev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and an ethnic Kazakh, and the subsequent appointment of Gennady Kolbin, an outsider from the Russian SFSR. Demonstrations started in the morning of December 17, 1986 as an initial number of 200–300 students gathered in front of the Central Committee building on Brezhnev square to protest the decision of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to replace Kunayev with Kolbin. The number of protesters increased to 1,000–5,000 as students from universities and institutes joined the crowd on Brezhnev square. As a response, the CPK Central Committee ordered troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, druzhiniki (volunteers), cadets, policemen and the KGB to cordon the square and videotape the participants. The situation escalated around 5 pm, as troops were ordered to disperse the protesters. Clashes between the security forces and the demonstrators continued throughout the night in the square and in different parts of Almaty. The second day, protests turned into civil unrest as clashes in the streets, universities and dormitories between troops, volunteers and militia units and Kazakh students turned into a wide-scale confrontation. The clashes could only be controlled on the third day. The Almaty events were followed by smaller protests and demonstrations in Shymkent, Pavlodar, Karaganda and Taldykorgan. Reports from Kazakh SSR authorities estimated that the riots drew 3,000 people.[6] Other estimates are of at least 30,000 to 40,000 protestors with 5,000 arrested and jailed, and an unknown number of casualties.[7] Jeltoqsan leaders say over sixty thousand Kazakhs participated in the protests.[7][8] According to the Kazakh SSR government, there were two deaths during the riots, including a volunteer police worker and a student. Both of them had died due to blows to the head. About 100 others were detained and several others were sentenced to terms in labor camps.[9] Sources cited by Library of Congress claim that at least 200 people died or were summarily executed soon after. Some accounts estimate casualties at more than 1,000. The writer Mukhtar Shakhanov claimed that a KGB officer testified that 168 protesters were killed, but that figure remains unconfirmed as most material about Jeltoksan is in Moscow, locked in CPSU and KGB archives.


Soviet Union Centre – One-Party Democracy

In January 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev announced the new policy of 'democratization' under which future Soviet elections would offer the electorate a choice between multiple candidates per position, although all candidates would continue to be CPSU members. The concept was introduced by Gorbachev to enable him to circumvent the CPSU hardliners who resisted his perestroika and glasnost reform campaigns, while still maintaining the Soviet Union as a single-party communist state.

On May 6, 1987 Pamyat a Russian Nationalist group held an unsanctioned demonstration in Moscow which the authorities did not break up by force. Later, the police kept traffic out of the demonstrators' way while they marched to an apparently impromptu meeting with Boris Yeltsin, head of the Moscow Communist Party and at that time one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest allies in the ruling Politburo.[10] On July 25, 1987 a group of 300 Crimean Tatars, calling for the right to return to the Crimean homeland from which they were deported in 1944, staged a noisy demonstration for several hours near the Kremlin Wall as dozens of police and soldiers looked on.[11]

Baltic Republics – First Molotov Pact Protests

On August 23, 1987, on the 48th anniversary of the secret protocols of Molotov Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that ceded the three independent Baltic states to the Soviet Union in 1940, thousands of demonstrators marked the occasion in the capitals of all three Baltic Republics to sing anthems of independence and to hear defiant speeches honoring the victims of Stalin. The gatherings were sharply denounced in the official press and closely watched by the police, but they were not interrupted.[12]

Latvia – Taking the Lead

In Latvia on June 14, 1987 about 5,000 people gathered at the Freedom Monument to commemorate the victims of the Soviet regime and to lay flowers.

Caucasus – Environmental Issues

Armenia – Environmental and Nagorno Karabakh Demonstrations

Environmental concerns over Metsamor nuclear power station drove initial demonstrations in Yerevan

On October 17, 1987 3,000 Armenians demonstrated in Yerevan complaining about the condition of Lake Sevan, the Nairit chemicals plant, and the Metsamor Nuclear Power Plant, and air pollution in Yerevan. Police tried to prevent the protest but took no action to stop it once the march was underway. The demonstration was led by Armenian writers such as Silva Kaputikian, Zori Balayan and Maro Margarian and leaders from the National Survival organization. The march originated at the Opera Plaza after speakers, mainly intellectuals, addressed the crowd.

The following day 1,000 Armenians participated in another demonstration calling for Armenian national rights in Karabagh. The demonstrators demanded the annexation of Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, and carried placards to that effect. The police tried to physically prevent the march and after a few incidents, dispersed the demonstrators. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh would blow up into violence the following year.[13]


Soviet Union Centre – Starting to Lose Control

In 1988 Gorbachev started to lose control in two small but troublesome regions of the Soviet empire, as the Baltic states were captured by their Popular Fronts, and the Caucasus descended into violence and civil war.

On 1 July 1988, the fourth and last day of the bruising 19th Party Conference, Gorbachev won the backing of the tired delegates for his last minute proposal to create a new supreme legislative body called the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union. Frustrated by the 'old guard's resistance to his attempts to liberalise Gorbachev had changed tack and embarked upon a set of constitutional changes to try to separate party and state, and thereby isolate his conservative opponents. Detailed proposals for the new Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union were published for public consultation on 2 October 1988,[14] and to enable the creation of the new legislature the Supreme Soviet, during its 29 November to 1 December 1988 session, implemented the necessary amendments to the 1977 Soviet Constitution, enacted a law on electoral reform, and set the date of the election for 26 March 1989.[15]

On 29 November 1988 the Soviet Union ceased to jam all foreign radio stations, allowing Soviet Citizens for the first time to have access to unrestricted news sources beyond Communist control[16]

Baltic republics – The Singing Revolution

In 1986 and 1987 Latvia had been in the vanguard of the three Baltic states in pressing for reform. In 1988 Estonia took over the lead role with the foundation of the Soviet Unions first Popular Front and starting to influence state policy.

Estonia – Estonian Popular Front

The Estonian Popular Front was founded in April 1988, On June 16, 1988 Gorbachev replaced Karl Vaino the 'old guard' leader of the Communist Party of Estonia with the relatively liberal Vaino Väljas Soviet ambassador to Nicaragua.[17] In late June 1988 Väljas bowed to pressure from the Estonian Popular Front and legalized the flying of the former National Flag of independent Estonia, and agreed a new state language law that made Estonian the official language of the Republic.[4]

On October 2 the Popular Front formally launched its political platform at a two day congress which Vaino Väljas attended gambling that the front could help Estonia become a model of economic and political revival, while moderating separatist and other radical tendencies.[18] On November 16, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR adopted a declaration of national sovereignty under which Estonian laws should have precedence over those of the Soviet Union.[19] Estonia's parliament also laid claim to the republic's natural resources: land, inland waters, forests, mineral deposits and to the means of industrial production, agriculture, construction, state banks, transportation, municipal services, etc. in the territory of Estonia's borders.[20]

Latvia – Latvian Popular Front

The Latvian Popular Front was founded in June 1988, On October 4, 1988 Gorbachev replaced Boriss Pugo the 'old guard' leader of the Communist Party of Latvia with the more liberal Jānis Vagris. In October 1988 Vagris bowed to pressure from the Latvian Popular Front and legalized the flying of the former National Flag of independent Latvia, and agreed on October 6 a new state language law that made Latvian the official language of the Republic.[4]

Lithuania – Sąjūdis

The Popular Front of Lithuania called Sąjūdis was founded in May 1988, On October 19, 1988 Gorbachev replaced Ringaudas Songaila the 'old guard' leader of the Communist Party of Lithuania with the relatively liberal Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas. In October 1988 Brazauskas bowed to pressure from Sąjūdis and legalized the flying of the former National Flag of independent Lithuania, and then in November 1988 agreed a new state language law that made Lithuanian the official language of the Republic.[4]

Caucasus – Rebellion

Azerbaijan – Descent into Violence

In February 20, 1988, after a week of growing demonstrations in Stepanakert, capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (the Armenian majority area within Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic), the Regional Soviet voted to secede and join with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.[21] This local vote in a small virtually unknown part of the Soviet Union was unprecedented and made headlines throughout the world – a part of the Soviet system of government had on its own initiative dared to defy not only its own Republic's authorities but that of Moscow as well. On February 22, 1988 in what became known as the Askeran clash two Azerbaijanis were killed in clashes with Karabakh Armenians. The announcement of these deaths on state radio led to the Sumgait Pogrom where between February 26 and March 1 the city of Sumgait was subjected to four days of violent anti-Armenian riots during which 32 people were killed. The authorities totally lost control of events and finally had to occupy the city with paratroopers and tanks. Almost all the 14,000 Armenian population of Sumgait fled the city.[22]

Gorbachev refused to make any changes to the status of Nagorno Karabakh which remained part of Azerbaijan. He instead sacked the Communist Party Leaders in both Republics – on May 21, 1988 Kamran Baghirov was replaced by Abdulrahman Vezirov as First Secretary of the Azerbaijan Communist Party. From July 23, 1988 through to September 1988 a group of Azerbaijani intellectuals began working on a programme for a new organisation called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which was loosely based on the Estonian Popular Front.[23] On September 17, 1988 when gunbattles broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis near Stepanakert, 2 soldiers were killed and more than 2 dozen people were injured.[24] This led to almost complete ethnic polarisation in Nagorno-Karabakhs two main towns as the Azerbaijani minority were expelled from the Armenian majority capital of Stepanakert, and the Armenian minority was expelled from the Azerbaijani majority former-capital of Shusha.[25] On November 17, 1988, in response to the exodus of tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, a rolling series of mass demonstrations started in Lenin Square, Baku, which lasted 18 days and regularly attracted half a million demonstraters – until the Soviet militia finally moved in, cleared the square by force on 5 December 1988, and imposed a curfew which lasted 10 months.[26]

Armenia – The People Rise

The Karabakh Committee in 1988, Liberty Square, Yerevan

The rebellion of their fellow Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had an immediate effect in Armenia. Daily demonstrations which began in Yerevan on February 18 with the usual ecological slogans initially attracted few people, but each day the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh became more prominent and the numbers swelled. On February 20 30,000 demonstrated in Theatre Square, by February 22 there were 100,000, the next day 300,000 and a transport strike was declared, by February 25 there were close to a million demonstrators – a staggering quarter of the population of the entire republic.[27] This was the first occurrence of the huge peaceful people power demonstrations that were later to become a feature of the overthrow of communism from Prague, to Berlin, to Moscow. At this time the 11 member Karabakh Committee was formed by leading Armenian intellectuals and nationalists, including future first President of independent Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian, to lead and organise the new Armenian mass movement.

Gorbachev refused to make any changes to the status of Nagorno Karabakh which remained part of Azerbaijan. He instead sacked the Communist Party Leaders in both Republics – on May 21, 1988 Karen Demirchian was replaced by Suren Harutyunyan as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Armenia. However Harutyunyan quickly decided to run before the nationalist wind and on May 28, 1988 allowed the outlawed flag of the First Armenian Republic to be unfurled for the first time in almost 70 years in Yerevan.[28] On June 15, 1988 the Supreme Soviet in Yerevan adopted a resolution in which it formally gave its approval to the idea of Nagorno Karabakh joining Armenia.[29] Armenia, formerly one of the most loyal Republics, had suddenly turned into the leading rebel in the Soviet Union. On July 5, 1988 when a contingent of troops was sent in to remove demonstrators by force from Yerevan's Zvarnots Airport shots were fired and one student protester died.[30] In September 1988 further large demonstrations in Yerevan led to the deployment of armoured vehicles onto the streets.[31] In the autumn of 1988 almost all the 200,000 Azerbaijani minority in Armenia was expelled by Armenian Nationalists, with over 100 killed in the process[32] On November 25, 1988 a military commandant took control of the Armenian capital as the Soviet Government moved to prevent further ethnic violence.[33] Then on December 7, 1988 Armenia was hit by the Spitak earthquake which killed 25,000 people – when Gorbachev rushed to the scene from a visit to the United States he was so angered when even during this national tragedy he was confronted by Armenian protesters calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to be made part of the Armenian Republic, that on December 11, 1988 he ordered the arrest of the entire Karabakh Committee[34]

Georgia – First Demonstrations

In November 1988 in Tbilisi, capital of Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, large numbers of demonstrators camped out in front of the republic's legislature in support of Estonia's declaration of sovereignty.[35]

The Western Republics

Moldavia - Democratic Movement of Moldova

The Democratic Movement of Moldova organized public meetings, demonstrations, and song festivals fiom February 1988, which gradually grew in size and intensity. In the streets, the center of public manifestations was the Stephen the Great Monument in Chişinău, and the adjacent park harboring Aleea Clasicilor ( The Alee of the Classics [of the Literature]). On January 15, 1988, in a tribute to Mihai Eminescu at his bust on the Aleea Clasicilor, Anatol Şalaru submitted the proposal to continue the meetings. In the public discourse, the movement called for national awakening, freedom of speech, revival of Moldavian traditions, and for attainment of official status for the Moldovan language and return of it to the Latin script. The transition from "movement" (informal association) to "front" (formal association) was regarded by its sympathizers as a natural "upgrade" once the movement has gained momentum with the public, and the Soviet authorities could no longer crack down on it.

Ukraine - Lviv Leads

On 26 April 1988 some 500 people participate in a march organized by the Ukrainian Culturological Club on Kyiv's Khreschatyk to mark the second anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, carrying placards with slogans such as "Openness and Democracy to the End." Between May and June 1988 Ukrainian Catholics in western Ukraine celebrate the Millennium of Christianity in Kyivan Rus' in secret by holding services in the forests of Buniv, Kalush, Hoshiv, Zarvantysia and other sites. On 5 June 1988 as the official celebrations of the Millennium are held in Moscow, the Ukrainian Culturological Club hosts its own observances in Kyiv at the monument to St. Volodymyr the Great, the grand prince of Kyivan Rus'.

On 16 June 1988 between 6,000 and 8,000 people gather in Lviv to hear speakers declare no confidence in the local list of delegates to the 19th Communist Party conference to begin on 29 June 1988. On 21 June a rally in Lviv attracts 50,000 people who hear discussion of a revised list of delegates to the party conference. Authorities attempt to disperse the rally held in front of the Druzhba Stadium. On 7 July 1988 a crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 witnesses the launching in Lviv of the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. On 17 July 1988 a group of 10,000 faithful gather in Zarvanytsia for Millennium services celebrated by Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk. Militia try to disperse the people - the largest gathering of Ukrainian Catholics in the USSR since the Stalin regime outlawed the Church in 1946. On 4 August 1988, on what came to be known as "Bloody Thursday," local authorities use violent methods to disband a gathering of tens of thousands organized by the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. Forty-one people are detained and fined or sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest. On 1 September 1988 local authorities once again use force against 5,000 participants gathered silently in front of Ivan Franko State University in Lviv for a public meeting held without official permission.

On 13 November 1988 approximately 10,000 people attend an officially sanctioned meeting, organized by the cultural heritage organization Spadschyna, the Kyiv University student club Hromada, and the environmental groups Zelenyi Svit (Green World) and Noosfera, to focus on ecological issues. From 14–18 November 1988 fifteen Ukrainian rights activists are among the 100 human, national and religious rights advocates invited to participate in talks on human rights issues with Soviet officials and a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission). On 10 December 1988 hundreds gather in Kyiv to observe International Human Rights Day at a rally organized by the Democratic Union. The unauthorized gathering results in detention of local activists.[36]

Byelorussia - Kurapaty

The Partyja BPF(Belarusian Popular Front) was established in 1988 as both a political party and a cultural movement pushing for democracy and independence, following the examples of the Baltic Popular Fronts. Its first leader was Zianon Pazniak. The discovery of mass graves filled with executed bodies in Kuropaty outside Minsk by historian Zyanon Paznyak and exhumation of the remains, gave an added momentum to the pro-democracy and pro-independence movement in Belarus.[37] The Front claimed that the NKVD performed its secret killings in Kuropaty.[38] Initially the Front had significant visibility because of its numerous active public actions almost always ended in clashes with police and KGB.


Soviet Union Centre – Democratic Explosion

The spring of 1989 saw the people of the Soviet Union exercising a democratic choice, albeit limited, for the first time since 1917, when they elected the new Congress of Peoples Deputies. As important was the uncensored live TV coverage of the legislature's deliberations - where the amazed people witnessed the previously feared and untouchable Communist leadership being questioned and held to account. This example fueled the limited experiment with democracy in Poland which quickly led to the toppling of the Communist government in Warsaw by the summer, which in turn sparked peoples uprisings which overthrew communism in the other five Warsaw Pact countries before the end of a truly historic year. In short this was the year when Gorbachev completely lost control of events - to his shock he discovered the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not support his drive to modernise and thereby save Communism, instead they wanted to destroy it.

1989 was also the year that CNN became the first non-Soviet broadcaster to be allowed to beam its news programmes into Moscow. It was officially only available to foreign guests in the Savoy Hotel, but muscovites quickly learned how to rig their own aerial's to pick up the signals on their home TV`s - this had a huge impact on how Russians saw events in their own country, and made censorship of news almost impossible.[39]

Congress of Peoples Deputies

The month-long nomination of candidates for the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR lasted until 24 January 1989. For the next month, selection among the 7,531 districts nominees took place at meetings organized by constituency-level electoral commissions. On 7 March, a final list of 5,074 candidates was published; approximately 85% of these were Communist Party members.

In the two weeks prior to the 1,500 districts polls, elections to fill 750 reserved seats of public organizations, contested by 880 candidates, were held. Of these seats, 100 were allocated to the CPSU, 100 to the All-Union Central Council of Trade Union, 75 to the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol), 75 to the Soviet Women's Committee, 75 to the War and Labour Veterans' Organization, and 325 to other organizations such as the Academy of Sciences. The selection process was ultimately completed in April.

In the 26 March general elections, voter participation was reported at 89.8%. With this polling, 1,958 – including 1,225 district seats – of the 2,250 CPD seats were filled. In the district races, run-off elections were held in 76 constituencies on 2 and 9 April and fresh elections were organized on 20 April and 14[40] to 23 May in the 199 remaining constituencies where the required absolute majority was not attained.[15]

While the majority of CPSU-endorsed candidates were elected over 300 candidates won out over the endorsed candidates. Among them were Boris Yeltsin, physicist Andrei Sakharov, and lawyer Anatoly Sobchak.

The first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies opened on 25 May 1989. Although hardliners retained control of the chamber, the reformers used the legislature as a platform to debate and criticize the Soviet system, with the state media broadcasting their comments live and uncensored on television which held the population transfixed because nothing like this freedom of debate had ever been witnessed in the USSR. On 29 May Yeltsin managed to secure a seat on the Supreme Soviet,[41] and in the summer formed the first opposition, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group, comprising Russian nationalists and liberals. As it was the final legislative group in the Soviet Union, those elected in 1989 played a vital part in continuing reforms and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union over the next two years.

Loss of Outer Empire

Map of the Eastern Bloc

The six Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, whilst nominally independent, were widely recognised in the international community to be part of the Soviet Unions outer empire between 1945 and 1989. All had been occupied by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, had Soviet style totalitarian communist governments imposed upon them, and had very restricted freedom of action in either domestic or international affairs. Any moves towards real independence were suppressed with military force, such as happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.

Gorbachev abandoned the oppressive and expensive Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies, termed in October 1989 the Sinatra Doctrine in a joking reference to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way".

The revolutions of 1989 overthrew the communist regimes in European countries.

Baltic Republics - The Chain of Freedom

Demonstration in Šiauliai. The coffins are decorated with national flags of the three Baltic states and are placed under Soviet and Nazi flags.

The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom,[42] Estonian: Balti kett, Latvian: Baltijas ceļš, Lithuanian: Baltijos kelias, Russian: Балтийский путь) was a peaceful political demonstration that occurred on August 23, 1989. Approximately two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning over 600 kilometres (370 mi) across the three Baltic states – Estonian SSR, Latvian SSR, and Lithuanian SSR, republics of the Soviet Union. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The pact and its secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

In December 1989, the Congress of People's Deputies accepted, and Mikhail Gorbachev signed, the report by Yakovlev's commission condemning the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.[43]

Lithuania - The Communist Party Splits

On 7 December 1989 the Communist Party of Lithuania under the leadership of Algirdas Brazauskas split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and ended its claim to have a constitutional `leading role`. A smaller loyalist faction of the Communist Party headed by Mykolas Burokevičius was established and remained affiliated to the CPSU. However the governing Communist Party of a Soviet Republic was now formally independent of Moscow`s control for the first time. This was a political earthquake which lead to Gorbachev immediately arranging a visit to Lithuania the next month to try to bring the local party back under CPSU control - he was to fail.[44]


Azerbaijan – Blockade

Demonstrators waving the banned Azerbaijani flag at Azadlyg Square

On 16 July 1989 the Popular Front of Azerbaijan held its first congress and elected as Chairman Abulfaz Elchibey, a future President of independent Azerbaijan.[45] On 19 August 600,000 protesters jammed Lenin square in Baku demanding political prisoners be released by the authorities.[46] In the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh the second half of 1989 began with the handing out of weapons, and as Karabakhis got hold of small arms to replace their hunting rifles and crossbows casualties began to mount - bridges were blown up, roads were blockaded and the first hostages taken.[47] In a new and very effective tactic the Popular Front in late summer launched a rail blockade on Armenia.[48] Eighty-five percent of Armenia`s rail traffic came from Azerbaijan, and this embargo caused shortages of petrol and food in Armenia.[49] Under pressure from the Popular Front the Communist authorities in Azerbaijan started making concessions. On 25 September a law on sovereignty was passed giving Azerbaijani law precedence over Soviet Law, and on 4 October the Popular Front was permitted to be registered as a legal organization on condition it raised the blockade. However transport communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia never fully recovered.[49] Tensions continued to escalate and on 29 December Popular Front activists seized local party offices in Jalilabad wounding dozens of people.

Armenia – Nationalist Leaders Released

On 31 May 1989 the 11 members of the Karabakh Committee, who had been imprisoned without trial in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, were released and returned to Yerevan to a hero`s welcome.[50] Levon Ter-Petrossian soon after his release was elected chairman of the anti-communist opposition Pan-Armenian National Movement, and later stated that it was in 1989 that he first began to consider the idea of complete Armenian independence from the USSR.[51]

Georgia - Massacre in Tbilisi

Photos of the April 9, 1989 Massacre victims (mostly young women) on billboard in Tbilisi

On 7 April 1989 troops and armored personnel carriers were sent onto the streets of Tbilisi after more than 100,000 people gathered in front of the Government and Communist Party headquarters, many with banners calling for Georgia to secede from the Soviet Union and urging the full integration into Georgia of the autonomous region of Abkhazia.[52] On 9 April 1989 at least sixteen people were killed and more than 200 hurt when troops attacked the peaceful demonstrators.[53] This event radicalised Georgian politics, prompting many to conclude that independence was preferable to continued Soviet rule. On 14 April 1989 Gorbachev removed Jumber Patiashvili as First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party for his poor handling of the April events, and replaced him with the former Georgian KGB chief Givi Gumbaridze.

On 16 July 1989 in Sukhumi capital of Abkhazia a protest against the opening of a Georgian university branch in the town led to violence that quickly degenerated into a large-scale inter-ethnic confrontation in which 18 died and hundreds were injured before Soviet troops restored order.[54] This riot marked the start of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

The Western Republics

Moldavia - Popular Front of Moldova

The Popular Front of Moldova founding congress took place on 20 May 1989. During the second congress (30 June - 1 July 1989), Ion Hadârcă was elected as president of the Front. A series of demonstrations that became known as the Grand National Assembly (Romanian: Marea Adunare Naţională) was the first major achievement of the Popular Front. Mass demonstrations organized by its activists, including one attended by 300,000 participants on August 27,[55] were of critical importance[56] in convincing the Moldavian Supreme Soviet to adopt a new language law on 31 August 1989 which made the Moldovan the official state language, and replaced the Cyrillic script with the Latin script.

Ukraine - Rukh

On 22 January 1989 Lviv and Kyiv both mark Ukrainian Independence Day for the first time in decades. In Lviv, thousands gather for an unauthorized moleben in front of St. George Cathedral; in Kyiv, 60 activists meet in a Kyiv apartment to commemorate the historic event of 1918 when the independent Ukrainian National Republic was proclaimed. On 11–12 February 1989 the Ukrainian Language Society holds its founding congress. On 15 February 1989 the formation of the Initiative Committee for the Renewal of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is announced. The program and statutes of the movement were proposed by the Writers Association of Ukraine and were published in the journal Literary Ukraine (Literaturna Ukraina) on February 16, 1989. The organization took its roots in Ukrainian dissidents such as Vyacheslav Chornovil. From 19–21 February 1989 large public rallies take place in Kyiv to protest the election laws on the eve of the March 26 elections to the USSR Congress of People's Deputies and to call for the resignation of the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Volodymyr Scherbytsky, often referred to as "the mastodon of stagnation." The demonstrations coincide with a visit to Ukraine by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On 26 February 1989 between 20,000 and 30,000 people participate in an unsanctioned ecumenical memorial service in Lviv marking the 128th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko's death.

On 4 March 1989 the Memorial Society, committed to honoring the victims of Stalinism and cleansing society of its Soviet vestiges, is founded in Kyiv. A public rally is held the next day. On 12 March 1989 A pre-elections meeting organized in Lviv by the Ukrainian Helsinki Union and the Marian Society Myloserdia (Compassion) is violently dispersed, and nearly 300 people are detained. On 26 March 1989 elections are held to the 2,250-member USSR Congress of People's Deputies; bye-elections are held on April 9, May 14 and May 21. Out of the total of 225 deputies representing Ukraine, 175 are elected in the four rounds of elections. Most are conservatives, though a handful of progressives do make the cut.

From 20–23 April 1989 pre-elections meetings are held in Lviv for four consecutive days, drawing crowds of up to 25,000. The action includes an hourlong warning strike at eight local factories and institutions. It is the first labor strike in Lviv since 1944. On 3 May 1989 a pre-elections rally attracts 30,000 in Lviv. On 7 May 1989 The Memorial Society organizes a mass meeting at Bykivnia, site of a mass grave of Stalin's victims. After a march from Kyiv to the site, a memorial service is offered. From Mid-May to September 1989 Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hunger strikers stage protests on Moscow's Arbat to call attention to the plight of their Church. They are especially active during the July session of the World Council of Churches held in Moscow. The protest is ended with the arrests of the group on September 18. On 27 May 1989 the founding conference of the Lviv regional Memorial Society is held. On 18 Jun 1989 approximately 100,000 faithful participate in public religious services in Ivano-Frankivsk, responding to Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky's call for an international day of prayer.

Monument near entrance in Bykivnia

On 19 August 1989 the Russian Orthodox Parish of Ss. Peter and Paul announces it is switching to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. On 2 September 1989 tens of thousands in cities across Ukraine protest the draft election law that reserves special seats for the Communist Party and other official organizations: 50,000 in Lviv, 40,000 in Kyiv, 10,000 in Zhytomyr, 5,000 each in Dniprodzerzhynsk and Chervonohrad and 2,000 in Kharkiv. From 8–10 September 1989 writer Ivan Drach is elected to head Rukh, the Popular Movement of Ukraine for Peredudova, at its founding congress in Kyiv. On 17 September between 150,000 and 200,000 march in Lviv to demand the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. It is the largest demonstration of Ukrainian Catholics since World War II. On 21 September 1989 exhumation of a mass grave begins in Demianiv Laz, a nature preserve south of Ivano-Frankivsk. On 28 September First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukraine Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, a holdover from the Brezhnev era, is replaced by Gorbachev by Vladimir Ivashko.

On 1 October 1989 a peaceful demonstration of 10,000 to 15,000 is violently dispersed by militia when the people protest in front of Lviv's Druzhba Stadium, where a concert celebrating the Soviet "reunification" of Ukrainian lands is held. On 3 October 1989 nearly 30,000 Lviv residents rally to protest the violence of October 1; a two-hour work strike also is held. On 10 October 1989 Ivano-Frankivsk is the site of a pre-elections protest attended by 30,000. On 15 October 1989 several thousand gather in Chervonohrad, Chernivtsi, Rivne and Zhytomyr, 500 in Dnipropetrovsk and 30,000 in Lviv to protest the elections law. On 20 October 1989 faithful and clergy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church participate in a sobor in Lviv - the first since that Church's forced liquidation in the 1930s. On 24 October 1989 the all-union Supreme Soviet passes a law eliminating special seats for Communist Party and other official organizations' representatives. On 26 October 1989 twenty factories and institutions in Lviv hold strikes and meetings to once again protest the October 1 police brutality in the city and the authorities' unwillingness to prosecute those responsible. From 26–28 October 1989 the Zelenyi Svit environmental association holds its founding congress. On 27 October 1989 the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet passes a law "On Elections of People's Deputies of the Ukrainian SSR," eliminating the special status of party and other official organizations. On 28 October 1989 the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet decrees that from January 1, 1990, Ukrainian will be the state language of Ukraine, while Russian will be used for communication between nationality groups. On the same day The Congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv leaves the Russian Orthodox Church and proclaims itself a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The following day thousands attend a memorial service at Demianiv Laz and a temporary marker is placed to indicate that a monument to the "victims of the represssions of 1939-1941" will soon be erected on the site.

In mid-November The Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society is officially registered. On 19 November 1989 a public gathering in Kyiv attracts thousands of mourners, friends and family to the reburial in Ukraine of three inmates of the infamous Camp No. 36 in Perm in the Urals: rights activists Vasyl Stus, Oleksiy Tykhy and Yuriy Lytvyn. Their remains are reinterred in Baikiv Cemetery. On 26 November 1989 a day of prayer and fasting is proclaimed by Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, thousands of faithful in western Ukraine participate in liturgies and molebens on the eve of a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On 28 November 1989 the Ukrainian SSR's Council for Religious Affairs issues a decree permitting registration of Ukrainian Catholic congregations. The decree is proclaimed on December 1, coinciding with a meeting at the Vatican between the pope and the Soviet president.

On 10 December 1989 the first officially sanctioned observance of International Human Rights Day is held in Lviv. On 17 December 1989 a public meeting organized in Kyiv by Rukh is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Andrei Sakharov, human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; 30,000 attend. On 26 December 1989 the Supreme Soviet of Ukrainian SSR adopts a law making Christmas, Easter and the Feast of the Holy Trinity holidays in the republic.[36]

Byelorussia - Kurapaty

Meeting in Kurapaty, 1989

On 24 January 1989 the Soviet authorities in Byelorussia finally agreed to the demand of the democratic opposition to build a monument to thousands of people shot by Stalin's police in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk in the 1930s [57] On 30 September 1989 thousands of Byelorussians, denouncing local leaders, marched through the center of Minsk to demand further measures to clean up the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine. Up to 15,000 protesters wearing armbands with radioactivity symbols and carrying the banned red-and-white Byelorussian national flag filed through torrential rain in defiance of a ban by the local authorities. Later, they gathered in the city center near Government headquarters, where speakers demanded the resignation of the republic's Communist Party leader, Yefrem Y. Sokolov, and called for the evacuation of half a million people from contaminated zones.[58]

Central Asian Republics

Uzbekistan – Fergana Riots

Thousands of Soviet troops were sent to the Fergana Valley, southeast of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, to re-established order after clashes in which local Uzbeks hunted down members of the Meskhetian minority in several days of rioting between 4–11 June 1989 during which about 100 people were killed.[59] On 23 June 1989 Gorbachev removed Rafiq Nishonov as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR for his poor handling of the June events, and replaced him with Islam Karimov who went on to lead Uzbekistan as a Soviet Republic and subsequently as an independent state for decades.

Kazakhstan – Novy Uhzen

In Kazakhstan on 19 June 1989 young men carrying guns, fire bombs, iron bars and stones rioted in Novy Uzhen causing a number of deaths. The youths tried to seize a police station and a water supply station. They brought public transportation to a halt and shut down various shops and industries.[60] By June 25, 1989 rioting had spread to five other towns near the Caspian Sea. A mob of about 150 people armed with sticks, stones and metal rods attacked the police station in Mangishlak, about 90 miles from Novy Uzen before they were dispersed by Government troops flown in by helicopters. Mobs of young people also rampaged through the towns of Yeraliev, Shepke, Fort Shevchenko and Kulsary, where they poured flammable liquid on trains housing temporary workers and set them afire.[61]

On 22 June 1989 Gorbachev removed Gennady Kolbin (the ethnic Russian whose appointment caused the riots of December 1986) as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan for his poor handling of the June events, and replaced him with Nursultan Nazarbayev, an ethnic Kazakh who went on to lead Kazakhstan as a Soviet Republic and subsequently as an independent state for decades.


Soviet Union Centre – Six Republics Lost

On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU accepted the recommendation of Mikhail Gorbachev that the party give up its 70-year-long monopoly of political power.[62] During 1990 all fifteen constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections, and reformers and ethnic nationalists won many of the seats. The CPSU lost the elections in the following six republics;

  • Lithuania on 24 February 1990 (with run-off elections on 4, 7, 8 and 10 March 1990) to Sajudis
  • Moldova on 25 February 1990 to the Popular Front of Moldova
  • Estonia on 18 March 1990 to the Estonian Popular Front
  • Latvia on 18 March 1990 (with run-off elections on 25 March, 1 April and 29 April 1990) to the Latvian Popular Front
  • Armenia on 20 May 1990 (with run-off elections on 3 June and 15 July 1990) to the Pan-Armenian National Movement
  • Georgia on 28 October 1990 (with a run-off election on 11 November 1990) to Round Table-Free Georgia

The constituent republics began to declare their national sovereignty and started a "war of laws" with the Moscow central government, wherein the governments of the constituent republics rejected union-wide legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation as supply lines in the economy were severed, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.[63]

Baltic republics


On 25 March 1990 the Estonian Communist Party voted to split from the CPSU after a 6 month transition [64]

On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonian SSR since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state.


Latvia declared restoration of independence on May 4, 1990, with the declaration stipulating a transitional period to complete independence.


A visit by President Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people.

On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian SSR, led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Vytautas Landsbergis, declared restoration of independence. However, the Soviet Army attempted to suppress the movement. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians."[65]


Azerbaijan – Black January

Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January

During the first week of January 1990 in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, the Popular Front led crowds in the storming and destruction of the frontier fences and watchtowers along the border with Iran, and thousands of Soviet Azerbaijanis crossed the border to meet their ethnic cousins in Iranian Azerbaijan.[66] For the first time the Soviet Union had lost control of its external border.

On 9 January 1990, after the Armenian parliament voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh within its budget, renewed fighting broke out, hostages were taken and four Soviet Troops were killed.[67] On 11 Jan Popular Front radicals stormed party buildings and effectively overthrew Communist power in in the southern town of Lenkoran.[67] On 13 January 1990 murderous anti-Armenian violence overwhelmed Baku, around ninety Armenians were beaten to death or thrown from balconies, before Soviet troops were able to evacuate the remaining Armenian population of Baku, thereby completing the mutual ethnic cleansing of Armenia and Azerbaijan of each other`s populations.[68]

Gorbachev now resolved to regain control of Azerbaijan. Late at night on 19 January 1990, after blowing up of the central television station and the termination of phone and radio lines by Soviet special forces, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku, smashing through the barricades in order to crush the Popular Front. In the course of the storming, the troops attacked the protesters, firing into the crowds. More than 130 people died from wounds received that night and during subsequent violent confrontations and incidents that lasted until February; the majority of these were civilians killed by Soviet soldiers. More than 700 civilians were wounded. Hundreds of people were detained, only a handful of whom were put on trial for alleged criminal offenses. Civil liberties were severely curtailed. Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov stated that the use of force in Baku was intended to prevent the de facto takeover of the Azerbaijani government by the noncommunist opposition, to prevent their victory in upcoming free elections (scheduled for March 1990), to destroy them as a political force, and to ensure that the Communist government remained in power. The shooting continued for three days. For the first time the Soviet Army had taken one of its own cities by force.[69]

The army had gained physical control of Baku but by 20 January 1990 essentially lost Azerbaijan - almost the whole population of the city turned out for the mass funerals of the victims who became the first "martyrs" to be buried in the Alley of Martyrs on the top of the hill in Baku.[69]Thousands of Communist Party members publicly burned their party cards. First Secretary Vezirov had decamped to Moscow suffering from nervous exhaustion, so Ayaz Mutalibov was appointed his successor in a free vote of party officials, the ethnic Russian Viktor Polyanichko remained second secretary and the power behind the throne.[70]

Following the hard line takeover the elections held on 30 September 1990, with runoffs on 14 October 1990, were characterized by intimidation, including the jailing of several Popular Front candidates and the murder of two others, and the unabashed stuffing of ballot boxes even in the presence of Western observers.[71] The election results reflected the nature of this environment and in a body of 350 members, 280 were Communists and only 45 opposition candidates from the Popular Front and other non-communist groups, who together formed a Democratic Bloc ("Dembloc").[72] In May 1990 Ayaz Mutalibov was elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet without allowing any opponents to stand against him.[73]


Soviet Union Centre – Self Destruction

Crisis - January–August 1991

On January 14, 1991 Nikolai Ryzhkov resigned from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, literally Premier of the Soviet Union, and was succeeded by Valentin Pavlov in the newly-established post of Prime Minister of the Soviet Union.

On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum 76.4% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form.[74] The Baltics, Armenia, Georgia, Chechnya (a region within Russia had a strong desire for independence, and which was by now referring to itself as Ichkeria)[75] and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the renewed Soviet Union.

The August 1991 coup

Tanks in the Red Square during the 1991 coup attempt
Mass demonstration in Moscow against the 1991 coup attempt

Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common markets of the other Soviet republics to prosper. However, this meant the preservation of the Communist Party's control over economic and social life.

The more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent nation-states. Disintegration of the USSR also accorded with the desires of Yeltsin's presidency of the Russian Federation as well as regional and local authorities, to establish full power over their territories and get rid of pervasive Moscow ideological control. In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives and remaining 'patriots' and Russian nationalists of the USSR, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were opposed to anything that might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state and its centralized power base.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev's vice president Gennady Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the "General Committee on the State Emergency." The "Committee" put Gorbachev (on holiday in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest, reintroduced political censorship, and attempted to stop the perestroika. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.

While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in large cities and in republics was largely against them, manifesting itself in a campaign of civil resistance, especially in Moscow. Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin was quick to condemn the coup and grab popular support for himself.

Thousands of people in Moscow came out to defend the White House (the Russian Federation's parliament and Yeltsin's office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but would not storm the barricaded building.

After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev's powers were now compromised, as neither the Union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands.

The fall - August–December 1991

Map of the CIS

Between August and December, 10 republics declared their independence, largely out of fear of another coup. Also during this time, Russia began taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin. The final round of the Soviet Union's collapse took place following the Ukrainian popular referendum on December 1, 1991, wherein 90% of voters opted for independence. The leaders of the three principal Slavic republics (the Russian, Ukrainian and Byelorussian SSRs) agreed to meet for a discussion of possible forms of relationship, alternative to Gorbachev's struggle for a union.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha and signed the Belavezha Accords declaring the Soviet Union dissolved and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev described this as an unconstitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.

On December 12, 1991, Russia's secession from the Union was sealed, with the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratifying the Belavezha Accords and denouncing the 1922 Treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.

On December 17, 1991, alongside 28 European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries, twelve of the fifteen Soviet republics signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague as sovereign states.[76]

Five double-headed Russian coat-of-arms eagles (below) substituting the former state emblem of the Soviet Union and the “CCCP” letters (above) in the facade of the Grand Kremlin Palace after the dissolution of the USSR

Doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to effect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since they were signed by only five of the Soviet Republics. However, on December 21, 1991, representatives of all member republics except Georgia signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the Union. That same day, all former Soviet republics agreed to join the CIS, with the exception of the three Baltic States and Georgia. The documents signed at Alma-Ata also addressed several issues raised by the Union's extinction. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the Soviet Union's UN membership, including its permanent membership on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered to the Secretary General a letter signed by Yeltsin, dated December 24, 1991, informing him that, in virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for purposes of UN membership. After being circulated among the other UN member states with no objection raised, the statement was declared accepted on December 31.

In the early hours of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to Yeltsin. That night, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. The next day, the Council of Republics (a chamber of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union) formally recognized the dissolution of the Soviet Union and dissolved itself (another chamber of the Supreme Soviet had been unable to work during some months before this, due to absence of a quorum). By December 31, 1991, the few Soviet institutions that hadn't been taken over by Russia had ceased operations, as individual republics assumed the central government's role.


On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in the democratic elections for the post of president of the Russian SFSR, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the "dictatorship of the centre", but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the railtrack in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10.

Baltic Republics


Estonia declared full independence on 20 August 1991 while the coup was still unfolding in Moscow.


Barricade in Riga to prevent the Soviet Army from reaching the Latvian Parliament, July 1991

Attacks in Lithuania prompted Latvians to mount defense by building barricades to block access to strategically important buildings and bridges in Riga. Soviet attacks in following days resulted in six people being killed and several injured, one of whom later died.

Latvia declared full independence on 21 August 1991, following the example of Estonia of the day before, whilst the coup attempt was still unresolved in Moscow.


On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with KGB Spetsnaz Alpha Group, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania to suppress the nationalist media. This ended with fourteen unarmed civilians dead and hundreds more injured. On the night of July 31, 1991, Russian OMON from Riga, the Soviet military headquarters in the Baltics, assaulted the Lithuanian border post in Medininkai and killed seven Lithuanian servicemen. This event further weakened the Soviet Union's position, internationally and domestically.

Chronology of independence declarations

Before August 1991 coup

During August 1991 coup

  • Estonia – August 20, 1991
  • Latvia (de facto) – August 21, 1991

After August 1991 coup

  • Ukraine – August 24, 1991
  • Belarus – August 25, 1991
  • Moldova – August 27, 1991
  • Azerbaijan – August 30, 1991
  • Kyrgyzstan – August 31, 1991
  • Uzbekistan – September 1, 1991
  • Tajikistan – September 9, 1991
  • Armenia – September 21, 1991
  • Turkmenistan – October 16, 1991
  • Kazakhstan – December 16, 1991
  • Russia – December 24, 1991 (Yeltsin's letter to the UN informing them that, as a result of the Protocol signed at Alma-Ata, Russia should be accepted as the successor state of the Soviet Union).


According to a 2006 poll by VCIOM 66% of all Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union.[77] 50 percent of respondents in Ukraine in a similar poll held in February 2005 stated they regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union.[78]

The final collapse of the USSR was one of the most sudden and dramatic territorial losses that has befallen any state in history. Between 1990 and 1992 the Kremlin had lost direct government control over about one-third of Soviet territory – most of it acquired in the period between 1700 and 1945 – which had about one-half of the Soviet population by the time of the dissolution.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the breakdown of economic ties which followed, led to a severe economic crisis and catastrophic fall in the standards of living in the 1990s in post-Soviet states and the former Eastern Bloc,[79] which was even worse than The Great Depression.[80][81] Even before Russia's financial crisis of 1998, Russia's GDP was half of what it had been in the early 1990s,[81] and some populations are still poorer as of 2009 than they were in 1989, including Ukraine, Moldova, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.

The collapse of the Soviet Union hit the Cuban economy severely. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. The largest immediate impact was the loss of nearly all of the petroleum imports by the USSR.

United Nations membership

In a letter dated December 24, 1991, Boris Yeltsin, the President of the Russian Federation, informed the United Nations Secretary-General that the membership of the USSR in the Security Council and all other UN organs was being continued by the Russian Federation with the support of the 11 member countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The other fourteen independent states established from the former Soviet Republics were all admitted to the UN:

See also


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  2. ^ a b Hough, Jerry F. (1997), pp. 124–125
  3. ^ "Independent Movements in Eastern Europe". Osaarchivum.org. http://www.osaarchivum.org/files/holdings/300/8/3/text/120-1-68.shtml. Retrieved June 23, 2011. 
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  5. ^ Nationalist riots in Kazakhstan: "Violent nationalist riots erupted in Alma-Ata, the capital of. Kazakhstan, on December 17 and 18, 1986."
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  7. ^ a b Kazakhstan: Jeltoqsan Protest Marked 20 Years Later RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty
  8. ^ "Jeltoqsan" Movement blames leader of Kazakh Communists. EurasiaNet
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  12. ^ "Lithuanians Rally For Stalin Victims – New York Times". The New York Times. August 24, 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/24/world/lithuanians-rally-for-stalin-victims.html?scp=91&sq=soviet+demonstration&st=nyt. Retrieved June 23, 2011. 
  13. ^ "Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Republic of Armenia Official Site". Armeniaforeignministry.com. October 18, 1987. http://www.armeniaforeignministry.com/fr/nk/nk_file/article/49.html. Retrieved June 23, 2011. 
  14. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/1988/10/02/world/government-in-the-soviet-union-gorbachev-s-proposal-for-change.html?scp=4&sq=NEW+SOVIET+CONGRESS&st=nyt
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  19. ^ Website of Estonian Embassy in London (National Holidays)
  20. ^ Walker, Edward (2003). Dissolution. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 63. ISBN 0742524531.
  21. ^ Pages 10–12 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
  22. ^ Page 40 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
  23. ^ Page 82 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
  24. ^ "Gunfire Erupts in Tense Soviet Area – New York Times". The New York Times. September 20, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/20/world/gunfire-erupts-in-tense-soviet-area.html?scp=10&sq=Armenia&st=nyt. Retrieved June 23, 2011. 
  25. ^ Page 69 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
  26. ^ Page 83 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
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  76. ^ Concluding document of The Hague Conference on the European Energy Charter
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