The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, capping a history-making year in which Soviet Union President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was brought down after an unsuccessful coup in August 1991. After all the constituent republics, including Russia, voted for independence, with Gorbachev announcing the Soviet Union would cease to exist. In place of the monolithic union, there remained the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose confederation of eleven of the former Soviet republics, which now were independent states with an indefinite mandate of mutual cooperation. By late 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and the Communist Party of the Russian Republic had been banned in Russia, and Boris N. Yeltsin, who had been elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991, had become the leader of the new Russian Federation.[Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc took place in four phases: 1) liberalization, reforms and a degree of democratization in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev from 1985 to 1988; 2) liberalization in Eastern Europe and chain of events that led to the downing of the Berlin Wall and the ouster of Communist governments there in 1989 and 1990; 3) protests, more democratic reforms, and efforts by individual republics to break away from the Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991; and 4) the failed coup, the replacement of Gorbachev with Yeltsin as the leader of Russia-Soviet-Union and the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a shock and had widespread repercussions. Many believed it would never happen and the way it happened seemed highly improbable. Yale historian Paul Kennedy said, "The rise and fall of the Soviet Union ranks with the rise and fall of the Nazi Germany. It caused an immense shift in the strategic landscape and the political landscape of the ideological landscape of the 20th century.”

In his "autopsy of the Soviet Union,” former United States ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock wrote: "The deceased was a being of vicious habits that his physicians set out to cure. They managed to alleviate the patient's paranoia and curb his aggressive behavior, but the drugs administered undermined his immune system, and he eventually died from the spread of infections to a healthy body...The fact that the patient failed to survive the treatment should be regarded as a consequence of the patient's self-induced morbidity rather than the treatment administered."

Good Books on the Soviet Union collapse: “Lenin's Tomb, the Last Days of the Soviet Empire and Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia” (1997, Random House) by Pulitzer-prize-winning author by David Remnick; “Soviet Politics from Brezhnev to Gorbachev” by Donald R. Kelley; “Gorbachev in Power” by Stephen White; “The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet” by John B. Dunlop; “The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991" by Martin Malia; “The End of the Soviet Empire” by Hélène Carrère d'Encausse; “Imperium” by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Knopf); “People's Tragedy” by Orlando Figes; and “Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse 1970-2000" by Stephen Kotkin (Oxford University press, 2002).

Movements Toward Sovereignty

Beginning in 1990, many of the constituent autonomous republics and regions, delineated at various stages of tsarist or Soviet control, used the chaos and centrifugal force created by the breakup of the Soviet Union to move toward local sovereignty. The legislatures of most republics made official declarations of sovereignty over their land and natural resources between August and October 1990. Although the declaration of full independence by the Chechen Autonomous Republic was the most extreme result of such moves, some observers felt that the political and economic stability of the Russian Federation was threatened by the separatism of regions that were valuable because of their strategic location or natural resources. Furthermore, Russia, acutely conscious of having lost its "near abroad"--the fourteen republics that constituted the Soviet Union together with the RSFSR--could ill afford the second blow to national self-image that the loss of ethnically based jurisdictions would inflict. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Occupying about three-quarters of the territory of the former Soviet Union, Russia is the largest country in the world. It never has existed as a country within its present borders, however. Intent upon preserving the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the government in Moscow maintains an uneasy relationship with the non-Russian (and particularly the non-Slavic) nationalities. This relationship stems from Russian racial, religious, and cultural stereotypes (for example, perceptions of the dark-skinned Muslims in the midst of white-skinned, Orthodox Slavs), a historical tendency toward xenophobia among Russian commoners and parts of the Russian intelligentsia, and a legacy of forcible incorporation of various ethnic and nationality groups into the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Further complicating the relationship is the fact that many of Russia's abundant natural resources lie in the territories of various regions now proclaiming exclusive sovereignty over those resources. *

Although some tensions in ethnic and nationality relations stem from a desire for union between peoples on both sides of an internal or international border arbitrarily drawn by the tsars or by Soviet authorities, other motivations also underlie the assertiveness of national minorities in the federation. In the more liberal post-Soviet atmosphere, people no longer must suppress their anger over Soviet political and economic subjugation and Russification campaigns. Accordingly, non-Russian nationalities seek recompense for long periods of colonial-style exploitation of their indigenous resources for the benefit of the regime in Moscow. Another cause of dissatisfaction is the perceived failure of the Russian government to provide adequate support and protection for native schools and cultures. Finally, the end of the Russian government's monopolization and censorship of the news media acquainted minority groups with political trends, such as the spread of nationalism, with which the rest of the world has been familiar for some time. *

Other tensions result from Russian policies that non-Russian groups perceive as discriminatory or confiscatory. Examples include unfair tax practices and the refusal of the Russian government to let various ethnic groups reap the income from sale of their indigenous products and natural resources.

Small States in the Soviet Union Attempt to Break Away

Separatist agitation in many areas of Russia already had begun in the Soviet Union's twilight years. A full year before the Soviet Union's demise, more than half the autonomous republics in the RSFSR had adopted declarations of sovereignty. Every region of the vast RSFSR was affected by this trend, which was more an indication of the central government's waning authority--even in regions relatively close to Moscow--than it was an indication of intent by those declaring sovereignty. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In May 1990, the Tuva ASSR witnessed civil strife between the Russian and Tuvinian populations. Charging that Russia had failed to provide them with employment opportunities or suitable housing and had sought to eradicate their indigenous culture, the Tuvinians attacked Russian neighborhoods, setting fire to homes and forcing about 3,000 Russians to flee. *

In October 1990, the Chuvash ASSR declared itself a full republic of the Soviet Union, a status that would have given it equal status with Russia, Ukraine, and the other thirteen Soviet republics. Although the announcement stated that Chuvashia would remain part of the Russian Federation, the republic would exercise complete control over all its natural resources and would make Chuvash equal with Russian as an official language. Also in 1990, the Mari ASSR, about 500 kilometers east of Moscow, proclaimed itself a full Soviet republic whose natural resources would become the exclusive property of its people and whose state languages would be Mari and Russian. The republic adopted the new vernacular name "Mari El," meaning "Mari Territory," and that name won official approval from the government in Moscow. *

Also in 1990, the Gorno-Altay Autonomous Oblast and the Adygh Autonomous Oblast unilaterally upgraded themselves to autonomous-republic status. While declaring their intention to remain part of the RSFSR, these jurisdictions asserted the right to local control of their land and natural resources. Still another declaration of sovereignty came from the Buryat ASSR. The Buryats declared that their republic's laws henceforth would take precedence over those of the RSFSR. *

In northwestern Russia, secessionist sentiment manifested itself among the ethnic minorities of the Karelian and Komi ASSRs. In the autumn of 1990, local Karelian authorities protested insufficient food shipments by refusing to deliver timber and paper products to Russia. Many Karelians, ethnically close to the Finns, want their republic to become part of Finland. *

During the period leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, local officials in the oil-rich Bashkir ASSR (renamed Bashkortostan in 1992) declared sovereignty, and the Chukchi Autonomous Region, which faces Alaska across the Bering Strait, declared itself autonomous and demanded control over its reindeer and fish resources. Commenting on the rash of separatist activity, an adviser to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev remarked, "It's getting to the point where sooner or later someone is going to declare his apartment an independent state." *

In October 1991, the legislature of the Tatar ASSR, some 600 kilometers east of Moscow, adopted a declaration of independence from Moscow, and in 1992 Tatarstan approved a constitution that described the republic as being on an equal footing with the Russian Federation. And, in what was to become the most troublesome of the ethnic autonomy movements of the 1990s, Chechnya proclaimed its sovereignty in October 1991. *

Among these nominally separatist political units, the transition from words to deeds has been uneven. In some cases, ethnic and nationality groups appear content with the mere form of sovereignty; in others, efforts are under way to give substance to the words of separatism. In republics such as Mordovia, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria, relations with Russia are the defining issue among opposing political groups. Other republics, such as pro-Russian Kalmykia and independence-minded Bashkortostan, are firmly under the control of a single leader. *

The enormous Republic of Sakha in north-central Siberia, rich in diamonds and other minerals, exemplifies the threat that secession poses to the Russian Federation. Sakha has declared that its local laws supersede those imposed from Moscow and that it will retain all revenues generated by the sale and use of its resources. The republic also has accepted substantial direct development investment from Japan and China. Many members of Sakha's Russian majority have sided with the indigenous population in supporting self-government or full independence. Experts believe that such regions as Sakha, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan theoretically have sufficient natural wealth to become viable independent entities. According to estimates, these regions' secession from the Russian Federation would deprive Russia of half of its oil, most of its diamonds, and much of its coal, as well as a substantial portion of such industries as automobile manufacturing. *

Against the backdrop of ethnic and nationality tensions, a tug-of-war developed in the early 1990s over the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia. In March 1992, representatives of all but two of the republics (Chechnya and Tatarstan) and most of the smaller ethnic jurisdictions signed the Federation Treaty, which was an attempt to forestall further separatism and define the respective jurisdictions of central and regional government. The treaty failed to resolve differences in the key areas of taxation and control of natural resources, however. In some cases, self-proclaimed independent entities in Siberia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation have forged links with foreign countries. Commercial and cultural accords between Turkey and Turkic republics such as Bashkortostan and Chuvashia especially worry the central government. *

Gorbachev Policy That Lead to the Break Up of the Soviet Union

Under Gorbachev, in the late 1980s, republic in the Baltics, Caucasus and Central Asia began asserting themselves and passed laws that had precedence over those of the Soviet Union and declared various degrees of sovereignty and independence. Responding to advice from hardliners Gorbachev sent in troops to quell street demonstrations and ethnic violence.

The issue Gorbachev understood least of all was that of the nationalities. Stalin, a Georgian, had been a commissar for nationalities, Khrushchev had built his career suppressing Ukrainian nationalism, and Brezhnev had risen through his work in Ukraine and Moldavia. Gorbachev was a Russian whose political background included little time outside Russia proper. His policies of glasnost and demokratizatsiya , which loosened authoritarian controls over society, facilitated and fueled the airing of national grievances in the republics. As the peoples of the Soviet Union began to assert their respective national characters, they clashed with ethnic minorities within their republics and with Soviet authorities. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1990, Gorbachev's proposal to create an ill-defined federal system that would keep the Soviet Union intact was largely ignored but his plan to reduce the power of the Communist party was accepted. In early 1990, a parliament chose him for the new post of executive president. This change only weakened him further.

After the failed coup attempt in August 1991, Gorbachev acted as if he were oblivious to the changes that had occurred in the preceding three days. As he returned to power, Gorbachev promised to purge conservatives from the CPSU. He resigned as general secretary but remained president of the Soviet Union. The coup's failure brought a series of collapses of all-union institutions. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Through the autumn of 1991, the remaining republic of the Soviet Union declared their independence and in a last ditch effort Gorbachev tried to create a union of independent states. Later Soviet parliament abolished the centralized Soviet state and placed power in three temporary governing bodies. Starting with the Baltic republics, the international community and then the Soviet Union recognized the independence of former Soviet republics.

Soviet Republics Declare Their Independence

By December 1991, all of the republics had declared independence, and negotiations over a new union treaty began anew. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had recognized the independence of the Baltic republics in September. For several months after his return to Moscow, Gorbachev and his aides made futile attempts to restore stability and legitimacy to the central institutions. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In November seven republics agreed to a new union treaty that would form a confederation called the Union of Sovereign States. But Ukraine was unrepresented in that group, and Yeltsin soon withdrew to seek additional advantages for Russia. In the absence of the CPSU, there was no way to keep the Soviet Union together. From Yeltsin's perspective, Russia's participation in another union would be senseless because inevitably Russia would assume responsibility for the increasingly severe economic woes of the other republics. *

On December 8, Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus (which adopted that name in August 1991) and Ukraine met at Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and annulled the 1922 union treaty that had established the Soviet Union. Another signing ceremony was held in Alma-Ata on December 21 to expand the CIS to include the five republics of Central Asia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Georgia did not join until 1993; the three Baltic republics never joined. *

Yeltsin and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

After adopting a degree of sovereignty, The Russian republic had elections in June 1991. Boris Yeltsin won and was sworn as president on July 10, 1991 as Russia's first president. After the failed coup attempt in August 1991, Yeltsin transferred the assets of the Soviet Union to Russia, took control of the central broadcasting company and key economic ministries and agencies. In November he banned the CPSU and the Russian Communist Party. In mid December he kicked the Soviet government out of the Kremlin.

In the late 1980s, Yeltsin's appeals for political reform gained him the enmity of the communist hierarchy, including Gorbachev, but he won the support of a Russian public whose self-expression had been liberated by Gorbachev's own policy of glasnost (literally, public voicing). In that period, the atmosphere of Russia, especially its main cities, Moscow and Leningrad, was one of expectation that significant political changes finally would occur after the sclerotic decades of the Brezhnev regime (1964-82). [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

One of Yeltsin's reason's for letting the Soviet Union break up is that with it gone, there was no one more powerful in Russia than the president of Russia, his job. Many believe Yeltsin had no intention of ruining the Soviet Union and he had no clear picture of what he wanted Russia to be. He was instead motivated by his antipathy of Gorbachev. Mark von Hagen, a historian at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it was a kind of personal hatred that motivated Yeltsin to dismantle the Soviet Union more than any real broad political vision of what should happen next.”

Meeting That Broke Up the Soviet Union

The fate of the Soviet Union was worked out at meeting that began on December 7, 1991 at Belovezskaya Pushcha, a hunting lodge in the Vezha forest near Brest in Belarus, a few miles from the Polish border. There, Yeltsin, and the leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, the leader of the Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, and the other Soviet republic leaders met to discuss the end of the Soviet Union. [Source: David Remnick, New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

Russian journalist Sergei Parkhomenko told the New Yorker, "the idea behind the whole meeting was: You couldn't take Gorbachev out of the country but you could take the country away from him. Originally the idea was well though out. The three countries would declare themselves founding fathers and take advantage of the fact that everyone would to be in a new Commonwealth of Independent states...The reason these three [Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine] declared themselves was that they were already U.N. countries."

A referendum on December 1, in which 90 percent of the Ukrainian voters voted for independence, ended the possibility of a union between Russia and the Ukraine and in the view of many, including Yeltsin, a union of any sorts. Hence, the notion of a commonwealth was raised as an alternative.

At the meeting it was decided that a Commonwealth of Independent States would be created. Shushkevich, the lowest ranking leader at the meeting, was chosen as the one to inform Gorbachev, who reportedly responded to the news of the end of the Soviet Union with the question: "What happens to me?" Legislatures in the successor states subsequently ratified the agreement.

"Everyone was very mysterious about the meeting in Belarus," Stankevich told the New Yorker. "It's my understanding that a lot of it was improvised, but the main purpose was not the destiny of the U.S.S.R but the destiny of Gorbachev...The idea of the declaration came about right there, and it was written on site, and it is the custom to drink." Gorbachev's aid Anatoly Chernyayev told the New Yorker, "All these men wanted their own state. I remember Karimov, of Uzbekistan, always complained about how when an African head of state would come to Moscow he would be greeted with a red carpet and a real Kremlin reception and so on, but when he came...the reception was a yawn. So yes, ego played a role.""

Yeltsin's Drunkenness, Vanity at the Meeting That Broke Up the Soviet Union

At the meeting at Belovezskaya Pushcha Yeltsin reportedly was so drunk that he spent much of the time slumped over at his desk, occasionally raising his head to mumble, "What you say is right," and then nodded off again. When the meeting was over he had to be helped from the room.

One reliable eyewitness told the New Yorker, "Yeltsin was so drunk he fell out of his chair just at the moment that Shushkevich opened the door and let in Gennady Burbulis, Andrei Kozyrev, and the other aides. Everyone began to come into the room and found this spectacular scene of Shuchkevick and Kravchuk dragging this enormous body to the couch. The Russian delegation took it all very calmly. They took him to the next room to let him sleep. Finally, Ktabchik took his chair and assumed the responsibility of chairman." [Source: David Remnick, New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

On the way to another meeting, this one at a dacha outside of Moscow, Yeltsin's limousine wound up behind those of the leaders of the other Soviet republics. "My security people sprang forward in alarm," Yeltsin later wrote, “made an incredible U-turn, digging up the Novo-Ogaryovo lawn in the process, and finally put the car back at the head of the line—Russia first! Off course, boys will be boys. the manager of Novo-Ogaryovo was furious and threatened to fine us for the ruined patch of grass, later, he backed off for some reason."

Gorbachev Resigns, the Soviet Union Breaks Up

Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991 and the Soviet Union officially disbanded the next day with barely a whimper after lasting only 75 years and taking millions of lives to maintain that power. Exactly six years after Gorbachev had appointed Boris Yeltsin to run the Moscow city committee of the party, Gorbachev was stripped of his position and Yeltsin was president of the largest successor state to the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev is given credit for setting the stage for its peaceful break up. The Communist elite is given credit for choosing not to go down fighting. In 1994, Gorbachev said, "The collapse of the Soviet Union was not unavoidable. The worst thing for me is that there is no more Soviet Union.”

Gorbachev told Matlock, "In some abstract sense, it is probably right that I moved too slowly, but I did not have the luxury of living in the abstract. I lived in the harsh world of political reality...Even as it was, when I began to talk of a federation in early 1990, most of the Central Committee was in opposition. I had to fight them all the way. I simply did not have a free hand and should not be judged as if I had."

Matlock says that the Bush administration did not do enough to try and help Gorbachev. Matlock wrote Bush "was uncomfortable with change. Even when it was for the better, he had difficulty recognizing the improvement at first. He always seemed just a step behind—not that so much that he endangered anything vital but enough to miss opportunities Reagan would have seized."

Describing his feeling about the changes he set in motion, Gorbachev told National Geographic in 1997, "It's the immorality I regret the most. Those who led this democratic process led a purge of everything that had been accumulated in this society for decades. They twisted everything in knots. Those who campaigned against privilege now build themselves gigantic palaces. They snatched up property. They have been like pigs at a trough. I am shocked by this. And for Russians, this excess of American advertising—well, it's not all negative but there is so much excess."

Commonwealth of Independent States and Russian Federation

The Minsk Declaration of December 1991 ended the Soviet Union and replaced it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose confederation of independent states with no central authority made up of all former republics expect Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Russia became officially known as the Russian Federation.

The separation of the 15 republics in 1991 gave Russia's about half the population of the Soviet Union. For the first time since the 16th century Russia became a relatively ethnically homogenous country. In the Soviet Union, Russians made up 50 percent of the population, now they made up 83 percent of it.

At the time it became independent, the Russian Federation included nineteen autonomous republics, ten autonomous regions, and one autonomous oblast, each designated for a particular ethnic group. The ethnically Russian population was (and remains) the largest group in all but a handful of the republics and autonomous regions; most of the exceptions, where the local ethnic groups constitute a majority, are located in the North Caucasus. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1992 Moscow began the struggle to preserve the federation by inducing all but two autonomous republics (Chechnya and Tatarstan) to sign the Federation Treaty defining the respective areas of jurisdiction of the national and regional governments. The treaty included definitions of sovereignty over natural resources and other economic assets. Since the treaty was signed, Moscow's hegemony has been threatened in several other instances, the most notable being the Republic of Chechnya's fulfillment of its 1991 declaration of independence by a coup against the republic's Russian-controlled government in 1993. Chechnya's defiance and the hapless military response that Russia initiated against the republic in 1994 encouraged other regions to seek more power. In most cases, including oil-rich Tatarstan and diamond-rich Sakha (Yakutia), the Yeltsin government has signed compromise bilateral treaties assuaging local demands, which are mostly economic. Some of Russia's fifty-five lesser jurisdictions--the six territories and the forty-nine oblasts--have made similar demands. Because the federal government has not been able to enforce its policies on a number of issues, the jurisdictions have taken varying approaches to economic and political reform, creating a patchwork effect that has inhibited interregional cooperation.*

Reasons for the Collapse of the Soviet Union

It is still not entirely clear what brought about the demise of the Soviet Union. Some credit H-bomb developer Edward Teller who convinced Reagan to pursue the Star Wars program. Other credit the Beatles, who nurtured social changes that left communism hollow and ripe for collapse. Reagan himself was described by The Economist as “The Man Who Beat Communism.” But ultimately he primarily continued policies that had been followed for decades by other American leaders. Reagan said “Gorbachev deserves most of the credit, as the leader of this country.”

Factors that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union included an inefficient, out-of-touch Soviet economy, outdated ideology, intellectual and moral decadence, foreign and military pressure and the opening of the flood gates by Gorbachev by allowing a little freedom.

Many historians trace the origins of Communism's downfall to the 1970s and 80s, when cynicism and corruption ran high among officials in the Soviet government. Party officials funneled billions of dollars into private accounts outside the country and then taped into those funds to start business ventures in the New Russia. Some Russian insiders say that Communism collapsed more as a result of petty infighting and power plays than a triumph of one ideology over another.

The climax of events was brought about the relaxing of Soviet control in eastern Europe, which led to the collapse of Communism there and the inevitability that the same would happen in the Soviet Union. "The union lasted only as long as did, mainly out of party discipline" Chernyayev told The New Yorker, "by Moscow putting ethnic Russians in charge all over, putting them in key positions in the military and the K.G.B. and the Party. And it stayed together through force or threat of force. But when the republic saw what happened in Eastern Europe, when they saw that Gorbachev would venture not to use force on any scale, the disintegration process grew quicker."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

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