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.*

Sentiments About the Break-up of the Soviet Union

Five years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, two of three Russians asked said they thought the break-up did more harm than good. In a poll in 2001, 74 percent of Russians said they regret the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many ordinary Russians are glad to watch what they want to watch on television and are thankful they can speak their mind without being sent to prison but they are also worried about the effects of instability and crime and worry about the futures of their children and grandchildren.

A 72-year-old school administrator named Anna Zosimova told Time magazine in 1995: "The breakup of the Soviet Union was the right thing to do. But in trying to regain our rights, we are discovering that we have no rights left. We are losing the essential benefits of a socialist society—the right to work, the right to a free education, the right to housing." She said “her children would be able to adapt to the new system but her generation was lost. We're the discarded generation."

Many Russians were deeply shocked when they learned that everything they had been told all those years under Soviet rule was a big lie. Dusko Doder wrote in in National Geographic: "How would it feel to realize that virtually everything you believed in was false, that all the old faiths were suddenly wrong?"

Changes After The Break Up of the Soviet Union

Russia lost a third of the Soviet Union's land and half of its 280 million people. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, four million Russians returned to their homeland from the former republics. The new Russian government was not taken over by reformers, intellectuals and dissidents as was in the case in, say, the Czech Republic, rather it was commandeered by ex-Communists and "pragmatists" (entrepreneurs intent on grabbing control of state assets). A 1997 survey revealed that 78 percent of the political leaders and 61 percent of the economic leaders in Russia emerged from the Communist party elite. In some cases, the bureaucracy which had control of goods, merged with the criminal class, who knew how to get money for these goods.

In June 1991 Leningrad became St. Petersburg. It was the third name change the city had gone through in 77 years. When it was founded in 1703 Peter the Great named it St. Petersburg after his patron saint. During World I the city was striped of its Germanic "burg" and replaced with the Russian sounding Petrograd. After the founder of the Soviet state died in 1924, the city was renamed again to Leningrad to honor him.

At least a dozen other cities changed their name. Gorky, named after a Marxist writer, returned to Nizhniy Novgorod. Andropov became Rybinsk and Sverdlock, named after an executioner of the royal family, was rechristened "Ekaterinburg," for Catherine the Great. [National Geographic Geographica, November 1991].

Red Square has changed quite a bit after the fall of communism. Hare Krishnas with shaved heads and saffron robes beat their drums where goose stepping soldiers and tanks used to parade during the May Day celebrations. Empty cans and newspapers litter the cobblestones that were once spotless. Banners advertising island vacations have replaced the huge portraits of Marx and Lenin. [Source: Dusko Doder, National Geographic, October 1992]

Impact of the Break-Up of the Soviet Union

As Jonathan Steele has observed, ‘the Communist system was not democratic, but it was an effective administrative machine, which worked and where the “estates” … had a framework for presenting their interests’. Gorbachev had broken this machine, and, during 1990–91, it was up to political elites in every republic to put something new in its place. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ><]

The demise of the Soviet Union also ended much of the threat of military confrontation between Russia and the West that had characterized the Cold War. Already in the mid-1980s, however, Soviet military doctrine had begun shifting to a more defensive posture in recognition of the country's economic limitations, even as Soviet occupation of the Warsaw Pact nations and of Afghanistan continued. Beginning in 1988, the Soviet military establishment suffered a series of major blows. The military operation in Afghanistan, which had little success against fervid guerrilla forces, was declared a failure in 1988, and Soviet forces withdrew after nearly ten years of combat. In 1989 the Warsaw Pact alliance began to disintegrate as all the East European member nations rejected their communist governments; the alliance dissolved in 1991, and by 1994 all Russian forces had left Eastern Europe. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Russia has experimented cautiously with Western-style jurisprudence and penal reform. In the mid-1990s, jury trials were introduced in some regions, and the rights of accused persons and prison inmates were stipulated more concretely. Nevertheless, major elements of the Soviet system remain in the jurisprudence of the Russian Federation. For example, procurators (public prosecutors) still have both investigative and prosecutorial functions, and expansion of the jury system has met substantial resistance among entrenched Soviet-era judges and procurators. In addition, prison conditions have deteriorated substantially because Russia's crime wave has increased the prison population but funding is not available for new facilities. *

Compounding Russia's other problems are deteriorating environmental conditions, the extent of which became clear only gradually during the 1990s. Among the most serious hazards in Russia are pollution of ground water and bodies of water in most of European Russia; air pollution from the venting of unprocessed industrial by-products; large concentrations of waste chemicals from industry and agriculture; and actual and potential radiological pollution from civilian and military nuclear installations.*

Impact of the Soviet Union Break-Up on the Soviet Military

The military failure in Chechnya was the most obvious indication of a grave overall decline in post-Soviet Russia's military establishment. The Soviet military earned society's gratitude by its performance in the Great Patriotic War (as World War II is commonly called in Russia), a costly but unified and heroic defense of the homeland against invading Nazi armies. In the postwar era, the Soviet military maintained its positive image and budgetary support in good part because of incessant government propaganda about the need to defend the country against the capitalist West. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The end of the Soviet Union itself, required withdrawal of troops stationed in the other fourteen republics; in this process, much equipment and weaponry was left behind and claimed by the newly independent states. The successive return of large numbers of troops into Russia after each of these three events caused an enormous logistical problem for the military; furthermore, the morale of the institution was seriously eroded by withdrawals of unprecedented magnitude from regions assumed to be permanent parts of the Soviet domain. At the same time, serious examples of corruption were exposed at the highest command levels of the armed forces. *

In 1992 the Russian Federation inherited the bulk of the Soviet Union's armed forces as well as all of their problems. In the early 1990s, there were new ramifications of the morale and command problems that had surfaced earlier. In a new social environment of permissiveness and diversification, increasing numbers of Russia's youth rejected military service as a patriotic duty, many top individuals in the junior officer corps resigned because of poor pay and housing, and the incidence of crime increased significantly. At the same time, corruption and politicization destroyed the unity that had characterized the senior officer corps during the Soviet era. These changes all occurred as the need for a new set of national security guidelines became increasingly evident. Within a few years, both the geopolitical and the budgetary conditions of Russia's military had changed dramatically without appropriate adjustments in military doctrine. Although the size of the military was reduced between 1992 and 1996 from about 2.8 million personnel to about 1.5 million, reductions were disproportionately high in the enlisted ranks, leaving a bloated officer corps. In 1996 both the military doctrine (which was updated fragmentarily in 1993) and military equipment still reflected the Soviet-era priority of large-scale mechanized land war and/or nuclear war to be fought on the continent of Europe.*

In 1996 elements of a new military doctrine appeared, but fundamental conflict remained between reformers and hard-liners in the policy-making establishment. The strong positions taken by the opposing sides suggested that enacting a comprehensive new doctrine would involve a long struggle. Despite the diminished capability of Russia's economy to support the military, hard-liners insisted that major reductions would damage national security. As budgetary support of routine military readiness has shrunk drastically in the mid-1990s, calls for large-scale reform have intensified. Among the main reform elements cited are downsizing the armed forces, shifting their emphasis to mobile warfare, eliminating much of the corrupt and flabby corps of senior officers, relying more heavily on contract volunteers rather than conscripts, and discarding the concept of military parity with the United States. In July 1996, the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament) began hearings on reform measures. In December the Duma recommended the formation of a federal department to set military reform guidelines through 2005, together with a 25 percent increase in the military budget.*

Deterioration of the Russian Military After the Break Up of Soviet Union

The condition of the military forces remains an important part of Russia's national self-image. The Chechnya conflict, the first post-Soviet test of those forces, revealed shocking insufficiencies even in elite units. In mid-1996 the dismissal of Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev, upon whom the most blame for Chechnya had been heaped, produced no visible improvement. In August 1996, the sudden loss of the Chechen capital of Groznyy, from which Russian forces had driven the Chechen guerrillas in 1995, forced the withdrawal of Russian forces under the terms of the cease-fire that followed. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the second half of 1996, ultimate responsibility for military policy remained balanced uncertainly between civilian and military authorities, as it was when Grachev was minister of defense. In November 1996, a call for a new military doctrine by Yeltsin's civilian Defense Council met stiff resistance from the Ministry of Defense.*

Grachev's successor, Igor' Rodionov, inherited a force with plummeting morale, gravely deteriorating matériel support, minimal training, and no clear doctrine. In the second draft call of 1996, an estimated 37,000 men out of a target number of 215,000 conscripts failed to report. This was the largest recorded episode of draft dodging since the establishment of the Soviet Union. The budget passed in January 1997 added only token amounts to the 1996 allotment of US$19 billion. The budget provided for only about 38 percent of the Ministry of Defense's budget request and made no allowance for inflation. The 1997 budget package caused Rodionov to curse the Ministry of Finance as Grachev had, intensifying tensions among the "power ministries" of the Government (cabinet). Meanwhile, in the last months of 1996 the pay arrears of the Ministry of Defense mounted steadily, and there were rumors that military strike committees had been formed. Already in August, an estimated US$2.8 billion was owed to Russia's military personnel. Rodionov also repeated Grachev's complaint that military units of the internal security agencies received funding that should go to the Ministry of Defense. The exact troop levels of those units are unknown, but in the second half of 1996 some estimates exceeded 1 million.*

Rodionov predicted that the grandiose plans of Yeltsin and others for military restructuring and modernization would be frustrated without significant expenditures in the transition period. The plans included large-scale force reduction, a new military doctrine matching Russia's less stressful post-Cold-War geopolitical position, and possibly an all-volunteer force. In January 1997, the Ministry of Defense submitted a reform plan whose first step was increased funding. The Defense Council submitted a rival, long-term plan extending beyond 2005 and calling for 30 percent reductions in defense and non-defense troop levels as the first reform step, citing the country's low financial resources. The conflicting emphasis of the two plans exacerbated the existing disagreements in the defense establishment, specifically between Rodionov and Defense Council chief Yuriy Baturin, over the direction of reform.*

Meanwhile, accusations of corruption and incompetence in the military establishment continued, with Duma Defense Committee chairman Lev Rokhlin, a retired general, levying the most serious charges. Those charges combined with the military's abject failure in Chechnya to further erode the authority of the Ministry of Defense under Rodionov. In December 1996, Yeltsin forced Rodionov to resign his commission in order to move the ministry toward civilian rather than military control.*

KGB After the Break Up of Soviet Union

The agencies of internal security have fared better than the military in the post-Soviet era. Throughout the Soviet period, these agencies were among the most firmly entrenched and respected national institutions. A succession of internal security agencies, ending with the Committee for State Security (Komitet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti--KGB), struck fear in the Soviet population by thoroughly penetrating all of society and launching periodic purges (the most violent of which occurred in the 1930s) against elements of society deemed harmful to the socialist state. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In the post-Soviet era, internal security agencies generally have received more solid support from the Yeltsin government than the armed forces, although specific agencies have been favored. The Federal Security Service (FSB), the most direct successor to the KGB, has a broad mandate for intelligence gathering inside Russia and abroad when national security is threatened, and no concrete governmental oversight is prescribed in legislation. Human rights advocates in Russia and elsewhere, sensitive to the precedent of unbridled KGB power, have criticized the direct presidential control of internal security agencies such as the FSB, and human rights violations have been documented. Armed units of the FSB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) were heavily involved in the Chechnya campaign.*

Russia's still-powerful internal security agencies also were hit by scandal in 1996 when the former financial head of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) was imprisoned by its sister agency, the FSB, for embezzling large sums from the FAPSI budget. Although the affair received no official acknowledgment, the independent press reported a major power struggle between powerful successor agencies of the KGB. Such a scenario would continue a series of rearrangements of the former KGB agencies that have occurred in the 1990s because of political power struggles rather than security considerations.*

Rampant, well-publicized corruption in the security agencies has eroded public confidence in all of Russian law enforcement. In July 1996, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) reported that 1,400 employees of the regular police (militia) had been arrested in 1995 for various types of criminal activity, including participation in crimes by criminal organizations of the mafiya. That report was the result of the MVD's Clean Hands Campaign, a highly publicized public-confidence program begun in 1995 to purge law enforcement agencies of dishonest members. But, according to most accounts, the 1995 arrests removed only a very small part of Russia's internal security corruption.*

Political Reform the Break Up of Soviet Union

The democratization of the political system has followed an equally bumpy path in Russia's first post-Soviet years. As with economic reform, some elements of political reform appeared under Gorbachev in the late 1980s. The policy of glasnost allowed public discussion of hitherto taboo subjects, including the wisdom of government economic policy in a time of serious economic decline. As the Soviet Union's regional jurisdictions clamored for various degrees of sovereignty, Boris Yeltsin led Russia's challenge to Soviet authority in a number of areas. In 1991 Russians elected Yeltsin president of their republic in a free election; the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 made Yeltsin the most powerful man in Russia, which shortly became an independent state. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

From the very beginning, Yeltsin's attempts to promulgate reform programs from the office of the presidency encountered stiff opposition from antireform factions in the legislative branch. Beginning in 1994, that opposition was centered in the State Duma. After Yeltsin used military force to overcome an open rebellion against his dismissal of the parliament in October 1993, he achieved passage of a new constitution that prescribed a strong executive and reduced the powers of the legislative branch. However, the first two legislative elections, in 1993 and 1995, seated large numbers of deputies from the KPRF, the Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia (Liberal'no-demokraticheskaya partiya Rossii--LDPR), and other nationalist and antireform groups. Under worsening economic conditions, a seemingly unstoppable crime wave, and a highly unpopular war in Chechnya, Yeltsin's popularity plummeted in 1995 and early 1996. His response was a contradictory series of personnel and agency shifts at top government levels, together with presidential decrees that often reversed the movement toward democratic governance. By early 1996, virtually all reformist officials had been removed from positions of influence, and a group of hard-liners, led by presidential security chief Aleksandr Korzhakov, Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets, and Minister of Internal Affairs Anatoliy Kulikov, seemingly had the president's ear.*

By that time, Yeltsin's authoritarian use of executive power had combined with the Chechnya imbroglio to lose him the support of the democratic and reformist factions that had been active promoters of early reform policies. As he engaged in an uphill presidential campaign, Yeltsin made lavish promises of government aid to unemployed workers and state enterprises, and allegations of corruption in the latest phase of the privatization program forced him to remain silent about that aspect of his administration.*

Legacy of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union left a legacy of economic inefficiency and deterioration to the fifteen constituent republics after its breakup in December 1991. Arguably, the shortcomings of the Gorbachev reforms had contributed to the economic decline and eventual destruction of the Soviet Union, leaving Russia and the other successor states to pick up the pieces and to try to mold modern, market-driven economies. At the same time, the Gorbachev programs did start Russia on the precarious road to full-scale economic reform. Perestroika broke Soviet taboos against private ownership of some types of business, foreign investment in the Soviet Union, foreign trade, and decentralized economic decision making, all of which made it virtually impossible for later policy makers to turn back the clock. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Gorbachev is credited with starting the process which ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and leading the break from Communism. Yeltsin is credited with finishing the job and ushering in era of democracy in which he was not afraid to resort to violence and dictatorial decrees to hold in to it. Yeltsin is also credited with introducing market economics and the principals for a civil society and parliamentary politics but criticized for not doing as much as he could with them. Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin is lionized more in the West for his achievements than in his own country.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer Anne Applebaum wrote in the Washington Post: that the Soviet Union may be remembered like the Etruscans as “a peculiar, lost civilization, one whose bizarre morality and strange aesthetics will seem increasingly alien with time, not only to Westerners but also to a younger generation of Russians...with its layers of secrecy, propaganda, absurdity and cruelty, will become impossible to understand.”

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

Last updated May 2016

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