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Dissolution of the Soviet Union
Part of the Cold War and the Revolutions of 1989
The Soviet flag being lowered from the Kremlin and replaced with the flag of Russia on December 25, 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev announced his resignation
DateNovember 16, 1988 – December 26, 1991 (1988-11-16 – 1991-12-26)
(3 years, 1 month, and 10 days)
Location USSR CIS:
Other CIS member republics:
Non-CIS member republics:
Unrecognized breakaway states:

The dissolution of the Soviet Union[h] (1988–1991) was the process of internal political, economical and ethnical disintegration within the USSR as an untoward result of General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's effort of political and economic reform of the Soviet authoritarian system and declining planned economy, which resulted in the end of its existence as a sovereign state. After a 1991 military coup attempt in Moscow led to a complete disintegration of the country, Gorbachev had to first retire as leader of the Communist Party since it practically ceased to work, then to resign his office as president and what was left of the parliament to formally acknowledge the Union's collapse as a fait accompli.

The process began with growing unrest in the Union's various constituent national republics developing into an incessant political and legislative conflict between them and the central government. Estonia was the first Soviet republic to declare state sovereignty inside the Union in 1988. Lithuania was the first republic to officially break away from the USSR and restore independence in the Act of March 11, 1990 (not counting the autonomy of Nakhchivan, which had declared independence from both the USSR and the Azerbaijan SSR a few weeks earlier, later rejoining Azerbaijan).

The failure of the coup, when the KGB and military elites tried to overthrow Gorbachev and stop the failing reforms, led to most republics proclaiming independence in the following days and months. The secession of the Baltic states was recognized in September 1991. The Belovezha Accords were arbitrarily signed on December 8 by President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian SFSR, President Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Chairman Shushkevich of Belarus, recognising each other's independence and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) instead of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan was the last nation to leave the Union, proclaiming independence on December 16. All the republics, with the exception of Georgia and the Baltics, joined the CIS on December 21, signing the Alma-Ata Protocol.[1]

On December 25, Gorbachev resigned and turned over his presidential powers—including control of the nuclear launch codes—to Yeltsin, now president of the Russian Federation. That evening at 7:32 p.m., the Soviet red banner was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the Russian tricolour flag.[1] The following day, the Declaration 142-Н of the Supreme Soviet's upper chamber, the Soviet of the Republics, recognised self-governing independence for the former Soviet republics, formally dissolving the Union.[2][3] Both the Revolutions of 1989 in the Eastern Bloc and the dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, several of the former Soviet republics have retained close links with Russia and formed multilateral organizations such as CSTO, the CIS, the Eurasian Economic Community, the Union State, the Eurasian Customs Union, and the Eurasian Economic Union, for economic and military cooperation. On the other hand, the Baltic states and many of the former Eastern Bloc states became part of the European Union and joined NATO, while some of the other former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have been publicly expressing interest in going the same path since the 1990s.


1985: Gorbachev elected

See also: Glasnost and Perestroika

Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo on March 11, 1985, just over four hours after predecessor Konstantin Chernenko's death at age 73.[4] Gorbachev, aged 54, was the youngest member of the Politburo. His initial goal as general secretary was to revive the stagnating Soviet economy, and he realized that doing so would require reforming underlying political and social structures.[5] The reforms began with personnel changes of senior Brezhnev-era officials who would impede political and economic change.[6] On April 23, 1985, Gorbachev brought two protégés, Yegor Ligachev and Nikolai Ryzhkov, into the Politburo as full members. He kept the "power" ministries happy by promoting KGB Head Viktor Chebrikov from candidate to full member and appointing Minister of Defence Marshal Sergei Sokolov as a Politburo candidate.

The first exhibition on the crimes of Stalinism, called "Week of Conscience," was held in Moscow on November 19, 1988
The first exhibition on the crimes of Stalinism, called "Week of Conscience," was held in Moscow on November 19, 1988

This liberalization, however, fostered nationalist movements and ethnic disputes within the Soviet Union.[7] It also led indirectly to the revolutions of 1989, in which Soviet-imposed socialist regimes of the Warsaw Pact were toppled peacefully (with the notable exception of Romania),[8] which in turn 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 (CPSU) in 1989 introduced limited competitive elections to a new central legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies[9] (although the ban on other political parties was not lifted until 1990).[10]

On July 1, 1985, Gorbachev sidelined his main rival by removing Grigory Romanov from the Politburo and brought Boris Yeltsin into the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat. On December 23, 1985, Gorbachev appointed Yeltsin First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party replacing Viktor Grishin.

1986: Sakharov returns

Gorbachev continued to press for greater liberalisation. On December 23, 1986, the most prominent Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov, returned to Moscow shortly after receiving a personal telephone call from Gorbachev telling him that after almost seven years his internal exile for defying the authorities was over.[11]

1987: one-party democracy

At the January 28–30, 1987, Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev suggested a new policy of demokratizatsiya throughout Soviet society. He proposed that future Communist Party elections should offer a choice between multiple candidates, elected by secret ballot. However, the CPSU delegates at the Plenum watered down Gorbachev's proposal, and democratic choice within the Communist Party was never significantly implemented.

Gorbachev also radically expanded the scope of Glasnost, stating that no subject was off-limits for open discussion in the media.

On February 7, 1987, dozens of political prisoners were freed in the first group release since the Khrushchev Thaw in the mid-1950s.[12]

On September 10, 1987, Boris Yeltsin wrote a letter of resignation to Gorbachev.[13] At the October 27, 1987, plenary meeting of the Central Committee, Yeltsin, frustrated that Gorbachev had not addressed any of the issues outlined in his resignation letter, criticized the slow pace of reform and servility to the general secretary.[14] In his reply, Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of "political immaturity" and "absolute irresponsibility." Nevertheless, news of Yeltsin's insubordination and "secret speech" spread, and soon samizdat versions began to circulate. This marked the beginning of Yeltsin's rebranding as a rebel and rise in popularity as an anti-establishment figure. The following four years of political struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev played a large role in the dissolution of the USSR.[15] On November 11, 1987, Yeltsin was fired from the post of First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party.

Protest activity

Environmental concerns over the Metsamor nuclear power plant drove initial demonstrations in Yerevan.
Environmental concerns over the Metsamor nuclear power plant drove initial demonstrations in Yerevan.
Figure of Liberty on the Freedom Monument in Riga, focus of the 1986 Latvian demonstrations
Figure of Liberty on the Freedom Monument in Riga, focus of the 1986 Latvian demonstrations

In the years leading up to the dissolution, various protests and resistance movements occurred or took hold throughout the USSR which variously were put down or tolerated.

The CTAG (Latvian: Cilvēktiesību aizstāvības grupa, lit.'Human Rights Defense Group') Helsinki-86 was founded in July 1986 in the Latvian port town of Liepāja. Helsinki-86 was the first openly anti-Communist organization in the U.S.S.R., and the first openly organized opposition to the Soviet regime, setting an example for other ethnic minorities' pro-independence movements.[16]

On December 26, 1986, 300 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.[17]

The Jeltoqsan ('December') of 1986 were riots in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, sparked by Gorbachev's dismissal of Dinmukhamed Kunaev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and an ethnic Kazakh, who was replaced with Gennady Kolbin, an outsider from the Russian SFSR.[18] Demonstrations started in the morning of December 17, 1986, with 200 to 300 students in front of the Central Committee building on Brezhnev Square. On the next day, December 18, protests turned into civil unrest as clashes between troops, volunteers, militia units, and Kazakh students turned into a wide-scale confrontation. The clashes could only be controlled on the third day.

On May 6, 1987, Pamyat, a Russian nationalist group, held an unsanctioned demonstration in Moscow. The authorities did not break up the demonstration and even kept traffic out of the demonstrators' way while they marched to an impromptu meeting with Boris Yeltsin.[19]

On July 25, 1987, 300 Crimean Tatars staged a noisy demonstration near the Kremlin Wall for several hours, calling for the right to return to their homeland, from which they were deported in 1944; police and soldiers looked on.[20]

On August 23, 1987, the 48th anniversary of the secret protocols of the 1939 Molotov Pact, thousands of demonstrators marked the occasion in the three Baltic capitals to sing independence songs and attend speeches commemorating Stalin's victims. The gatherings were sharply denounced in the official press and closely watched by the police but were not interrupted.[21]

On June 14, 1987, about 5,000 people gathered again at Freedom Monument in Riga, and laid flowers to commemorate the anniversary of Stalin's mass deportation of Latvians in 1941. The authorities did not crack down on demonstrators, which encouraged more and larger demonstrations throughout the Baltic States. On November 18, 1987, hundreds of police and civilian militiamen cordoned off the central square to prevent any demonstration at Freedom Monument, but thousands lined the streets of Riga in silent protest regardless.[22]

On October 17, 1987, about 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.[23] The following day 1,000 Armenians participated in another demonstration calling for Armenian national rights in Karabagh and the annexation of Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia. The police tried to physically prevent the march and after a few incidents, dispersed the demonstrators.[23]



Moscow loses control

Main article: Parade of sovereignties

In 1988, Gorbachev started to lose control of two regions of the Soviet Union, as the Baltic republics were now leaning towards independence, and the Caucasus descended into violence and civil war.

On July 1, 1988, the fourth and last day of a 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. Frustrated by the old guard's resistance, Gorbachev embarked on a set of constitutional changes to attempt separation of party and state, thereby isolating his conservative Party opponents. Detailed proposals for the new Congress of People's Deputies were published on October 2, 1988,[24] and to enable the creation of the new legislature. The Supreme Soviet, during its November 29 – December 1, 1988, session, implemented amendments to the 1977 Soviet Constitution, enacted a law on electoral reform, and set the date of the election for March 26, 1989.[25]

On November 29, 1988, the Soviet Union ceased to jam all foreign radio stations, allowing Soviet citizens – for the first time since a brief period in the 1960s – to have unrestricted access to news sources beyond Communist Party control.[26]

Baltic republics

In 1986 and 1987, Latvia had been in the vanguard of the Baltic states in pressing for reform. In 1988 Estonia took over the lead role with the foundation of the Soviet Union's first popular front and starting to influence state policy.

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 comparatively liberal Vaino Väljas.[27] In late June 1988, Väljas bowed to pressure from the Estonian Popular Front and legalized the flying of the old blue-black-white flag of Estonia, and agreed to a new state language law that made Estonian the official language of the Republic.[17]

On October 2, the Popular Front formally launched its political platform at a two-day congress. Väljas attended, gambling that the front could help Estonia become a model of economic and political revival, while moderating separatist and other radical tendencies.[28] On November 16, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR adopted a declaration of national sovereignty under which Estonian laws would take precedence over those of the Soviet Union.[29] Estonia's parliament also laid claim to the republic's natural resources including land, inland waters, forests, mineral deposits, and to the means of industrial production, agriculture, construction, state banks, transportation, and municipal services within the territory of Estonia's borders.[30] At the same time the Estonian Citizens' Committees started registration of citizens of the Republic of Estonia to carry out the elections of the Congress of Estonia.

Anti-Soviet rally in Vingis Park of about 250,000 people. Sąjūdis was a movement which led to the restoration of an Independent State of Lithuania.
Anti-Soviet rally in Vingis Park of about 250,000 people. Sąjūdis was a movement which led to the restoration of an Independent State of Lithuania.

The Latvian Popular Front was founded in June 1988. On October 4, Gorbachev replaced Boris 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 flying the former carmine red-and-white flag of independent Latvia, and on October 6 he passed a law making Latvian the country's official language.[17]

The Popular Front of Lithuania, called Sąjūdis ("Movement"), 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 historic yellow-green-red flag of independent Lithuania, and in November 1988 passed a law making Lithuanian the country's official language and the former national anthem Tautiška giesmė was later reinstated.[17]

Rebellion in the Caucasus

On February 20, 1988, after a week of growing demonstrations in Stepanakert, capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (the Armenian majority area within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic), the Regional Soviet voted to secede and join with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia.[31] This local vote in a small, remote part of the Soviet Union made headlines around the world; it was an unprecedented defiance of republican and national authorities. On February 22, 1988, in what became known as the "Askeran clash", thousands of Azerbaijanis marched towards Nagorno-Karabakh, demanding information about rumors of an Azerbaijani having been killed in Stepanakert. They were informed that no such incident had occurred, but refused to believe it. Dissatisfied with what they were told, thousands began marching toward Nagorno-Karabakh, killing 50.[32][33] Karabakh authorities mobilised over a thousand police to stop the march, with the resulting clashes leaving two Azerbaijanis dead. These deaths, announced on state radio, led to the Sumgait Pogrom. Between February 26 and March 1, the city of Sumgait (Azerbaijan) saw violent anti-Armenian rioting during which at least 32 people were killed.[34] The authorities totally lost control and occupied the city with paratroopers and tanks; nearly all of the 14,000 Armenian residents of Sumgait fled.[35]

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 to September 1988, a group of Azerbaijani intellectuals began working for a new organization called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, loosely based on the Estonian Popular Front.[36] On September 17, when gun battles broke out between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis near Stepanakert, two soldiers were killed and more than two dozen injured.[37] This led to almost tit-for-tat ethnic polarization in Nagorno-Karabakh's two main towns: the Azerbaijani minority was expelled from Stepanakert, and the Armenian minority was expelled from Shusha.[38] On November 17, 1988, in response to the exodus of tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, a series of mass demonstrations began in Baku's Lenin Square, lasting 18 days and attracting half a million demonstrators. On December 5, 1988, the Soviet militia moved in, cleared the square by force, and imposed a curfew that lasted ten months.[39]

The rebellion of fellow Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had an immediate effect in Armenia itself. Daily demonstrations, which began in the Armenian capital Yerevan on February 18, initially attracted few people, but each day the Nagorno-Karabakh issue became increasingly prominent and numbers swelled. On February 20, a 30,000-strong crowd demonstrated in the Theater 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 1 million demonstrators—more than a quarter of Armenia's population.[40] This was the first of the large, peaceful public demonstrations that would become a feature of communism's overthrow in Prague, Berlin, and, ultimately, Moscow. Leading Armenian intellectuals and nationalists, including future first president of independent Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian, formed the eleven-member Karabakh Committee to lead and organize the new movement.

On the same day, when Gorbachev replaced Baghirov by Vezirov as First Secretary of Azerbaijan Communist party, he also replaced Karen Demirchian 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, allowed Armenians to unfurl the red-blue-orange First Armenian Republic flag for the first time in almost 70 years.[41] On June 15, 1988, the Armenian Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution formally approving the idea of Nagorno-Karabakh joining Armenia.[42] Armenia, formerly one of the most loyal Republics, had suddenly turned into the leading rebel republic. On July 5, 1988, when a contingent of troops was sent in to remove demonstrators by force from Yerevan's Zvartnots International Airport, shots were fired and one student protester was killed.[43] In September, further large demonstrations in Yerevan led to the deployment of armored vehicles.[44] In the autumn of 1988 almost all of the 200,000 Azerbaijani minority in Armenia was expelled by Armenian nationalists, with over 100 killed in the process[45] – this, after the Sumgait pogrom earlier that year carried out by Azerbaijanis against ethnic Armenians and subsequent expulsion of all Armenians from Azerbaijan. On November 25, 1988, a military commandant took control of Yerevan as the Soviet government moved to prevent further ethnic violence.[46]

On December 7, 1988, the Spitak earthquake struck, killing an estimated 25,000 to 50,000 people. When Gorbachev rushed back from a visit to the United States, he was so angered with being confronted by protesters calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to be made part of the Armenian Republic during a natural disaster that on December 11, 1988 he ordered the entire Karabakh Committee to be arrested.[47]

In Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia, many demonstrators camped out in front of the republic's legislature in November 1988 calling for Georgia's independence and in support of Estonia's declaration of sovereignty.[48]

Western republics

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Beginning in February 1988, the Democratic Movement of Moldova (formerly Moldavia) organized public meetings, demonstrations, and song festivals, 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 "Alley of Classics [of Literature]"). On January 15, 1988, in a tribute to Mihai Eminescu at his bust on the Aleea Clasicilor, Anatol Şalaru submitted a proposal to continue the meetings. In the public discourse, the movement called for national awakening, freedom of speech, revival of Moldovan traditions, and for attainment of official status for the Romanian language and return to the Latin alphabet. The transition from "movement" (an informal association) to "front" (a formal association) was seen as a natural "upgrade" once a movement gained momentum with the public, and the Soviet authorities no longer dared to crack down on it.

On April 26, 1988, about 500 people participated in a march organized by the Ukrainian Cultural Club on Kyiv's Khreschatyk Street to mark the second anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, carrying placards with slogans like "Openness and Democracy to the End." Between May and June 1988, Ukrainian Catholics in western Ukraine celebrated the Millennium of Christianity in Kyivan Rus in secret by holding services in the forests of Buniv, Kalush, Hoshiv, and Zarvanytsia. On June 5, 1988, as the official celebrations of the Millennium were held in Moscow, the Ukrainian Cultural Club hosted its own observances in Kyiv at the monument to St. Volodymyr the Great, the grand prince of Kyivan Rus.

On June 16, 1988, 6,000 to 8,000 people gathered in Lviv to hear speakers declare no confidence in the local list of delegates to the 19th Communist Party conference, to begin on June 29. On June 21, a rally in Lviv attracted 50,000 people who had heard about a revised delegate list. Authorities attempted to disperse the rally in front of Druzhba Stadium. On July 7, 10,000 to 20,000 people witnessed the launch of the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. On July 17, a group of 10,000 gathered in the village Zarvanytsia for Millennium services celebrated by Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk. The militia tried to disperse attendees, but it turned out to be the largest gathering of Ukrainian Catholics since Stalin outlawed the Church in 1946. On August 4, which came to be known as "Bloody Thursday", local authorities violently suppressed a demonstration organized by the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. Forty-one people were detained, fined, or sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest. On September 1, local authorities violently displaced 5,000 students at a public meeting lacking official permission at Ivan Franko State University.

On November 13, 1988, approximately 10,000 people attended 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 November 14–18, 15 Ukrainian activists were among the 100 human-, national- and religious-rights advocates invited to discuss human rights with Soviet officials and a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission). On December 10, hundreds gathered in Kyiv to observe International Human Rights Day at a rally organized by the Democratic Union. The unauthorized gathering resulted in the detention of local activists.[49]

The Belarusian Popular Front was established in 1988 as a political party and cultural movement for democracy and independence, similar to the Baltic republics' popular fronts. The discovery of mass graves in Kurapaty outside Minsk by historian Zianon Pazniak, the Belarusian Popular Front's first leader, gave additional momentum to the pro-democracy and pro-independence movement in Belarus.[50] It claimed that the NKVD performed secret killings in Kurapaty.[51] Initially the Front had significant visibility because its numerous public actions almost always ended in clashes with the police and the KGB.


Moscow: limited democratization

Spring 1989 saw the people of the Soviet Union exercising a democratic choice, albeit limited, for the first time since 1917,[disputed ] when they elected the new Congress of People's Deputies. Just as important was the uncensored live TV coverage of the legislature's deliberations, where people witnessed the previously feared Communist leadership being questioned and held accountable. This example fueled a limited experiment with democracy in Poland, which quickly led to the toppling of the Communist government in Warsaw that summer – which in turn sparked uprisings that overthrew governments in the other five Warsaw Pact countries before the end of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell.

This was also the year that CNN became the first non-Soviet broadcaster allowed to beam its TV news programs to Moscow. Officially, CNN was available only to foreign guests in the Savoy Hotel, but Muscovites quickly learned how to pick up signals on their home televisions. That had a major impact on how Soviets saw events in their country, and made censorship almost impossible.[52]

Andrei Sakharov, formerly exiled to Gorky, was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in March 1989.
Andrei Sakharov, formerly exiled to Gorky, was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies in March 1989.

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

In the two weeks prior to the 1,500 district 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 Unions, 75 to the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol), 75 to the Committee of Soviet Women, 75 to the War and Labour Veterans' Organization, and 325 to other organizations such as the Academy of Sciences. The selection process was done in April.

In the March 26 general elections, voter participation was an impressive 89.8%, and 1,958 (including 1,225 district seats) of the 2,250 CPD seats were filled. In district races, run-off elections were held in 76 constituencies on April 2 and 9 and fresh elections were organized on April 14 and 20 to May 23,[53] in the 199 remaining constituencies where the required absolute majority was not attained.[25] While most CPSU-endorsed candidates were elected, more than 300 lost to independent candidates such as Yeltsin, physicist Andrei Sakharov and lawyer Anatoly Sobchak.

In the first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies, from May 25 to June 9, hardliners retained control but reformers used the legislature as a platform for debate and criticism – which was broadcast live and uncensored. This transfixed the population; nothing like this freewheeling debate had ever been witnessed in the U.S.S.R. On May 29, Yeltsin managed to secure a seat on the Supreme Soviet,[54] and in the summer he formed the first opposition, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group, composed of Russian nationalists and liberals. Composing the final legislative group in the Soviet Union, those elected in 1989 played a vital part in reforms and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union during the next two years.

On May 30, 1989, Gorbachev proposed that local elections across the Union, scheduled for November 1989, be postponed until early 1990 because there were still no laws governing the conduct of such elections. This was seen by some as a concession to local Party officials, who feared they would be swept from power in a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.[55]

On October 25, 1989, the Supreme Soviet voted to eliminate special seats for the Communist Party and other official organizations in union-level and republic-level elections, responding to sharp popular criticism that such reserved slots were undemocratic. After vigorous debate, the 542-member Supreme Soviet passed the measure 254-85 (with 36 abstentions). The decision required a constitutional amendment, ratified by the full congress, which met December 12–25. It also passed measures that would allow direct elections for presidents of each of the 15 constituent republics. Gorbachev strongly opposed such a move during debate but was defeated.

The vote expanded the power of republics in local elections, enabling them to decide for themselves how to organize voting. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia had already proposed laws for direct presidential elections. Local elections in all the republics had already been scheduled to take place between December and March 1990.[56]

Main article: Revolutions of 1989

The Eastern Bloc

The six Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, while nominally independent, were widely recognized as the Soviet satellite states. All had been occupied by the Soviet Red Army in 1945, had Soviet-style socialist states imposed upon them, and had very restricted freedom of action in either domestic or international affairs. Any moves towards real independence were suppressed by military force – in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. Gorbachev abandoned the oppressive and expensive Brezhnev Doctrine, which mandated intervention in the Warsaw Pact states, in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of allies – jokingly termed the Sinatra Doctrine in a reference to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way". Poland was the first republic to democratize following the enactment of the April Novelization, as agreed upon following the Polish Round Table Agreement talks from February to April between the government and the Solidarity trade union, and soon the Pact began to dissolve itself. The last of the countries to overthrow Communist leadership, Romania, only did so following the violent Romanian Revolution.

Baltic Chain of Freedom

Baltic Way 1989 demonstration in Šiauliai, Lithuania showing coffins decorated with national flags of the three Baltic republics placed symbolically beneath Soviet and Nazi flags
Baltic Way 1989 demonstration in Šiauliai, Lithuania showing coffins decorated with national flags of the three Baltic republics placed symbolically beneath Soviet and Nazi flags

The Baltic Way or Baltic Chain (also Chain of Freedom Estonian: Balti kett, Latvian: Baltijas ceļš, Lithuanian: Baltijos kelias, Russian: Балтийский путь) was a peaceful political demonstration on August 23, 1989.[57] An estimated 2 million people joined hands to form a human chain extending 600 kilometres (370 mi) across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had been forcibly reincorporated into the Soviet Union in 1944. The colossal demonstration marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.

Just months after the Baltic Way protests, in December 1989, the Congress of People's Deputies accepted—and Gorbachev signed—the report by the Yakovlev Commission condemning the secret protocols of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact which led to the annexations of the three Baltic republics.[58]

In the March 1989 elections to the Congress of Peoples Deputies, 36 of the 42 deputies from Lithuania were candidates from the independent national movement Sąjūdis. This was the greatest victory for any national organization within the USSR and was a devastating revelation to the Lithuanian Communist Party of its growing unpopularity.[59]

On December 7, 1989, the Communist Party of Lithuania under the leadership of Algirdas Brazauskas, split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and abandoned its claim to have a constitutional "leading role" in politics. A smaller loyalist faction of the Communist Party, headed by hardliner Mykolas Burokevičius, was established and remained affiliated with the CPSU. However, Lithuania's governing Communist Party was formally independent from Moscow's control – a first for Soviet Republics and a political earthquake that prompted Gorbachev to arrange a visit to Lithuania the following month in a futile attempt to bring the local party back under control.[60] The following year, the Communist Party lost power altogether in multiparty parliamentary elections which had caused Vytautas Landsbergis to become the first non-Communist leader (Chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania) of Lithuania since its forced incorporation into the USSR.


On July 16, 1989, the Popular Front of Azerbaijan held its first congress and elected Abulfaz Elchibey, who would become president, as its chairman.[61] On August 19, 600,000 protesters jammed Baku's Lenin Square (now Azadliq Square) to demand the release of political prisoners.[62] In the second half of 1989, weapons were handed out in Nagorno-Karabakh. When Karabakhis got hold of small arms to replace hunting rifles and crossbows, casualties began to mount; bridges were blown up, roads were blockaded, and hostages were taken.[63]

In a new and effective tactic, the Popular Front launched a rail blockade of Armenia,[64] which caused petrol and food shortages because 85 percent of Armenia's freight came from Azerbaijan.[65] Under pressure from the Popular Front the Communist authorities in Azerbaijan started making concessions. On September 25, they passed a sovereignty law that gave precedence to Azerbaijani law, and on October 4, the Popular Front was permitted to register as a legal organization as long as it lifted the blockade. Transport communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia never fully recovered.[65] Tensions continued to escalate and on December 29, Popular Front activists seized local party offices in Jalilabad, wounding dozens.

On May 31, 1989, the 11 members of the Karabakh Committee, who had been imprisoned without trial in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison, were released, and returned home to a hero's welcome.[66] Soon after his release, Levon Ter-Petrossian, an academic, was elected chairman of the anti-communist opposition Pan-Armenian National Movement, and later stated that it was in 1989 that he first began considering full independence as his goal.[67]

Photos of victims (mostly young women) of an April 1989 massacre in Tbilisi, Georgia
Photos of victims (mostly young women) of an April 1989 massacre in Tbilisi, Georgia

On April 7, 1989, Soviet troops and armored personnel carriers were sent to Tbilisi after more than 100,000 people protested in front of Communist Party headquarters with banners calling for Georgia to secede from the Soviet Union and for Abkhazia to be fully integrated into Georgia.[68] On April 9, 1989, troops attacked the demonstrators; some 20 people were killed and more than 200 wounded.[69][70] This event radicalized Georgian politics, prompting many to conclude that independence was preferable to continued Soviet rule. On April 14, Gorbachev removed Jumber Patiashvili as First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party and replaced him with former Georgian KGB chief Givi Gumbaridze.

On July 16, 1989, in Abkhazia's capital Sukhumi, 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.[71] This riot marked the start of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

Western republics

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In the March 26, 1989, elections to the Congress of People's Deputies, 15 of the 46 Moldovan deputies elected for congressional seats in Moscow were supporters of the Nationalist/Democratic movement.[72] The Popular Front of Moldova founding congress took place two months later, on May 20. During its second congress (June 30 – July 1, 1989), Ion Hadârcă was elected its president.

A series of demonstrations that became known as the Grand National Assembly (Romanian: Marea Adunare Naţională) was the Front's first major achievement. Such mass demonstrations, including one attended by 300,000 people on August 27,[73] convinced the Moldovan Supreme Soviet on August 31 to adopt the language law making Romanian the official language, and replacing the Cyrillic alphabet with Latin characters.[74]

In Ukraine, Lviv and Kyiv celebrated Ukrainian Independence Day on January 22, 1989. Thousands gathered in Lviv for an unauthorized moleben (religious service) in front of St. George's Cathedral. In Kyiv, 60 activists met in a Kyiv apartment to commemorate the proclamation of the Ukrainian People's Republic in 1918. On February 11–12, 1989, the Ukrainian Language Society held its founding congress. On February 15, 1989, the formation of the Initiative Committee for the Renewal of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was announced. The program and statutes of the movement were proposed by the Writers' Union of Ukraine and were published in the journal Literaturna Ukraina on February 16, 1989. The organization heralded Ukrainian dissidents such as Vyacheslav Chornovil.

In late February, large public rallies took 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 Shcherbytsky, lampooned as "the mastodon of stagnation". The demonstrations coincided with a visit to Ukraine by Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. On February 26, 1989, between 20,000 and 30,000 people participated in an unsanctioned ecumenical memorial service in Lviv, marking the anniversary of the death of 19th-century Ukrainian artist and nationalist Taras Shevchenko.

On March 4, 1989, the Memorial Society, committed to honoring the victims of Stalinism and cleansing society of Soviet practices, was founded in Kyiv. A public rally was held the next day. On March 12, A pre-election meeting organized in Lviv by the Ukrainian Helsinki Union and the Marian Society Myloserdia (Compassion) was violently dispersed, and nearly 300 people were detained. On March 26, elections were held to the union Congress of People's Deputies; by-elections were held on April 9, May 14, and May 21. Among the 225 Ukrainian representatives to the Congress, most were conservatives, though a handful of progressives were also elected.

From April 20–23, 1989, pre-election meetings were held in Lviv for four consecutive days, drawing crowds of up to 25,000. The action included a one-hour warning strike at eight local factories and institutions. It was the first labor strike in Lviv since 1944. On May 3, a pre-election rally attracted 30,000 in Lviv. On May 7, The Memorial Society organized a mass meeting at Bykivnia, site of a mass grave of Ukrainian and Polish victims of Stalinist terror. After a march from Kyiv to the site, a memorial service was staged.

From mid-May to September 1989, Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hunger strikers staged protests on Moscow's Arbat to call attention to the plight of their Church. They were especially active during the July session of the World Council of Churches held in Moscow. The protest ended with the arrests of the group on September 18. On May 27, 1989, the founding conference of the Lviv regional Memorial Society was held. On June 18, 1989, an estimated 100,000 faithful participated in public religious services in Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, responding to Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky's call for an international day of prayer.

On August 19, 1989, the Russian Orthodox Parish of Saints Peter and Paul announced it would be switching to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. On September 2, 1989, tens of thousands across Ukraine protested a draft election law that reserved special seats for the Communist Party and for 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 September 8–10, 1989, writer Ivan Drach was elected to head Rukh, the People's Movement of Ukraine, at its founding congress in Kyiv. On September 17, between 150,000 and 200,000 people marched in Lviv, demanding the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. On September 21, 1989, exhumation of a mass grave began in Demianiv Laz, a nature preserve south of Ivano-Frankivsk. On September 28, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Ukraine Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, a holdover from the Brezhnev era, was replaced in this office by Vladimir Ivashko.

On October 1, 1989, a peaceful demonstration of 10,000 to 15,000 people was violently dispersed by the militia in front of Lviv's Druzhba Stadium, where a concert celebrating the Soviet "reunification" of Ukrainian lands was being held. On October 10, Ivano-Frankivsk was the site of a pre-election protest attended by 30,000 people. On October 15, several thousand people gathered in Chervonohrad, Chernivtsi, Rivne, and Zhytomyr; 500 in Dnipropetrovsk; and 30,000 in Lviv to protest the election law. On October 20, faithful and clergy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church participated in a synod in Lviv, the first since its forced liquidation in the 1930s.

On October 24, the union Supreme Soviet passed a law eliminating special seats for Communist Party and other official organizations' representatives. On October 26, twenty factories in Lviv held strikes and meetings to protest the police brutality of October 1 and the authorities' unwillingness to prosecute those responsible. From October 26–28, the Zelenyi Svit (Friends of the Earth – Ukraine) environmental association held its founding congress, and on October 27 the Ukrainian Parliament passed a law eliminating the special status of party and other official organizations as deputies of parliament.

On October 28, 1989, the Ukrainian Parliament decreed that effective January 1, 1990, Ukrainian would be the official language of Ukraine, while Russian would be used for communication between ethnic groups. On the same day The Congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv left the Russian Orthodox Church and proclaimed itself the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The following day, thousands attended a memorial service at Demianiv Laz, and a temporary marker was placed to indicate that a monument to the "victims of the repressions of 1939–1941" soon would be erected.

In mid-November The Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society was officially registered. On November 19, 1989, a public gathering in Kyiv attracted thousands of mourners, friends and family to the reburial in Ukraine of three inmates of the infamous Gulag Camp No. 36 in Perm in the Ural Mountains: human-rights activists Vasyl Stus, Oleksiy Tykhy, and Yuriy Lytvyn. Their remains were reinterred in Baikove Cemetery. On November 26, 1989, a day of prayer and fasting was proclaimed by Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, thousands of faithful in western Ukraine participated in religious services on the eve of a meeting between Pope John Paul II and General Secretary the Central Committee of the CPSU Gorbachev. On November 28, 1989, the Ukrainian SSR's Council for Religious Affairs issued a decree allowing Ukrainian Catholic congregations to register as legal organizations. The decree was proclaimed on December 1, coinciding with a meeting at the Vatican between the pope and the Soviet General Secretary.

On December 10, 1989, the first officially sanctioned observance of International Human Rights Day was held in Lviv. On December 17, an estimated 30,000 attended a public meeting organized in Kyiv by Rukh in memory of Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, who died on December 14. On December 26, the Supreme Soviet of Ukrainian SSR adopted a law designating Christmas, Easter, and the Feast of the Holy Trinity official holidays.[49]

In May 1989, a Soviet dissident, Mustafa Dzhemilev, was elected to lead the newly founded Crimean Tatar National Movement. He also led the campaign for return of Crimean Tatars to their homeland in Crimea after 45 years of exile.

Meeting in Kurapaty, Belarus, 1989
Meeting in Kurapaty, Belarus, 1989

On January 24, 1989, the Soviet authorities in Byelorussia agreed to the demand of the democratic opposition (the Belarusian Popular Front) to build a monument to thousands of people shot by Stalin-era police in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk in the 1930s.[75]

On September 30, 1989, thousands of Belarusians, denouncing local leaders, marched through Minsk to demand additional cleanup of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster site in Ukraine. Up to 15,000 protesters wearing armbands bearing radioactivity symbols and carrying the banned red-and-white national flag used by the government-in-exile filed through torrential rain in defiance of a ban by local authorities. Later, they gathered in the city center near the government's headquarters, where speakers demanded resignation of Yefrem Sokolov, the republic's Communist Party leader, and called for the evacuation of half a million people from the contaminated zones.[76]

Strike action of Kuzbass and Donbass miners

Started in 1989 strike action of miners in Kuzbass, it was actively supported eventually by miners of Donbass.

Central Asian republics

Thousands of Soviet troops were sent to the Fergana Valley, southeast of the Uzbek capital Tashkent, to re-establish order after clashes in which local Uzbeks hunted down members of the Meskhetian minority in several days of rioting between June 4–11, 1989; about 100 people were killed.[77] On June 23, 1989, Gorbachev removed Rafiq Nishonov as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR and replaced him with Karimov, who went on to lead Uzbekistan as a Soviet Republic and subsequently as an independent state until his death in 2017.

Nursultan Nazarbayev became leader of the Kazakh SSR in 1989 and later led Kazakhstan to independence.
Nursultan Nazarbayev became leader of the Kazakh SSR in 1989 and later led Kazakhstan to independence.

In Kazakhstan on June 19, 1989, young men carrying guns, firebombs, iron bars and stones rioted in Zhanaozen, 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.[78] By June 25, the 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 140 kilometres (90 miles) from Zhanaozen, before they were dispersed by government troops flown in by helicopters. Mobs of young people also rampaged through Yeraliev, Shepke, Fort-Shevchenko and Kulsary, where they poured flammable liquid on trains housing temporary workers and set them on fire.[79]

With the government and CPSU shocked by the riots, on June 22, 1989, as a result of the riots Gorbachev removed Gennady Kolbin (the ethnic Russian whose appointment caused riots in 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 to independence. Nazarbayev would lead Kazakhstan for 27 years until he stepped down as president on March 19, 2019.


Moscow loses six republics

On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU accepted Gorbachev's recommendation that the party give up its monopoly on political power.[80] In 1990, all fifteen constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections, with reformers and ethnic nationalists winning many seats. The CPSU lost the elections in six republics:

The constituent republics began to declare their fledgling states' sovereignty and began a "war of laws" with the Moscow central government; they rejected union-wide legislation that conflicted with local laws, asserted control over their local economy, and refused to pay taxes to the Soviet government. Landsbergis, Chairman of the Supreme Council of Lithuania, also exempted Lithuanian men from mandatory service in the Soviet Armed Forces. This conflict caused economic dislocation as supply lines were disrupted, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.[81]

Rivalry between USSR and RSFSR

On March 4, 1990, the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic held relatively free elections for the Congress of People's Deputies of Russia. Boris Yeltsin was elected, representing Sverdlovsk, garnering 72 percent of the vote.[82] On May 29, 1990, Yeltsin was elected chair of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, despite the fact that Gorbachev asked Russian deputies not to vote for him.

Yeltsin was supported by democratic and conservative members of the Supreme Soviet, who sought power in the developing political situation. A new power struggle emerged between the RSFSR and the Soviet Union. On June 12, 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR adopted a declaration of sovereignty. On July 12, 1990, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party in a dramatic speech at the 28th Congress.[83]

Lithuania's Vytautas Landsbergis
Lithuania's Vytautas Landsbergis

Baltic republics

Gorbachev's visit to the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on January 11–13, 1990, provoked a pro-independence rally attended by an estimated 250,000 people.

On March 11, the newly elected parliament of the Lithuanian SSR elected Vytautas Landsbergis, the leader of Sąjūdis, as its chairman and proclaimed the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, making Lithuania the first Soviet Republic to declare independence from the Soviet Union. Moscow reacted with an economic blockade keeping the troops in Lithuania ostensibly "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians".[84]

Estonia's Edgar Savisaar
Estonia's Edgar Savisaar

On March 25, 1990, the Estonian Communist Party voted to split from the CPSU after a six-month transition.[85]

On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared the Soviet occupation of Estonia since the Second World War to be illegal and began a period of national transition towards the formal reestablishment of national independence within the republic.

On April 3, 1990, Edgar Savisaar of the Popular Front of Estonia was elected chairman of the Council of Ministers (the equivalent of being Prime Minister), and soon a majority-pro independence cabinet was formed.

Latvia's Ivars Godmanis
Latvia's Ivars Godmanis

Latvia declared the restoration of independence on May 4, 1990, with the declaration stipulating a transitional period to complete independence. The Declaration stated that although Latvia had de facto lost its independence in World War II, the country had de jure remained a sovereign country because the annexation had been unconstitutional and against the will of the Latvian people. The declaration also stated that Latvia would base its relationship with the Soviet Union on the basis of the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty of 1920, in which the Soviet Union recognized Latvia's independence as inviolable "for all future time". May 4 is now a national holiday in Latvia.

On May 7, 1990, Ivars Godmanis of the Latvian Popular Front was elected chairman of the Council of Ministers (the equivalent of being Latvia's Prime Minister), becoming the first premier of the restored Latvian republic.

Оn May 8, 1990, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR adopted a law officially declaring the reinstatement of the 1938 Constitution of the independent Republic of Estonia.[86]


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.[87] It was the first time the Soviet Union had lost control of an external border.

Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January
Azerbaijani stamp with photos of Black January

Ethnic tensions had escalated between the Armenians and Azerbaijanis in spring and summer 1988.[88] On January 9, 1990, after the Armenian parliament voted to include Nagorno-Karabakh within its budget, renewed fighting broke out, hostages were taken, and four Soviet soldiers were killed.[89] On January 11, Popular Front radicals stormed party buildings and effectively overthrew the communist powers in the southern town of Lenkoran.[89] Gorbachev resolved to regain control of Azerbaijan; the events that ensued are known as "Black January". Late on January 19, 1990, after blowing up the central television station and cutting the phone and radio lines, 26,000 Soviet troops entered the Azerbaijani capital Baku, smashing barricades, attacking protesters, and firing into crowds. On that night and during subsequent confrontations (which lasted until February), more than 130 people died. Most of these were civilians. More than 700 civilians were wounded, hundreds were detained, but only a few were actually tried for alleged criminal offenses.

Civil liberties suffered. 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 non-communist 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 army had gained control of Baku, but by January 20 it had essentially lost Azerbaijan. Nearly the entire population of Baku turned out for the mass funerals of "martyrs" buried in the Alley of Martyrs.[90] Thousands of Communist Party members publicly burned their party cards. First Secretary Vezirov decamped to Moscow and Ayaz Mutalibov was appointed his successor in a free vote of party officials. The ethnic Russian Viktor Polyanichko remained second secretary.[91] In reaction to the Soviet actions in Baku, Sakina Aliyeva, Chair of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Nakhchivan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic called a special session where it was debated whether or not Nakhchivan could secede from the USSR under Article 81 of the Soviet Constitution. Deciding that it was legal, deputies prepared a declaration of independence, which Aliyeva signed and presented on January 20 on national television. It was the first declaration of secession by a recognized region in the USSR. Aliyeva and the Nakhchivan Soviet's actions were denounced by government officials who forced her to resign and the attempt at independence was aborted.[92][93][94]

Following the hardliners' takeover, the September 30, 1990 elections (runoffs on October 14) were characterized by intimidation; several Popular Front candidates were jailed, two were murdered, and unabashed ballot stuffing took place, even in the presence of Western observers.[95] The election results reflected the threatening environment; out of the 350 members, 280 were Communists, with only 45 opposition candidates from the Popular Front and other non-communist groups, who together formed a Democratic Bloc ("Dembloc").[96] In May 1990 Mutalibov was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet unopposed.[97]

On August 23, 1990, the Supreme Council of the Armenian SSR adopted the Declaration of Independence of Armenia.[98] The document declared the sovereign Republic of Armenia and "the beginning of the process of establishing independent statehood" with its own symbols, army, financial institutions, foreign and tax policy.[99][100]

Western republics

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Viacheslav Chornovil, a prominent Ukrainian dissident and a lead figure of Rukh
Viacheslav Chornovil, a prominent Ukrainian dissident and a lead figure of Rukh

On January 21, 1990, Rukh organized a 300-mile (480 km) human chain between Kyiv, Lviv, and Ivano-Frankivsk. Hundreds of thousands joined hands to commemorate the proclamation of Ukrainian independence in 1918 and the reunification of Ukrainian lands one year later (1919 Unification Act). On January 23, 1990, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church held its first synod since its liquidation by the Soviets in 1946 (an act which the gathering declared invalid). On February 9, 1990, the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice officially registered Rukh. However, the registration came too late for Rukh to stand its own candidates for the parliamentary and local elections on March 4. At the 1990 elections of people's deputies to the Supreme Council (Verkhovna Rada), candidates from the Democratic Bloc won landslide victories in western Ukrainian oblasts. A majority of the seats had to hold run-off elections. On March 18, Democratic candidates scored further victories in the run-offs. The Democratic Bloc gained about 90 out of 450 seats in the new parliament.

On April 6, 1990, the Lviv City Council voted to return St. George Cathedral to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church refused to yield. On April 29–30, 1990, the Ukrainian Helsinki Union disbanded to form the Ukrainian Republican Party. On May 15 the new parliament convened. The bloc of conservative communists held 239 seats; the Democratic Bloc, which had evolved into the National Council, had 125 deputies. On June 4, 1990, two candidates remained in the protracted race for parliament chair. The leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), Volodymyr Ivashko, was elected with 60 percent of the vote as more than 100 opposition deputies boycotted the election. On June 5–6, 1990, Metropolitan Mstyslav of the U.S.-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church was elected patriarch of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) during that Church's first synod. The UAOC declared its full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in March had granted autonomy to the Ukrainian Orthodox church headed by the Metropolitan Filaret.

Leonid Kravchuk became Ukraine's leader in 1990.
Leonid Kravchuk became Ukraine's leader in 1990.

On June 22, 1990, Volodymyr Ivashko withdrew his candidacy for leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine in view of his new position in parliament. Stanislav Hurenko was elected first secretary of the CPU. On July 11, Ivashko resigned from his post as chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament after he was elected deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Parliament accepted the resignation a week later, on July 18. On July 16 Parliament overwhelmingly approved the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine – with a vote of 355 in favour and four against. The people's deputies voted 339 to 5 to proclaim July 16 a Ukrainian national holiday.

On July 23, 1990, Leonid Kravchuk was elected to replace Ivashko as parliament chairman. On July 30, Parliament adopted a resolution on military service ordering Ukrainian soldiers "in regions of national conflict such as Armenia and Azerbaijan" to return to Ukrainian territory. On August 1, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to shut down the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. On August 3, it adopted a law on the economic sovereignty of the Ukrainian republic. On August 19, the first Ukrainian Catholic liturgy in 44 years was celebrated at St. George Cathedral. On September 5–7, the International Symposium on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 was held in Kyiv. On September 8, The first "Youth for Christ" rally since 1933 took place held in Lviv, with 40,000 participants. In September 28–30, the Green Party of Ukraine held its founding congress. On September 30, nearly 100,000 people marched in Kyiv to protest against the new union treaty proposed by Gorbachev.

On October 1, 1990, parliament reconvened amid mass protests calling for the resignations of Kravchuk and of Prime Minister Vitaliy Masol, a leftover from the previous régime. Students erected a tent city on October Revolution Square, where they continued the protest.

On October 17 Masol resigned, and on October 20, Patriarch Mstyslav I of Kyiv and all Ukraine arrived at Saint Sophia's Cathedral, ending a 46-year banishment from his homeland. On October 23, 1990, Parliament voted to delete Article 6 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which referred to the "leading role" of the Communist Party.

On October 25–28, 1990, Rukh held its second congress and declared that its principal goal was the "renewal of independent statehood for Ukraine". On October 28 UAOC faithful, supported by Ukrainian Catholics, demonstrated near St. Sophia's Cathedral as newly elected Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksei and Metropolitan Filaret celebrated liturgy at the shrine. On November 1, the leaders of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, respectively, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sterniuk and Patriarch Mstyslav, met in Lviv during anniversary commemorations of the 1918 proclamation of the Western Ukrainian National Republic.

On November 18, 1990, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church enthroned Mstyslav as Patriarch of Kyiv and all Ukraine during ceremonies at Saint Sophia's Cathedral. Also on November 18, Canada announced that its consul-general to Kyiv would be Ukrainian-Canadian Nestor Gayowsky. On November 19, the United States announced that its consul to Kyiv would be Ukrainian-American John Stepanchuk. On November 19, the chairmen of the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments, respectively, Kravchuk and Yeltsin, signed a 10-year bilateral pact. In early December 1990 the Party of Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine was founded; on December 15, the Democratic Party of Ukraine was founded.[101]

Central Asian republics

Main article: 1990 Dushanbe riots

Tajik nationalist protesters squared off against the Soviet Army in Dushanbe
Tajik nationalist protesters squared off against the Soviet Army in Dushanbe

On February 12–14, 1990, anti-government riots took place in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, as tensions rose between nationalist Tajiks and ethnic Armenian refugees, after the Sumgait pogrom and anti-Armenian riots in Azerbaijan in 1988. Demonstrations sponsored by the nationalist Rastokhez movement turned violent. Radical economic and political reforms were demanded by the protesters, who torched government buildings; shops and other businesses were attacked and looted. During these riots 26 people were killed and 565 injured.

Main article: Osh riots (1990)

In June 1990, the city of Osh and its environs experienced bloody ethnic clashes between ethnic Kirghiz nationalist group Osh Aymaghi and Uzbek nationalist group Adolat over the land of a former collective farm. There were about 1,200 casualties, including over 300 dead and 462 seriously injured. The riots broke out over the division of land resources in and around the city.[102]

Saparmurat Niyazov, last head of the Turkmen SSR and first president of Turkmenistan
Saparmurat Niyazov, last head of the Turkmen SSR and first president of Turkmenistan

In Turkmen SSR, the national conservative People's Democratic Movement "Agzybirlik" ("Unification") became a supporter of independence, uniting the Turkmen intelligentsia and moderate and radical Turkmen nationalists. They did not have a pronounced and eminent leader. Since 1989, small rallies have been held in Ashghabad and Krasnovodsk for the independence of Turkmenistan, as well as for the assignment of the status of the "state language" to the Turkmen language in the republic. The rallies also demanded that the republican leadership leave most of the oil revenues in the republic itself, and "not feed Moscow". Turkmen oppositionists and dissidents actively cooperated with opposition from Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. The leadership of Soviet Turkmenistan, led by Saparmurat Niyazov, opposed independence, suppressing Turkmen dissidents and oppositionists, but following the elections to the Supreme Soviet of the Turkmen SSR in January 1990, several dissidents were able to be elected to the republican parliament as independent candidates, who, together with their supporters, managed to actively participate in political life and express their opinions. The role of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan was very strong in this republic, especially in the west and south, where the Russian-speaking population lived. Over 90% of the seats in the republican parliament were held by communists. Despite all of the above, during the dissolution of the USSR, there were practically no high-profile events in Turkmenistan, and the Turkmen SSR was considered by the CPSU to be one of the "most exemplary and loyal republics" of the Soviet Union to Moscow.[103][104][105][106]


Following Georgia's declaration of independence in 1991, South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their desire to leave Georgia and remain part of the Soviet Union/Russia.[107]
Following Georgia's declaration of independence in 1991, South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared their desire to leave Georgia and remain part of the Soviet Union/Russia.[107]

Moscow's crisis

On January 14, 1991, Nikolai Ryzhkov resigned from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or 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 percent of voters endorsed retention of a reformed Soviet Union.[108] The Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova boycotted the referendum as well as Checheno-Ingushetia (an autonomous republic within Russia that had a strong desire for independence, and by now referred to itself as Ichkeria).[109] In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of a reformed Soviet Union.

Russia's President Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president
Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president

On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57 percent of the popular vote in the democratic elections, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16 percent of the vote. Following Yeltsin's election as president, Russia declared itself independent.[110] In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the "dictatorship of the center", but did not yet suggest that he would introduce a market economy.

Baltic republics

Main article: January Events (Lithuania)

On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with the KGB Spetsnaz Alpha Group, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania to suppress the independence movement. Fourteen unarmed civilians were killed and hundreds more injured. On the night of July 31, 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, and stiffened Lithuanian resistance.

Main article: The Barricades

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

The bloody attacks in Lithuania prompted Latvians to organize defensive barricades (the events are still today known as "The Barricades") blocking access to strategically important buildings and bridges in Riga. Soviet attacks in the ensuing days resulted in six deaths and several injuries; one person died later of their wounds.

Оn February 9, Lithuania held an independence referendum with 93.2% voting in favor of independence.

On February 12, the independence of Lithuania was recognized by Iceland.[111]

On March 3, a referendum was held on the independence of the Republic of Estonia, which was attended by those who lived in Estonia before the Soviet annexation and their descendants, as well as persons who have received the so-called "green cards" of the Congress of Estonia.[112] 77.8% of those who voted supported the idea of restoring independence.[113]

On March 11, Denmark recognized Estonia's independence.[114]

Main article: Tallinn TV Tower

When Estonia reaffirmed its independence during the coup (see below) in the dark hours of August 20, 1991, at 11:03 pm Tallinn time, many Estonian volunteers surrounded the Tallinn TV Tower in an attempt to prepare to cut off the communication channels after the Soviet troops seized it and refused to be intimidated by the Soviet troops. When Edgar Savisaar confronted the Soviet troops for ten minutes, they finally retreated from the TV tower after a failed resistance against the Estonians.

August Coup

Main article: 1991 August Coup

Tanks in Red Square during the 1991 August coup attempt
Tanks in Red Square during the 1991 August coup attempt

Faced with growing separatism, Gorbachev sought to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign a New Union Treaty that would have converted the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. It was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic advantages of a common market to prosper. However, it would have meant some degree of continued Communist Party control over economic and social life.

More radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome meant the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent states. Independence also accorded with Yeltsin's desires as president of the Russian Federation, as well as those of regional and local authorities to get rid of Moscow's pervasive control. In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm response to the treaty, the conservatives, "patriots", and Russian nationalists of the USSR – still strong within the CPSU and the military – were opposed to weakening the Soviet state and its centralized power structure.

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 union treaty from being signed by forming the "General Committee on the State Emergency", which put Gorbachev – on holiday in Foros, Crimea – under house arrest and cut off his communications. The coup leaders issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.

Thousands of Muscovites came out to defend the White House (the Russian Federation's parliament and Yeltsin's office), the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty at the time. The organizers of the coup tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied opposition to the coup by making speeches from atop a tank. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but members refused to storm the barricaded building. The coup leaders also neglected to jam foreign news broadcasts, so many Muscovites watched it unfold live on CNN. Even the isolated Gorbachev was able to stay abreast of developments by tuning into the BBC World Service on a small transistor radio.[115]

After three days, on August 21, 1991, the coup collapsed. The organizers were detained and Gorbachev was reinstated as president, albeit with his power much depleted.

Fall: August to December

Signing of the agreement to establish the Commonwealth of Independent States, 8 December
Signing of the agreement to establish the Commonwealth of Independent States, 8 December

On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as the general secretary the Central Committee of the CPSU[116] and dissolved all party units in the government. On the same day, the Supreme Council of Ukraine passed a Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. Five days later, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all CPSU activity on Soviet territory,[117] effectively ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force in the country (On 6 November, Yeltsin issued a decree banning all Communist Party activities in Russia[118]). Gorbachev established a State Council of the Soviet Union on 5 September, designed to bring him and the highest officials of the remaining republics into a collective leadership, able to appoint a premier of the Soviet Union; it never functioned properly, though Ivan Silayev de facto took the post through the Committee on the Operational Management of the Soviet Economy and the Inter-Republican Economic Committee and tried to form a government, though with rapidly shrinking powers.

The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. Ukraine was the first of 10 republics to secede from the Union between August and December, largely out of fear of another coup. By the end of September, Gorbachev no longer had the ability to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.

On September 17, 1991, General Assembly resolution numbers 46/4, 46/5, and 46/6 admitted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the United Nations, conforming to Security Council resolution numbers 709, 710, and 711 passed on September 12 without a vote.[119][120]

By November 7, 1991, most newspapers referred to the country as the 'former Soviet Union'.[121]

The state emblem of the Soviet Union and the СССР letters (top) in the façade of the Grand Kremlin Palace were replaced by five double-headed Russian eagles (bottom) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the eagles having been removed by the Bolsheviks after the revolution.
The state emblem of the Soviet Union and the СССР letters (top) in the façade of the Grand Kremlin Palace were replaced by five double-headed Russian eagles (bottom) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the eagles having been removed by the Bolsheviks after the revolution.

The final round of the Soviet Union's collapse began on December 1, 1991. That day, a Ukrainian popular referendum resulted in 91 percent of Ukraine's voters voting to affirm the independence declaration passed in August and formally secede from the Union. The secession of Ukraine, long second only to Russia in economic and political power, ended any realistic chance of Gorbachev keeping the Soviet Union together even on a limited scale. The leaders of the three Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), agreed to discuss possible alternatives to the union.

On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, in western Belarus, and signed the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a looser association to take its place. They also invited other republics to join the CIS. Gorbachev called it an unconstitutional coup. However, by this time there was no longer any reasonable doubt that, as the preamble of the Accords put it, "the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence."

On December 12, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords,[122] denounced the 1922 Union Treaty,[123] and recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The legality of this ratification raised doubts among some members of the Russian parliament, since according to the Constitution of the RSFSR of 1978 consideration of this document was in the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR.[124][125][126][127] However, no one in either Russia or the Kremlin objected. Any objections from the latter would have likely had no effect, since the Soviet government had effectively been rendered impotent long before December. A number of lawyers believe that the denunciation of the union treaty was meaningless since it became invalid in 1924 with the adoption of the first constitution of the USSR.[128][129][130] (in 1996 the State Duma voiced the same position[131]) Later that day, Gorbachev hinted for the first time that he was considering stepping down.[132] On the surface, it appeared that the largest republic had formally seceded. However, this is not the case as Russia apparently took the line that it was not possible to secede from a country that no longer existed.

On December 17, 1991, along with 28 European countries, the European Economic Community, and four non-European countries, the three Baltic Republics and nine of the twelve remaining Soviet republics signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague as sovereign states.[133][134]

Doubts remained over whether the Belavezha Accords had legally dissolved the Soviet Union, since they were signed by only three republics. However, on December 21, representatives of 8 of the 12 remaining republics – all except Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, and Lithuania – signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the dissolution of the Union and formally established the CIS. They also "accepted" Gorbachev's resignation. Even at this moment, Gorbachev hadn't made any formal plans to leave the scene yet. However, with a majority of republics now agreeing that the Soviet Union no longer existed, Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable, telling CBS News that he would resign as soon as he saw that the CIS was indeed a reality.[135]

In a nationally televised speech in the evening of December 25, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union – or, as he put it, "I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the USSR."[136] He declared the office extinct, and all of its powers (such as control of the nuclear arsenal[137]) were ceded to Yeltsin. A week earlier, Gorbachev had met with Yeltsin and accepted the fait accompli of the Soviet Union's dissolution. On the same day, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR adopted a statute to change Russia's legal name from "Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic" to "Russian Federation", showing that it was now a fully sovereign non-communist state.

The upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet in its ultimate session, voting the USSR out of existence, December 26
The upper chamber of the Supreme Soviet in its ultimate session, voting the USSR out of existence, December 26

On the night of December 25, at 7:32 p.m. Moscow time, after Gorbachev left the Kremlin, the Soviet flag was lowered and the State Anthem of the Soviet Union was played for the last time, and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place at 7:45 pm,[138] symbolically marking the end of the Soviet Union. In his parting words, Gorbachev defended his record on domestic reform and détente, but conceded, "The old system collapsed before a new one had time to start working."[139] On that same day, the President of the United States George H. W. Bush held a brief televised speech officially recognizing the independence of the 11 remaining republics.

On December 26, the Soviet of Republics, the upper chamber of the Union's Supreme Soviet, voted the Soviet Union out of existence[140][141] (the lower chamber, the Council of the Union, had been unable to work since December 12, when the recall of the Russian deputies left it without a quorum[124]). The following day Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev's former office, though the Russian authorities had taken over the suite two days earlier. The Soviet Armed Forces were placed under the command of the Commonwealth of Independent States, but were eventually subsumed by the newly independent republics, with the bulk becoming the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. By the end of 1991, the few remaining Soviet institutions that had not been taken over by Russia ceased operation, and individual republics assumed the central government's role.

The Alma-Ata Protocol also addressed other issues, including UN membership. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the Soviet Union's UN membership, including its permanent seat on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered a letter signed by Russian President Yeltsin to the UN Secretary-General dated December 24, 1991, informing him that by virtue of the Alma-Ata Protocol, Russia was the successor state to the USSR. After being circulated among the other UN member states, with no objection raised, the statement was declared accepted on the last day of the year, December 31, 1991.

In April 1992, the Congress of People's Deputies of Russia refused to ratify the Belovezhskaya Agreements[142][143] and to exclude references to the Constitution and laws of the USSR from the text of the Constitution of the RSFSR.[127][144] According to some Russian politicians, this was one of the reasons for the political crisis of September - October 1993.[127][143][144] In a referendum on December 12, 1993, a new Russian constitution was adopted, in which there was no mention of the union state.

Consequences and impact

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (June 2021)
Russian GDP since the end of the Soviet Union (from 2014 are forecasts)
Russian GDP since the end of the Soviet Union (from 2014 are forecasts)
Russian male life expectancy, 1980–2007
Russian male life expectancy, 1980–2007

Sports and the "Unified Team"

The breakup of the Soviet Union saw a massive impact in the sporting world. Before its dissolution, the football team had just qualified for Euro 1992, but their place was instead taken by the CIS national football team. After the tournament, the former Soviet Republics competed as separate independent nations, with FIFA allocating the Soviet team's record to Russia.[145]

Before the start of the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville and the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, The Olympic Committee of the USSR formally existed until March 12, 1992, when it disbanded but it was succeeded by the Russian Olympic Committee. However, 12 of the 15 former Soviet Republics competed together as the Unified Team and marched under the Olympic Flag in Barcelona, where they finished first in the medal rankings. Separately, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia also competed as independent nations in the 1992 Games. The Unified Team also competed in Albertville earlier in the year (represented by six of the twelve ex-Republics), and finished second in the medal ranking at those Games. Afterwards, the individual IOCs of the non-Baltic former republics were established. Some NOCs made their debuts at the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, while others made it at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.

Members of the Unified Team in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona consisted of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. In these Summer Games, the Unified Team secured 45 gold medals, 38 silver medals, and 29 bronze medals to beat second place United States by four medals, and third place Germany by 30 medals. In addition to great team success, the Unified Team also saw great personal success. Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus was able to secure six gold medals for the team in gymnastics, while also becoming the most decorated athlete of the Summer Games.[146] Gymnastics, athletics, wrestling, and swimming were the strongest sports for the team, as the four combined earned 28 gold medals and 64 medals in total.

Only six teams competed earlier in the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. These countries were Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. The Unified team placed second, losing to Germany by three medals. However, much like the summer games, the Unified team had the most decorated medalist in the Winter Games as well with Lyubov Yegorova of Russia, a figure skater with five total medals.[147]


The Soviet Union's calling code of +7 continues to be used by Russia and Kazakhstan. Between 1993 and 1997, many newly independent republics implemented their own numbering plans such as Belarus (+375) and Ukraine (+380).[citation needed] The Internet domain .su remains in use alongside the internet domains of the newly created countries.

Glasnost and the "Memorial"

Lifting of the total censorship and political pro-Communist propaganda led to disclosure to public of such political and historical issues as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Katyn massacre, revision of the Stalinist repressions (The Gulag Archipelago), revision of the Russian Civil War, the White movement, the New Economic Policy (Heart of a Dog), criticism of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster censorship, pacification and procrastination by the Soviet authorities.

In 1989 the Soviet Union established a civil rights society Memorial that specialized in research and recovery of memory for victims of political repressions as well as support for general Human Rights movement.

Chronology of declarations

Animated map showing independent states and territorial changes to the Soviet Union in chronological order
Animated map showing independent states and territorial changes to the Soviet Union in chronological order

States with limited recognition are shown in italics.

Republic/autonomy/oblast Sovereignty
Renamed Seceded from the USSR/SSR Secession recognized
 Estonian SSR November 16, 1988 since May 8, 1990:
 Republic of Estonia
August 20, 1991 September 6, 1991
 Lithuanian SSR May 26, 1989 since March 11, 1990:
 Republic of Lithuania
March 11, 1990
 Latvian SSR July 28, 1989 since May 4, 1990:
 Republic of Latvia
May 4, 1990
 Azerbaijan SSR September 23, 1989 since February 5, 1991:
 Republic of Azerbaijan
August 30, 1991
December 26, 1991
Nakhchivan ASSR September 23, 1989[i] since November 17, 1991:
Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic
January 19, 1990 Peacefully reincorporated into Azerbaijan
under Heydar Aliyev in 1993
Gagauz ASSR November 12, 1989 since August 19, 1990:
Gagauz Republic
August 19, 1990[j] Peacefully reincorporated into Moldova
with autonomy on January 14, 1995
 Georgian SSR May 26, 1990 since November 14, 1990:
 Republic of Georgia
April 9, 1991 December 26, 1991
 Russian SFSR June 12, 1990 since December 25, 1991:
 Russian Federation
December 12, 1991
 Uzbek SSR June 20, 1990 since August 31, 1991:
 Republic of Uzbekistan
August 31, 1991
 Moldavian SSR[k] June 23, 1990 since May 23, 1991:
 Republic of Moldova
August 27, 1991
 Ukrainian SSR July 16, 1990 since August 24, 1991:
August 24, 1991
 Byelorussian SSR December 27, 1989 since September 19, 1991:
 Republic of Belarus
December 10, 1991
 Turkmen SSR August 22, 1990 since October 27, 1991:
October 27, 1991
 Armenian SSR August 23, 1990 since August 23, 1990:
 Republic of Armenia
September 21, 1991
 Tajik SSR August 24, 1990 since August 31, 1991:
 Republic of Tajikistan
September 9, 1991
Abkhaz ASSR August 25, 1990 since July 23, 1992:
 Republic of Abkhazia
July 23, 1992[l] Limited recognition since 2008
Tatar ASSR August 30, 1990 since February 7, 1992:
Republic of Tatarstan
November 30, 1992[m] Peacefully reincorporated into Russia
with autonomy on February 15, 1994
Pridnestrovian Moldavian SSR September 2, 1990 since November 5, 1991:
 Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic
August 25, 1991 Not recognized
 Kazakh SSR October 25, 1990 since December 10, 1991:
 Republic of Kazakhstan
December 16, 1991
December 26, 1991
Chechen-Ingush ASSR November 27, 1990 since June 8, 1991:
Chechen Republic
June 8, 1991 Disestablished in 1999–2000 during
the Second Chechen War
South Ossetian SR[o] September 20, 1990[p] since November 28, 1991:
 Republic of South Ossetia
December 21, 1991 Limited recognition since 2008
Karakalpak ASSR December 14, 1990 since August 31, 1991:
Republic of Karakalpakstan
January 9, 1992[q] Peacefully reincorporated into Uzbekistan
with autonomy on January 9, 1993
 Kirghiz SSR December 15, 1990 since February 5, 1991:
 Republic of Kyrgyzstan
August 31, 1991
December 26, 1991
Crimean ASSR February 12, 1991 since 26 February 26, 1992:
Republic of Crimea[r]
May 5, 1992[s] (first attempt)
March 11, 2014[t] (second attempt)
Peacefully rejoined Ukraine the next day; annexed by Russia in February, 2014
followed by a referendum on March 18, 2014, with limited recognition
Nagorno-Karabakh AO September 2, 1991 since September 2, 1991:
Nagorno-Karabakh Republic
December 10, 1991 Not recognized


Main article: Post-Soviet states

Further information: Nostalgia for the Soviet Union

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, May 9, 2018
Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk celebrate the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, May 9, 2018

In Armenia, 12% of respondents said the USSR collapse did good, while 66% said it did harm. In Kyrgyzstan, 16% of respondents said the collapse of the USSR did good, while 61% said it did harm.[148] Ever since the collapse of the USSR, annual polling by the Levada Center has shown that over 50 percent of Russia's population regretted its collapse, with the only exception to this being in 2012. A 2018 Levada Center poll showed that 66% of Russians lamented the fall of the Soviet Union.[149] According to a 2014 poll, 57 percent of citizens of Russia regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union, while 30 percent said they did not. Elderly people tended to be more nostalgic than younger Russians.[citation needed]

In a similar poll held in February 2005, 50% of respondents in Ukraine stated they regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union.[150] However, a similar poll conducted in 2016 showed only 35% Ukrainians regretting the Soviet Union collapse and 50% not regretting this.[151]

On January 25, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Vladimir Lenin and his advocating for the individual republics' right to political secession for the breakup of the Soviet Union.[citation needed]

The breakdown of economic ties that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a severe economic crisis and catastrophic fall in living standards in post-Soviet states and the former Eastern Bloc,[152] which was even worse than the Great Depression.[153][154] Poverty and economic inequality surged between 1988–1989 and 1993–1995, with the Gini ratio increasing by an average of 9 points for all former socialist countries.[155] Even before Russia's financial crisis in 1998, Russia's GDP was half of what it had been in the early 1990s.[154]

In the decades following the end of the Cold War, only five or six of the post-communist states are on a path to joining the wealthy capitalist West while most are falling behind, some to such an extent that it will take over 50 years to catch up to where they were before the end of communism.[156][157] In a 2001 study by economist Steven Rosefielde, he calculated that there were 3.4 million premature deaths in Russia from 1990 to 1998, which he partly blames on the "shock therapy" that came with the Washington Consensus.[158]

In the Kitchen Debate of 1959, Nikita Khrushchev claimed that then US Vice President Richard Nixon's grandchildren would live "under communism" and Nixon claimed that Khrushchev's grandchildren would live in "freedom". In a 1992 interview, Nixon commented that at the time of the debate, he was sure Khrushchev's claim was wrong, but Nixon was not sure that his own assertion was correct. Nixon said that events had proven that he was indeed right because Khrushchev's grandchildren now lived in "freedom", referring to the then-recent collapse of the Soviet Union.[159][better source needed] Khrushchev's son Sergei Khrushchev was a naturalized American citizen.

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 Soviet Union 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.

However, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic had already joined the UN as original members on October 24, 1945, together with the Soviet Union. After declaring independence, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic changed its name to Ukraine on August 24, 1991, and on September 19, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic informed the UN that it had changed its name to the Republic of Belarus.

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

Explanations in historiography

Historiography on Soviet dissolution can be roughly classified in two groups, namely intentionalist accounts and structuralist accounts.

Intentionalist accounts contend that Soviet collapse was not inevitable and resulted from the policies and decisions of specific individuals (usually Gorbachev and Yeltsin). One characteristic example of intentionalist writing is historian Archie Brown's The Gorbachev Factor, which argues Gorbachev was the main force in Soviet politics at least in the period 1985–1988 and even later largely spearheaded the political reforms and developments as opposed to being led by events.[160] This was especially true of the policies of perestroika and glasnost, market initiatives and foreign policy stance as political scientist George Breslauer has seconded, labelling Gorbachev a "man of the events."[161] In a slightly different vein, David Kotz and Fred Weir have contended that Soviet elites were responsible for spurring on both nationalism and capitalism from which they could personally benefit (this is also demonstrated by their continued presence in the higher economic and political echelons of post-Soviet republics).[162]

By contrast, structuralist accounts take a more deterministic view in which Soviet dissolution was an outcome of deeply-rooted structural issues, which planted a "time-bomb." For example, Edward Walker has argued that while minority nationalities were denied power at the Union level, confronted by a culturally-destabilizing form of economic modernization and subjected to a certain amount of Russification, they were at the same time strengthened by several policies pursued by the Soviet government (e.g. indigenization of leadership, support for local languages, etc.) which over time created conscious nations. Furthermore, the basic legitimating myth of the Soviet Union's federative system—that it was a voluntary and mutual union of allied peoples – eased the task of secession and independence.[163] On January 25, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin supported this view, calling Lenin's support of the right of secession for the Soviet Republics a "delay-action bomb".[citation needed]

An opinion piece by Gorbachev written in April 2006 stated: "The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union."[164][165]

The collapse of the Soviet Union caught many people by surprise. Before 1991, many thought that the collapse of the Soviet Union was impossible.[166]

See also


  1. ^ Withdrew from the CIS in 2018.
  2. ^ Joined the CIS in 1993; withdrew in 2008.
  3. ^ Associate member.
  4. ^ Rejoined the Russian Federation in 2000.
  5. ^ Rejoined Moldova in 1994.
  6. ^ Rejoined Azerbaijan in 1993.
  7. ^ Rejoined the Russian Federation in 1994.
  8. ^ Russian: Распа́д Сове́тского Сою́за, tr. Raspád Sovétskovo Sojúza, also negatively connoted as Russian: Разва́л Сове́тского Сою́за, tr. Razvál Sovétskovo Sojúza, Ruining of the Soviet Union.
  9. ^ As part of the Azerbaijan SSR.
  10. ^ Seceded from the Moldavian SSR as a separate republic of the Soviet Union, but then continued to declare itself an independent state after the USSR's final collapse.
  11. ^ Renamed SSR of Moldova in its Declaration of Sovereignty.
  12. ^ Seceded from Georgia.
  13. ^ Seceded from Russia.
  14. ^  Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in 1994–2000. It was not internationally recognized, with Russia supporting another government of its de jure autonomous Chechen Republic in 1993–96, until partially recognizing the government of Ichkeria. After not having any recognized government in 1991–93 and in 1996–99, the Chechen Republic was restored as an autonomous part of the Russian Federation under Akhmat Kadyrov.
  15. ^ Full name is "South Ossetian Soviet Republic" since November 28, 1990; initially it was called "South Ossetian Soviet Democratic Republic".
  16. ^ Previously called for an autonomy status inside the Georgian SSR as the South Ossetian ASSR since 10 November 1989.
  17. ^ Seceded from Uzbekistan.
  18. ^ Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 1998–2014.
  19. ^ Proclaimed self-governance.
  20. ^ Seceded Ukraine.


  1. ^ a b "Gorbachev, Last Soviet Leader, Resigns; U.S. Recognizes Republics' Independence". The New York Times. December 26, 1991. Retrieved June 7, 2020.
  2. ^ (in Russian) Declaration № 142-Н of the Soviet of the Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, formally establishing the dissolution of the Soviet Union as a state and subject of international law.
  3. ^ "The End of the Soviet Union; Text of Declaration: 'Mutual Recognition' and 'an Equal Basis'". The New York Times. December 22, 1991. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  4. ^ "Chernenko is Dead in Moscow at 73; Gorbachev Succeeds Him and Urges Arms Control and Economic Vigor". The New York Times. March 12, 1985.
  5. ^ "Михаил Сергеевич Горбачёв (Mikhail Sergeyevičh Gorbačhëv)". Archontology. March 27, 2009. Retrieved April 3, 2009.
  6. ^ Carrere D'Encausse, Helene (1993). The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations. Translated by Philip, Franklin (English ed.). New York, NY: BasicBooks. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-465-09812-5.
  7. ^ R. Beissinger, Mark. "Nationalism and the Collapse of Soviet Communism" (PDF). Princeton University: 5–6. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 28, 2017. Retrieved January 9, 2018.
  8. ^ "Gorbachev's role in 1989 turmoil". BBC News. April 1, 2009. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  9. ^ "The Gorbachev Plan: Restructuring Soviet Power". The New York Times. June 30, 1988. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  10. ^ "The Third Russian Revolution; Transforming the Communist Party". The New York Times. February 8, 1990. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  11. ^ "1986: Sakharov comes in from the cold". BBC News. December 23, 1972. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  12. ^ "Soviet Releasing Some Prisoners Under New Law". The New York Times. February 8, 1987. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  13. ^ O'Clery, Conor. Moscow December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union. Transworld Ireland (2011). ISBN 978-1-84827-112-8, p. 71.
  14. ^ Conor O'Clery, Moscow December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union. Transworld Ireland (2011). ISBN 978-1-84827-112-8, p. 74
  15. ^ Keller, Bill (November 1, 1987). "Critic of Gorbachev Offers to Resign His Moscow Party Post". The New York Times.
  16. ^ "The Road to Freedom". The Virtual Exhibition. Latvia National Archives.
  17. ^ a b c d "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on September 20, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  18. ^ "Nationalist riots in Kazakhstan: "Violent nationalist riots erupted in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, on 17 & 18 December 1986"". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. ^ Barringer, Felicity (May 24, 1987). "Russian Nationalists Test Gorbachev". The New York Times. Retrieved June 23, 2011.
  20. ^ Barringer, Felicity (July 26, 1987). "Tartars Stage Noisy Protest in Moscow". The New York Times. Retrieved June 23, 2011.
  21. ^ Keller, Bill (August 24, 1987). "Lithuanians Rally For Stalin Victims". The New York Times. Retrieved June 23, 2011.
  22. ^ "Latvian Protest Reported Curbed". The New York Times. November 19, 1987. Retrieved March 30, 2013.
  23. ^ a b "Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Republic of Armenia Official Site". October 18, 1987. Archived from the original on September 14, 2007. Retrieved June 23, 2011.
  24. ^ "Government in the Soviet Union: Gorbachev's Proposal for Change". The New York Times. October 2, 1988.
  25. ^ a b "Union of Soviet SOSocialist Republics: Parliamentary elections Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR, 1989". Retrieved December 11, 2011.
  26. ^ [1][permanent dead link]
  27. ^ "Estonia Gets Hope". Ellensburg Daily Record. Helsinki, Finland: UPI. October 23, 1989. p. 9. Retrieved March 18, 2010.
  28. ^ Keller, Bill (October 4, 1988). "Estonia Ferment: Soviet Role Model or Exception?". The New York Times.
  29. ^ Website of Estonian Embassy in London (National Holidays)
  30. ^ Walker, Edward (2003). Dissolution. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 63. ISBN 0-7425-2453-1.
  31. ^ Pages 10–12 Black Garden de Waal, Thomas. 2003. NYU. ISBN 0-8147-1945-7
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Further reading

See also: Bibliography of the Post Stalinist Soviet Union § The Dissolution of the Soviet Union and Bloc