Dissolution of the Soviet Union

process leading to the late-1991 breakup of the USSR

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was the process by which the Soviet Union was disestablished as a government, sovereign state, and subject of international law. This included the dissolution of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the former communist ruling party of the country. The collapse of the Soviet Union also ended the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union was succeeded by fifteen successor states, most prominently the Russian Federation.


  • Gorbachev was never willing to leap directly to a market economy in the way that Deng Xiaoping had done. He reminded the Politburo late in 1988 that Franklin D. Roosevelt had saved American capitalism by "borrowing] socialist ideas of planning, state regulation, [and] . . . the principle of more social fairness." The implication was that Gorbachev could save socialism by borrowing from capitalism, but just how remained uncertain. "[R]epeated incantations about 'socialist values' and purified ideas of October,'" Chernyaev observed several months later, "provoke an ironic response in knowing listeners. . . . [T]hey sense that there's nothing behind them." After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev acknowledged his failure. "The Achilles heel of socialism was the inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individuals. It became clear in practice that a market provides such incentives best of all."
  • Fate had it that when I found myself at the head of the state it was already clear that all was not well in the country. There is plenty of everything: land, oil and gas, other natural riches, and God gave us lots of intelligence and talent, yet we lived much worse than developed countries and keep falling behind them more and more. The reason could already be seen: The society was suffocating in the vise of the command-bureaucratic system, doomed to serve ideology and bear the terrible burden of the arms race. It had reached the limit of its possibilities. All attempts at partial reform, and there had been many, had suffered defeat, one after another. The country was losing perspective. We could not go on living like that. Everything had to be changed radically. The process of renovating the country and radical changes in the world turned out to be far more complicated than could be expected. However, what has been done ought to be given its due. This society acquired freedom, liberated itself politically and spiritually, and this is the foremost achievement which we have not yet understood completely, because we have not learned to use freedom.
  • However, work of historic significance has been accomplished. The totalitarian system which deprived the country of an opportunity to become successful and prosperous long ago has been eliminated. A breakthrough has been achieved on the way to democratic changes. Free elections, freedom of the press, religious freedoms, representative organs of power, a multiparty (system) became a reality; human rights are recognized as the supreme principle. However, work of historic significance has been accomplished. The totalitarian system which deprived the country of an opportunity to become successful and prosperous long ago has been eliminated. A breakthrough has been achieved on the way to democratic changes. Free elections, freedom of the press, religious freedoms, representative organs of power, a multiparty (system) became a reality; human rights are recognized as the supreme principle. The movement to a diverse economy has started, equality of all forms of property is becoming established, people who work on the land are coming to life again in the framework of land reform, farmers have appeared, millions of acres of land are being given over to people who live in the countryside and in towns. Economic freedom of the producer has been legalized, and entrepreneurship, shareholding, privatization are gaining momentum. In turning the economy toward a market, it is important to remember that all this is done for the sake of the individual. At this difficult time, all should be done for his social protection, especially for senior citizens and children.
  • The totalitarian system in the Soviet Union and in most of its satellites is breaking down, and our nations are looking for a way to democracy and independence. The first act in this remarkable drama began when Mr. Gorbachev and those around him faced the sad reality of their country, initiated a policy of perestroika. Obviously, they had no idea either of what they were setting in motion or how rapidly events would unfold. We knew a lot about the enormous number of growing problems that slumbered beneath the honeyed, unchanging mask of socialism. But I don't think any of us knew how little it would take for these problems to manifest themselves in all their enormity and for the longings of these nations to emerge in all their strength. The mask fell away so rapidly that, in the flood of work, we have literally no time even to be astonished. Europe to 'Seek Its Own Identity'
  • For two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev struggled to maintain control. He sought free elections to party soviets and thus the democratization of political life. It was not easy. In losing its autocratic character, the Communist Party lost its brain and its spine. It disintegrated, and with it the fount of institutional discipline within the Leninist-Stalinist empire. Into the resulting vacuum flowed empire’s most insistent opponents, nationalism and anarchy.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Putin to Pericles (2018)
  • In Moscow, the result was power shifting from Gorbachev’s Kremlin to the headquarters of the formerly somnolent Russian republic in its ‘White House’ on the Moscow River. Here a new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, was a boisterous, bibulous throwback to past Moscow rulers. He resisted a coup attempt in August 1991 by KGB hardliners, when Gorbachev was briefly absent by the Black Sea. By December, the Warsaw Pact regimes were going their own way and so was Russia itself. A weakened Gorbachev was finally forced to sign the formal dismantling of the USSR. It meant his own downfall and Yeltsin (1991–9) moving into the Kremlin. On New Year’s Day 1992, the hammer-and-sickle that had graced the fortress battlements for sixty-eight years was hauled down, and the tsarist tricolour rose in its place.
    • Simon Jenkins, A Short History of Europe: From Putin to Pericles (2018)
  • You know, I thought that when we ended the Cold War, one of the most profound, I would say, principles was one that President Gorbachev, then the president of the Soviet Union, expounded. He said, you know, security must be security for all. And that was precisely how he justified reduction in the Soviet military. And even before the Soviet Union broke up, we were living in peace, and we had a united Europe. Many people seem to feel that the breakup of the Soviet Union was the end of the Cold War. That’s wrong. It had ended two years before that. And the breakup of the Soviet Union did not occur because of Western pressure; it occurred because of internal pressures within the Soviet Union. And it was something that President Bush did not wish. As a matter of fact, one of his last speeches, when there was a Soviet Union, was in Kyiv, when he advised Ukrainians to join Gorbachev’s voluntary federation, that he was proposing, and actually warned against suicidal nationalism. Those words, you know, are not remembered much now. People seem to think that Ukraine is free because of the end of the Cold War and the pressure of the West as one of the fruits of victory in the Cold War. This is simply incorrect. It turns history upside down.
  • I will recall once more Russia's most recent history. Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself. Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups — possessing absolute control over information channels — served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere. Many thought or seemed to think at the time that our young democracy was not a continuation of Russian statehood, but its ultimate collapse, the prolonged agony of the Soviet system. But they were mistaken. That was precisely the period when the significant developments took place in Russia. Our society was generating not only the energy of self-preservation, but also the will for a new and free life.
  • In 1989 this communist order was removed from the face of Europe. In 1991 the same thing happened in the Soviet Union. Although China still claimed to be communist, its fundamental economic reforms meant that this was no longer accurate as a comprehensive description. Communist parties clung on to office in a few countries such as North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba; their geopolitical importance was a long way short of the power and prestige of the ‘world communist movement’ in its years of pomp. Communism was fast becoming a historical relic. Such a transformation brought an end to the struggle known as the Cold War. This was predominantly a conflict between coalitions led by the USSR and the USA, and the Soviet disintegration in December 1991 signalled a definitive victory for the Americans. For years the Cold War had involved the nightmarish possibility of a nuclear strike by one side against the other. Unable to match American advances in the development and dissemination of technology, the Soviet Union had lost the military parity it had possessed. This was not the sole index of defeat. Throughout the contest between the superpowers the Americans had claimed to stand for the market economy, liberal democracy and civil society. Although the USA had often honoured these principles only in the breach, they were the principles widely thought to have triumphed when communism expired in eastern Europe and in the USSR. The West’s political leaders and commentators were proud and excited. Communism had been exposed as an overwhelmingly inferior kind of state order. Many believed that history had come to a close. Liberalism in its political, economic and social manifestations had consigned the ideology and practice of Leninism to the dustbin of the ages. The suggestion was that communism had been a puffball which too many people had walked around as if it was a great oak tree.
  • After the XX Congress, in an ultra-narrow circle of our closest friends and associates, we often discussed the problems of democratization of the country and society. We chose a simple – like a sledgehammer – method of propagating the "ideas" of late Lenin. A group of true, not imaginary reformers developed (of course, orally) the following plan: to strike with the authority of Lenin at Stalin, at Stalinism. And then, if successful, – to strike with Plekhanov and Social Democracy - at Lenin, and then – with liberalism and "moral socialism" – at revolutionarism in general... The Soviet totalitarian regime could be destroyed only through glasnost and totalitarian party discipline, while hiding behind the interests of improving socialism. [...] Looking back, I can proudly say that a clever, but very simple tactic – the mechanisms of totalitarianism against the system of totalitarianism – has worked.
  • After I was elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, I committed one very important tactical blunder. I trusted Gorbachev. It seemed to me that an alliance with Gorbachev might become very important in stabilizing the situation both in the republics and in the country as a whole. And many people urged me on. Our joint work on the 500-day program brought the interests of a renewed union of republics and the center even closer together. Gorbachev had admitted publicly that the Shatalin-Iavlinskii program looked very interesting and promising to him. It seemed to me that all we had to do was take one more step, and we could walk together onto the road which would lead us out of the crisis. But that didn’t happen. He suddenly changed his position drastically, and the 500-day program collapsed, burying any hopes with it for a way out of the impasse. Instead of breaking with Gorbachev and firmly divorcing myself from the president’s policies of half steps, half measures, and half reforms, I fell prey to the illusion that we could still reach an agreement. But, as it turned out, it was impossible to make an agreement with a president who is simultaneously the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist party and to whom the interests of the party caste and the party elite will always take precedence over any other interests. And so we lost four months. We didn’t get anywhere by supporting Moscow indirectly by our silence. On February 19, in a live broadcast on Central Television, I had enough courage to tell the viewers that I was dissociating myself from Gorbachev’s policies. It would have been impossible and immoral for me to continue to watch without a murmur while the current leadership dragged the country toward chaos and catastrophe by trying to preserve the rotten system.
  • Regardless of the reasons given for his removal, we are dealing with a rightist, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and severe trials being experienced by the people, the democratic process in the country is acquiring an increasingly broad sweep and an irreversible character. The peoples of Russia are becoming masters of their destiny. The uncontrolled powers of unconstitutional organs have been considerably limited, and this includes party organs.

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