DISINTEGRATION OF History of the Soviet Union

  • The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) also called the Soviet Union was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia from 1922 to 1991. Initially established as a union of four Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR grew to contain 15 constituent or “union republics” by 1956. This union got broken up into its constituent Republics in 1991.
  • The Soviet Union’s collapse into independent nations began in earnest in 1985. After years of Soviet military build-up at the expense of domestic development, economic growth was at a standstill. Failed attempts at reform and stagnant economy led to a general feeling of discontent, especially in the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe. Greater political and social freedoms, instituted by the Mikhail Gorbachev, created an atmosphere of open criticism of the Moscow regime. Several Soviet Socialist Republics began resisting central control, and increasing democratization led to a weakening of the central government. The USSR’s trade gap progressively emptied the coffers of union, leading to eventual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of a failed coup that had attempted to topple reform-minded Gorbachev.

The rise of Gorbachev

  • Mikhail Gorbachev was the most gifted and dynamic leader Russia had seen for many years. He came to power in March 1985. He was determined to transform and revitalize the country after the sterile years following Khrushchev’s fall. He intended to achieve this by modernizing and streamlining the communist party with new policies of glasnost (openness), perestroika (restructuring – which meant economic and social reform) and uskoreniye (speed-up of economic development).
  • Gorbachev did not want to end communism; he wanted to replace the existing system, which was still basically Stalinist with a socialist system which was humane and democratic. Gorbachev believed that the system was too centralized, leaving no room for local individual initiative. It was based almost completely on state ownership and control, and weighted strongly towards defence and heavy industry, leaving consumer goods for ordinary people in short supply.


Reforms of Gorbachev Glasnost

  • Glasnost resulted in greater freedom of speech and the press becoming far less controlled. Gorbachev’s primary goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressurize the conservatives who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, although he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate and participation, the Soviet people as a whole would support his reform initiatives.
  • Several – well known dissidents were released, and the Sakharovs were allowed to return to Moscow in December 1986 from internal exile in Gorky. Leaders like Bukharin who had been disgraced and executed during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s were declared innocent of all crimes. Pravda was allowed to print an article criticizing Brezhnev for overreacting against dissidents, and in January 1988 a new law was introduced to prevent dissidents’ form being sent to mental institutions. Important political events like the Nineteenth Party Conference in 1988 and the first session of the new congress of People’s Deputies held in May 1989 were televised.
  • State archives became more accessible, and some social statistics that had been kept secret became open for research and publication on sensitive subjects such as income disparities, crime, suicide, abortion, and infant mortality. The first centre for gender studies was opened within a newly formed Institute for the Socio-economic Study of Human Population.
  • In cultural matters and the media generally, there were some startling developments. In May 1986 both the Union of Soviet Film – makers and the Union of Writers were allowed to sack their reactionary heads and elect more independent – minded leaders. Long – banned anti – Stalin films and novels were shown and published, and preparations were made to publish works by the great poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in a labour camp in 1938.
  • There was a new freedom in news reporting; in April 1986, for example, when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded, killing hundreds of people and releasing a massive radioactive cloud which drifted across most of Europe, the disaster was discussed with unprecedented frankness.


Economic reforms

  • In November 1986 Gorbachev announced that 1987 will be the year for broad applications of the new methods of economic management. Small – scale private enterprise such as family restaurants, family businesses making clothes or handicrafts or providing services such as car a TV repairs, painting and decorating and private tuition, were allowed, and so were worker’s co – operatives up to a maximum of fifty workers.
  • One motive behind this reform was to provide competition for the slow and inefficient services provided by the state and another motive was the need to provide alternative employment as patterns of employment changed over the period of time. The responsibility for quality control throughout industry as a whole was taken over by independent state bodies from factory management. The Law on State Enterprises introduced in June 1987 was the most important part of the reforms. This removed the total control of central planners over raw materials, production quotas and trade, and made factories to work as per the orders from customers.


Political reforms

  • These reforms began in January 1987 when Gorbachev announced moves towards democracy within the party. Instead of members of local soviets being appointed by the local communist party, they were to be elected by the people, and there was to be a choice of candidates (though not of parties). There were to be secret elections for top party positions, and elections in factories to choose managers.
  • During 1988 dramatic changes were introduced in central government. The old Parliament (Supreme Soviet) of about 1450 deputies used to meet only for about two weeks each year. Its function was to elect two smaller bodies – the Presidium (33 members) and the Council of Ministers (71 members). It was these two committees which took all important decisions and saw that policies were carried out. Now the Supreme Soviet was to be replaced by a Congress of People’s Deputies (2250 members) whose main function was to elect a new and much smaller Supreme Soviet (450 representatives) which would be a proper working Parliament, sitting for about eight months a year. The chairman of the Supreme Soviet would be head of state.
  • Election went ahead, and the first Congress of People’s Deputies met in May 1989. During the second session (December 1989) it was decided that reserved seats for the communist party should be abolished. On 15th March 1990 Gorbachev was elected President of the Soviet Union with two councils to advise and help him; one contained his own personal advisers, the other contained representatives from the 15 republics. These new bodies completely sidelined the old system.



  • Gorbachev’s efforts to streamline the Communist system offered promise, but ultimately proved uncontrollable and resulted in a cascade of events that eventually concluded with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Initially intended as tools to bolster the Soviet economy, the policies of perestroika and glasnost soon led to many unintended consequences.
  • Relaxation under glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its absolute grip on the media. Before long and much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems the Soviet government had long denied and actively concealed. Problems receiving increased attention included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, outdated Stalin-era factories, and petty to large-scale corruption, all of which the official media had ignored. Media reports also exposed crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as his treaty with Adolf Hitler and the Great Purges, which had been ignored by the official media. Moreover, the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the mishandling of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster further damaged the credibility of the Soviet government at a time when dissatisfaction was increasing.
  • In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This undermined the faith of the public in the Soviet system and eroded the Communist Party’s social power base, threatening the identity and integrity of the Soviet Union itself.
  • The Soviet Union began experiencing upheaval as the political consequences of glasnost reverberated throughout the country. Despite efforts at containment, the upheaval in Eastern Europe inevitably spread to nationalities within the USSR. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, nationalists as well as radical reformers swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR’s central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR’s constituent republics had been largely undermined. Massive peaceful protests in the Baltic Republics such as The Baltic Way and the singing Revolution drew international attention and bolstered independent movements in various other regions.
  • The rise of nationalism under glasnost soon reawakened simmering ethnic tensions in various Soviet republics, further discrediting the ideal of a unified Soviet people. One instance occurred in February 1988, when the government in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian SSR. Violence against local Azerbaijanis was reported on Soviet television, provoking massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.
  • Emboldened by the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was much more overt than ever before in the Soviet period. Although perestroika was considered bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev’s attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country’s chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. the reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system, including price controls, inconvertibility of the Ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.
  • By 1990 the Soviet government had lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies to continue. Tax revenues declined as republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The anti=alcohol campaign reduced tax revenues as well, which in 1982 accounted for about 12 percent of all state revenue. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supplier-producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev’s decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.


Dissolution of the USSR

  • On February 7, 1990 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. Over the next several weeks, the 15 constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections. Reformers and ethnic nationalists won many of the seats.
  • The constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow and started a “war of laws” with the central government, wherein the governments of the constituent republics repudiated all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation as supply lines in the economy were severed, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.
  • The pro-independence movement in Lithuania, Sajudis, established on June 3, 1988 caused a visit by Gorbachev in January 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which provoked a provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people.
  • On March 11, 1990 Lithuania, led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Vytautas Landsbergis, declared independence. However, the Soviet Army suppressed the movement. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there “to secure the rights of ethnic Russians.”
  • On March 30, 1990 the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to re-establish Estonia as an independent state. The process of restoration of independence of Latvia began on May 4, 1990 with a Latvian Supreme Council vote stipulating a transitional period to complete independence.
  • On January 13, 1991 Soviet troops, along with KGB’s Alpha Groups, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania to suppress the nationalist media. This ended with 14 unarmed civilians dead and hundreds more injured. Later that month in Georgian SSR, anti-Soviet protesters at Tbilisi demonstrated support for Lithuanian independence.
  • On March 17, 1991 in a Union-wide referendum 78% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. The Baltic, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the renewed Soviet Union. Following the results Armenia indicated it wanted to rejoin in Union discussion.
  • On June 12, 1991. Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in the democratic elections for the post of president of the Russian SSR, defeating Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the “dictatorship of the centre”, but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the rail-tracks in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10.
  • On the night of July 31, 1991, Russian soldiers from Riga, the Soviet military headquarters in the Baltic, assaulted the Lithuanian border post in Medininkai and killed seven Lithuanian servicemen. This further weakened the Soviet Union’s position, internationally and domestically.


The August Coup

  • Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SSR was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common Party control over economy and social life. The more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet state. Disintegration of the USSR also accorded with the desire of local authorities, such as Yeltsin’s presidency, to establish full power over their territories and get rid of pervasive Moscow ideological control. In contrast to the reformers’ lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives and remaining patriots of the USSR, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state.
  • On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the “State Committee on the State Emergency.” The “Committee” put Gorbachev (vacationing in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest, reintroduced political censorship, and attempted to stop the perestroika. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.
  • While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in large cities and in republics was largely against them. Russian SSR President Boris Yeltsin was quick to condemn the coup and grab popular support for himself.
  • Thousands of people in Moscow came out to defend the “White House” (Yeltsin’s office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup.
  • After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev’s powers were now fatally compromised, as neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands.


Aftermath of the failed coup

  • Through the autumn of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991 Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former leaders abandoned the Communist Party in favors of positions in new government structures.
  • After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. Their local authorities started to seize property located on their territory. On September 6, 1991 the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic States, which the western powers had always held to be sovereign. Yet, in the battle of power, on October 18 Gorbachev and the representatives of 8 republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldavia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community.
  • Meanwhile, the Soviet economic situation continued to deteriorate. By December 1991 food shortages in central Russia had prompted food rationing in the Moscow area for the first time since World War II. Amid steady collapse Soviet President Gorbachev and his government continued to oppose rapid market reforms. To break Gorbachev’s opposition, Yeltsin decided to disband the USSR in accordance with the Treaty of the Union of 1922 and thereby remove Gorbachev and the Soviet government from power. This was seen as a forced measure to save the country from complete economic collapse and was at the time widely supported by Russia’s population. The step was also enthusiastically supported by the governments of Ukraine and Belarus, which were parties of the Treaty of 1922 along with Russia.

Formation of the CIS and official end of the USSR

  • The final round of the Soviet Union collapse took place following the Ukrainian popular referendum on December 1, 1991 wherein 90% of voters opted for independence. The leaders of Slavic republics agreed to meet for a discussion of possible forms of relationship, alternative to Gorbachev’s struggle for a union.
  • On December 8, 1991 the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha and signed the Belavezha Accords declaring the Soviet Union dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev described this as an unconstitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.
  • On December 12, 1991 Russia’s secession from the Union was sealed, with the Congress of Soviets of Russian SSR formally ratifying the Belavezha Accords and denouncing the 1922 Treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.
  • On December 17, 1991 alongside 28 European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries, twelve of the fifteen soviet republics signed the European Energy Charter in The Hague as if they were sovereign states.
  • Doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to affect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since they were signed by only five of the Soviet Republics. However, on December 21, 1991 representatives of all member republics except Georgia signed the Alma Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the union. That same day, all former-Soviet republics agreed to join the CIS, with the exception of the three, Baltic States. The documents signed at Alma Ata also addressed several issues raised by the Union’s extinction. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the role of the USSR in the United Nations, which meant inheriting its permanent membership on the Security Council. On December 24, 1991 the Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered to the Secretary General a letter by Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, informing him that, in virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for the purposes of UN membership. After being circulated among the other UN member states with no objection raised, the statement was declared accepted on December 31st.
  • On December 25, 1991 Gorbachev, yielding to the inevitable, resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to the president of Russia Boris Yeltsin. On the night of that same day, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Finally, a day later on December 31, 1991 all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations as individual republics assumed the central government’s role.

Post-Soviet restructuring

  • In order to restructure the Soviet administrative command system and implement transition to a market-based economy, Yeltsin’s shock program was employed within days of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The subsidies to money-losing farms and industries were cut, price controls abolished, and the Ruble moved toward convertibility. New opportunities for Yeltsin’s circle and other entrepreneurs to seize the former state property were created thus restructuring old state-owned economy within a few months. After obtaining power, the vast majority of “idealistic” reformers gained huge possessions of state property using their positions in the government and became business oligarchs in a manner that appeared antithetical to an emerging democracy. Existing institutions were conspicuously abandoned prior to the establishment of new legal structures of the market economy such as those governing private property, overseeing financial markets, and enforcing taxation.
  • Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create new production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge macroeconomic and structural distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization.
  • Since the USSR’s collapse, Russia has faced many problems that free market proponents in 1992 did not expect: among other things, 25% of the population now lives below the poverty line, life expectancy has fallen, birth-rates are low, and the GDP has halved. These problems led to a series of crises in the 1990s, which nearly led to election of Yeltsin’s Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, in the 1996 presidential election. In the recent years, the economy of Russia has begun to improve greatly, due to major investments and business development and also due to high prices of natural resources.

Changes in Eastern-Europe after 1990-91

  • In 1990 after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the former East Germany became part of the European Community as part of a newly reunited Germany. With enlargement toward Eastern Europe on the agenda, the Copenhagen criteria for candidate members to join the European Union were agreed.
  • Austria, Sweden and Finland jointed European Union in 1995. The Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 amended the Maastricht treaty in areas such as democracy and foreign policy. Amsterdam was followed by the Treaty of Nice in 2001, which revised the Rome and Maastricht treaty to allow the EU to cope with further enlargement to the east.
  • In 2002, twelve member states adopted the euro as a single currency. Since then, the Euro zone has increased to encompassing fifteen countries. In 2004, the EU saw its biggest enlargement to date when ten new countries, most of which former parts of the Eastern Bloc, acceded the Union. Three years later, two more joined.