The dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 was the culmination of an astonishing sequence of events that began in 1985 with Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as leader of the Soviet communist party.
The communist-controlled, one-party state dominated Soviet economic and cultural life as well as the country’s politics. Gorbachev aimed to use that power to shift Soviet socialism out of stagnation and to make the system both more popular and more dynamic.
Gorbachev’s ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (reconstruction) – radical political and economic reforms - certainly shook things up and for a while he became hugely popular at home and abroad as ‘Gorbymania’ swept the world.
But his policies were problematic because they destabilised the regime leaving it vulnerable to attack by an unholy alliance of liberals and nationalists who wanted to go beyond democratic reform to end communism and to secure the dissolution of the Soviet multi-national state itself.
When Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in 1917, they expected their revolution to set in motion a global revolution. In anticipation they established a state structure – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – designed to expand into a world-wide federation of socialist states as other countries joined in.
Their revolution, however, remained isolated so, after fighting and winning a vicious civil war, the Bolsheviks instead focused on building socialism in the Soviet Union. Revolutionary Russia consisted of more than a hundred nationalities and ethnic groups, a diversity reflected in the political structures created by the Bolsheviks.
The Soviet multinational state proved to be what one historian called an “affirmative action empire”. Cultural nationalism was encouraged and fostered by the communists but nationalist political agitation or demands for national independence were crushed with ruthless force.
Democratisation, the main thrust of Gorbachev’s reforms, also effectively destabilised the European communist bloc. Communism in Eastern Europe collapsed following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Germany was reunified in 1990 after 40 years of division. The Soviet-led Warsaw Pact was disbanded and the West claimed victory in the cold war.
Inside the USSR, an attempted coup by communist hardliners in August 1991 allowed Gorbachev’s great rival, Boris Yeltsin, to mount a counter-coup and to take control of the tottering Soviet system. Yeltsin, elected leader of the Russian component of the USSR, had a popular mandate, allowing him to use his position to cook up a deal for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
With the heads of the Belorussian and Ukrainian Republics, both founding members of the original USSR established in 1922, Yeltsin declared the Soviet Union would be replaced by a Commonwealth of Independent States. Yeltsin was so jubilant that he drank a glass of champagne for each of the deal’s 14 clauses and was unable to speak by the time the meeting ended.
It was neither the first nor the last of Yeltsin’s drunken performances and it did not stop him from laying claim to the USSR’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council or from taking over the Soviet foreign ministry. He also took control of the bulk of the USSR’s armed forces and security services and later of Soviet nuclear weaponry located in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.
The 15 Soviet Republics that had constituted the USSR became the union’s successor states. The biggest was the Russian Federation with a population of nearly 150 million, followed by the Ukraine (52 million), Uzbekistan (20 million), Kazakhstan (16.5 million), Belarus (10 million), Azerbaijan (7 million), Georgia (5.5 million), Tajikistan (5 million), Moldova (4.5 million), Kyrgyzstan (4 million), Turkmenistan (3.5 million), Lithuania (3.5 million), Armenia (3 million), Latvia (2.5 million) and Estonia (1.5 million).
Yeltsin’s successor as Russian President, Vladimir Putin, famously described the break-up of the USSR as the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century. It was and is a sentiment shared widely by his fellow Russians, as well as by many living in other parts of the former Soviet Union.
On another occasion, however, Putin said that while those with no regrets about the loss of the USSR had no heart, those who thought it could be re-created had no brains. Some people argue that once Gorbachev opened Pandora’s box to release freedom, nationalist agitation would inevitably collapse the Soviet Union.
Yet separatist nationalism was the enthusiasm of only a militant activist minority even in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which had been forcibly and violently incorporated into the USSR 1940. All three countries had large Russian minorities who did not share the anti-Soviet animosity of many of their Baltic compatriots.
Gorbachev retained the coercive power to crush nationalist movements in the Baltics and elsewhere should he so decide. But he was zealously committed to non-violence, one reason why he refused to step in and save the East European communist regimes in 1989. Let the people decide was his mantra, though he hoped they would make a socialist choice.
Equally challenging for Gorbachev was the Soviet economic crisis born of perestroika. While economic reform was his top priority upon taking office, neither he nor his team of advisors had a good grasp of how the Soviet state economy actually functioned, especially its financial structures.
They passed laws to decentralise and deregulate tranches of the Soviet economy that created an exponential growth in the money supply, wild price inflation and severe shortages of basic goods.
Gorbachev responded to economic problems by doubling-down on political reform. Elections were held to a create a new Congress of People’s Deputies, an institution supposed to provide Gorbachev with a power base independent of the communist party but which instead became a platform for radical nationalists and populist liberals.
A particular beneficiary of this development was Yeltsin, who’d been on Gorbachev’s team until he was dismissed as head of Moscow’s Communist Party in 1987. He was elected to the Congress with overwhelming support.
He was also voted into a new Russian Parliament and, reinventing himself as a Russian rather than a Soviet politician, turned resurgent Russian nationalism against Gorbachev. Outsiders viewed Russia as the core of the Soviet communist empire, while Russians believed themselves to be exploited by the USSR’s other nations. The new spectre haunting Gorbachev was the USSR being collapsed by ‘Russexit’.
Gorbachev reinvented himself, too, as a social democrat committed to ending the authoritarian communist system, including the party’s monopoly of political power. But he remained an internationalist who saw the Soviet Union as a bulwark against ethnic nationalism, not least the Russian variety, and as a platform for him to project his humanist values onto a global stage.
Gorbachev’s response to Yeltsin and the nationalist upsurge was to propose a new Soviet constitution under which the USSR would to be replaced by a Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics, a structure with the same initials but far less centralised power.
Gorbachev put his idea to a popular vote in March 1991 and received more than 75% support, but the referendum question was quite vague and his opponents used the campaign to strengthen their positions. Six republics – the Baltics plus Georgia, Armenia and Moldova boycotted the referendum. Ukraine added a question asking its voters to support the republic’s sovereignty, while Russia asked for a mandate to conduct the direct election of a Russian president. Both additional questions received majority support.
Yeltsin’s team used the referendum as a springboard for the Russian presidential election in June 1991, which their man won with 57% of the popular vote, while Gorbachev’s preferred candidate received only 16%.
Gorbachev pushed ahead with his proposal for a new Union Treaty. By early August he had reached agreement with Yeltsin and the leaders of other republics to replace the Soviet Union by a much looser confederation of sovereign republics. The treaty was due to be signed on 20 August and it was that prospect that provoked an attempted coup by members of Gorbachev’s own government who feared the new Union would lead to the complete disintegration of the USSR.
The coup, staged while Gorbachev was on holiday in Crimea, was led by KGB boss Vladimir Kryuchkov. It could have succeeded but the plotters were irresolute and disorganised and unwilling to use the necessary force. Ironically, Gorbachev was saved by Yeltsin who rallied a popular movement against the coup and then brought him back to Moscow.
The communist party was declared illegal for conniving with the plotters. This accusation was false but Gorbachev resigned as General-Secretary and relinquished his party membership. Intended to avert the break-up of the USSR, the attempted coup instead hastened the process by inflicting such severe political damage on Gorbachev that he was unable to recover.
The Soviet Union was indeed destroyed by centrifugal forces powered by nationalism but, ultimately, it was the Russian variety that mattered most. The irony is that, more than anyone else, it was the Russian people who came to regret the USSR passing into history.
- Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at UCC and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy. His latest book – Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books – will be published by Yale in February,