Dissolution of the Soviet Union
|Date||11 March 1985 – 26 December 1991
(6 years, 9 months, 2 weeks and 1 day)
|Participants||People of the Soviet Union
|Outcome||Dissolution of the Soviet Union into independent republics|
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) formally ceased to exist on 26 December 1991. The increasing political unrest led the authoritarian establishment of the Soviet military and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to attempt a coup d'état to oust Mikhail Gorbachev and re-establish a strong central regime in August 1991. On December 26, 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was finalized by declaration no. 142-H of the Soviet of the Republics of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, acknowledging the independence of the twelve republics of the Soviet Union, and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States. On the previous day, 25 December 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned, declaring his office extinct, and handed over the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That same evening at 7:32 P.M. the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the Russian tricolor. Two weeks later, 8 of the remaining 9 republics signed the Alma-Ata Protocol formally establishing the CIS and declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The dissolution of the state also marked an end to the Cold War. The Revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to the end of decades-long hostility between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, which had been the defining feature of the Cold War.
Many former Soviet republics have retained close links with Russia and formed multilateral organizations such as the Eurasian Economic Community, the Union State, the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, and the Eurasian Union to enhance economic and security cooperation.
- 1 1985
- 2 1986
- 3 1987
- 4 1988
- 4.1 Soviet Union centre – starting to lose control
- 4.2 Baltic states – the Singing Revolution
- 4.3 Caucasus – Rebellion
- 4.4 The Western republics
- 5 1989
- 5.1 Soviet Union centre – the democratic explosion
- 5.2 Baltic states – the Chain of Freedom
- 5.3 Caucasus
- 5.4 The Western republics
- 5.5 Central Asian republics
- 6 1990
- 7 1991
- 8 Chronology of Declarations of Restored States
- 9 Chronology of Declarations of Newly Independent States
- 10 Legacy
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 External links
Soviet Union centre – the new General Secretary
Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo on 11 March 1985, only three hours after Konstantin Chernenko's death. At age 54, he was the youngest member of the Politburo. Gorbachev's primary goal as General Secretary was to revive the Soviet economy after the stagnant Brezhnev years.
In an effort to revive the stagnant Soviet economy, in 1985 new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began a process of increasing political liberalization (glasnost/perestroika) in the communist one-party state. In 1985, he announced that the Soviet economy was stalled and that reorganization was needed. Gorbachev soon realized that fixing the Soviet econoy would be nearly impossible without reforming the political and social structure of the Communist nation. The reforms began in personnel changes. On 23 April 1985 Gorbachev brought his two proteges Yegor Ligachev, and Nikolai Ryzhkov into the Politburo as full members, and sensibly took the opportunity to keep the 'power' ministries happy by promoting KGB Head Viktor Chebrikov from candidate to full member of the Politburo, and appointing Minister of Defence Marshal Sergei Sokolov a Politburo candidate member. Nikonov was brought into the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat.
However, this liberalization led to the emergence from 1986 onwards of nationalist movements and ethnic disputes within the diverse republics of the Soviet Union. It also led to the revolutions of 1989, which saw the mainly peaceful (Romania excepted) toppling of the Soviet imposed Communist regimes of the Warsaw Pact, 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 in 1989 introduced limited competitive elections to a new central legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies, although a ban on other political parties was not lifted until 1990. A 17 March 1991 referendum showed 76.4% of Soviet citizens voting to retain the Union. However, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldavia, Georgia, and Armenia did not participate.
In May 1985 in Leningrad Gorbachev made a speech advocating widespread reforms. One of the first reforms Gorbachev introduced was the anti-alcohol campaign, begun in May 1985, which was designed to fight widespread alcoholism in the Soviet Union. Prices of vodka, wine, and beer were raised, and their sales were restricted. It was a serious blow to the state budget, a loss of approximately 100 billion rubles according to Alexander Yakovlev, after alcohol production migrated to the black market economy. The purpose of these reforms, however, was to prop up the existing centrally planned economy, unlike later reforms, which tended toward market socialism.
On 1 July 1985 Gorbachev promoted Eduard Shevardnadze First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party to full member of the Politburo, and the following day appointed Shevardnadze as Minister of Foreign Affairs replacing Andrei Gromyko. Gromyko, disparaged as "Mr Nyet" in the West, had served for 28 years as Minister of Foreign Affairs and was considered an 'old thinker' who was kicked upstairs to the mainly ceremonial position of Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, which was officially Soviet Head of State. Also on July 1, 1985 Gorbachev took the opportunity to dispose of his main rival by removing Grigory Romanov from the Politburo, and brought Boris Yeltsin and Lev Zaikov into the CPSU Central Committee Secretariat.
In the fall Gorbachev continued his program to bring forward younger and more energetic men into the government. On September 27, 1985 Nikolai Ryzhkov replaced 79 year old Nikolai Tikhonov as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, effectively the Soviet Prime Minister, and on 14 October 1985 Nikolai Talyzin replaced Nikolai Baibakov as Chairman of the State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN). At the next Central Committee meeting on 15 October 1985 Tikhonov retired from the Politburo and Nikolai Talyzin became a candidate member.
Soviet Union centre – the thaw begins
In 1986 Gorbachev continued to press for greater liberalisation. On 23 December 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.
The Baltic states, incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, pressed their claims to the restoration of their independence, beginning with Estonia in November 1988 when the Estonian legislature passed laws resisting the control of the central government. On 11 March 1990 Lithuania was the first of the Baltic states to declare restoration of their independence, on the basis of state continuity.
Latvia – Helsinki-86 and the first demonstrations
The CTAG (Latvian: Cilvēktiesību aizstāvības grupa, Human Rights Defense Group) Helsinki-86 was founded in July, 1986 in the Latvian port town of Liepāja by three workers: Linards Grantiņš, Raimonds Bitenieks, and Mārtiņš Bariss. Its name refers to the Helsinki Accords and the year of its founding. Helsinki-86 was the first openly anti-Communist organization, and the first openly organized opposition to the Soviet regime in the Soviet Union, setting an example for other ethnic minorities' pro-independence movements.
In Riga, Latvia, on 26 December 1986, in the early morning hours after a rock concert, some 300 working-class 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.
Central Asian republics
Kazakhstan – Jeltoqsan riots
The "Jeltoqsan" or "December" of 1986 were riots that took place in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan in response to General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's dismissal of Dinmukhamed Konayev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and an ethnic Kazakh, and the subsequent appointment of Gennady Kolbin, an outsider from the Russian SFSR. Demonstrations started in the morning of 17 December 1986 as an initial number of 200–300 students gathered in front of the Central Committee building on Brezhnev square to protest the decision of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to replace Kunayev with Kolbin. The number of protesters increased to 1,000–5,000 as students from universities and institutes joined the crowd on Brezhnev square. As a response, the CPK Central Committee ordered troops from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, druzhiniki (volunteers), cadets, policemen, and the KGB to cordon the square and videotape the participants. The situation escalated around 5 pm, as troops were ordered to disperse the protesters. Clashes between the security forces and the demonstrators continued throughout the night in the square and in different parts of Almaty. The second day, protests turned into civil unrest as clashes in the streets, universities, and dormitories between troops, volunteers, militia units, and Kazakh students turned into a wide-scale confrontation. The clashes could only be controlled on the third day. The Almaty events were followed by smaller protests and demonstrations in Shymkent, Pavlodar, Karaganda and Taldykorgan. Reports from Kazakh SSR authorities estimated that the riots drew 3,000 people. Other estimates are of at least 30,000 to 40,000 protestors with 5,000 arrested and jailed, and an unknown number of casualties. Jeltoqsan leaders say over sixty thousand Kazakhs participated in the protests. According to the Kazakh SSR government, there were two deaths during the riots, including a volunteer police worker and a student. Both of them had died due to blows to the head. About 100 others were detained and several others were sentenced to terms in labor camps. Sources cited by Library of Congress claim that at least 200 people died or were summarily executed soon after. Some accounts estimate casualties at more than 1,000. The writer Mukhtar Shakhanov claimed that a KGB officer testified that 168 protesters were killed, but that figure remains unconfirmed as most material about Jeltoksan is in Moscow, locked in CPSU and KGB archives.
Soviet Union centre – one-party democracy
At the 28–30 January 1987 Central Committee Plenum Mikhail Gorbachev suggested a new policy of 'democratization' throughout Soviet society. Specifically he suggested 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 words and democratic choice within the Communist Party was never significantly implemented. In addition Gorbachev radically expanded the scope of Glasnost stating that no subject was off limits for open discussion within the media, although the cautious intelligensia took almost a year to begin pushing the boundaries to see if he meant what he said. For the first time, the Communist Party leader, speaking at the Plenum of the Central Committee, appealed over the heads of its members for the people's support in exchange for a dramatic expansion of liberties. The tactic proved successful in that within two years political reform was invulnerable to the party 'conservatives', the unintended consequence was that having saved reform, the January 1987 choice, ultimately killed the very system it was designed to save.
On 7 February 1987 dozens of political prisoners were freed in the first group release since the Khrushchev years in the 1950s. On May 6, 1987 Pamyat, a Russian Nationalist group, held an unsanctioned demonstration in Moscow. The authorities not only did not break up the demonstration by force—but later, the police kept traffic out of the demonstrators' way while they marched to an impromptu meeting with Boris Yeltsin, head of the Moscow Communist Party, and at that time one of Mikhail Gorbachev's closest allies in the ruling Politburo. On July 25, 1987 a group of 300 Crimean Tatars, calling for the right to return to the Crimean homeland from which they were deported in 1944, staged a noisy demonstration for several hours near the Kremlin Wall as dozens of police and soldiers looked on.
On 10 September 1987, after a lecture from hard-liner Yegor Ligachev at the Politburo for allowing two small unsanctioned demonstrations on Moscow streets, Boris Yeltsin wrote a letter of resignation to Gorbachev who was holidaying on the Black Sea. When Gorbachev received the letter he was stunned – nobody in Soviet history had voluntarily resigned from the ranks of the Politburo. At the October 27, 1987 plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Yeltsin, frustrated that Gorbachev had not addressed any of the issues outlined in his resignation letter asked to speak. He expressed his discontent with both the slow pace of reform in society, the servility shown to the General Secretary, and opposition to him from Ligachev making his position untenable, before requesting to resign from the Politburo. This was sensational. Besides the fact that nobody had ever quit the Politburo, no one in the party had ever had the audacity to address a leader of the party in such a manner in front of the Central Committee since Leon Trotsky in the 1920s. In his reply, Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of "political immaturity" and "absolute irresponsibility". Nobody in the Central Committee backed Yeltsin.
Within days news of Yeltsin's actions leaked and rumours of his 'secret speech' at the Central Committee spread throughout Moscow. Soon fabricated samizdat versions began to circulate. This was the beginning of Yeltsin's re-branding as a rebel and he continued to grow in popularity as an anti-establishment figure. The next four years of political struggle between Yeltsin and Gorbachev was a major factor in the destruction of the Soviet Union. On November 11, 1987 Yeltsin was fired from the post of First Secretary of the Moscow Communist Party.
Baltic states – the first Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact protests
On August 23, 1987, on the 48th anniversary of the secret protocols of Molotov Pact between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin that ceded the three independent Baltic states to the Soviet Union in 1940, thousands of demonstrators marked the occasion in the capitals of all three Baltic states to sing anthems of independence and to hear defiant speeches honoring the victims of Stalin. The gatherings were sharply denounced in the official press and closely watched by the police, but they were not interrupted.
Latvia – taking the lead
In Latvia on June 14, 1987 about 5,000 people gathered at the Freedom Monument and laid flowers to commemorate the anniversary of Stalin's mass deportation of Latvians in 1941. This was the first large demonstration in the Baltic states to commemorate the anniversary of an event contrary to Soviet propaganda. That the authorities did not crack down hard on the demonstrators encouraged ever larger anti-soviet demonstrations on significant anniversaries across the Baltic States. Following the 23 August Molotov Pact demonstration the next major anniversary fell on 18 November, which was the date of Latvian independence in 1918. On this date in 1987 hundreds of policemen and civilian militiamen cordoned off the central square to prevent any commemoration at the Freedom Monument, however thousands lined the streets of Riga in silent protest.
Estonia – the first demonstrations
In spring 1987, a protest movement arose against new phosphate mines in Estonia. Signatures were collected and in Tartu, students assembled in the university's main hall to express their lack of confidence in the government. At the 1st May 1987 demonstration, young people showed up bearing banners and slogans, despite a ban against such actions. On 15 August 1987, former political prisoners formed the MRP-AEG group (Estonians for the Public Disclosure of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), which was headed by Tiit Madisson. In September 1987, the Edasi newspaper published a proposal by Edgar Savisaar, Siim Kallas, Tiit Made and Mikk Titma calling for Estonia to make the transition to autonomy. Initially geared toward economic independence, then toward a certain amount of political autonomy, the project, Isemajandav Eesti (A Self-Managing Estonia) became known according to its Estonian acronym, IME, which means "miracle". On 21 October, a demonstration dedicated to those who gave their lives in the 1918–1920 Estonian War of Independence took place in Võru, which culminated in a conflict with the militia. For the first time in years, the blue, black and white national tricolor was publicly visible.
Caucasus – environmental issues
Armenia – environmental and Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrations
On October 17, 1987 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. The demonstration was led by Armenian writers such as Silva Kaputikian, Zori Balayan and Maro Margarian and leaders from the National Survival organization. The march originated at the Opera Plaza after speakers, mainly intellectuals, addressed the crowd.
The following day 1,000 Armenians participated in another demonstration calling for Armenian national rights in Karabagh. The demonstrators demanded the annexation of Nakhchivan and Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, and carried placards to that effect. The police tried to physically prevent the march and after a few incidents, dispersed the demonstrators. The status of Nagorno-Karabakh would blow up into violence the following year.
Soviet Union centre – starting to lose control
In 1988 Gorbachev started to lose control in two small but troublesome regions of the Soviet Union, as the Baltic states were captured by their Popular Fronts, and the Caucasus descended into violence and civil war.
On July 1, 1988, the fourth and last day of the 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 of the Soviet Union. Frustrated by the 'old guard's resistance to his attempts to liberalise, Gorbachev had changed tack and embarked upon a set of constitutional changes to try to separate party and state, and thereby isolate his conservative opponents. Detailed proposals for the new Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union were published for public consultation on October 2, 1988, and to enable the creation of the new legislature the Supreme Soviet, during its November 29, to December 1, 1988 session, implemented the necessary amendments to the 1977 Soviet Constitution, enacted a law on electoral reform, and set the date of the election for March 26, 1989.
Baltic states – the Singing Revolution
In 1986 and 1987 Latvia had been in the vanguard of the three 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.
Estonia – Estonian Popular Front
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 relatively liberal Vaino Väljas, the Soviet ambassador to Nicaragua. In late June 1988 Väljas bowed to pressure from the Estonian Popular Front and legalized the flying of the former National Flag of independent Estonia, and agreed a new state language law that made Estonian the official language of the Republic.
On October 2, the Popular Front formally launched its political platform at a two day congress. Vaino Väljas attended, gambling that the front could help Estonia become a model of economic and political revival, while moderating separatist and other radical tendencies. On November 16, 1988, the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR adopted a declaration of national sovereignty under which Estonian laws should have precedence over those of the Soviet Union. Estonia's parliament also laid claim to the republic's natural resources: land, inland waters, forests, mineral deposits and to the means of industrial production, agriculture, construction, state banks, transportation, municipal services, etc. in the territory of Estonia's borders.
Latvia – Latvian Popular Front
The Latvian Popular Front was founded in June 1988, On October 4, 1988 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 the flying of the former National Flag of independent Latvia, and agreed on October 6, a new state language law that made Latvian the official language of the Republic.
Lithuania – Sąjūdis
The Popular Front of Lithuania called Sąjūdis 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 former National Flag of independent Lithuania, and then in November 1988 agreed a new state language law that made Lithuanian the official language of the Republic.
Caucasus – Rebellion
Azerbaijan – the descent into violence
In February 20, 1988, after a week of growing demonstrations in Stepanakert, capital of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (the Armenian majority area within Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic), the Regional Soviet voted to secede and join with the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. This local vote in a small virtually unknown part of the Soviet Union was unprecedented and made headlines throughout the world – a part of the Soviet system of government had on its own initiative dared to defy not only its own Republic's authorities but that of Moscow as well. On February 22, 1988 in what became known as the Askeran clash two Azerbaijanis were killed in clashes with Karabakh Armenians. The announcement of these deaths on state radio led to the Sumgait Pogrom where between February 26, and March 1, the city of Sumgait was subjected to four days of violent anti-Armenian riots during which 32 people were killed. The authorities totally lost control of events and finally had to occupy the city with paratroopers and tanks. Almost all the 14,000 Armenian population of Sumgait fled the city.
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, 1988 through to September 1988 a group of Azerbaijani intellectuals began working on a programme for a new organisation called the Popular Front of Azerbaijan, which was loosely based on the Estonian Popular Front. On September 17, 1988 when gunbattles broke out between Armenians and Azerbaijanis near Stepanakert, 2 soldiers were killed and more than 2 dozen people were injured. This led to almost complete ethnic polarisation in Nagorno-Karabakhs two main towns as the Azerbaijani minority were expelled from the Armenian majority capital of Stepanakert, and the Armenian minority was expelled from the Azerbaijani majority former-capital of Shusha. On November 17, 1988, in response to the exodus of tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis from Armenia, a rolling series of mass demonstrations started in Lenin Square, Baku, which lasted 18 days and regularly attracted half a million demonstrators – until the Soviet militia finally moved in, cleared the square by force on December 5, 1988, and imposed a curfew that lasted 10 months.
Armenia – the people rise
The rebellion of their fellow Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh had an immediate effect in Armenia. Daily demonstrations—which began in Yerevan on February 18, with the usual ecological slogans—initially attracted few people, but each day the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh became more prominent and the numbers swelled. On February 20, a 30,000-strong crowd demonstrated in Theatre 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 a million demonstrators – representing quarter of the population of the entire republic. This was the first occurrence of the huge peaceful people power demonstrations that were later to become a feature of the overthrow of communism in Prague, Berlin, and ultimately Moscow. At this time the eleven-member Karabakh Committee was formed by leading Armenian intellectuals and nationalists, including future first President of independent Armenia Levon Ter-Petrossian, to lead and organise the new Armenian mass movement.
Gorbachev again 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 Karen Demirchian was replaced 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, 1988 allowed Armenians to unfurl the outlawed First Armenian Republic flag for the first time in almost 70 years in Yerevan. On June 15, 1988 the Supreme Soviet in Yerevan adopted a resolution in which it formally gave its approval to the idea of Nagorno Karabakh joining Armenia. Armenia, formerly one of the most loyal Republics, had suddenly turned into the leading rebel in the Soviet Union. On July 5, 1988 when a contingent of troops was sent in to remove demonstrators by force from Yerevan's Zvarnots Airport shots were fired and one student protester died. In September 1988 further large demonstrations in Yerevan led to the deployment of armoured vehicles onto the streets. In the autumn of 1988 almost all the 200,000 Azerbaijani minority in Armenia was expelled by Armenian Nationalists, with over 100 killed in the process On November 25, 1988 a military commandant took control of the Armenian capital as the Soviet Government moved to prevent further ethnic violence. Then on December 7, 1988 Armenia was hit by the Spitak earthquake, which killed 25,000 people – when Gorbachev rushed to the scene from a visit to the United States he was so angered when even during this national tragedy he was confronted by Armenian protesters calling for Nagorno-Karabakh to be made part of the Armenian Republic, that on December 11, 1988 he ordered the arrest of the entire Karabakh Committee.
Georgia – the first demonstrations
In November 1988 in Tbilisi, capital of Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, large numbers of demonstrators camped out in front of the republic's legislature in support of Estonia's declaration of sovereignty.
The Western republics
Moldavia – Democratic Movement of Moldova
The Democratic Movement of Moldova organized public meetings, demonstrations, and song festivals from February 1988, 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 Alee of the Classics [of the Literature]). On January 15, 1988, in a tribute to Mihai Eminescu at his bust on the Aleea Clasicilor, Anatol Şalaru submitted the proposal to continue the meetings. In the public discourse, the movement called for national awakening, freedom of speech, revival of Moldavian traditions, and for attainment of official status for the Moldovan language and return of it to the Latin script. The transition from "movement" (informal association) to "front" (formal association) was regarded by its sympathizers as a natural "upgrade" once the movement has gained momentum with the public, and the Soviet authorities could no longer crack down on it.
Ukraine – Lviv leads
On April 26, 1988 some 500 people participated in a march organized by the Ukrainian Culturological Club on Kyiv's Khreschatyk to mark the second anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster, carrying placards with slogans such as "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, Zarvantysia and other sites. On June 5, 1988 as the official celebrations of the Millennium are held in Moscow, the Ukrainian Culturological 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 between 6,000 and 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, 1988. On June 21, a rally in Lviv attracts 50,000 people who heard discussion of a revised list of delegates to the party conference. Authorities attempted to disperse the rally held in front of the Druzhba Stadium. On July 7, 1988 a crowd of 10,000 to 20,000 witnessed the launching in Lviv of the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. On July 17, 1988 a group of 10,000 faithful gathered in Zarvanytsia for Millennium services celebrated by Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk. Militia tried to disperse the people – the largest gathering of Ukrainian Catholics in the USSR since the Stalin regime outlawed the Church in 1946. On August 4, 1988, on what came to be known as Bloody Thursday, local authorities used violent methods to disband a gathering of tens of thousands organized by the Democratic Front to Promote Perestroika. Forty-one people were detained and fined or sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest. On September 1, 1988 local authorities once again used force against 5,000 participants gathered silently in front of Ivan Franko State University in Lviv for a public meeting held without official permission.
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, 1988 fifteen Ukrainian rights activists were among the 100 human, national and religious rights advocates invited to participate in talks on human rights issues with Soviet officials and a visiting delegation of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission). On December 10, 1988 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.
Byelorussia – Kurapaty
The Partyja BPF (Belarusian Popular Front) was established in 1988 as both a political party and a cultural movement pushing for democracy and independence, following the examples of the Baltic Popular Fronts. Its first leader was Zianon Pazniak. The discovery of mass graves filled with executed bodies in Kuropaty outside Minsk by historian Zyanon Paznyak and exhumation of the remains, gave an added momentum to the pro-democracy and pro-independence movement in Belarus. The Front claimed that the NKVD performed its secret killings in Kuropaty. Initially the Front had significant visibility because of its numerous active public actions almost always ended in clashes with police and KGB.
Soviet Union centre – the democratic explosion
The spring of 1989 saw the people of the Soviet Union exercising a democratic choice, albeit limited, for the first time since 1917, when they elected the new Congress of Peoples Deputies. As important was the uncensored live TV coverage of the legislature's deliberations – where the people witnessed the previously feared Communist leadership being questioned and held to account. This example fueled the limited experiment with democracy in Poland, which quickly led to the toppling of the Communist government in Warsaw by the summer, which in turn sparked peoples uprisings that overthrew communism in the other five Warsaw Pact countries before the end of a truly historic year. In short this was the year when Gorbachev completely lost control of events – to his shock he discovered the people of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union did not support his drive to modernise and thereby save Communism, instead they wanted to destroy it.
1989 was also the year that CNN became the first non-Soviet broadcaster allowed to beam its news programmes into Moscow. It was officially only available to foreign guests in the Savoy Hotel, but Muscovites quickly learned how to rig their own aerials to pick up the signals on their home TVs – this had a huge impact on how Russians saw events in their own country, and made censorship of news almost impossible.
Congress of Peoples Deputies
The month-long nomination of 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 districts nominees took place at meetings organized by constituency-level electoral commissions. On March 7, a final list of 5,074 candidates was published; approximately 85% of these were Communist Party members.
In the two weeks prior to the 1,500 districts 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 Union, 75 to the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol), 75 to the Soviet Women's Committee, 75 to the War and Labour Veterans' Organization, and 325 to other organizations such as the Academy of Sciences. The selection process was ultimately completed in April.
In the March 26, general elections, voter participation was reported at 89.8%. With this polling, 1,958 – including 1,225 district seats – of the 2,250 CPD seats were filled. In the district races, run-off elections were held in 76 constituencies on April 2 and 9 and fresh elections were organized on April 20, and 14 to May 23, in the 199 remaining constituencies where the required absolute majority was not attained.
While the majority of CPSU-endorsed candidates were elected over 300 candidates won out over the endorsed candidates. Among them were Boris Yeltsin, physicist Andrei Sakharov, and lawyer Anatoly Sobchak.
The first session of the new Congress of People's Deputies ran from May 25, to June 9, 1989. Although hardliners retained control of the chamber, the reformers used the legislature as a platform to debate and criticize the Soviet system, with the state media broadcasting their comments live and uncensored on television. This held the population transfixed because nothing like this freedom of debate had ever been witnessed in the USSR. On May 29, Yeltsin managed to secure a seat on the Supreme Soviet, and in the summer formed the first opposition, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group, comprising Russian nationalists and liberals. As it was the final legislative group in the Soviet Union, those elected in 1989 played a vital part in continuing reforms and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union over the next two years.
On May 30, 1989 President Mikhail S. Gorbachev proposed that nationwide local elections, that were scheduled for November 1989, and were supposed to bring about the decentralization of political power, should be postponed until early 1990 because there were still no laws governing the conduct of SSR elections, and there was little chance these laws could be enacted until the national congress met again in the autumn. This was seen to be at least partly a concession to local Communist Party officials, who feared they would be swept from power in a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.
On October 25, 1989 the Supreme Soviet voted to eliminate special seats for the Communist Party and other official organizations in national and local elections, responding to sharp popular criticism that such reserved slots were undemocratic. The 542-member Supreme Soviet, the year-round legislative body, passed the measure after vigorous debate by a vote of 254 in favor, 85 against and 36 abstentions. The decision required a constitutional amendment and was ratified by the full congress, which met for its second session December 12–25, 1989.
The lawmakers also passed measures that would allow direct elections for president in each of the 15 constituent republics. Mr. 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.
Loss of outer empire
The six Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, whilst nominally independent, were widely recognised in the international community as part of the Soviet Union's outer empire between 1945 and 1989. 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 with military force, such as happened in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968.
Gorbachev abandoned the oppressive and expensive Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies, termed in October 1989 the Sinatra Doctrine in a joking reference to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way".
Baltic states – the Chain of Freedom
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 that occurred on 23 August 1989. Approximately two million people joined their hands to form a human chain spanning over 600 kilometres (370 mi) across the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, illegally incorporated as republics into the Soviet Union. It marked the 50th anniversary of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The pact and its secret protocols divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence and led to the occupation of the Baltic states in 1940.
Lithuania – the Communist Party splits
In the March 1989 elections to the USSR Congress of Peoples Deputies 36 of the 42 deputies from Lithuania were candidates from the independent national movement Sajudis. This was the greatest victory for any National organisation within the USSR and was a devastating revelation to the Lithuanian Communist Party of its own unpopularity.
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 ended its claim to have a constitutional "leading role". A smaller loyalist faction of the Communist Party headed by Mykolas Burokevičius was established and remained affiliated to the CPSU. However the governing Communist Party of a Soviet Republic was now formally independent of Moscow's control for the first time. This was a political earthquake that led to Gorbachev immediately arranging a visit to Lithuania the next month to try to bring the local party back under CPSU control – he was to fail.
Azerbaijan – Blockade
On July 16, 1989 the Popular Front of Azerbaijan held its first congress and elected as Chairman Abulfaz Elchibey, a future President of independent Azerbaijan. On August 19, 600,000 protesters jammed Lenin square in Baku demanding political prisoners be released by the authorities. In the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh the second half of 1989 began with the handing out of weapons, and as Karabakhis got hold of small arms to replace their hunting rifles and crossbows casualties began to mount – bridges were blown up, roads were blockaded and the first hostages taken. In a new and very effective tactic the Popular Front in late summer launched a rail blockade on Armenia. Eighty-five percent of Armenia's rail traffic came from Azerbaijan, and this embargo caused shortages of petrol and food in Armenia. Under pressure from the Popular Front the Communist authorities in Azerbaijan started making concessions. On September 25, a law on sovereignty was passed giving Azerbaijani law precedence over Soviet Law, and on October 4, the Popular Front was permitted to register as a legal organization, on condition it raise the blockade. However transport communications between Azerbaijan and Armenia never fully recovered. Tensions continued to escalate and on December 29, Popular Front activists seized local party offices in Jalilabad wounding dozens of people.
Armenia – nationalist leaders released
On May 31, 1989 the 11 members of the Karabakh Committee, who had been imprisoned without trial in the Matrosskaya Tishina prison in Moscow, were released and returned to Yerevan to a hero's welcome. Levon Ter-Petrossian soon after his release was elected chairman of the anti-communist opposition Pan-Armenian National Movement, and later stated that it was in 1989 that he first began to consider the idea of complete Armenian independence from the USSR.
Georgia – massacre in Tbilisi
On April 7, 1989 troops and armored personnel carriers were sent onto the streets of Tbilisi after more than 100,000 people gathered in front of the Government and Communist Party headquarters, many with banners calling for Georgia to secede from the Soviet Union and urging the full integration into Georgia of the autonomous region of Abkhazia. On 9 April 9, 1989 at least sixteen people were killed and more than 200 wounded when troops attacked the peaceful demonstrators. This event radicalised Georgian politics, prompting many to conclude that independence was preferable to continued Soviet rule. On 14 April 1989 Gorbachev removed Jumber Patiashvili as First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party for his poor handling of the April events and replaced him with the former Georgian KGB chief Givi Gumbaridze.
On July 16, 1989 in Sukhumi capital of Abkhazia 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. This riot marked the start of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.
The Western republics
Moldavia – Popular Front of Moldova
In the 26 March elections to the Congress of People's Deputies 15 of the 46 deputies sent to Moscow from the Moldavian SSR were supporters of the Nationalist/Democratic movement.
A series of demonstrations that became known as the Grand National Assembly (Romanian: Marea Adunare Naţională) was the first major achievement of the Popular Front. Mass demonstrations organized by its activists, including one attended by 300,000 participants on August 27, were of critical importance in convincing the Moldavian Supreme Soviet to adopt a new language law on August 31, 1989 that made the Moldovan the official state language, and replaced the Cyrillic script with the Latin script.
Ukraine – Rukh
On January 22, 1989 Lviv and Kyiv both mark Ukrainian Independence Day for the first time in decades. In Lviv, thousands gather for an unauthorized moleben in front of St. George Cathedral; in Kyiv, 60 activists meet in a Kyiv apartment to commemorate the historic event of 1918 when the independent Ukrainian National Republic was proclaimed. On February 11–12, 1989 the Ukrainian Language Society holds its founding congress. On February 15, 1989 the formation of the Initiative Committee for the Renewal of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church is announced. The program and statutes of the movement were proposed by the Writers Association of Ukraine and were published in the journal Literary Ukraine (Literaturna Ukraina) on February 16, 1989. The organization took its roots in Ukrainian dissidents such as Vyacheslav Chornovil. From February 19–21, 1989 large public rallies take 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 Scherbytsky, often referred to as "the mastodon of stagnation". The demonstrations coincide with a visit to Ukraine by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On February 26, 1989 between 20,000 and 30,000 people participate in an unsanctioned ecumenical memorial service in Lviv marking the 128th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko's death.
On March 4, 1989 the Memorial Society, committed to honoring the victims of Stalinism and cleansing society of its Soviet vestiges, is founded in Kyiv. A public rally is held the next day. On March 12, 1989 A pre-elections meeting organized in Lviv by the Ukrainian Helsinki Union and the Marian Society Myloserdia (Compassion) is violently dispersed, and nearly 300 people are detained. On March 26, 1989 elections are held to the 2,250-member USSR Congress of People's Deputies; bye-elections are held on April 9, May 14 and 21. Out of the total of 225 deputies representing Ukraine, 175 are elected in the four rounds of elections. Most are conservatives, though a handful of progressives do make the cut.
From April 20–23, 1989 pre-elections meetings are held in Lviv for four consecutive days, drawing crowds of up to 25,000. The action includes an hourlong warning strike at eight local factories and institutions. It is the first labor strike in Lviv since 1944. On May 3, 1989 a pre-elections rally attracts 30,000 in Lviv. On May 7, 1989 The Memorial Society organizes a mass meeting at Bykivnia, site of a mass grave of Stalin's victims. After a march from Kyiv to the site, a memorial service is offered. From Mid-May to September 1989 Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hunger strikers stage protests on Moscow's Arbat to call attention to the plight of their Church. They are especially active during the July session of the World Council of Churches held in Moscow. The protest is ended with the arrests of the group on September 18. On May 27, 1989 the founding conference of the Lviv regional Memorial Society is held. On June 18, 1989 approximately 100,000 faithful participate in public religious services in Ivano-Frankivsk, responding to Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky's call for an international day of prayer.
On August 19, 1989 the Russian Orthodox Parish of Ss. Peter and Paul announces it is switching to the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. On September 2, 1989 tens of thousands in cities across Ukraine protest the draft election law that reserves special seats for the Communist Party and 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 is elected to head Rukh, the Popular Movement of Ukraine for Peredudova, at its founding congress in Kyiv. On September 17, between 150,000 and 200,000 march in Lviv to demand the legalization of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. It is the largest demonstration of Ukrainian Catholics since World War II. On September 21, 1989 exhumation of a mass grave begins 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, is replaced by Gorbachev by Vladimir Ivashko.
On October 1, 1989 a peaceful demonstration of 10,000 to 15,000 people is violently dispersed by the militia when the people protest in front of Lviv's Druzhba Stadium, where a concert celebrating the Soviet "reunification" of Ukrainian lands is held. On 3 October 3, 1989 nearly 30,000 Lviv residents rally to protest the violence of 1 October; a two-hour work strike is also held. On 10 October 1989 Ivano-Frankivsk is the site of a pre-elections protest attended by 30,000 people. On 15 October 1989 several thousand people gather in Chervonohrad, Chernivtsi, Rivne, and Zhytomyr; 500 in Dnipropetrovsk; and 30,000 in Lviv to protest the elections law. On 20 October 20, 1989 faithful and clergy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church participate in a sobor in Lviv – the first since that Church's forced liquidation in the 1930s. On 24 October 24, 1989 the all-union Supreme Soviet passes a law eliminating special seats for Communist Party and other official organisations' representatives. On 26 October 1989 twenty factories and institutions in Lviv hold strikes and meetings to once again protest the 1 October police brutality in the city and the authorities' unwillingness to prosecute those responsible. From 26–28 October 1989 the Zelenyi Svit environmental association holds its founding congress. On 27 October 1989 the Ukrainian SSR Supreme Soviet passes a law "On Elections of People's Deputies of the Ukrainian SSR", eliminating the special status of party and other official organisations. On 28 October 28, 1989 the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet decrees that from 1 January 1990 Ukrainian will be the state language of Ukraine, while Russian will be used for communication between nationality groups. On the same day The Congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration in Lviv leaves the Russian Orthodox Church and proclaims itself a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The following day thousands attend a memorial service at Demianiv Laz, and a temporary marker is placed to indicate that a monument to the "victims of the represssions of 1939–1941" will soon be erected on the site.
In mid-November The Shevchenko Ukrainian Language Society is officially registered. On November 19, 1989 a public gathering in Kyiv attracts thousands of mourners, friends and family to the reburial in Ukraine of three inmates of the infamous Camp No. 36 in Perm in the Urals: rights activists Vasyl Stus, Oleksiy Tykhy and Yuriy Lytvyn. Their remains are reinterred in Baikiv Cemetery. On November 26, 1989 a day of prayer and fasting is proclaimed by Cardinal Myroslav Lubachivsky, thousands of faithful in western Ukraine participate in liturgies and molebens on the eve of a meeting between Pope John Paul II and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. On November 28, 1989 the Ukrainian SSR's Council for Religious Affairs issues a decree permitting registration of Ukrainian Catholic congregations. The decree is proclaimed on December 1, coinciding with a meeting at the Vatican between the pope and the Soviet president.
On December 10, 1989 the first officially sanctioned observance of International Human Rights Day is held in Lviv. On December 17, 1989 a public meeting organized in Kyiv by Rukh is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Andrei Sakharov, human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; 30,000 attend. On December 26, 1989 the Supreme Soviet of Ukrainian SSR adopts a law making Christmas, Easter and the Feast of the Holy Trinity holidays in the republic.
Belarus – Kurapaty
On January 24, 1989 the Soviet authorities in Belarus finally agreed to the demand of the democratic opposition to build a monument to thousands of people shot by Stalin's police in the Kuropaty Forest near Minsk in the 1930s. On September 30, 1989 thousands of Belarussians, denouncing local leaders, marched through the center of Minsk to demand further measures to clean up the aftermath of the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Up to 15,000 protesters wearing armbands with radioactivity symbols and carrying the banned red-and-white Belarussian national flag filed through torrential rain in defiance of a ban by the local authorities. Later, they gathered in the city center near Government headquarters, where speakers demanded the resignation of the republic's Communist Party leader, Yefrem Y. Sokolov, and called for the evacuation of half a million people from contaminated zones.
Central Asian republics
Uzbekistan – Fergana riots
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 during which about 100 people were killed. On June 23, 1989 Gorbachev removed Rafiq Nishonov as First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Uzbek SSR for his poor handling of the June events, and replaced him with Islam Karimov who went on to lead Uzbekistan as a Soviet Republic and subsequently as an independent state for decades.
Kazakhstan – Novy Uhzen
In Kazakhstan on June 19, 1989 young men carrying guns, fire bombs, iron bars and stones rioted in Novy Uzhen 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. By June 25, 1989 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 90 miles from Novy Uzen before they were dispersed by Government troops flown in by helicopters. Mobs of young people also rampaged through the towns of Yeraliev, Shepke, Fort Shevchenko and Kulsary, where they poured flammable liquid on trains housing temporary workers and set them afire.
On June 22, 1989 Gorbachev removed Gennady Kolbin (the ethnic Russian whose appointment caused the riots of 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 as an independent state for decades.
Soviet Union centre – Six republics lost
On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU accepted the recommendation of Mikhail Gorbachev that the party give up its 70-year-long monopoly of political power. During 1990 all fifteen constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections, and reformers and ethnic nationalists won many of the seats. The CPSU lost the elections in the following six republics:
- Lithuania on February 24, 1990 (with run-off elections on March 4, 7, 8 and 10, 1990) to Sajudis
- Moldova on February 25, 1990 to the Popular Front of Moldova
- Estonia on March 18, 1990 to the Estonian Popular Front
- Latvia on March 18, 1990 (with run-off elections on March 25, April 1 and 29, 1990) to the Latvian Popular Front
- Armenia on May 20, 1990 (with run-off elections on June 3, and July 15, 1990) to the Pan-Armenian National Movement
- Georgia on October 28, 1990 (with a run-off election on November 11, 1990) to Round Table-Free Georgia
The constituent republics began to declare their national sovereignty and started a "war of laws" with the Moscow central government, wherein the governments of the constituent republics rejected union-wide 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.
Russia – emergence of a rival centre of power
On 4 March 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 with 72% of the vote. On 29 May 1990, Yeltsin was elected chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), in spite of the fact that Gorbachev personally pleaded with the Russian deputies not to vote for him. Yeltsin was supported by both democratic and conservative members of the Supreme Soviet, which sought power in the developing political situation in the country. A new power struggle rapidly emerged between the RSFSR and the Soviet Union. On 12 June 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR adopted a declaration of sovereignty. On 12 July 1990, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party in a dramatic speech before party members at the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
A visit by President Mikhail Gorbachev from January 11–13, 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people.
On March 11, 1990 the newly elected parliament of the Lithuanian SSR, elected Vytautas Landsbergis a leader of Sajudis, to the position of Chairman of the Supreme Council becoming the first non-communist leader of a Soviet Republic.
Vytautas Landsbergis promptly declared the restoration of Lithunaian independence becoming the first Soviet Republic to break away from the USSR. However, the Soviet Army attempted to suppress the movement.
On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonian SSR since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state.
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 1940, when it was annexed by the Soviet Union, the country had de jure remained a sovereign country as the annexation had been unconstitutional and against the will of the people of Latvia.
The declaration also stated that Latvia would form its relationship with the Soviet Union on the basis of the Latvian–Soviet Peace Treaty of 1920, in which the Soviet Union had recognized the independence of Latvia as inviolable "for all future time". The 4th of May is a national holiday in Latvia.
Azerbaijan – Black January
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. For the first time the Soviet Union had lost control of its external border.
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 troops were killed. On Jan 11, Popular Front radicals stormed party buildings and effectively overthrew Communist power in the southern town of Lenkoran. On January 13, 1990 murderous anti-Armenian violence overwhelmed Baku, around ninety Armenians were beaten to death or thrown from balconies, before Soviet troops were able to evacuate the remaining Armenian population of Baku, thereby completing the mutual ethnic cleansing of Armenia and Azerbaijan of each other's populations.
Gorbachev now resolved to regain control of Azerbaijan. Late at night on January 19, 1990, after blowing up of the central television station and the termination of phone and radio lines by Soviet special forces, 26,000 Soviet troops entered Baku, smashing through the barricades to crush the Popular Front. In the course of the storming, the troops attacked the protesters, firing into the crowds. More than 130 people died from wounds received that night and during subsequent violent confrontations and incidents that lasted until February; the majority of these were civilians killed by Soviet soldiers. More than 700 civilians were wounded. Hundreds of people were detained, only a handful of whom were put on trial for alleged criminal offenses. Civil liberties were severely curtailed. 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 noncommunist 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 shooting continued for three days. For the first time the Soviet Army had taken one of its own cities by force.
The army had gained physical control of Baku but by January 20, 1990 essentially lost Azerbaijan – almost the whole population of the city turned out for the mass funerals of the victims who became the first "martyrs" buried in the Alley of Martyrs on the top of the hill in Baku. Thousands of Communist Party members publicly burned their party cards. First Secretary Vezirov had decamped to Moscow suffering from nervous exhaustion, so Ayaz Mutalibov was appointed his successor in a free vote of party officials, the ethnic Russian Viktor Polyanichko remained second secretary and the power behind the throne.
Following the hard line takeover the elections held on September 30, 1990, with runoffs on October 14, 1990, were characterized by intimidation, including the jailing of several Popular Front candidates and the murder of two others, and the unabashed stuffing of ballot boxes even in the presence of Western observers. The election results reflected the nature of this environment and in a body of 350 members, 280 were Communists and only 45 opposition candidates from the Popular Front and other non-communist groups, who together formed a Democratic Bloc ("Dembloc"). In May 1990 Ayaz Mutalibov was elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet without allowing any opponents to stand against him.
The Western republics
On January 21, 1990 Rukh organizes a 300-mile human chain between Kyiv, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. Hundreds of thousands join hands to commemorate the proclamation of Ukrainian independence in 1918 and the reunification of Ukrainian lands one year later. On January 23, 1990 the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church holds its first synod since its liquidation by the Soviets in 1946 at a bogus synod. The gathering declares the 1946 synod uncanonical and invalid. On February 9, 1990 Rukh is officially registered by the Ukrainian SSR Council of Ministers. However, the registration comes too late for Rukh to put forth its own candidates for the parliamentary and local elections on March 4,. In the March 4, 1990 Elections to the Ukrainian SSR People's Deputies. Candidates from the Democratic Bloc win landslide victories in western Ukrainian oblasts. A majority of the seats are forced into run-off elections. On March 18, 1990 Democratic candidates score further impressive victories in the run-off. The Democratic Bloc now holds about 90 seats in the new Parliament.
On April 6, 1990 the Lviv City Council votes to return St. George Cathedral to the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church refuses to yield. On April 29–30, 1990 the Ukrainian Helsinki Union is disbanded to form the Ukrainian Republican Party. On May 15, 1990 the new Parliament convenes. The bloc of conservative Communists holds 239 seats; the Democratic Bloc, which is now evolved into the National Council, has 125 deputies. On June 4, 1990 two candidates remain in the protracted race for Parliament chairman. The chief of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Volodymyr Ivashko, is elected with 60% of the vote as more than 100 opposition deputies boycott the election. On June 5–6, 1990 Metropolitan Mstyslav of the U.S.-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church is elected patriarch of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church during that Church's first holy synod. The UAOC declares its full independence from the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in March had granted autonomy to its exarchate in Ukraine headed by Metropolitan Filaret.
On June 22, 1990 Volodymyr Ivashko withdraws his candidacy for chief of the Communist Party of Ukraine in view of his new position in Parliament. Stanislav Hurenko is elected first secretary of the CPU. On July 11, 1990 Volodymyr Ivashko resigns from his post as chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament after he is elected deputy general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Parliament accepts the resignation a week later, on July 18,. On July 16, 1990 the Declaration on State Sovereignty of Ukraine is overwhelmingly approved by Parliament. The vote is 355 for and four against. The people's deputies vote 339–5 to proclaim July 16, a national holiday in Ukraine.
On July 23, 1990 Leonid Kravchuk is elected to replace Volodymyr Ivashko as Parliament chairman. On July 30, 1990 the Parliament adopts a resolution on military service that demands that Ukrainian soldiers serving "in regions of national conflict such as Armenia and Azerbaijan" be returned to Ukrainian territory by October 1,. On August 1, 1990 the Parliament votes overwhelmingly to close down the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. On August 3, 1990 Parliament adopts a law on economic sovereignty of the Ukrainian republic. On August 19, 1990 The first Ukrainian Catholic liturgy in 44 years is celebrated at St. George Cathedral. Hundreds of thousands attend. On September 5–7, 1990 The International Symposium on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 is held in Kyiv. On September 8, 1990 The first "Youth for Christ" rally since 1933 is held in Lviv with 40,000 participants. Between September 28–30, 1990 the Green Party of Ukraine holds its founding congress. On September 30, 1990 nearly 100,000 march in Kyiv to protest the new union treaty proposed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
On October 1, 1990 Parliament reconvenes amid mass protests calling for the resignation of its chairman, Leonid Kravchuk, and Prime Minister Vitalii Masol, a leftover from the previous regime. Students erect a tent city on October Revolution Square where they continue the protest.
On October 17, 1990 Prime Minister Vitaliy Masol resigns. On October 20, 1990 Patriarch Mstyslav I of Kyiv and all Ukraine arrives at St. Sophia Cathedral, ending a 46-year banishment from his homeland. On October 23, 1990 the Parliament votes to delete Article 6 of the Ukrainian Constitution, which refers to the "leading role" of the Communist Party and adopts other measures to bring the Constitution in line with the Declaration on State Sovereignty.
Between October 25–28, 1990 Rukh holds its second congress and declares that its principal goal is no longer "perebudova" but the "renewal of independent statehood for Ukraine". On October 28, 1990 UAOC faithful, supported by Ukrainian Catholics, demonstrate near St. Sophia Cathedral as newly elected Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Aleksei and Metropolitan Filaret celebrate liturgy at the shrine. On November 1, 1990 Leaders of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, respectively, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sterniuk and Patriarch Mstyslav meet in Lviv during anniversary commemorations of the 1918 proclamation of the Western Ukrainian National Republic.
On November 18, 1990 the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church enthrones Patriarch Mstyslav I as Patriarch of Kyiv and all Ukraine during ceremonies at St. Sophia Cathedral. Also on November 18, 1990 Canada announces that its consul general to Kyiv will be Ukrainian Canadian Nestor Gayowsky. On November 19, 1990 The United States announces that its consul to Kyiv will be Ukrainian American John Stepanchuk. Mr. Stepanchuk arrives in Kyiv in early 1991 to set up the consulate. Consul General Jon Gundersen arrives soon thereafter. On November 19, 1990 The chairmen of the Ukrainian and Russian parliaments, respectively, Leonid Kravchuk and Boris Yeltsin, sign an unprecedented 10-year bilateral pact between the two republics. Early in December 1990 The Party for the Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine is formed. On December 15, 1990 The Democratic Party of Ukraine is founded.
Soviet Union centre – crisis
On January 14, 1991 Nikolai Ryzhkov resigned from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, literally 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% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. The Baltics, Armenia, Georgia, Chechen-Ingush (an autonomous republic within Russia that had a strong desire for independence, and by now referred to itself as Ichkeria) 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.
Russia – President Yeltsin
On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in the democratic elections for the newly created post of President of the Russian SFSR, 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 railtrack in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10.
On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with KGB Spetsnaz Alpha Group, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Lithuania to suppress the nationalist media. This ended with fourteen unarmed civilians dead and hundreds more injured. On the night of July 31, 1991, 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.
Attacks in Lithuania prompted Latvians to mount a defense by building barricades to block access to strategically important buildings and bridges in Riga. Soviet attacks in following days resulted in six people being killed and several injured, one of whom later died.
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 SFSR 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 markets of the other Soviet republics to prosper. However, this meant the preservation of the Communist Party's control over economic 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 Union into several independent nation-states. Disintegration of the USSR also accorded with the desires of Yeltsin's presidency of the Russian Federation as well as regional and local authorities, 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' and Russian nationalists of the USSR, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were opposed to anything that might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state and its centralized power base.
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 signing of the union treaty by forming the "General Committee on the State Emergency". The "Committee" put Gorbachev (on holiday 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, manifesting itself in a campaign of civil resistance, especially in Moscow. Russian SFSR 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 (the Russian Federation's parliament and 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. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but would not storm the barricaded building. The coup leaders also neglected to jam foreign news broadcasts, so many Moscovites watched the coup unfolding live on CNN, whilst Gorbachev himself kept up with events in captivity by listening to the BBC World Service on his radio.
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 the Union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands.
The fall – August–December 1991
On 24 August, President Gorbachev resigned as general secretary of the CPSU and ordered all party units in the government dissolved. Five days later, Communist rule in the Soviet Union effectively ended when the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all CPSU activities on Soviet territory.
With the effective dissolution of the last unifying force in the country, the Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the fall and winter of 1991. Between August and December, 10 republics declared their independence, largely out of fear of another coup. By the end of summer, Gorbachev could no longer influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who began taking over what remained of the Soviet government.
The final round of the Soviet Union's collapse began with the Ukrainian popular referendum on 1 December 1991, wherein 90% of voters opted for independence. By nearly all accounts, the secession of the second-most powerful republic ended any realistic chance of the Soviet Union staying united even on a limited scale. The leaders of the three principal Slavic republics (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—formerly Byelorussia) agreed to meet for a discussion of possible forms of a relationship, as an alternative to Gorbachev's struggle for a union.
On 8 December 1991 the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha and signed the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. They also invited the other republics to join. Gorbachev described this as an unconstitutional coup. By this time, however, it was apparent that, in the words of the Accords' preamble, "the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence."
On 12 December, he Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords and denounced the 1922 Union Treaty. The Russian deputies were also recalled from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The legality of this action was questionable, since Soviet law did not allow a republic to unilaterally recall its deputies. However, no one in Russia raised any objections. No objections came from the Kremlin either, though they would have likely had no effect since by this time what remained of the Soviet government had been rendered impotent long before then. In effect, the largest and most powerful republic had seceded from the Union. Later that day, Gorbachev hinted for the first time that he was considering stepping aside. It was now clear that the momentum toward dissolution could not be stopped.
On 17 December 1991, alongside 28 European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries, the three Baltic states and nine of the other 12 remaining republics signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague as sovereign states. On the same day, Kazakhstan became the last republic to declare independence.
Doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to effect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since they were signed by only three Republics. However, on 21 December 1991 representatives of 11 of the 12 former republics—all except Georgia—signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the Union and formally established the CIS. They also preemptively accepted Gorbachev's resignation. When Gorbachev learned what had transpired, he told CBS that he would resign as soon as he saw that the CIS was indeed a reality. The Alma-Ata Protocol also addressed several issues raised by the Union's extinction. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the Soviet Union's UN membership, including its permanent membership on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered to the Secretary General a letter signed by Russian President Yeltsin, dated 24 December 1991 informing him that, by virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for purposes of UN membership. After being circulated among the other UN member states with no objection raised, the statement was declared accepted on 31 December 1991.
In a nationally televised speech early on the morning of 25 December, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR--or as he put it, "I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The office was declared extinct, and all the powers still vested in it (such as control over the nuclear arsenal) were ceded to Russia's President 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" to reflect that it was now a sovereign state. In the night of 25 December 1991, at 7:32 P.M. local time, after former President Gorbachev had left the Kremlin and the Russian authorities had taken over control of the complex from the now-former Soviet authorities, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place. This historic event marked the end of the Soviet Union in the eyes of the world. The next day, 26 December 1991, the Council of Republics, the upper chamber of the Union's Supreme Soviet, issued a formal Declaration recognizing that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a state and subject of international law and voted itself out of existence (the Council of the Union, the other chamber of the Supreme Soviet, had been unable to work since 12 December 1991 when the recall of the Russian deputies left it without a quorum). By 31 December 1991 the few Soviet institutions that hadn't been taken over by Russia had ceased operations, as individual republics assumed the central government's role.
Chronology of Declarations of Restored States
Before the coup
- Lithuania – March 11, 1990
- Estonia (transitional) – March 30, 1990
- Latvia (transitional) – May 4, 1990
During the coup
Chronology of Declarations of Newly Independent States
States with limited recognition are shown in italics.
Before the coup
After the coup
- Ukraine – August 24, 1991
- Belarus – August 25, 1991
- Moldova – August 27, 1991
- Kyrgyzstan – August 31, 1991
- Uzbekistan – September 1, 1991
- Nagorno-Karabakh – September 2, 1991
- Tajikistan – September 9, 1991
- Armenia – September 21, 1991
- Azerbaijan – October 18, 1991
- Turkmenistan – October 27, 1991
- South Ossetia – November 28, 1991
- Russia – December 12, 1991 (On this date the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords, denounced the 1922 Union Treaty, and recalled Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR).
- Kazakhstan – December 16, 1991
According to a 2006 poll by VCIOM 66% of all Russians regretted the collapse of the Soviet Union. 50% of respondents in Ukraine in a similar poll held in February 2005 stated they regret the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The final collapse of the USSR was one of the most sudden and dramatic territorial losses that has befallen any state in history. Between 1990 and 1992 the Kremlin had lost direct government control over about one-third of Soviet territory—most of it acquired in the period between 1700 and 1945—which had about one-half of the Soviet population by the time of the dissolution.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the breakdown of economic ties that followed, led to a severe economic crisis and catastrophic fall in the standards of living in the 1990s in post-Soviet states and the former Eastern Bloc, which was even worse than the Great Depression. Even before Russia's financial crisis of 1998, Russia's GDP was half of what it had been in the early 1990s, and some populations are still poorer as of 2009 than they were in 1989, including Ukraine, Moldova, Central Asia, and the Caucasus.
The collapse of the Soviet Union hit the Cuban economy severely. The country lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34%. Food and medicine imports stopped or severely slowed. The largest immediate impact was the loss of nearly all of the petroleum imports by the USSR. The economy of North Korea, however, suffered even greater catastrophe. The collapse of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies caused the total implosion of an economy already stagnant from poor planning and massive military spending. According to Angus Maddison, per capita GDP fell from USD$2,800 in 1988 to $1,200 in 1998. Furthermore, natural disasters ruined harvests and the country suffered a catastrophic famine that killed between a few hundred thousand and 2 million people.
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 USSR 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.
The other fourteen independent states established from the former Soviet Republics were all admitted to the UN:
- 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 USSR. After declaring independence, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic changed its name to Ukraine on August 24, 1991, and on September 19, 1991, the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic informed the UN that it had changed its name to Belarus.
- Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were admitted to the UN on September 17, 1991.
- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were admitted to the UN on March 2, 1992.
- Georgia was admitted to the UN on July 31, 1992.
- 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. (Russian)
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- [dead link]
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- Guide to the James Hershberg poster collection, Special Collections Research Center, The Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, The George Washington University. This collection contains posters documenting the changing social and political culture in the former Soviet Union and Europe (particularly Eastern Europe) during the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union. A significant portion of the posters in this collection were used in a 1999 exhibit at Gelman Library titled "Goodbye Comrade: An Exhibition of Images from the Revolution of '89 and the Collapse of Communism."
- Lowering of the Soviet flag in December 25, 1991
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