Dissolution of the Soviet Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During late 1991, disastrous economic conditions, worsening quality of material life, growing nationalist separatism, and a coup attempt destroyed confidence in the central government of the Soviet Union and led to the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Summary of Event

According to the 1936 constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or Soviet Union, citizens of that nation possessed freedom of speech, press, assembly, and demonstration, as well as equality of rights, irrespective of nationality or race. The constitution also guaranteed to member republics the right of secession. The history of the Soviet Union, however, shows evidence of ongoing disregard for these rights. The social and economic consequences of that disregard prompted the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Soviet Union;dissolution [kw]Dissolution of the Soviet Union (Dec., 1991) [kw]Soviet Union, Dissolution of the (Dec., 1991) Soviet Union;dissolution [g]Soviet Union;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Europe;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Central Asia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Baltic States;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Russia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Armenia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Azerbaijan;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Belarus;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Estonia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Georgia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Kazakhstan;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Kyrgyzstan;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Latvia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Lithuania;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Moldavia;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Ukraine;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [g]Uzbekistan;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [c]Government and politics;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec., 1991: Dissolution of the Soviet Union[08230] Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Soviet Union dissolution Yeltsin, Boris Yanayev, Gennady Kravchuk, Leonid Shushkevich, Stanislav

The year after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, Vladimir Ilich Lenin Lenin, Vladimir Ilich established the Soviet Republic of Russia. At first, the government declared that all land, housing, and large factories were public property, to be managed by the central government. In 1921, however, Lenin combined privatized small industries and retail trade with state-controlled large industry, banking, and foreign trade. When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded in 1922, however, its agricultural, industrial, and other economic resources already were exhausted.

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Joseph Stalin Stalin, Joseph took over the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1924 and inaugurated highly centralized economic planning. He created collective farms and launched his country into rapid industrial development. Unfortunately, the Soviet people suffered from a neglect of both agriculture and production of consumer goods, declining living standards, and increasing political coercion. In the 1930’s, Stalin eliminated political opposition with mass arrests, forced labor, and executions. He also extended Soviet domination in Europe, beginning with annexation of the Baltic States on the eve of World War II and continuing with the establishment of the Iron Curtain Iron Curtain in the postwar period. In the mid-1950’s, the Soviet Union’s economic growth began to slow, worker productivity fell, and consumption of goods declined.

Nikita S. Khrushchev, Khrushchev, Nikita S. who emerged as the new Communist Party leader in 1953 and became premier in 1958, eased Stalinist restrictions, but his attempts to reform the Soviet economy were unsuccessful. When his farm program collapsed in 1964, Khrushchev was forced into retirement.

Leonid Brezhnev, Brezhnev, Leonid who succeeded Khrushchev as party leader and later became president of the Soviet Union, stifled political reform. As economic growth slowed further in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Brezhnev continued to use central economic planning and attempted to improve living conditions. With gains in agricultural production barely matching population growth, food importation became necessary. After 1979, Soviet productivity declined dramatically, living standards fell, and shortages of goods and services became severe.

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In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev (general secretary of the Communist Party since 1985) launched a radical economic reform program known as perestroika Perestroika (restructuring), accompanied by a policy of glasnost Glasnost (openness) in Soviet society. In a general loosening of central economic control, in 1987 Gorbachev removed industrial subsidies and moved industry into partial free market operation. He decentralized economic management, allowed individual farmers to work private plots and sell produce on a free market basis, and ordered payment of workers according to productivity. Gorbachev also restructured prices, generally upward, to ease consumer shortages. An obstructionist bureaucracy, however, implemented these reforms slowly.

Many Soviets initially supported the 1987 reforms, but by late 1989 most considered the economic situation to be deteriorating and blamed the deterioration on Gorbachev’s reforms. Because of the reforms, workers had to work longer, harder, and often for lower wages. They faced higher prices in state stores, where goods were increasingly difficult to find. Supplies were more plentiful in privatized markets and on the black market, but prices there were even higher. Perestroika had resulted in frustration, erosion of support for Gorbachev, party defection, and work stoppages.

In 1988, Gorbachev began restructuring the Soviet government, and in 1989 his democratic reforms resulted in the first free, multicandidate election in the Soviet Union since 1917. With the economy and living standards worsening, however, the Communist Party spiraled into decline. Soviet satellite states swept away their Communist regimes, and Soviet republics declared sovereignty (Azerbaijan in 1989) and independence (Lithuania in 1990). Having legalized opposition parties early in 1990, the Communist Party relinquished formal control over the Soviet Union. Separatist sentiments and activity increased in the Soviet republics. In May, 1990, anti-Communist nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia Gamsakhurdia, Zviad of Georgia and radical populist reformer Boris Yeltsin of Russia won the presidencies of their republics in popular elections.

In mid-1991, Gorbachev formulated a treaty to transform the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into a confederated “Union of Sovereign Soviet Republics.” The proposed treaty called for a new constitution that would allow national elections and diminish the power of the Communist Party and the Soviet central government. The signing of the treaty was scheduled for August 20, 1991.

Instead, on Sunday, August 18, 1991, a coup d’état began with Gorbachev’s arrest. Revolutions and coups;Soviet Union Involving all but two of Gorbachev’s own ministers, the coup sought to overthrow Gorbachev, prevent the signing of the treaty, and return the Soviet Union to strong centralized Communist Party rule. On Monday, August 19, Vice President Gennady Yanayev was proclaimed acting president of the Soviet Union, and an emergency committee assumed power. The Soviet military commander in the Baltics took control of the three secessionist Baltic republics, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In Moscow, Yeltsin persuaded a unit of Soviet tanks to protect the Russian government. He called for nationwide resistance, the return of Gorbachev as Soviet president, and a general strike.

On August 20, Soviet tanks moved to within one mile of Yeltsin’s headquarters. Fearing attack, tens of thousands of resisters erected barricades to protect Yeltsin and his democratically elected government. Strong protests against the coup and other scattered Soviet military activity erupted in Moldova (formerly Moldavia), the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. Shaken by intense, widespread anticoup sentiments, three members of the emergency committee resigned, and the coup began to fall apart.

On August 21, coup opponents gained ground. Soviet tanks withdrew from Moscow, and in the Baltics, Soviet troops began returning to their bases. In Moscow, the Communist Party denounced the coup, the Congress of People’s Deputies demanded Gorbachev’s reinstatement, and crowds celebrated outside the Russian parliament. Latvia and Estonia, where military crackdowns had been severe, declared immediate independence. Gorbachev returned to Moscow on August 22. With most coup leaders under arrest, Gorbachev and his ally, Yeltsin, began rebuilding the Soviet government. Even as Gorbachev proclaimed his devotion to socialism and the Communist Party, the Lithuanian government banned the party and confiscated its property.

The August, 1991, coup attempt had several effects. It elevated Yeltsin to the forefront of Soviet and world affairs, where he became a symbol of Western democracy. Defeat of the coup also removed high-level obstructions to Gorbachev’s reforms, the very reforms the coup’s instigators had tried to prevent. The coup also fanned republican independence movements and precipitated the dissolution of both the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.

While Gorbachev set Soviet political and economic reforms in motion on August 23, Yeltsin began chipping away at Soviet authority. Latvia banned the Communist Party, and republican governments seized party property. Across the Soviet Union, citizens turned on party bosses and organizations, and crowds vandalized statues of Communist heroes.

Gorbachev’s proposed new union grew shakier. Late in August, more Soviet republics declared independence, ignoring Gorbachev’s exhortations to preserve a modified union. On August 26, leaders of the breakaway republics firmly declared central authority to be dead. Three days later, the Communist Party ceased to exist. On September 5, the Congress of People’s Deputies transferred power to the republics. The next day, the Baltic States’ independence was approved.

As central power crumbled, republican leaders took political and economic control. On December 7, 1991, Yeltsin, Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk, and Belorussian chairman Stanislav Shushkevich met to discuss a trade agreement. Deciding that it was impossible to reform the economy within the Soviet structure, the three leaders formed the Commonwealth of Independent States Commonwealth of Independent States on December 8 and proclaimed the Soviet Union’s end. According to their agreement, Commonwealth republics would launch coordinated economic reforms and jointly move toward free market prices, beginning on January 2, 1992. Other articles of the agreement concerned liquidating nuclear arms, respecting the territorial integrity of other republics, and guaranteeing all citizens equal rights and freedoms.

On December 17, 1991, Gorbachev agreed to dissolve the Soviet Union. Five days later, Russia, Ukraine, Armenia, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan approved the Commonwealth pact and sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev formally resigned as president, the first Soviet leader ever to leave office voluntarily. Six days later, the Soviet Union, the world’s first communist state, officially ceased to exist. In its place was the ill-defined but diplomatically useful Commonwealth of Independent States.

Significance

The Soviet Union collapsed as a result of poor economic conditions, worsening quality of life, growing nationalist separatism, and a bankrupt ideology. The political and economic health of its successor, the Commonwealth, was very poor at its beginning. One political result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was increased potential for ethnic and nationalist ferment. After the dissolution, fears that the new republics would follow the course that Romania and Yugoslavia had taken after their break from the Soviet Union were borne out. Georgia came close to civil war within weeks, and within one week ethnic strife led to violence in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Fears also arose that political upheaval might come at the hands of ill-provisioned and disgruntled Soviet military personnel.

Popular uncertainty about the future also increased following the dissolution. The example of Eastern Europe was not encouraging. When Communist Party control in the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1989, many people suffered. Following the implementation of free market economic reforms, unemployment rose, production decreased, shortages became more common, and inflation raged at rates as high as 700 percent per year. Consumer goods became too expensive for purchase by many potential buyers. In Albania, starvation loomed as a threat. Although economists in the Soviet Union predicted that within months the cost of goods would stabilize and more products would become available, in the Russian Republic families prepared for the worst, stockpiling food in preparation for famine.

That the disintegration of the Soviet Union freed the former Soviet republics to move toward economic reform was most apparent in Russia. After the dissolution, President Yeltsin quickly began privatization of state-owned property, agriculture, and industry. He also introduced new monetary and fiscal policies, the most important of which was the elimination of price controls early in January, 1992. The prices of basic commodities (bread and gasoline, for example) remained controlled, but all other prices were set free for the first time in more than seventy years. The hope was that this would stimulate manufacturing, yield the production of more goods, bring supply in line with consumer demand, and thus moderate inflation.

The early effects of these reforms on the economy and on material conditions of life were worse than the Russian populace expected. Unemployment soared, and more was likely to come as the huge Soviet bureaucracy and military were disassembled. In addition, the ruble lost value. In Russia at the time prices were freed, 100 rubles were worth 63 American dollars. Two weeks later, 110 rubles brought one dollar. By late February, however, the Russian government had moved to stabilize the ruble, and its value appeared to be rising. Even so, at that time the Ukraine, Belarus (the former Belorussia), Moldova, and Kazakhstan planned to begin printing their own currency.

Hand in hand with the devaluation of the ruble, inflation soared. In the first month without price controls, Russian prices increased an average of 200 percent. In St. Petersburg, food costs soared to ten times their previous level, while salaries remained the same. There were no significant increases in available supplies of goods. During the winter of 1992, St. Petersburg faced real hunger. Supplies there had become scarce at the end of the summer, after the neighboring Baltic States had lifted price controls and Baltic shoppers had flooded into Russia, where goods were cheaper, to buy supplies. Rationing was begun in St. Petersburg in the fall of 1991, but when Yeltsin freed prices, almost everything disappeared from the store shelves.

Standing out among the immediate effects of the disintegration of the Soviet Union was popular discontent in both political and economic realms. Within months of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, ethnic and nationalist violence erupted. In the face of shortages of crucial foodstuffs and supplies, there was fear that bread riots, another coup, or the dissolution of the Commonwealth might be on the horizon. Ultimately, however, the Commonwealth was not a truly unified body or even a confederation; rather, it was more a diplomatic means of making the collapse of the Soviet Union more collaborative and civilized. It continued in existence into the twenty-first century, even though its members increasingly faced very different political and economic trajectories. It persisted because of the promise of closer trade and economic ties and because of its utility as a forum where the member states could address security issues, control cross-border criminal activity, promote degrees of democratization, and seek humanitarian cooperation. Soviet Union;dissolution

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Church, George J. “Postmortem: Anatomy of a Coup.” Time, September 2, 1991, 32-34. Well-written article presents a detailed, play-by-play account of the coup, its major players, and their motivations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Marshall I. “The Consumer.” In The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guide, edited by James Cracraft. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Provides a broad look at agriculture, housing, and the availability of consumer goods in the Soviet Union from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. Alludes to increasing popular discontent.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorbachev, Mikhail. Gorbachev: On My Country and the World. Translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. Gorbachev reflects on the Soviet experiment from the October Revolution to the Cold War. Discusses leaders such as Joseph Stalin and Boris Yeltsin and examines the twenty-first century challenges facing Russia and the world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, D. Gale. “Agriculture.” In The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guide, edited by James Cracraft. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Gives a brief but detailed overview of Soviet agricultural production from the 1950’s to 1985, compares it with U.S. production, and explains factors that led to the Soviet Union’s poor agricultural performance and increasing costs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Concise work covering the Soviet Union’s life span focuses on economics and also provides sociocultural context for events. Includes chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, Mervyn. Patterns of Deprivation in the Soviet Union Under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1989. Discusses the results of sociological surveys done in the Soviet Union from the 1960’s to the mid-1980’s. Heavy on statistics, but also presents detailed information on food, clothing, and household goods; public desires to obtain consumer goods; and the popular assessment of living conditions in 1985.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Millar, James R. “An Overview.” In The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guide, edited by James Cracraft. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Surveys the Soviet economy and presents information on its consumer impact. Also analyzes the potential of various reforms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shelton, Judy. The Coming Soviet Crash: Gorbachev’s Desperate Pursuit of Credit in Western Financial Markets. New York: Free Press, 1989. Macroanalysis of the Soviet economy and East-West relations as of 1988 includes informative sections on consumer conditions in the Soviet Union in chapter 2. Chapter 3 details Gorbachev’s plans for economic reform. Unlike several other authors cited here, Shelton predicted an economic crash in the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Gordon B. Soviet Politics: Struggling with Change. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Indispensable source of information on the Soviet Union immediately prior to its disintegration. Chapter 10 treats the Soviet economic system, and chapter 11 outlines social policy and problems.

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