This article is part of theHistory of Russia series.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted a number of political reforms under the name of Glasnost, which included democratization, relaxing censorship and political repression, and reducing the powers of the KGB. The reforms were intended to break down resistance against Gorbachev's economic reforms from conservative elements within the Communist Party. Under these reforms, much to the alarm of party conservatives, competitive elections were introduced for the posts of officials.
Gorbachev's relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long-suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet Union's constituent republics. During the 1980s calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in other Soviet republics such as the Ukraine and Azerbaijan. These nationalist movements were strengthened greatly by the declining Soviet economy, whereby Moscow's rule became a convenient scapegoat for economic troubles. Gorbachev had accidentally unleashed a force that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.
On February 15, 1989, Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union continued to support the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with substantial aid until the end of 1991. In 1989 the communist governments of the Soviet Union's satellite states were overthrown one by one with feeble resistance from Moscow.
By the late 1980s the process of openness and democratisation began to run out of control, and went far beyond what Gorbachev had intended. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined.
On February 7, 1990, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The USSR's constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow, and started a "war of laws" with the central Moscow government, this involved the governments of the constituent republics repudiating all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation, as supply lines in the economy were broken, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.
Gorbachev made desperate and ill-fated attempts to assert control, notably in the Baltic Republics, but the power and authority of the central government had been dramatically and irreversibly undermined. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared independence and pulled out of the union. However, a large part of the population of the Lithuanian SSR comprised ethnic Russianss, and the Red Army had a strong presence there. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians." In January 1991, clashes between Soviet troops and Lithuanian civilians occurred, leaving 20 dead. This further weakened the Soviet Union's legitimacy, internationally and domestically. On March 30, 1990, the Estonian supreme council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to re-establish Estonia as an independent state.
Also amongst Gorbachev's reforms, was the introduction of a directly elected president of the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic). The election for this post was held in June 1991. The populist candidate Boris Yeltsin, who was an outspoken critic of Mikhail Gorbachev, won 57% percent of the vote, and humiliated Gorbachev's preferred candidate, former prime minister Ryzhkov, who won just 16% of the vote.
Mikhail Gorbachev (left) has accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post-Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.
On August 20, 1991, the republics were to sign a new union treaty, making them independent republics in a federation with a common president, foreign policy and military. However, on August 18, a group of Gorbachev's ministers led by Gennadi Yaneyev, backed by the KGB and military, staged a coup d'état. Gorbachev was held prisoner in his summer residence on the Crimean peninsula (Ukraine), and martial law was declared in Russia on August 19. Large groups of soldiers controlled Moscow, but no politicians were arrested. During this time, Estonia declared its independence on August 20 and on the same day more than 100,000 people rallied outside the Soviet Union's parliament building protesting the coup that deposed Gorbachev.
Boris Yeltsin and the semi-democratically elected Russian parliament opposed the coup, and the coup makers gave up on August 21, the same day that the third Baltic republic, Latvia, declared its independence. Immediately after the coup failed, and before Mikhail Gorbachev returned to Moscow, the power vacuum was filled by Boris Yeltsin; he immediately signed a decree banning the Communist party throughout Russia, and the ban was soon extended throughout the Soviet Union. Thus 70 years of Communist rule effectively came to an end.
On December 21, 11 of the 12 remaining republics (all except Georgia) founded the Commonwealth of Independent States, effectively ending the USSR. On December 25, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president, and on December 26 the Supreme Soviet officially dissolved the USSR, with the decision taking effect at midnight December 31.