Christmas Day 1991 – a day when the world changed. The events that took place in Moscow towards the end of the year had been building for some time – around four years to be exact. At 7.32 pm, the red Soviet flag, with its gold hammer and sickle and gold-bordered red star above, was lowered from the roof of the Kremlin for the final time. Moments later, the Russian tricolour inched its way up the flagpole to replace it.
The collapse of the Soviet Union quite literally reorganised the geopolitical landscape. Independent countries emerged onto the world stage and the 45-year conflict – which wasn’t really a direct conflict – known as the Cold War finally came to a close. It’s difficult to overstate just how seismic these changes were for a world that had grown wearily accustomed to the tempestuous relationship between the USSR and the United States. An entire generation had known nothing but mistrust and propaganda slung from one side or the other and the fall of the Soviet Union saw a tectonic shift that affected nations and people around the world.
But as I said, this was a change that had been four years in the making – even longer depending on how far back you really want to go – and included widespread unrest within the Soviet Republics and Warsaw Pact countries, a failed last-minute coup and what was perhaps one of the most symbolic days in history as the Berlin Wall finally came down. The Soviet Union was a grand experiment in communism and perhaps one of the largest social movements the world has ever seen. Born out of genuine anger at the ruling elite, it was an experiment that rollercoasted wildy before the spectacular events that began in the late 1980s.
Now of course no good story can really begin at the end. The events that took place in 1991 may have reshaped the world, but they were the final moments of a quite extraordinary 69-year undertaking.
To begin this story we have to start back on 7th November 1917. At this point in history, Russia had been involved in the bruising First World War for almost three and half years. Russia, like most of the other countries involved in the Great War, did so mostly to satisfy imperial rivalries and rampant nationalism. But unlike countries to the west, Russia was far from a nation equipped to fight a prolonged, expensive and bloody war.
By 1917, the Russian state was a shattered carcass with widespread hunger across the country as the Tsarist ruler attempted to squeeze every last drop out of the country. Somewhere between 2.2 million and 2.7 million Russians died during World War I, figures only matched by Germany. Anger began boiling over with the existing autocracy and this led to not one, but two revolutions in 1917.
The first began in February when factory workers in Petrograd, now St Petersburg, began striking and by 10th March, virtually every factory in the city was closed. The Tsar ordered the military to quell the uprising, but exactly the opposite happened, as the troops themselves began to revolt. Many officers were shot or went into hiding as the military machine collapsed. With few options, the Tsar abdicated the throne on 15th March. Elation swept the country but the truth was that with so many competing factions, with such radically different political ideals, it was an uneasy peace.
These factions included the Constitutional Democratic Party, a centre-left group composed of left-leaning intellectuals and professionals who favoured a form of western constitutional monarchy and this group formed the bulk of a provisional government put in place after the abdication of the Tsar.
But four days before the provisional government had been named, a rival group, the Petrograd Soviets, was formed and the two groups went on to compete for the heart of mother Russia. The Petrograd Soviets, also known as the Bolsheviks, led by the enigmatic Vladimir Lenin, acted as the official opposition to the new government and things soured pretty quickly. Like the government before it, the provisional government proved fairly inept when it came to fighting the Germans, and anger among the workers and peasant class quickly rose.
In October 1917, Russia once again descended into revolution and new elections were held on 25th November 1917. Once it became clear that the Bolsheviks held little support outside the main industrial cities, and with just 25% of the vote, they dissolved the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 and the country descended into a five-year civil war between the Soviet Red Army, and a loose confederation of liberal and monarchist forces known as the White Army.
An estimated 8 million Russians died during the chaotic civil war as the Red Army gradually inched its way across the country and by 1922, the last hold out had been suppressed and the country emerged from the war under the dominant rule of the Bolsheviks.
The Creation of the Soviet Union
On 28th December 1922, the Treaty on the Creation of the USSR was agreed at a conference attended by various socialist delegations, including the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which was followed by the Declaration of the Creation of the USSR, effectively forming the Soviet Union.
A large-scale reorganization of the economy had already begun back in 1917 with one of its major aspects being the GOELRO plan, which called for the entire country to be electrified over a 10-15 year period and this can be considered the prototype for the subsequent Soviet Five-Year Plans. We have quite a bit to cover so I’m not going to go into the 13 Five-year plans, but if you’re interested we’ve done a video entirely on the first plan. If you’re looking for something to watch that covers famine, astonishing economic growth and plenty of megalomania, then you know where to go.
The Cold War
Now, to try and cram 69 years worth of events into a single video would be pushing it and after all, we are focusing on the dissolution of the USSR, so we’re going to barrel through quite quickly here. The 1930s saw some brutal modernisation tactics across the Soviet Union, resulting in plenty of death, but also a new era of industry.
During the Second World War, the country first signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, then was invaded by the Nazis and came within a hair’s breadth of complete collapse. Finally, they shook themselves awake and stormed across the continent, finally raising the Soviet flag above the German Reichstag building in Berlin on 2nd May 1945.
Any hope that its leader, Joseph Stalin, would pull his forces back to the pre-war borders quickly evaporated and the Iron Curtain, which would divide Europe for the next 45 year or so, went up and the Cold War quickly began. While many assume that the Soviet Union had spread all the way to Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, that wasn’t quite the case. The countries that lay between the Berlin Wall and the official border of the USSR technically remained independent nations – and by independent, I mean run by communists regimes collared and firmly under the control of the Kremlin. In 1955, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania signed the Warsaw Pact along with the Soviet Union, a collective defence treaty aimed at countering NATO.
The irony of the 45-year Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States was that they never actually fought each other, with the exception of air combat in the skies above Korea when Soviet pilots were called in because of the lack of suitable Korean or Chinese alternatives. Also during the Korean War, American jets attacked the Soviet Sukhaya Rechka airfield in the Far East, mistaking it for a North Korean airfield. Seven Soviet jets were damaged on the ground, ironically all Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighters given to the USSR by the United States during World War II.
Apart from these small scale incidents, the two superpowers never fully locked horns. There were several points where the world appeared to be on the brink of a nuclear war between the two countries, but things were always deescalated just in time. The 1960s saw tensions reach their peak, particularly with the Cuban Missile Crisis between 16th and 26th October 1962.
The 1970s and 1980s saw relations begin to thaw – albeit incredibly slowly – with a series of arms treaties that began to give the world the impression that it might not in fact all be incinerated within a massive nuclear mushroom cloud after all.
The Decline of the Soviet Union
It’s difficult to pinpoint where the grand adventure in socialism began to unravel but most would probably agree that by the mid-1960s, things were certainly beginning to flatten out in the USSR. An uprising in Czechoslovakia in 1968 was brutally put down but the seeds of change were starting to emerge.
But this was in contrast to official Soviet dogma between the 1960s and mid-1980s where a series of leaders presided over a period that was famously coined ‘the Era of Stagnation’ by Mikhail Gorbachev – more on him later. Before this period, Nikita Khrushchev had made tentative steps at distancing the Soviet Union from the more brutal practices seen during the time of Joseph Stalin – a process that came to be known as de-Stalinization. Predominantly this involved trying to inch the Soviet Union away from the cult of personality that had painted Stalin as a loving father figure and heroic socialist wonder-god instead of the tyrannical narcissistic responsible for millions of deaths. He also attempted to close many of the gulags, the Soviet Union’s prisons, and release many of the political prisoners inside.
But hardline Soviets began to think that Khrushchev had gone soft and he was eventually forced out and replaced by the dour Leonid Brezhnev, a man with far more traditional socialist values. The new leader had early success in stabilizing an economy that had begun to see-saw but also instigated a period of social decline.
Perhaps the best example of this was the Sinyavsky–Daniel trial in 1966, in which writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda for publishing their satirical writings on Soviet life. Unusually for these Soviet kangaroo trials, both defendants pleaded not guilty but were sentenced to five and seven years hard labour for their troubles. But this also led to the first public demonstration in the Soviet Union since World War II, known as the Glasnost meeting, where 50 protestors gathered in Pushkin Square in Moscow on 5th December 1965. The KGB quickly broke up the protest and several of the organizers were suddenly deemed insane and spent a month inside a psychiatric facility. I know 50 protestors sounds microscopic, but this was the Soviet Union and protests of this kind were absolutely unheard of. The Glasnost Meeting was not only an act of extraordinary bravery, it is widely seen as the first movement for civil rights in the Soviet Union.
As I mentioned, Leonid Brezhnev saw early success with the economy but it didn’t last. While it would be a stretch to say it began to decline, it certainly stagnated and was made all the starker by the astonishing economic growth seen in the U.S – in fact by the mid-1980s, the U.S economy had grown to twice that of the Soviet Union.
Economic problems came down to several factors but were heavily influenced by the fact that prices were fixed by the central government, which could raise and lower them whenever it wanted. In theory, this system aimed to balance the total output of the economy with the total input, which, again theoretically, allowed for the most equitable distribution of resources and eliminated waste. This rarely worked, not least because corruption was absolutely rampant throughout the Soviet Union – an issue that Brezhnev was more than happy to turn a blind eye to – now I wonder why?
To exacerbate this problem further, during the 1980s the Reagan Administration in the U.S managed to convince the Saudis to lower their oil prices, which dragged the global price of oil down and meant the Soviets couldn’t make a profit selling theirs. This in turn led to the depletion of the country’s hard currency reserves. Oh and also, the Soviet Union fought a disastrous war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, which they not only didn’t win but helped to drain the economic lifeblood even further.
All of this led to a general and widespread stagnation, and eventually decline, of living standards across the Soviet Union. However, the USSR had absolutely no problem in spending absorbent amounts of money trying to keep up with the Americans in the arms and space races. At this point, the USSR still had the second-largest economy in the world, but it was beginning to creak alarmingly.
When Mikail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he set about enacting a series of reforms that he hoped would stimulate a sluggish economy and promote greater openness within the Soviet Union. This last point came with the radical idea of allowing non-communists to run for office, a notion that would have been unheard of just a couple of years before. Gorbachev hoped that these kinds of reforms would kick-start a new era – the Soviet Union 2.0 if you will – but the roots of corruption, ineptitude and just plain bullshit ran incredibly deep.
Just a year into his term, the Soviet Union was rocked by a disaster that almost certainly sped up the demise of the USSR. On 26th April 1986, a massive explosion blew a gaping hole in reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. This was bad enough, but the catastrophic response by Soviet authorities and the bungled cover-up, lifted the curtain to reveal an astonishing level of Soviet incompetence and deception. The fact that the Soviet people were not informed of the disaster for two weeks, showed its citizens that those at the top were willing to keep even the most atrocious disasters from them for the sake of preserving the already tattered image of the glorious Soviet Union. Public opinion in their Soviet leaders, which in truth had never been that high, began to tank.
The Sinatra Doctrine
Throughout its lifetime, Soviet leaders had ranged from the psychopathic to the utterly inept, but thankfully for most involved, the man at the helm when it really mattered, Mikail Gorbachev, came across as level-headed and dare I say it, a fairly decent Soviet leader. On 25th October 1989, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov said,
“We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, I Did It My Way. So every country decides on its own which road to take.”
A little cryptic I know, but essentially the Sinatra Doctrine signalled that Moscow would no longer interfere in the internal affairs of countries under the Soviet umbrella – and this changed everything.
The Revolutions of 1989
With the smell of freedom in the air, change swept through Eastern Europe. The first to go was Poland, with free elections announced on 4th April after sustained protests across the country. Hungary was next, with huge protests on the country’s National Day, 15th March, forcing the government to begin negotiations over elections, which were concluded on 18th September. Also in Hungary, the first sections of the Iron Curtain began to come down as the country started removing its border barrier with Austria.
In East Germany, the government was hanging on for dear life. Gorbachev visited in October 1989 to mark the 40th anniversary of the GDR but also to urge reform on its leaders. Towards the end of the month, the number of protesters in Leipzig had swelled to over 300,000 as the screw tightened.
In November 1989, the world watched transfixed as sections of the Berlin wall came crashing down and Germans began moving freely across a border that had not long before been one of the most well protected and dangerous anywhere in the world.
This was followed by the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, which saw 800,000 people in Letná Square by the 25th of November and three days later, the government announced it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. In Romania, communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was forced from power after the military revolted against his rule and he and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day 1989 after a failed helicopter escape.
And this wasn’t just in Europe. Across the world, anti-socialist fury led to the toppling of governments or watering down of socialist ideology on every continent as the communist experiment began to implode. Unfortunately, we don’t have anywhere near enough time to tell you about every revolution that took place during this period, but it was a truly historic few years.
The Final Collapse
As seismic as the changes were in Eastern Europe, these only represented the puppet governments of nations that had fallen under the Warsaw Pact – the Soviet Union itself remained intact – and vehemently communist – but not for long.
Nationalistic sentiment spurred on by the events in Eastern Europe meant that change had been set in motion. On 1st July 1991, the Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved and Soviet troops began withdrawing. Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Armenia were the first to formally declare independence, but in a blind act of stubbornness, Soviet authorities denounced the declarations and even ordered Soviet troops into Lithuania.
A last-ditch referendum was held across the Soviet Union on 17th March 1991 asking whether the Union should stay or not. Many boycotted the vote, which was assumed to be rigged, and almost 80% “voted” that the Soviet Union should remain. Discussions were held to allow greater flexibility and freedom for individual countries within the USSR, but like a runaway train, there was no stopping the colossal collapse. There was, however, one final belligerent stand in August 1991.
An attempted coup led by hardline communists and high-ranking KGB officials began on 18th August when Gorbachov’s summer home in Crimea had its communication cut. Rouge officials then entered the Dacha and demanded the Soviet leader either declare a state of emergency or resign and name one of them as the provisional leader. Gorbachov refused outright and the following day, military operations began in Moscow as 4000 soldiers, 350 tanks, 300 armoured personnel carriers and 420 trucks taking part in the coup began moving through Moscow. Their immediate target was the White House – no not that one, but Russia’s parliament building. However, coup leaders had badly misjudged the level of resistance they would face both from politicians and the Russian public.
On the morning of 19th August, loyal politicians began arriving at the White House. These included Boris Yeltsin the recently elected President of the Russian Republic whose star would soar on the back of his action during the coup. Members of the public, now aware of the uprising, began arriving at the White House and formed a defensive shield around the building. Yeltsin famously stood on a tank outside and delivered a rousing speech that included the line,
We appeal to citizens of Russia to give a fitting rebuff to the putschists and demand a return of the country to normal constitutional development.
Small clashes took place around the White House but after two days the disorganised coup attempt had stalled and with a potential Tiananmen Square incident on their hands, the military began to back away. Their leads were later arrested, with one committing suicide before he could be taken into custody. The events had shocked the nation and added further impetus to the unravelling of the USSR.
The final four months of the Soviet Union saw a torrent of change. Successive republics began breaking away and the final nail in the coffin came on 1st December 1991 when Ukraine, the largest republic formally declared its independence. On 21st December, the Alma-Ata Protocols were signed by all the newly independent nations which effectively ended the Soviet Union. Four days later, Gorbachev both resigned from his post and made it extinct. After 69 years, the USSR was no more.
And that brings us to the end of the mammoth story of the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. An economic and military coalition that created the largest country the world has ever seen at 22,402,200 square kilometres (8,649,500 sq mi) and spanned eleven time zones. This was of course the largest-ever experiment in communism and it’s fair to say it didn’t quite work.
The collapse of the Soviet Union fundamentally changed the world. Since then, we’ve steamed headlong into unbridled capitalism – how much of a good thing that is I’ll leave up to you – but it also led to greater geopolitical connectivity than ever before. After 45 years of the suffocating Cold War, the world seemed to breathe a little easier – at least for the time being. The United States emerged as the sole global superpower and the European Union slowly bulged in size as countries to the east broke away from the yoke of Russian influence.
In terms of dramatic change that affected the entire world, we may never see something quite like the end of the 1980s and the start of the 1990s again.