For the better part of the 20th century, the Cold War commanded the attention of the world. Then on a cold winter morning on 26th December 1991, the soviet union was dissolved and in the blink of an eye everything changed. The replacement was a smaller nation that was named the Russian Federation and several smaller countries that propped up in its collapse. The fall of the Soviet Union meant the end of communism, and the resulting political, economic and societal shifts which brought about major conflict and change both in former Soviet states and in Western Europe.
In 1985, it seemed the Soviet Union would last forever. Its Communist Party rulers held a monopoly on political power. They controlled all the country’s economic resources through an enormous state bureaucracy. They wielded an extensive security apparatus backed by pervasive surveillance and forced labor camps. And they commanded the largest military in the world.
But just six years later, in December 1991, the Soviet system came crashing to the ground—its Marxist-Leninist ideology rejected, its socialist economy scrapped in favor of capitalism, and its empire broken apart into fifteen independent countries. What happened?
After Stalin’s death in 1953, he was succeeded by Georgi Malenkov, and then Nikita Khrushchev. In 1956, Khrushchev (as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party) made a secret speech to the congress condemning Stalin’s regime and dictatorial rule. Shortly thereafter, he began to implement a series of reforms known as the thaw. These reforms included transforming Soviet foreign policy to that of “peaceful cooperation” with the West, and destroying the GULAG system and releasing thousands of political prisoners who had been incarcerated under Stalin.
In the 1970s the U.S.S.R. and the United States negotiated the nuclear arms race, signing Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT-I) in 1972 (Brezhnev and Nixon) and SALT-II (Brezhnev and Carter) in 1979. SALT-I also included the Anti-Ballistic Missiles treaty (ABM). Both treaties limited the amount of nuclear missiles each country could have and how they could potentially be used.
The Senate’s ratification debate of SALT-II coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S. immediately pulled the treaty off the table. The war quickly devolved into a stalemate, and lasted for 10 years. More than 100,000 Soviet troops occupied major urban areas and large towns, and tried to crush the mujahideen who were engaging in guerrilla war tactics, hiding out in the vast mountainous countryside and largely escaping Soviet attacks. The United States eventually backed the rebels, supplying them with anti-aircraft missiles to stop the Soviet’s bombardment of rural areas believed to be mujahedeen strongholds.
The war drained the Soviet Union’s already-faltering economy, and discredited the strength of both the Soviet army and the government on the global stage. In addition to the United States pulling out of SALT-II, the United Nations condemned the war, and several countries boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in response to the invasion.
Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985. He recognized the dire economic and political situation in the Soviet Union and pledged to reform the economy and modernize the government. He signed a peace treaty to end the war and remove all Soviet troops from Afghanistan by February 1989. The end of the Soviet-Afghan war left the country’s infrastructure in disrepair, a million Afghanis dead, and more than three million Afghani refugees displaced in surrounding countries.
Gorbachev enacted two government reforms known as Glasnost and Perestroika. Glasnost reforms allowed for more freedom of speech and government transparency, a drastic change from the policies of his predecessors. Anti-Soviet dissenters and nationalist parties in the republics seized this opportunity to protest and gather support for their independence movements. Perestroika involved restructuring and modernizing the Soviet economy, reducing government control of industries and allowing some privatization. However, the rapid institution of both Glasnost and Perestroika was a bit of a shock to U.S.S.R. citizens who were unsure of how to act without strict government regulations and oversight, leading to even more social unrest.
The Soviet Socialist Republics used their new freedom to feed growing independence movements. Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania were the first to demand freedom in 1989. Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia quickly followed suit. In 1990, the Communist Party voted to end one-party rule, opening the government to direct political opposition, and the newly created legislative body, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic voted to officially leave the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and declare Russian sovereignty. The independent RSFSR (now Russia) held elections, and Boris Yeltsin became the first popularly elected president.
In a final attempt at keeping the Soviet Union together, CPSU hardliners staged a coup in August 1991, kidnapping Gorbachev and ordering the military to suppress all protests. When the military refused to violently engage with its own people, the coup failed. Russia replaced the now-irrelevant Soviet Union at the United Nations, and took over its seat on the Security Council. Gorbachev resigned his leadership to Yeltsin who completely eliminated the CPSU, and officially dissolved the Soviet Union on December 24, 1991.
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