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History of the Soviet Union (1985–1991)

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The history of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991 covers the dissolution of the Soviet Union. ("Dissolution" means ending or splitting up.) This was its end as a separate country.

The Soviet Union had many regions called "republics". They all belonged to the Russian Empire before 1917. All these "republics" were part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was one country. After its dissolution, all of the republics became independent countries. The names of these countries are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Russia is a special case, because it still has a number of former republics inside its borders. That is why the country is called the Russian Federation. There are eight Federal Districts and 83 Federal Subjects of the Russian Federation. Siberia, for example, has two huge federal districts.

The Soviet Union ended with the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. At the time of dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was the president of the Soviet Union. He was in this position for a little over a year but he was leader of the Soviet Union from March 11th 1985. On 25 December 1991, he quit the post of the president of the USSR. By 31 December 1991, all organizations and departments of the Soviet Union stopped working. On that date, the Soviet flag flew for the last time on the Kremlin.


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During 1969 and 1982, very few changes took place in the politics and economy of the Soviet Union. With the beginning of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, its relationship with the United States also deteriorated. At that time Jimmy Carter, followed by Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States. Jimmy Carter ended the policy of Détente - ending of unfriendly relationship. Some historians believe that this may be one of the reasons that Soviet Union changed its political and economic policies.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the CPSU. Under him, a new group of officials and leaders started a process of changes in the politics and economy of the Soviet Union. They also tried to improve relationships with Western countries like the US.

At that time, the Soviet economy was doing okay but it was slower than its competitors' economies in the West. Also, the cost of maintaining the Soviet Union, as a superpower was huge. These costs included running a large military; running the KGB networks; and giving money to countries close to the Soviet Union. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s technological development had fallen behind. For example: many of its factories used out-of-date technologies and it had fallen behind in the use of information technology.

In view of these and other reasons, Gorbachev and his team started three important policies:

  • Glasnost – meaning political openness.
  • Perestroika – meaning economic changes and restructuring.
  • Uskoreniye – meaning speeding up of economic development.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and USA president Ronald Reagan agreed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons.

Since the time of Vladimir Lenin in 1920s, the people of the Soviet Union did not have any right to own personal property and business. The government owned almost everything. In 1988, the government permitted the people to own some types of businesses in the service sector, manufacturing, and foreign trade. A system of cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers started.

Glasnost gave a greater freedom of speech to the citizens and allowed them to criticise the government - something they had never been allowed to do. The government reduced censorship and controls on publication. The government set free many political prisoners. In January 1987, Gorbachev started a process of democratization of Soviet politics. In June 1988, Gorbachev started a process to reduce the control of the CPSU on the different parts of the government.

In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet had approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet Union's new legislative body. In March and April 1989, elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies took place. The members on 15th March 1990 elected Gorbachev as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.

The outcome

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Many steps taken by Gorbachev gave results different than the intended results. Thus the perestroika and glasnost intended to make the Soviet economy stronger resulted into something very different. Many factors and events combined and finally they resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Under the policy of glasnost (political openness), the Soviet government and the Communist Party lost control over the media. A free media brought to notice of the public many bad aspects of the society and the economy of the Soviet Union. These bad aspects included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, out-of-date technologies in many factories, and corruption. People also learnt of many crimes committed by Stalin. For example, they learnt about prisoners at Gulags, agreement with Adolf Hitler, and large massacres of Stalin opponents. Further, people also learnt details about such events as the ongoing Soviet war in Afghanistan and bad management of nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl (the Soviet Union didn't publicly admit to the meltdown until three days after it happened). In short, people learnt about the negative aspects of the Soviet life. People began to lose faith in their Soviet system and ideology of Communism.

By 1989, the Soviet government found it to be too difficult for the Soviet Union to keep its control over its Eastern European bloc and decided to let them choose their own futures. After the end of the Second World War, with the support of the Soviet Union, communist governments were ruling all these countries. The change in the policy of the Soviet Union led to the end of the communist governments in many of them by 1990: in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Seeing all these developments, many "republics" of the Soviet Union wanted to become independent. The Glasnost policy also released long wanted nationalism in the "republics" that the Soviet government had suppressed and covered up. Some republics tried to become independent.

The leaders had thought that the policy of perestroika was a bold step to improve the economy. But, the steps were not strong enough to improve the bad economic conditions of 1980s. Despite many changes, Gorbachev and his team had left many aspects of the Soviet economy unchanged. Price control, inconvertibility of the ruble, and government control over most means of production continued. By 1990 the economic situation had become worse.

  • Government expenditure had increased.
  • Tax revenues had come down as the republics had stopped paying taxes.
  • Income from sale of vodka came down as many people had stopped drinking.
  • The government had to give money to support unprofitable farms and industries.
  • The government had removed many controls but did not bring forth other changes for smooth transition from state control to a free economy. This resulted in many problems including low production.

The dissolution

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On 7th February 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU was forced to loosen its control over power. Different "republics" of the Soviet Union started to claim their right to become independent. They stopped following the laws of the central government of the Soviet Union. They also stopped paying taxes to the central authorities (of Moscow) of the Soviet Union. These weakened the Soviet authority and economy.

During a 1990 visit of Gorbachev to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, about 250,000 persons protested in a public meeting. On 11th March 1990, leaders of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet central-government demanded Lithuania give up its independence and sent the Soviet Army to keep many troops in Lithuania. The government said that it would have to follow the Soviet constitution if it wanted to leave. The Soviet Union also started a blockade of Lithuania. On 30th March 1990, the leaders of Estonia declared that the control of their country by the Soviet Union from 1940 was illegal. They declared independence. The leaders of Latvia also started the process of independence on 4th May 1990.

On 17th March 1991, people of the Soviet Union voted to keep the existing Soviet Union in a slightly changed form. The Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), Armenia, Georgia and Moldova boycotted the voting. In each of the other nine "republics" of the Soviet Union, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the Soviet Union. In June 1991 an election took place in the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin got 57% of the vote. He was a critic of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, former Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, got only 16% of the vote.

The Coup

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The "republics" of the Soviet Union had agreed to sign on 20th August 1991, an agreement making them almost independent republics but part of a federation, with a common president, foreign policy and military. However, many persons disagreed. They wanted a fast transition to a market economy even if it meant dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were many others in the CPSU and the military of the Soviet Union who supported continuation of the Soviet Union.

On 19th August 1991, some senior leaders of the Soviet Union formed a "State Committee on the State Emergency." They prevented signing of the agreement on 20th August 1991. These leaders included Gorbachev’s vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and many other senior officials. At that time Gorbachev was holidaying in Crimea). These officials put him under house arrest. They also issued orders banning all political activities and banned most newspapers.

This was like a coup. The organizers had expected popular support for their action. But, the people did not support them. Instead, they supported "White House" (Yeltsin's office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers of the coup tried but failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin. After three days, on August 21, the coup failed. The authorities detained the organizers. Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev's real powers had reduced.

Through the autumn of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991, Yeltsin issued an order banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former CPSU personnel left CPSU to join the new positions in the new Russian government.

After the failure of the coup, the republics of the Soviet Union increased their efforts to become independent. On 6th September 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. On 1st December 1991, Ukraine declared its independence, after 90% of the voters opted for an independent Ukraine; this really destroyed any hopes of keeping the Soviet Union together since Ukraine was the second most powerful "republic" after Russia. One by one, the remaining eleven "republics" of the Soviet Union also declared themselves as sovereign and independent states.

On 6th September 1991, the Soviet Union had recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Twelve out of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union had signed an international agreement (European Energy Charter) in the Hague on 17th December 1991. The signing had indicated that these republics had practically become independent and sovereign countries.

Leaving apart already independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the remaining 12 republics, all (except Georgia) joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In December 1993, Georgia also joined the CIS. On 26th August 2006 Turkmenistan left the permanent membership, and became an associate member.

Many persons believed that with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. They believed that it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many others think that with CIS, Russia continues to have some control over the former republics of the Soviet Union.

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR. By December 31, 1991 all official Soviet institutions had stopped to function in different "republics" of the Soviet Union. The individual governments of these republics started functioning. The Soviet flag flew last time over the Kremlin.

The four principles had governed the Soviet Union: a chain of soviets; ethnic federation; state socialism; and supremacy of the Communist party. Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost weakened all four principles. He repeatedly tried to form a circle of leaders to support his policies. He tried to do all these as he and his team saw that the Soviet Union was moving toward a long-term stagnation.

Gorbachev’s policies made it possible for leaders of various Soviet republics to gain confidence and influence. At the same time, he faced opposition from many including the nationalist forces and the traditional communists. Some people accepted the reforms; some wanted the old system to continue; and some desired complete independence from the Soviet Union and central control. In the end, Gorbachev was unable to ensure any common view among these forces. Ultimately, this led to the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the dissolution

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Immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin took many steps to change the economy of the Soviet Union from a socialist economy to a capitalist economy. For example: he cut the payment of grants to money-losing farms and industries; he also removed control over prices; he took steps for convertibility of the Russian rouble. He also allowed many people close to his circle, and other business people, to take possession of the businesses and industries earlier owned by the government, and to run them as private enterprises. The planners and economists had thought that these changes would lead to a faster economic development. However, nothing of this sort happened.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia faced many problems:

  • About 25% of the population of Russia were very poor and lived below the poverty line.
  • The life expectancy has come down. This means people die younger.
  • The Gross Domestic Product was about 50% of the earlier times.[1]

Many Russians of older generation believe that the earlier system was better. During 1990s, Russia faced many crises in political, social and economic matters. Many persons still believe that the situation still continues to be worse compared to earlier times.

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  1. Branko Milanovic (1998). Income, Inequality, and Poverty During the Transformation from Planned to Market Economy. The World Bank. pp. 186–189.

Other websites

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Further reading

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  • Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The end of the Soviet Empire: the triumph of the nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0465098185
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The revenge of the past: nationalism, revolution, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0804722471