Fall Of The Soviet Union

Learn about the fall of the Soviet Union. On Christmas Day of 1991, the Soviet Union officially ended its own existence, marking the end of over 70 years of repression and 45 years of Soviet-American conflict.

For fifty years the world lived under the shadow of the Cold War, fearing a fatal confrontation between the American and Soviet Union. Millions of individuals lived and suffered under the seventy-year reign of the USSR, crushed under the dead weight of a stagnant empire. But the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev to the supreme leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985 began a tumultuous period that culminated with the fall of the realm founded by Lenin and Stalin. On Christmas Day in 1991, the Hammer and Sickle Flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time above the Kremlin and replaced with the Russian flag.

After the death of Brezhnev in 1982, leadership of the Soviet Union passed to Andropov and Chernenko in rapid succession. They were both old and sick men who died not long after taking power. However, Andropov groomed young Mikhail Gorbachev as his eventual successor and on March 11, 1985 became General Secretary and ruler of the USSR. Gorbachev was well aware that problems of all sorts plagued the Soviet state. Elder leaders were alarmed at the apathy and indifference the youth showed towards communism. Gorbachev also recognized that the Soviet economy needed fundamental reforms, as it had not posted positive growth in nearly a decade.

Gorbachev responded to the Soviet Union's problems by introducing perestroika, or economic restructuring, and glasnost, an element of political freedom. Perestroika was unable to reverse the collapsing Soviet economy despite Gorbachev's best efforts. Corruption and bureaucracy was far too entrenched in the economy for legislation to make a dent in the economic crisis. Glasnost was more successful but not in the ways that Gorbachev envisioned. The first free elections in over seventy years occurred in 1989 and reformist politicians swept into power in regional positions across the nation. Boris Yeltsin captured a seat in the new Congress.

Gorbachev's decision to not use military force to put down revolutions in Eastern Europe further eroded the power of the Soviet Union during 1989 and 1990. The fall of the Berlin Wall and communist governments throughout the old Soviet Bloc generated demands for reforms to the Soviet government as well. Non-Russian minority groups throughout the Soviet Union agitated for independence during this period. The Baltic Republics led the way in demanding freedom from Soviet occupation.

The tensions in the Soviet Union came to a head in August 1991 when a group of right wing military and KGB leaders staged a coup in Moscow while Gorbachev was on vacation in the Crimea. Boris Yeltsin gained international acclaim when he occupied the Russian White House and faced down the threats of the leaders of the coup. At one point Yeltsin climbed atop a tank and rallied the people to oppose the coup. Lacking organization and support by the military itself, the coup collapsed after three days. Gorbachev was forced to greatly reduce the power of the Communist Party in order to prevent further attempts to seize power. Unwilling to consolidate his power by using brute force, Gorbachev was unable to reestablish real control over the nation following the coup.

Although Gorbachev was the nominal chief of state, Boris Yeltsin now had immense popular support and wielded more substantial power. Over the next four months, Gorbachev and Yeltsin negotiated the transition of power made inevitable by the will of the people. Although Gorbachev tried to preserve some form of socialism and strongly urged that the individual Soviet republics retain close relations, he was unable to convince either Yeltsin or representatives from the republics. On December 1, 1991 all non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union declared independence. On that historic Christmas Day of 1991, the long and sad history of the Soviet Union came to a final and peaceful end.

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