December 26, 2016

The End of the USSR

The End of the USSR

This article originally ran in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Russian Life magazine. For more such quality long-reads, subscribe to the print edition of the magazine. 

December 3, 1991, President Gorbachev addresses lawmakers of the Soviet republics:

Esteemed representatives of the Supreme Soviets of sovereign states! A mounting concern for the life of our Fatherland compels me to address you. Among the numerous crises confronting it, the most dangerous is the crisis of statehood. Each of your sovereign states now has democratically elected legislative and executive bodies. They are invested with responsibility for policy that must serve the interests of the public. However, the situation continues to deteriorate. I offer, for your approval, the draft of a Union Treaty. Your decision will either advance society toward new ways of living or our peoples will be doomed to suffer a prolonged and, perhaps, hopeless struggle to find their own solutions.

By December 3, 1991, Gorbachev's appeal was a voice in the wilderness. The president, who not long ago had enjoyed tremendous popularity, now had hardly any supporters at all. After the August coup, the country over which he presided essentially ceased to exist. The republics that had constituted the Soviet Union were racing toward independence. The Union Treaty, which was drafted during the spring and summer of 1991 and was designed to give the republics greater rights while still preserving the Union and Gorbachev's power, was still, in theory, under discussion, but in reality, no politician (with the exception of Gorbachev and his inner circle) saw the point any longer. As for ordinary people, they had more pressing matters on their minds than the fate of the USSR. The population of the crumbling Soviet Union was putting all its energy into simply surviving. People were standing for hours in lines to use ration-card-like coupons to obtain meager food allocations and trying to come up with some means of buying clothing and other necessities with the ridiculous pieces of paper they were given as salaries.

Belovezha Accords
Signing the Belovezha Accords (RIA Novosti archive, image #848095 / U. Ivanov / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

December 3, 1991 – Izvestia

Today shots are ringing out in the woods. Illegal hunting is taking place, primarily for large animals: elk, deer, boars. The reason – the skyrocketing price of meat.

December 3, 1991 – Izvestia 

Why did the people of Ukraine elect Leonid Kravchuk as their president? One thing I can say for sure is that it was not his well-known platform promising five D's – derzhavnost, demokratiya, dostatok, dukhovnost, and doveriye [statehood, democracy, prosperity, spirituality, and trust]. Other candidates had even more appealing platforms. But the masses nevertheless preferred L. Kravchuk, a man whose biography as a 30-year party apparatchik could not possibly compete with the those of his democratic rivals, whose résumés included imprisonment, exile, and an unwavering commitment to their ideals.

It was under Kravchuk, a communist and Soviet official, that Ukraine moved aggressively toward secession. It was also during his presidency that a referendum was held in which the majority voted for independence. It would be interesting to know how they feel about this move now, to know who still feels this was the right step and who laments it. Without Ukraine, the USSR became a fiction. 

December 3, 1991 – Izvestia

Nursultan Nazarbayev has been elected by the people of Kazakhstan, literally by "all the people," since he received 99.88 percent of the vote.* This figure will certainly bring up certain associations, but in this case they are not quite justified. Today, Nazarbayev not only has no serious rivals in Kazakhstan; he has no rivals whatsoever. This is something that may naturally elicit charges that processes in Kazakhstan are not democratic. First of all, for Kazakhstan (like many other republics of the former Soviet Union), democracy is not a very distinct prospect. A sober view should be taken of the situation. Just as you cannot leap from feudalism into socialism, it seems to be impossible to instantly become democratic after a restrictive communist regime. I assume that Nazarbayev has been listening to certain political scientists who feel that the path from totalitarianism to democracy leads through authoritarianism. He uses the word "democracy" in his speeches, but he does not idolize it. This is probably why people in this republic are not allergic to this sociopolitical concept.

Even today, as we know, Nursultan Nazarbayaev does not "idolize" the concept of "democracy," and it appears that everyone, except for a few members of the political opposition in Kazakhstan, has come to terms with this. Democracy is also not "idolized" in Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, not to mention former Soviet republics that are further west and apparently more "Europeanized." But back in December of 1991, if not in Kazakhstan, then at least in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, everyone or almost everyone was sure that democracy was a perfectly distinct prospect. 

December 16, 1991 – Izvestia

Negotiations with the European Community Commission have resulted in a signed agreement, according to statements made at a press conference by I. Silayev, chairman of the Intergovernmental Economic Committee, and G. Kulik, his deputy. The agreement provides for the ECC to issue credit in the amount of almost $1.5 billion for the purchase of food for those sovereign states that have signed an agreement to pay back the foreign debts of the former Soviet Union. Almost half of the funds will go toward supplying food for three Russian cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Yekaterinburg. This sum is sufficient to purchase meat for the population of these cities for two months. Or fat for three months.

Meanwhile, centrifugal forces continued to pull the Soviet Union apart. At that moment in history, this Union, with its communist traditions and imperial ambitions, seemed to be the main impediment to normal, free development. Looking back, it is hard to say whether or not this was actually the case. 

December 16, 1991 – Izvestia 

On December 14th and 15th, the democratic forces of the republics and ethnic administrative units that make up the RSFSR convened a congress in Moscow. In an effort to demonstrate the absurdity of neonationalism, one scholar who spoke at the congress joked that the RSFSR should follow an organizational model that would give each people their own separate ethnic republic. The joke flopped. A representative of the Kumyk people, the third largest in Dagestan, the RSFSR's most ethnically diverse republic, came to the podium to relate how his people, which has been fighting the Dagestani authorities for national self-determination, were two months into a national strike. He listed at least five other ethnic groups that are conducting similar campaigns within Dagestan.

The Soviet Union was already well-acquainted with the horrors of ethnic strife, having experienced the carnage unleashed in Sumgait, the slaughter of Meskhetian Turks in the Fergana Valley, and the bloodletting that took place in Transnistria in the years leading up to the collapse. Nobody yet knew that two Chechen wars, terrorism, and Central Asian civil wars lay ahead. On the other hand, who knows what horrors would have taken place if the Union Treaty had been signed and the Soviet Union had been preserved? Would a weak federation have been able to save us from a Yugoslav-style nightmare? 

Today we can look back in amazement: the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus came to terms so quickly on dissolving the Soviet Union and creating the Commonwealth of Independent States that Nursultan Nazarbayev did not have time to fly from Kazakhstan to meet with them, and was forced to put on a brave face and convene a separate meeting for the leaders of the remaining republics in Almaty. 

We can wonder what poor Gorbachev must have felt on December 25th when he went to record his final televised address to the nation, completely isolated and scorned by a people who just a few years earlier saw him as the country's savior. 

We can try to weigh the good and the bad that came from the fall of the Soviet Union. But, most importantly, we must accept the fact that, beginning in December 1991, a completely new life began. At first, we were too busy standing in lines to able to appreciate its novelty, to take an objective look at the situation. But a new world was at the gates. 

New York Times front page, 12/26/1991.

December 31, 1991 Pravda 

FOR THE THIRD DAY IN A ROW, it has been impossible to buy bread in Ulyanovsk. The long lines that form during the morning hours are primarily made up of pensioners. They are stocking up on loaves and buns. They store them on their balconies and head back to the line for more. This is how frightened people on fixed incomes are at the news that the price of bread will go up threefold. The lecturing of sales clerks falls on deaf ears. 
YESTERDAY AN AZERBAIJANI army tank column approached the outskirts of Stepanakert and opened massive fire on the city. The Executive Committee of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic's Council of People's Deputies appealed to the UN, the European Community, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and the commander-in-chief of CIS forces, Army General Ye. Shaposhnikov, with an urgent plea for assistance in halting military actions by Azerbaijani army units against the Armenian people.
PRESIDENT ISLAM KARIMOV OF UZBEKISTAN issued a decree raising the salaries of workers in public education, public health, culture, social services, science, government agencies, and public housing beginning January 1, 1992. Stipends for university and technical college students will be more than doubled. A minimum wage and pension has been set at 350 rubles per month.
IN MOSCOW AN ORGANIZATIONAL MEETING was held to create a "right bloc of political parties and movements" that intend to become the right opposition to the Russian government.
IN THE CAPITAL OF GEORGIA, armed conflict continues between forces loyal to the republic's president and opposition forces. According to a report by the Georgian government picked up by TASS over shortwave radio yesterday, the fighting has moved from the House of Government to Shota Rustaveli Prospect.
THE PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION has issued a decree ordering that companies based within the Russian Federation that export goods from Russia to other member states of the Commonwealth without a license should be fined 10 times the cost of such goods.
IN AN INTERVIEW WITH INTERFAX, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk expressed displeasure with economic actions taken by Russia and the Commonwealth. On January 10 Ukraine will lift price controls, but will first take "reliable measures" to protect its economy, Kravchuk said. As far as the ruble zone is concerned, Kravchuk asserts that it has "become a fiction," insofar as, in violation of the December 8 Minsk Accord on the Establishment of the CIS, the Commonwealth did not provide Ukraine with the necessary rubles needed to eliminate price controls.
A FINE NEW YEAR'S PRESENT, to put it a quaintly, the Moldovan parliamentary leadership collective has given itself. On December 25, in closed session of the parliamentary presidium, the question of raising the salaries of the people's elected officials was taken up, evidently explained by the fact that they are deeply concerned about their own social security, given conditions of galloping inflation.


  • March 17: 76 percent of Soviets voting in a referendum favor preserving a renewed USSR.
  • Spring: Work begins on drafting a new Union Treaty.
  • August: A failed coup attempts to overthrow Gorbachev and establish martial law.
  • December 1: 90 percent of Ukrainians voting in a referendum favor independence.
  • December 8: The Belovezh Accords, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States, are signed by Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, at the Belovezh Hunting Preserve in Belarus.
  • December 25: Gorbachev steps down as president.
  • December 26: The Supreme Soviet of the USSR votes to officially abolish the Soviet Union. 

* The Russian uses всенародно, which in this context means "nationally," but can be broken down into the words "all" and "people."

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