Born in a bloody revolution and coming of age amid horrific purges, the Soviet Union died surprisingly peacefully 25 years ago. With a 10-minute speech and a tug on a flagpole, one of the most powerful empires in world history came to an end and dissolved into 15 independent states.
By December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was a president without a country. Three of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics had already declared independence, and days earlier the leaders of 11 others agreed to leave the USSR to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. Once the republic leaders signed the Soviet Union’s virtual death warrant, all that was left was for Gorbachev to pull the plug.
So in a 10-minute televised speech on the night of December 25, a weary Gorbachev addressed a nation that no longer existed. He announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation as its eighth and final leader.
The Soviet Union was dead at 69.
Five years after revolutionary Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian czar and established a socialist state, Russia joined with its neighbors on December 30, 1922, to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under its first leader, Vladimir Lenin. The communist power had been on its sickbed for several years when the 54-year-old Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Hidden behind the Iron Curtain was a decaying empire with a stagnant economy that had fallen behind the West.
Gorbachev believed reform was necessary for survival, and he brought desperate actions to the desperate times. He ushered in political openness (“glasnost”), which brought new freedoms and democratic elections, and perestroika (“economic restructuring”), which loosened government control on the Soviet economy and permitted limited private enterprise. The changes made Gorbachev popular abroad, but opinions of him fell at home as the USSR struggled through the transformation.
The reforms enacted by Gorbachev set the stage for a series of mostly bloodless revolutions that swept through the Soviet satellite countries of Eastern Europe in 1989. As the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet leader chose not to order a military response. The historic changes earned Gorbachev the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine’s “Man of the Decade” honor, but the USSR had lost its communist Eastern Bloc.
Increasingly, Gorbachev was being puled in two different directions by democrats who wanted even greater freedoms and autonomy for the republics and conservatives who wanted to end the reforms that they believed were breaking the union apart. The maverick leader of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, was a particularly radical thorn in Gorbachev’s side. Yeltsin, who had dramatically quit the Communist Party in 1990, called for Gorbachev’s resignation after the Soviet army cracked down in Lithuania and other republics that sought independence and greater sovereignty.
In March 1991, the USSR held a public referendum to determine whether the union should be preserved or dissolved. More than three-quarters of voters wanted the USSR to endure, but six republics abstained from voting altogether. In spite of the results, the referendum did little to stop the fracturing of the country. Yeltsin and other democrats continued to push Gorbachev to introduce more radical reforms, and the Soviet president negotiated a treaty that decentralized power from the central government to the republics.
Communist hard-liners in the government and the military had seen enough. On August 18, 1991, they placed Gorbachev under house arrest at his vacation villa in Crimea. Announcing Gorbachev’s “inability for health reasons” to carry out his presidential duties, the coup leaders declared a state of emergency. While tanks rumbled through Moscow, thousands poured into the city streets to link hands in human chains and build barricades to protect the Russian Parliament, known as the White House. Outside the parliament, Yeltsin rallied the crowds from atop a tank, and the popular uprising doomed the coup to failure after three days.
Gorbachev flew back to Moscow on August 22, but it wasn’t he who became the populist hero as a result of the coup, but Yeltsin. The last gasp of the old order had been smothered with the failed coup, and an emboldened Yeltsin quickly eclipsed Gorbachev.
On December 8, the Russian president met with the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine at a villa outside of Minsk and signed an agreement to form the Commonwealth of Independent States. “The Soviet Union as a subject of international and geopolitical reality no longer exists,” read the text of the agreement. Less than two weeks later at a meeting in the Kazakh city of Alma-Ata, another eight Soviet republics agreed to join the new entity. With the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia having declared independence months earlier, the USSR was down to one republic—Georgia. The Commonwealth of Independent States also accepted Gorbachev’s resignation—although it had yet to be tendered. “We respect Gorbachev and want him to go gently intro retirement,” said Yeltsin, who had already taken control of the KGB, parliament and even Gorbachev’s presidential office.
Left with no choice, the Soviet president tendered his resignation on December 25. “Due to the situation which has evolved as a result of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” Gorbachev said in his address. “The policy prevailed of dismembering this country and disuniting the state, which is something I cannot subscribe to.”
“We’re now living in a new world. An end has been put to the Cold War and to the arms race, as well as to the mad militarization of the country, which has crippled our economy, public attitudes and morals,” he said before lamenting that “the old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working.”
Moments after the end of the speech, Gorbachev signed the nuclear codes over to Yeltsin. Then with little pomp and even less circumstance, the red flag of the Soviet Union was lowered like that of a surrendered army from its floodlit perch atop the Kremlin in front of a smattering of onlookers. The tricolor of the Russian Federation was then hoisted up the flagpole. The end for a country that had seen such violence over its history came without a soundtrack of gunshots but just the flapping of a banner in the breeze and the wail of a drunken man stumbling around Red Square who cried out “Why are you laughing at Lenin?”