The Soviet Union’s Aging Leadership in the 1980s and Fall in 1991

The aging Soviet leadership of the 1980s was ill-equipped to deal with ongoing economic stagnation and worsening foreign conflicts such as the Soviet-Afghan War.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Public Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Aging Leadership


By 1982, the stagnation of the Soviet economy was evidenced by the fact that the Soviet Union had been importing grain from the U.S. throughout the 1970s. However, the conditions that led to economic stagnation, primarily the huge rate of defense spending that consumed the budget, were so firmly entrenched within the economic system that any real turnaround seemed impossible. The transition period that separated the Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras resembled the former much more than the latter, although hints of reform emerged as early as 1983.

Andropov Interregnum

Yuri Andropov: Yuri Andropov as depicted in the August 1983 issue of Soviet Life

Brezhnev died on November 10, 1982. Two days passed between his death and the announcement of the election of Yuri Andropov as the new General Secretary, suggesting that a power struggle had occurred in the Kremlin. Andropov maneuvered his way into power both through his KGB connections and by gaining the support of the military by promising not to cut defense spending. For comparison, some of his rivals, such as Konstantin Chernenko, were skeptical of continued high military spending. At age 69, he was the oldest person ever appointed as General Secretary and 11 years older than Brezhnev when he acquired that post. In June 1983, he assumed the post of chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, thus becoming the ceremonial head of state. It had taken Brezhnev 13 years to acquire this post.

Andropov began a thorough house-cleaning throughout the party and state bureaucracy, a decision made easy by the fact that the Central Committee had an average age of 69. He replaced more than one-fifth of the Soviet ministers and regional party first secretaries, and more than one-third of the department heads within the Central Committee apparatus. As a result, he replaced the aging leadership with younger, more vigorous administrators. But Andropov’s ability to reshape the top leadership was constrained by his own age and poor health and the influence of his rival (and longtime ally of Leonid Brezhnev) Konstantin Chernenko, who previously supervised personnel matters in the Central Committee.

Andropov’s domestic policy leaned heavily towards restoring discipline and order to Soviet society. He eschewed radical political and economic reforms, promoting instead a small degree of candor in politics and mild economic experiments similar to those associated with the late Premier Alexei Kosygin’s initiatives in the mid-1960s. In tandem with these economic experiments, Andropov launched an anti-corruption drive that reached high into the government and party ranks. Unlike Brezhnev, who possessed several mansions and a fleet of luxury cars, Andropov lived a modest life. While visiting Budapest in early 1983, he expressed interest in Hungary’s Goulash Communism and that the sheer size of the Soviet economy made strict top-down planning impractical. 1982 had witnessed the country’s worst economic performance since World War II, with real GDP growth at almost zero percent, necessitating real change, and fast.

In foreign affairs, Andropov continued Brezhnev’s policies. U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly beginning in March 1983, when President Ronald Reagan dubbed the Soviet Union an “evil empire”. The official press agency TASS accused Reagan of “thinking only in terms of confrontation and bellicose, lunatic anti-communism”. Further deterioration occurred as a result of the September 1, 1983, Soviet shoot-down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 near Moneron Island, carrying 269 people including a sitting U.S. congressman, Larry McDonald, as well as by Reagan’s stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe. Additionally, in Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, the U.S. began undermining Soviet-supported governments by supplying arms to anti-communist resistance movements.

Andropov’s health declined rapidly during the tense summer and fall of 1983, and he became the first Soviet leader to miss the anniversary celebrations of the 1917 revolution. He died in February 1984 of kidney failure after disappearing from public view for several months. His most significant legacy to the Soviet Union was his discovery and promotion of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Chernenko Interregnum

At 71, Konstantin Chernenko was in poor health, suffering from emphysema, and unable to play an active role in policy-making when he was chosen after lengthy discussion to succeed Andropov. But Chernenko’s short time in office did bring about some significant policy changes, including more investment in consumer goods and services and in agriculture. He also called for a reduction in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s (CPSU) micromanagement of the economy. However, KGB repression of Soviet dissidents increased and personnel changes and investigations into corruption undertaken under Andropov came to an end. In February 1983, Soviet representatives withdrew from the World Psychiatric Organization in protest of its continued complaints about the use of psychiatry to suppress dissent. This policy was underlined in June when Vladimir Danchev, a broadcaster for Radio Moscow, referred to the Soviet troops in Afghanistan as “invaders” while conducting English-language broadcasts. After refusing to retract this statement, he was sent to a mental institution for several months.

Soviet-Afghan War

Andropov played a dominant role in the decision to intervene militarily in Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, insisting on the invasion although he knew that the international community would find the USSR culpable. The decision to intervene led to the Soviet-Afghan War, which continued once Andropov became the leader of the USSR. By this time, Andropov felt the invasion might have been a mistake and halfheartedly explored options for a negotiated withdrawal. The Soviets had not foreseen taking such an active role in fighting the mujahideen rebels and attempted to downplay their involvement in relation to that of the Afghan army. However, the arrival of Soviet troops had the opposite effect on the Afghan people, incensing rather than pacifying and causing the mujahideen to gain in strength and numbers.

During the Chernenko interregnum, fighting in Afghanistan intensified. Once it became apparent that the Soviets could not take a backseat in the conflict, they followed three main strategies aimed at quelling the uprising. Intimidation was the first strategy, in which the Soviets would use airborne attacks as well as armored ground attacks to destroy villages, livestock, and crops in trouble areas. Locals were forced to either flee their homes or die as daily Soviet attacks made it impossible to live in these areas. By forcing the people of Afghanistan to flee their homes, the Soviets hoped to deprive the guerrillas of resources and safe havens. The second strategy consisted of subversion, which entailed sending spies to join resistance groups and report information as well as bribing local tribes or guerrilla leaders into ceasing operations. Finally, the Soviets used military forays into contested territories to root out the guerrillas and limit their options. Classic search and destroy operations were implemented and once villages were occupied by Soviet forces, inhabitants who remained were frequently interrogated and tortured for information, or killed.

Tanks and Helicopters during the Soviet-Afghan War: Soviet ground forces in action while conducting an offensive operation against the Islamist resistance

In the mid-1980s, the Afghan resistance movement, assisted by the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Egypt, China, and others, contributed to Moscow’s high military costs and strained international relations. The U.S. viewed the struggle in Afghanistan as an integral Cold War struggle and the CIA provided assistance to anti-Soviet forces via Pakistani intelligence services in a program called Operation Cyclone. The mujahideen favored sabotage operations. The more common types of sabotage included damaging power lines, knocking out pipelines and radio stations, and blowing up government office buildings, air terminals, hotels, cinemas, and so on. They concentrated on both civilian and military targets, knocking out bridges, closing major roads, attacking convoys, disrupting the electric power system and industrial production, and attacking police stations and Soviet military installations and air bases. They assassinated government officials and Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) members, and laid siege to small rural outposts.

Gorbachev and Perstroika


Gorbachev launched perestroika to rescue the Soviet economy from stagnation, but did not intend to abandon the centrally planned economy entirely.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1985 until 1991, when the party was dissolved. Gorbachev’s primary goal as general secretary was to revive the Soviet economy after the stagnant Brezhnev and interregnum years. In 1985, he announced that the economy was stalled and that reorganization was needed, proposing a vague program of reform that was adopted at the April Plenum of the Central Committee. His reforms called for fast-paced technological modernization and increased industrial and agricultural productivity. He also tried to make the Soviet bureaucracy more efficient.

Gorbachev soon came to believe that fixing the Soviet economy would be nearly impossible without also reforming the political and social structure of the Communist nation. He started by making personnel changes, most notably replacing Andrei Gromyko with Eduard Shevardnadze as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Gromyko had served at his post for 28 years and was considered a member of the old Soviet guard. Although Shevardnadze was comparatively inexperienced in diplomacy, he, like Gorbachev, had a background in managing an agricultural region of the Soviet Union (Georgia), which entailed weak links to the military-industrial complex, sharing Gorbachev’s outlook on governance.

Mikhail Gorbachev: Mikhail Gorbachev in 2010

The purpose of reform was to prop up the centrally planned economy—not to transition to market socialism. Speaking in late summer 1985 to the secretaries for economic affairs of the central committees of the East European communist parties, Gorbachev said: “Many of you see the solution to your problems in resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning. Some of you look at the market as a lifesaver for your economies. But, comrades, you should not think about lifesavers but about the ship, and the ship is socialism.”


Gorbachev initiated his new policy of perestroika (literally “restructuring” in Russian) and its attendant radical reforms in 1986. They were sketched, but not fully spelled out, at the XXVIIth Party Congress in February–March 1986. The “reconstruction” was proposed in an attempt to overcome economic stagnation by creating a dependable and effective mechanism for accelerating economic and social progress. In July 1987, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union passed the Law on State Enterprise. The law stipulated that state enterprises were free to determine output levels based on demand from consumers and other enterprises. Enterprises had to fulfill state orders, but could dispose of the remaining output as they saw fit. However, the state still held control over the means of production for these enterprises, limiting their ability to enact full-cost accountability. Enterprises bought input from suppliers at negotiated contract prices. Under the law, enterprises became self-financing; that is, they had to cover expenses (wages, taxes, supplies, and debt service) through revenues. No longer was the government to rescue unprofitable enterprises that faced bankruptcy. Finally, the law shifted control over the enterprise operations from ministries to elected workers’ collectives.

The Law on Cooperatives, enacted in May 1988, was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms introduced in the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy was abolished in 1928, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. The law initially imposed high taxes and employment restrictions, but it later revised these to avoid discouraging private-sector activity.

The most significant of Gorbachev’s reforms in the foreign economic sector allowed foreigners to invest in the Soviet Union in joint ventures with Soviet ministries, state enterprises, and cooperatives. The original version of the Soviet Joint Venture Law, which went into effect in June 1987, limited foreign shares of a Soviet venture to 49 percent and required that Soviet citizens occupy the positions of chairman and general manager. After potential Western partners complained, the government revised the regulations to allow majority foreign ownership and control. Under the terms of the Joint Venture Law, the Soviet partner supplied labor, infrastructure, and a potentially large domestic market. The foreign partner supplied capital, technology, entrepreneurial expertise, and high-quality products and services.

Gorbachev’s economic changes did little to restart the country’s sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms decentralized economic activity to a certain extent, but price controls remained, as did the ruble’s inconvertibility and most government controls over the means of production. By 1990, the government had virtually lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as more unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined because local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government in a climate of growing regional autonomy. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supply-demand relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev’s decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.


In 1988, Gorbachev introduced glasnost, which gave the Soviet people freedoms they had not previously known, including greater freedom of speech. The press became far less controlled, and thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were released as part of a wider program of de-Stalinization. Gorbachev’s goal in glasnost was to pressure conservatives within the CPSU who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, believing that through varying ranges of openness, debate, and participation, the Soviet people would support his reform initiatives. At the same time, he exposed his plans to more public criticism.

In June 1988, at the CPSU’s Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms to reduce party control of the government apparatus. He proposed a new executive in the form of a presidential system as well as a new legislative element, the Congress of People’s Deputies. Elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies were held throughout the Soviet Union in March and April 1989. This was the first free election in the Soviet Union since 1917. Gorbachev became Chairman of the Supreme Soviet (or head of state) on May 25, 1989.

Unrest in the Soviet Union

The increased freedoms of glasnost allowed opposition groups to make political gains against the centralized Soviet government in Moscow. The Revolutions of 1989 were part of a revolutionary wave in the late 1980s and early 1990s that resulted in the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.

Leadup to Revolution

By the late 1980s, people in the Caucasus and Baltic states were demanding more autonomy from Moscow, and the Kremlin was losing some of its control over certain regions and elements in the Soviet Union. In November 1988, Estonia issued a declaration of sovereignty, which eventually led to other states doing the same.

The Baltic Way, Lithuania, August 23, 1989: The Baltic Way was a human chain of approximately two million people dedicated to liberating the Baltic Republics from the USSR.

The Chernobyl disaster in April 1986 had major political and social effects that catalyzed the revolutions of 1989. It is difficult to establish the total economic cost of the disaster. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union spent 18 billion rubles (the equivalent of USD $18 billion at the time) on containment and decontamination, virtually bankrupting itself. One political result of the disaster was the greatly increased significance of the Soviet policy of glasnost. Under glasnost, relaxation of censorship resulted in the Communist Party losing its grip on the media, and Soviet citizens were able to learn significantly more about the past and the outside world.

The Soviet media began to expose numerous social and economic problems in the Soviet Union that the government had long denied and covered up, such as poor housing, food shortages, alcoholism, widespread pollution, creeping mortality rates, the second-rate position of women, and the history of state crimes against the population. Although Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s personality cult as early as the 1950s, information about the true proportions of his atrocities had still been suppressed. These revelations had a devastating effect on those who believed in state communism and had never been exposed to this information, as the driving vision of society was built on a foundation of falsehood and crimes against humanity. Additionally, information about the higher quality of life in the United States and Western Europe and about Western pop culture were exposed to the Soviet public for the first time.

Political openness continued to produce unintended consequences. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR’s central government to impose its will on the USSR’s constituent republics was largely undermined. During the 1980s, calls for greater independence from Moscow’s rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist sentiment also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.

Starting in the mid-1980s, the Baltic states used the reforms provided by glasnost to assert their rights to protect their environment (for example during the Phosphorite War) and their historic monuments, and, later, their claims to sovereignty and independence. When the Balts withstood outside threats, they exposed an irresolute Kremlin. Bolstering separatism in other Soviet republics, the Balts triggered multiple challenges to the Soviet Union. The rise of nationalism under glasnost also reawakened simmering ethnic tensions throughout the union. For example, in February 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in Azerbaijan, passed a resolution calling for unification with Armenia, which sparked the Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Collapse (Summer 1989 to Fall 1991)

Momentum toward full-blown revolution began in Poland in 1989. During the Polish United Workers’ Party’s (PZPR) plenary session of January 16-18, 1989, General Wojciech Jaruzelski and his ruling formation overcame the Central Committee’s resistance by threatening to resign. As a result, the communist party decided to allow relegalization of the independent trade union Solidarity and approach its leaders for formal talks. From February 6 to April 4, 94 sessions of talks between 13 working groups, known as the Round Table Talks, resulted in political and economic compromise reforms. The talks resulted in the Round Table Agreement, by which political power wound be vested in a newly created bicameral legislature and a president who would be the chief executive.

By April 4, 1989, numerous reforms and freedoms for the opposition were obtained. Solidarity, now in existence as the Solidarity Citizens’ Committee, would again be legalized as a trade union and allowed to participate in semi-free elections. The election had restrictions imposed designed to keep the communists in power, since only 35% of the seats in the Sejm, the key lower chamber of parliament, would be open to Solidarity candidates. The remaining 65% was reserved for candidates from the PZPR and its allies (the United People’s Party, the Alliance of Democrats, and the PAX Association). Since the Round Table Agreement mandated only reform (not replacement) of socialism in Poland, the communist party thought of the election as a way of neutralizing political conflict and staying in power while gaining legitimacy to carry out economic reforms. However, the negotiated social policy determinations by economists and trade unionists during the Round Table talks were quickly rejected by both the Party and the opposition.

A systemic transformation was made possible by the Polish legislative elections of June 4, 1989, which coincided with the bloody crackdown on the Tienanmen Square protesters in China. When polling results were released, a political earthquake erupted: Solidarity’s victory surpassed all predictions. Solidarity candidates captured all seats they were allowed to compete for in the Sejm, while in the newly established Senate they captured 99 out of the 100 available seats (the other seat went to an independent, who later switched to Solidarity). At the same time, many prominent PZPR candidates failed to gain even the minimum number of votes required to capture the seats that were reserved for them. The communists suffered a catastrophic blow to their legitimacy as a result.

Revolutionary momentum, encouraged by the peaceful transition underway in Poland, continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. A common feature among these countries was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance, demonstrating popular opposition to the continuation of one-party rule and contributing to the pressure for change. Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose people overthrew its Communist regime violently. The Tienanmen Square protests of 1989 failed to stimulate major political changes in China, but powerful images of courageous defiance during that protest helped to spark a precipitation of events in other parts of the globe. Hungary dismantled its section of the physical Iron Curtain, leading to a mass exodus of East Germans through Hungary that destabilized East Germany. This led to mass demonstrations in cities such as Leipzig and subsequently to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which served as the symbolic gateway to German reunification in 1990.

The Soviet Union was dissolved by the end of 1991, resulting in 14 countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) declaring their independence from the Soviet Union in 1990-91. Lithuania was the first Union Republic to declare independence from the dissolving Soviet Union in the Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania, signed by the Supreme Council of the Republic of Lithuania on March 11, 1990. The Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania served as a model and inspiration to other Soviet republics. However, the issue of independence was not immediately settled and recognition by other countries was uncertain. The rest of the Soviet Union, which constituted the bulk of the area, became Russia in December 1991.

Act of Restoration of Independence of Lithuania, March 11, 1990: Act of the Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania with signatures of the delegates

Communism was abandoned in Albania and Yugoslavia between 1990 and 1992. By 1992, Yugoslavia split into the five successor states of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Macedonia, Slovenia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was later renamed Serbia and Montenegro and eventually split into two separate states,. Serbia then further split with the breakaway of the partially recognized state of Kosovo. Czechoslovakia was dissolved three years after the end of Communist rule, splitting peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992. The impact was felt in dozens of Socialist countries. Communism was abandoned in countries such as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mongolia (which democratically re-elected a Communist government that ran the country until 1996), and South Yemen. The collapse of Communism (and of the Soviet Union) led commentators to declare the end of the Cold War.

During the adoption of varying forms of market economies, there was initially a general decline in living standards. Political reforms were varied, but in only five countries were Communist parties able to keep for themselves a monopoly on power: China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. Many Communist and Socialist organisations in the West turned their guiding principles over to social democracy. Communist parties in Italy and San Marino suffered, and the renewal of the Italian political class took place in the early 1990s. The European political landscape was drastically changed, with numerous Eastern Bloc countries joining NATO and the European Union, resulting in stronger economic and social integration.

Fall of the Berlin Wall


A relaxing of Eastern bloc border defenses initiated a chain of events that pressured the East German government into opening crossing points between East and West Berlin to political refugees, precipitating the eventual fall of the Berlin Wall.

Berlin Wall Map: Map of the location of the Berlin Wall, showing checkpoints

The Berlin Wall was a barrier that divided Berlin from 1961 to 1989. Constructed by the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) beginning August 13, 1961, the Wall completely cut off West Berlin by land from East Germany and East Berlin. The barrier included guard towers placed along large concrete walls, which circumscribed a wide area that contained anti-vehicle trenches, fakir beds, and other defenses. The Eastern Bloc claimed the Wall was erected to protect its population from fascist elements conspiring to prevent grassroots socialist state-building in East Germany. But in practice, the Wall served to prevent massive emigration and defection that plagued East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc during the post-World War II period.

The Fall of the Wall

When Hungary disabled its physical border defenses with Austria on August 19, 1989, it initiated a chain of events that would eventually precipitate the fall of the Berlin Wall. In September 1989, more than 13,000 East German tourists escaped through Hungary to Austria. The Hungarians prevented many more East Germans from crossing the border and returned them to Budapest. Those East Germans then flooded the West German embassy and refused to return to East Germany. The East German government responded to this by disallowing any further travel to Hungary, but allowed those already there to return to East Germany.

Soon, a similar pattern began to emerge out of Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the East German authorities allowed people to leave, provided that they did so by train through East Germany. This was followed by mass demonstrations within East Germany itself. Initially, protesters were mostly people wanting to leave to the West, chanting “Wir wollen raus!” (“We want out!”). Then protesters began to chant “Wir bleiben hier!” (“We are staying here!”). This was the start of what East Germans call the Peaceful Revolution of late 1989. Protest demonstrations grew considerably by early November, and the movement neared its height on November 4, when half a million people gathered to demand political change at the Alexanderplatz demonstration, East Berlin’s large public square and transportation hub.

The longtime leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker, resigned on October 18, 1989, and was replaced by Egon Krenz the same day. Honecker predicted in January of that year that the Wall would stand for 50 or 100 more years if the conditions that caused its construction did not change. The wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West kept increasing. By early November, refugees were finding their way to Hungary via Czechoslovakia or the West German Embassy in Prague. This was tolerated by the new Krenz government due to long-standing agreements with the communist Czechoslovak government allowing free travel across their common border. However, this movement grew so large it caused difficulties for both countries. The Politburo led by Krenz thus decided on November 9 to allow refugees to exit directly via crossing points between East and West Germany, including between East and West Berlin. Later the same day, the ministerial administration modified the proposal to include private, round-trip travel. The new regulations were to take effect the next day.

Günter Schabowski, the party boss in East Berlin and the spokesman for the SED Politburo, had the task of announcing the new regulations but had not been involved in the discussions about the new regulations and was been fully updated. Shortly before a press conference on November 9, he was handed a note announcing the changes but given no further instructions on how to handle the information. These regulations had only been completed a few hours earlier and were to take effect the following day to allow time to inform the border guards. But this starting time delay was not communicated to Schabowski. At the end of the press conference, Schabowski read out loud the note he had been given. One of the reporters, ANSA’s Riccardo Ehrman, asked when the regulations would take effect. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Schabowski stated based on assumption that it would be immediate. After further questions from journalists, he confirmed that the regulations included border crossings through the Wall into West Berlin, which he had not mentioned until then.

Excerpts from Schabowski’s press conference were the lead story on West Germany’s two main news programs that night, meaning that the news was also broadcast to nearly all of East Germany. East Germans began gathering at the Wall at the six checkpoints between East and West Berlin, demanding that border guards immediately open the gates. The surprised and overwhelmed guards made many hectic telephone calls to their superiors about the problem. At first, they were ordered to find the more aggressive people gathered at the gates and stamp their passports with a special stamp that barred them from returning to East Germany—in effect, revoking their citizenship. However, this still left thousands demanding to be let through.

It soon became clear that no one among the East German authorities would take personal responsibility for issuing orders to use lethal force, so the vastly outnumbered soldiers had no way to hold back the huge crowd of East German citizens. Finally, at 10:45 pm, Harald Jäger, the commander of the Bornholmer Straße border crossing, yielded, allowing the guards to open the checkpoints and people to pass through with little to no identity checking. As the Ossis (“Easterners”) swarmed through, they were greeted by Wessis (“Westerners”) waiting with flowers and champagne amid wild rejoicing. Soon afterward, a crowd of West Berliners jumped on top of the Wall and were joined by East German youngsters. They danced together to celebrate their new freedom.


The Fall of the Berlin Wall: This photo shows part of the Wall at Brandenburg Gate, with Germans standing on top of the Wall days before it was torn down

Television coverage of citizens demolishing sections of the Wall on November 9 was soon followed by the East German regime announcing ten new border crossings, including the historically significant locations of Potsdamer Platz, Glienicker Brücke, and Bernauer Straße. Crowds gathered on both sides of the historic crossings waiting for hours to cheer the bulldozers that tore down portions of the Wall to reinstate ancient roads. While the Wall officially remained guarded at a decreasing intensity, new border crossings continued for some time, including the Brandenburg Gate on December 22, 1989. Initially the East German military attempted to repair damage done by “Wall peckers,” but gradually these attempts ceased and guards became more lax, tolerating the demolitions and unauthorized border crossings through holes in the Wall.

West Germans and West Berliners were allowed visa-free travel starting December 23. Until that point, they were only able to visit East Germany and East Berlin under restrictive conditions that involved applying for a visa several days or weeks in advance and the obligatory exchange of at least 25 Deutsche Marks per day of their planned stay, which hindered spontaneous visits. Thus, in the weeks between November 9 and December 23, East Germans could actually travel more freely than Westerners.

On June 13, 1990, the East German military officially began dismantling the Wall, beginning in Bernauer Straße and around the Mitte district. From there, demolition continued through Prenzlauer Berg/Gesundbrunnen, Helligensee, and throughout the city of Berlin until that December. Various military units dismantled the Berlin/Brandenberg border wall, completing the job in November 1991. Virtually every road that was severed by the Berlin Wall was reconstructed and reopened by August 1, 1990.

On July 1, the day East Germany adopted West German currency, all de jure border controls ceased, although the inter-German border was meaningless for some time before that. The fall of the Wall marked the first critical step towards German reunification, which formally concluded a mere 339 days later on October 3, 1990, with the dissolution of East Germany and the official reunification of the German state along the democratic lines of the West German government.

Dissolution of the USSR


An unintended consequence of the expanding reform within the USSR was the destruction of the very system it was designed to save.

The Soviet Union was dissolved on December 26, 1991, as a result of declaration no. 142-Н of the Supreme Soviet. The declaration acknowledged the independence of the former Soviet republics and created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), although five of the signatories ratified it much later or not at all. On the previous day, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, resigned, declared his office extinct, and handed over its powers – including control of the Soviet nuclear missile launching codes – to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That evening at 7:32, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the pre-revolutionary Russian flag. From August to December of 1991, all individual republics, including Russia itself, seceded from the union. The week before the union’s formal dissolution, 11 republics signed the Alma-Ata Protocol formally establishing the CIS and declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. The Revolutions of 1989 and the dissolution of the USSR signaled the end of the Cold War and left the United States as the world’s only superpower.

Moscow’s Crisis

Since 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the USSR, instituted liberalizing policies broadly referred to as glasnost and perestroika. As a result of his push towards liberalization, dissidents were welcomed back in the USSR following prolonged exile and pro-independence movements were becoming more vocal in the regional republics. At the January 28–30, 1987, Central Committee plenum, Gorbachev suggested a new policy of “Demokratizatsiya” throughout Soviet society. He proposed that future Communist Party elections should offer a choice between multiple candidates, elected by secret ballot. However, the CPSU delegates at the Plenum watered down Gorbachev’s proposal, and democratic choice within the Communist Party was never significantly implemented.

Gorbachev continued to radically expand the scope of glasnost during the late 1980s, stating that no subject was off limits for open discussion in the media. Even so, the cautious Soviet intelligentsia took almost a year to begin pushing the boundaries to see if he meant what he said. For the first time, the Communist Party leader appealed over the heads of Central Committee members for the people’s support in exchange for expansion of liberties. The tactic proved successful – within two years political reform could no longer be sidetracked by Party conservatives. An unintended consequence was that expanding the scope of reform would ultimately destroy the very system it was designed to save.

On January 14, 1991, Nikolai Ryzhkov resigned from his post as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or premier of the Soviet Union, and was succeeded by Valentin Pavlov in the newly-established post of Prime Minister of the Soviet Union. On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum, 76.4% of voters endorsed retention of a reformed Soviet Union. The Baltic republics, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova, boycotted the referendum, as did Checheno-Ingushetia (an autonomous republic within Russia that had a strong desire for independence, and by now referred to itself as Ichkeria). In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of a reformed Soviet Union. On June 12, 1991, Boris Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in democratic elections for the newly-created post of President of the Russian SFSR, defeating Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the “dictatorship of the center,” but did not yet suggest that he would introduce a market economy.

August Coup

Faced with growing separatism, Gorbachev sought to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign a New Union Treaty that would have converted the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy, and military. It was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic advantages of a common market to prosper. However, it would have meant some degree of continued Communist Party control over economic and social life.

More radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome meant the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent states. Independence also accorded with Yeltsin’s desires as president of the Russian Federation, as well as those of regional and local authorities to get rid of Moscow’s pervasive control. In contrast to the reformers’ lukewarm response to the treaty, the conservatives and Russian nationalists of the USSR – still strong within the CPSU and the military – were opposed to weakening the Soviet state and its centralized power structure.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev’s vice president, Gennady Yanayev, Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the union treaty from being signed by forming the “General Committee on the State Emergency”, which put Gorbachev – on holiday in Foros, Crimea – under house arrest and cut off his communications. The coup leaders issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers. Coup organizers expected some popular support but found that public sympathy in large cities and in the republics was largely against them, manifested by public demonstrations, especially in Moscow. Russian SFSR President Yeltsin condemned the coup and garnered popular support.

1991 Coup Attempt: T-80UD tanks near Red Square during the 1991 Soviet coup d’etat attempt

Thousands of Muscovites came out to defend the White House (the Russian Federation’s parliament and Yeltsin’s office), the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty at the time. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied opposition to the coup with speech-making atop a tank. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but members refused to storm the barricaded building. The coup leaders also neglected to jam foreign news broadcasts, so many Muscovites watched it unfold live on CNN. Even the isolated Gorbachev was able to stay abreast of developments by tuning into BBC World Service on a small transistor radio.

After three days, on August 21, 1991, the coup collapsed. The organizers were detained and Gorbachev returned as president, albeit with his power much depleted.

The Fall: August-December 1991

On August 24, 1991, Gorbachev dissolved the Central Committee of the CPSU, resigned as the party’s general secretary, and dissolved all party units in the government. Five days later, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all CPSU activity on Soviet territory, effectively ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union and dissolving the only remaining unifying force in the country. The Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. Between August and December, ten republic  declared their independence, largely out of fear of another coup. By the end of September, Gorbachev no longer had the authority to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even there by Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin.

On September 17, 1991, General Assembly resolution numbers 46/4, 46/5, and 46/6 admitted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the United Nations, conforming to Security Council resolution numbers 709, 710, and 711, passed on September 12 without a vote. The final round of the Soviet Union’s collapse began with a Ukrainian popular referendum on December 1, 1991, in which 90 percent of voters opted for independence. The secession of Ukraine, the second-most powerful republic, ended any realistic chance of Gorbachev keeping the Soviet Union together even on a limited scale. The leaders of the three principal Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), agreed to discuss possible alternatives to the union.

On December 8, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha, in western Belarus, and signed the Belavezha Accords, which proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a looser association to take its place. They also invited other republics to join the CIS. Gorbachev called it an unconstitutional coup. However, by this time there was no longer any reasonable doubt that, as the preamble of the Accords put it, “the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence.” On December 12, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR formally ratified the Belavezha Accords and renounced the 1922 Union Treaty. It also recalled the Russian deputies from the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. In effect, the largest and most powerful republic had seceded from the Union. Later that day, Gorbachev hinted for the first time that he was considering stepping down.

Doubts remained over whether the Belavezha Accords had legally dissolved the Soviet Union since they were signed by only three republics. However, on December 21, 1991, representatives of 11 of the 12 remaining republics – all except Georgia – signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the dissolution of the Union and formally established the CIS. They also recognized and accepted Gorbachev’s resignation. While Gorbachev hadn’t made any formal plans to leave his position yet, he did tell CBS News that he would resign a  soon as he saw that the CIS was indeed a reality.

In a nationally televised speech early in the morning of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR – or, as he put it, “I hereby discontinue my activities at the post of President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” He declared the office extinct, and all of its powers, including control of the nuclear arsenal, were ceded to Yeltsin. A week earlier, Gorbachev met with Yeltsin and accepted the fait accompli of the Soviet Union’s dissolution. On the same day, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR adopted a statute to change Russia’s legal name from “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” to “Russian Federation,” showing that it was now a sovereign state. On the night of December 25, at 7:32 p.m. Moscow time, after Gorbachev left the Kremlin the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time and the Russian tricolor was raised in its place, symbolically marking the end of the Soviet Union. On that same day, the President of the United States George H.W. Bush held a brief televised speech officially recognizing the independence of the 11 remaining republics.

On December 26, the upper chamber of the Union’s Supreme Soviet voted both itself and the Soviet Union out of existence. The lower chamber, the Council of the Union, had been out of commission since December 12, when the recall of Russian deputies left it without a quorum. The following day Yeltsin moved into Gorbachev’s former office, though Russian authorities had taken over the suite two days earlier. By the end of 1991, the few remaining Soviet institutions that had not been taken over by Russia ceased operation, and individual republics assumed the central government’s role.

The Alma-Ata Protocol addressed issues such as UN membership following dissolution. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the Soviet Union’s UN membership, including its permanent seat on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered a letter signed by Russian President Yeltsin to the UN Secretary General dated December 24, 1991, informing him that by virtue of the Alma-Ata Protocol, Russia was the successor state to the USSR. After being circulated among the other UN member states and with no objections being raised, the statement was accepted on December 31, 1991.

The Transition to a Market Economy, 1991-1998

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia radically transformed from a centrally planned economy to a globally integrated market economy. Corrupt and haphazard privatization processes turned major state-owned firms over to politically connected “oligarchs”, which left equity ownership highly concentrated. Yeltsin’s program of radical, market-oriented reform came to be known as a “shock therapy.” It was based on the recommendations of the IMF and a group of top American economists, including Larry Summers. The result was disastrous, with real GDP falling by more than 40% by 1999, the occurrence of hyperinflation, which wiped out personal savings, and crime and destitution spreading rapidly. Difficulties in collecting government revenues amid the collapsing economy and a dependence on short-term borrowing to finance budget deficits led to the 1998 Russian financial crisis.

Also during this time, Russia became the largest borrower from the International Monetary Fund with loans totaling $20 billion. The IMF was the subject of criticism for lending so much as Russia introduced little of the reforms promised in exchange for money, especially as critics suspected a large part of these funds could have been diverted or even used to fund illegal enterprises.

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.