The End of the Soviet Union

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The August 1991 coup, designed to halt the weakening of the centralized USSR, ironically hastened the Union’s dissolution. Declarations of independence by the constituent republics, the abolition of all-Union institutions and the transfer of their assets to the republics, and increasing international acceptance of these developments sapped what little strength there had been in the Union. While Gorbachev tried desperately to find a formula to halt the centrifugal process, his former political allies, reading the signs, abandoned him one after the other. And yet, there was no inevitability about the decision to replace the Soviet Union with a Commonwealth of Independent States. That decision, adopted by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belorussia, seems to have been made hastily if not whimsically.

On August 23, 1991 Boris Eltsin, as President of the RSFSR, decreed the suspension of the Russian Communist Party on the grounds that it had lent its support to the coup attempt and had otherwise violated Soviet and Russian laws. Gorbachev, who upon returning to Moscow after the coup had tried to absolve the party of any blame and announced his intention of continuing his efforts to reform the party, was left with little choice but to resign as General Secretary of the entire (All-Union) party, which he did two days later. Seeking to counter the further erosion of central authority, Gorbachev persuaded a majority in the Congress of People’s Deputies in early September to dissolve that body in favor of a State Council which would consist of republic leaders and Gorbachev and act in a temporary capacity until a new bicameral legislature could be elected. Aside from approving independence for the three Baltic republics, the State Council accomplished nothing and was largely ignored by republic governments. Eltsin, swelled with new powers granted by the Russian parliament, meanwhile accelerated the transfer of central institutions to Russian authority.

December turned out to be the month in which the fatal blows to the Soviet Union were delivered. On December 1, voters in Ukraine overwhelmingly approved a referendum on independence and by a smaller margin elected Leonid Kravchuk, a former Communist Party boss turned nationalist, as their first president. A week later, at a hunting lodge in Belovezhskaia Pushcha, not far from the Belorussian capital of Minsk, Eltsin, Kravchuk and the Belorussian leader, Stanislav Shushkevich, signed a declaration terminating the Soviet Union and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev, who had not been consulted or informed beforehand, publicly responded by declaring his “amazement” and urging republic parliaments to discuss the draft Treaty on the Union of Sovereign States on which he had worked tirelessly over the previous months. On December 21, the presidents of all the other republics with the exception of Georgia (already embroiled in civil war) and the three Baltic states, declared their willingness to enter the Commonwealth. Finally, on December 25, Gorbachev announced his acceptance of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation as its president.

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