Recently declassified documents reveal how Mikhail Gorbachev fought throughout the 1990s and 1991 to preserve the Union from the independent rulers of the Soviet republics, primarily Boris Yeltsin of Russia, but also Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine.
Thirty years ago, a new national flag was hoisted above the Moscow Kremlin when, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Soviet Union for almost seven years, left office. We saw him announce his resignation in a 10-minute speech broadcast live on our unreliable Russian-made little black-and-white TVs as the USSR made history. The Soviet flag, bearing the hammer and sickle on a red background, was lowered over the Kremlin and in its place we witnessed the hoisting of the tricolor of the Russian Federation. The iconic symbol of a failed socio-economic experiment called Soviet Communism was gone. It was the end of an era.
In the previous weeks, from my office in the British Embassy directly across the Moskva River, I had watched the hammer and sickle hover above the Kremlin, waiting for the inevitable. It was not a question of “if”, but of “when”. The year 1991 had been an extraordinarily important year in Russian history, much like 1947 had been for India. In August, there had been a hard-line Communist coup in a failed attempt to overthrow Gorbachev and halt his failing reforms. A month later, the secession of the three Baltic states from the Soviet Union was recognized. Then, in early December, the presidents of three more, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, recognized each other’s independence, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States, which replaced the Soviet Union. The old order was rapidly disintegrating and the dissolution of the Union set up by the Bolsheviks 69 years earlier was now inevitable. As Gorbachev told the nation during his televised address: “We now live in a new world.
The few blessed historians with hindsight claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. It was not. Those of us who had studied Vladimir Lenin’s idea for many years thought at the time that Gorbachev would get away with it. In political circles, there was no discussion of a collapse of the Soviet Union, and everyone assumed it would continue in some form or another for at least a generation.
There were certainly huge long-term structural problems bequeathed to Gorbachev from his incompetent predecessors. Problems such as a failing planned economy, a vanished Communist ideology and anti-Russian nationalism in the border regions. There was also pressure on the Kremlin from falling oil prices, military implications stemming from US President Reagan’s “star wars”, and the painful defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan. The downstream effects of the Chernobyl disaster and even Gorbachev’s deeply unpopular anti-alcohol campaign played their part. But no one anticipated the collapse that occurred in just a few months.
Although all external factors were important, it was an implosion of the center that killed the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev became leader in 1985, he implemented two policies to deal with the dying economy and crumbling political system: glasnost (openness or transparency) and perestroika (economic restructuring). His idea was to create transparency in governance, for example by reducing state censorship to allow the disclosure of painful truths in society, and economic reforms designed to move the Soviet Union away from a model of command. central to a hybrid communism-capitalism model.
For anyone familiar with a vibrant private sector market economy, a short stroll through the lackluster, under-stocked state stores was enough to illustrate that the command system was gravely failing. In contrast, foreigners with dollars could shop at state-run Beriozka stores, where you could purchase luxury goods that were not available in traditional Soviet markets and stores. In Beriozkas, you could also rub shoulders with Communist Party apparatchiks who mysteriously had access to US dollars. But then perestroika appeared, and suddenly citizens were allowed to open private businesses, and foreigners were able to enter the country to participate in joint ventures. We could now do our shopping in the little kiosks that were starting to crowd the streets, run by private individuals who soon realized that they could sell products for more than they paid so they could make a profit, a new idea for anyone. grew up under communism. They tasted of capitalism.
So what went wrong?
Most historians now agree that the main drivers of the Soviet Union’s rapid demise were Gorbachev’s ill-conceived economic reforms that ruined the ruble and its rapid political liberalization. The growing pains of perestroika led to a new wave of shortages and economic hardship, and the newly empowered regional leaders used their freshly opened political process to demand Kremlin autonomy.
Changes were brewing across Eastern Europe as well. Shortly after Gorbachev announced to the United Nations that he would loosen military control over neighboring Warsaw Pact countries, those nations immediately pressed for more autonomy. Communist regimes were overthrown in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. At a meeting scheduled for Berlin on November 9, 1991, my West German interlocutors were stunned to learn that the Berlin Wall had been opened at Checkpoint Charlie and that East Germans were flocking to the west. Needless to say, the meeting was immediately closed as we all rushed to witness this upsetting event. German reunification had started. It all happened so fast. As people began to taste freedom, by the time Gorbachev tried to reverse his reforms, it was too late. Vast social forces were unleashed, forces that he could not stop.
But it could have been so different.
Recently declassified documents reveal how Mikhail Gorbachev fought throughout the 1990s and 1991 to preserve the Union from the independent rulers of the Soviet republics, primarily Boris Yeltsin of Russia, but also Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine. These primary sources also reveal that the maintenance of the Union and the personal support of Gorbachev remained central to United States policy throughout 1991. The White House believed that the maintenance of the Soviet Union, even with a weak center, was the best alternative to violent disintegration. US officials were very concerned that Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were widespread in 14 of the 15 republics, with more than 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons stationed outside of Russia in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
In Moscow, Gorbachev remained convinced that the Soviet Union could be integrated into Europe and that foreign aid was the best way to keep a new Union project on track. For two years, Gorbachev had tried to draw up a new Union treaty for a more decentralized system, giving the various Soviet republics more autonomy. And he almost succeeded. The crazy failed coup attempt by the Communist extremists in August 1991 achieved exactly the opposite. Instead of reviving their beloved Soviet Union, they actually destroyed it, with the compromise that Gorbachev was trying to create. Their failure allowed Russian nationalism to surge in, reinvigorated by the image of Boris Yeltsin climbing on a tank parked right outside the Russian White House.
A new state structure was created, the Council of State, made up of leaders of the republics whose first task was to design a new Treaty of Union and oversee the transition process. It held its first meeting on October 11, 1991, and for a moment, in mid-October, it seemed that Gorbachev’s project was on the right track. Gorbachev worked on a one-country basis with unified armed forces, a president elected by universal suffrage, a unified electricity grid, a transport network, communications and a single economic space. At the State Council meeting on October 15, Boris Yeltsin supported the document, but at the next dramatic meeting on November 4, he abruptly changed his mind and refused to sign, clearly hearing Russia to go it alone.
At the same time, nationalist forces were developing strongly in Ukraine. Although President George HW Bush delivered his famous “Chicken in Kiev” speech in the nation’s capital earlier on August 1, warning of “suicidal nationalism” and encouraging the people to support Gorbachev’s plan, they did voted decisively in the referendum on December 1 to withdraw from the Union. Seven days later, unbeknownst to Gorbachev, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belovezhie accord to dissolve the Soviet Union.
Just before giving his historic televised speech, Gorbachev called Bush, who was at Camp David for his family Christmas with his grandchildren, to express his gratitude for all they had done together. Gorbachev said a simple “goodbye” and virtually shook hands with Bush. These were the last words of the conversations that ended the Cold War and transformed the world.
A catchy postscript appeared last week. Vladimir Putin, who declared in 2005 that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, revealed in a documentary that he was driving a taxi at the time “to make ends meet”. A former KGB agent who rose to the top after the failure of the Yeltsin years, Putin used history to illustrate his own personal struggles in the early 1990s. “Honestly, it’s not very pleasant to talk about it,” he admitted.
The “what if historians” will now contemplate the malicious scenario according to which if the events of 1991 had played out differently and Mikhail Gorbachev had succeeded in keeping the Union united, or if the putschists had been victorious, or if the charismatic but doomed Boris Yeltsin had not jumped on this tank, visitors to St. Petersburg today might find their taxi driver to be a tiny 69-year-old man, 5 feet 7 inches, with a receding hairline. , responding to the name of Vladimir.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.