The End of the Soviet Union

It is sometimes stated that the Soviet “empire” collapsed in 1991. Although the U.S.S.R. was a multiethnic entity, it was not an “empire” in the same sense as the British or French colonial holdings were. The Soviet Union's dissolution was a result of a deliberate political act by a few republican leaders, not of a popular revolt by the oppressed indigenous masses. The dramatic events of August 1991 took place primarily in Moscow, as those in the periphery waited quietly. In fact, in the spring of 1991, the majority of Soviet citizens (75%) had expressed their desire to keep the U.S.S.R. intact in an open referendum. With the exception of the Baltic states, which clearly wanted out at any cost, all the other republics actually could have stayed together, because there were many advantages to it. However, the Communist coup of August 1991 and the resulting power grab by Boris Yeltsin made preservation of the Soviet Union all but impossible. Just a few months after the referendum, over 75% of the voters in countries like Ukraine approved their leadership's decision to pull out of the now forever compromised U.S.S.R.

The events leading up to that point were dramatic. On August 19, 1991, the country and the world woke up to a stunning announcement by Gennady Yanaev, the vice-president, on Soviet state TV: His boss, Gorbachev, had been arrested while vacationing in Foros, Crimea, and Yanaev and five other men from the Politburo were taking full responsibility for the country. Radio stations were pulled off the air, creating an information vacuum (remember that the Internet was not yet commonly used). At the time, Yeltsin was the newly elected president of the Russian Federation—a post below Gorbachev's, but nevertheless sanctioned by the people. Yeltsin was a proven independent leader who, unlike Gorbachev, had officially quit the Communist Party a year earlier. He announced that Russia would not follow the coup leaders back to Communism. Tanks were ordered to the capital. The country seemed to be descending into a lockdown, if not an outright civil war.

The outcome of the standoff was decided in less than 3 days; the hardliners, after all, were not hardened criminals and did not have a resolve to use brutal force. Significantly, they could not manage to arrest Yeltsin or the popular and independent-minded mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even the elite units of the army were not prepared to use lethal force. The ordinary people poured out into the streets in Moscow to talk to the bewildered soldiers perched on tanks, and to erect barricades around the seat of the Russian Federation's government. Most Soviet republics' leaders had not issued any definite statements, but were waiting on the sidelines. The conflict ended on August 22, 1991—remarkably peacefully, with three young men dying in a street clash, but no major shootouts.

Gorbachev was soon back in Moscow, but was quickly sidelined by Yeltsin, who emerged as the real leader of the new Russia. The white, blue, and red flag of the Romanovs flew atop the Kremlin again, and all of a sudden everyone was a “democrat.” (A small but important detail: Although Yeltsin officially gave up his C.P.S.U. membership in 1990, he never endorsed any one particular party. He was nevertheless supported by a broad range of anti-Communist forces, including many democratic and nationalistic ones.) On December 8, 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed an agreement that formally dissolved the Soviet Union. They chose symbolically to meet near the Polish (i.e., European) border. After this, each of the remaining republics was officially free to pursue its own independent way. The three leaders deserve credit for avoiding the worst possible scenario—the one that played out with massive bloodshed and horror in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s (Aslund, 2007).

The important geographic outcome of 1991 was that a single, unitary state, the U.S.S.R., with its capital in Moscow, was replaced on the world maps by 15 newly independent states (NIS), each with its own capital, president, parliament, and so on. Twelve of these would soon form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a military and economic alliance; three others, the Baltics, would be admitted to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) in 2004. From 1991 on, the political and economic changes in each NIS were decoupled to a large extent from those in others, and proceeded along individualized trajectories. There were very rapid reforms in the Baltic states, almost no reforms in Uzbekistan and Belarus, and intermediate levels of reforms in others.

Some important geographic realities, however, remained unchanged. The U.S.S.R. had uniform control over its external, but not internal, borders. Now every republic in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) would have to design its own security border system, where previously there were none. The U.S.S.R. also had a uniform electric grid; a national network of gas and petroleum pipelines; a centralized postal, telegraph, and telephone system; a unified railroad network; a centralized airspace control system; and so on. All of these would of course continue to operate, but now each country was free to replace some of the old elements with the new or to quit the common system altogether. The Soviet Army was still present in every FSU republic. It largely withdrew from the Baltics in 1992–1993, but remained present to some extent in all other republics. Border patrol units, for example, remained positioned along the borders between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and between Armenia and Iran, as well as in Moldova, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Ukraine and Kazakhstan promptly nationalized their armed forces, but had to give up their nuclear arsenals to Russia, upon the insistence of the United States and the European Community (the predecessor of the EU).

Economically, many of the republics remained interdependent. Tractors or radio sets assembled in Minsk, Belarus, for example, had parts made mainly in Ukraine and Russia; Ukrainian coal was powering factories in the Urals; Uzbekistan's cotton was made into fabric in the Ivanovo region of Central Russia; and so on. In short, an abrupt termination of the state covering one-sixth of the earth's land surface was going to be very painful for all.