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USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR


The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the XIX century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, its relations with other countries and the factors that have determined its collapse.

USSR 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

8. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the End of the USSR

From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s, the two superpowers' relations were plagued by a reawakening of hostilities and tensions, as well as by increased militarization. The USSR, seeking rejuvenation, went through a serious crisis that peaked with Gorbachev's leadership after 1985 and finished with the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc and the USSR between 1989 and 1991.

Figure 1. Propaganda manifesto in USSR against the capitalism [Image] - Red Avantgarde
Figure 1. Ганф (Янг) И.А. (1925). Propaganda manifesto in USSR against capitalism [Image]. Red Avantgarde

Bolstered by political, economic, and military triumphs until the mid-1970s, Soviet authorities made a series of controversial and harmful moves to détente. These were almost definitely not the product of hostile aspirations, but rather of a desire to maintain strategic parity with the United States and its own security in the context in which they operated (Chamberlin, 1999). This was the case beginning in 1976, with the deployment of SS-20 medium-range missiles in Soviet Europe, with the intention of organizing the potential of American bases in Europe, as well as the arsenals of the United Kingdom and France, and developing new weapons not covered by the SALT agreements (Sakwa, 1999). According to the European view, the Soviet policy was dynamic and menacing. The worries of the continent's chancelleries, however, were not acknowledged or supported by the Carter administration, which was keen at the time to complete negotiations on the SALT II deal, limiting the development of new missiles capable of hitting American land (Ibidem).

Simultaneously, the USSR's foreign policy was increasingly being deployed in contexts of decolonization on the African continent, via the provision of guns and soldiers tied to the communist system, causing significant anxiety in the Western bloc (Ibidem). With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, détente was effectively ended. Until 1978, the USSR permitted a non-aligned government in that region: however, the coup carried out that year by the People's Democratic Party, a Marxist and pro-Soviet party, alarmed the Soviets (Kenez, 1999). The extreme desire to overhaul the revolutionary government had sparked fierce opposition from tribal insurgents and fanatics inspired by neighbouring Iran's recent Khomeinist revolution. Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership accepted the Kabul government's plea for assistance. Thus, the invasion of Afghanistan began on December 25, 1979 (Ibidem). Moscow was sure of an international response, especially given the conflict's unusual nature, which developed outside the customary area of influence. As a response, in fact, the United States resumed traditional rearmament and began developing a counterforce strategy. Simultaneously, the Congress declined to ratify the SALT II accord (Ibidem).

Figure 2. Red Army in Afghanistan [Photo] - La voce e il tempo
Figure 2. Unknown (197). Red Army in Afghanistan [Photo]. La voce e il tempo

A further crucial indicator in 1980 was Poland, a country with severe internal difficulties between the government and the populace (Ibidem). The election of a Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla, in October 1978 had a profound impact, bringing to light the shaky arrangements between the Church and the dictatorship. While the Pope's visit was performed in conformity with the status quo the next year, it was significant for the Polish people, who saw John Paul II as a political leader (Suny, 1998). Meanwhile, when the country's economic situation deteriorated due to debt and recession, the government raised food prices.

As a result, workers' strikes began in Gdansk shipyards by Solidarnosc, a Catholic social union which was also supported by secular dissidents. The union grew rapidly under the leadership of Lech Walesa, who succeeded in imposing on the Polish Communist Party the acceptance of syndical independence boundaries. Political power's decline and the radicalization of labour groups fueled fears of a fresh Soviet involvement (Ibidem). However, given the sensitivity of the situation and having rejected the option of military intervention, the USSR chose a national solution. General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who declared the state of siege and arrested the senior leaders of Solidarnosc in 1981, led the country. Despite the Soviet Union's nonviolent reaction to the issue, the international consequences were negative for the Soviet Union's image, which still figured as an oppressor of the federated countries (Ibidem).

Figure 3. Graffiti supporting Solidarnosc in Gdansk during the protests period [Photo] - Fondazione Giacomo Feltrinelli
Figure 3. Unknown (n. d.). Graffiti supporting Solidarnosc in Gdansk during the protests period [Photo]. Fondazione Giacomo Feltrinelli

The persistent tension between the USSR and the US sparked talks of a new world war. Even private diplomatic communications between the two actors were disrupted between 1982 and 1984. The terror caused by the Euromissile crisis - as a result of NATO's deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in West Germany - made the situation in the USSR tense and murky, which was exacerbated by Brezhnev's death in 1982 and the insecure conditions of his successor Andropov (Chamberlin, 1999). While Ronald Reagan was re-elected to a second term in the United States in 1985, the leadership problem in the Soviet Union became very visible with the tumultuous transition to power between the old leaders (Ibidem). Only in March 1985 did the Communist Party's leadership become connected to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was previously responsible for agricultural policy and thus cognizant of the USSR's economic and political challenges.

He immediately instituted a policy aimed at rejuvenating the Soviet system, while retaining the primacy of the single party but introducing the notions of glastnost and perestroika (Kenez, 1999). While he was able to initiate a project of technological innovation and to fight against corruption, he found it difficult to introduce elements of flexibility into the economy. The problem was mainly related to the Soviet difficulties in attracting foreign capital, leading to a worsening of the economic situation. From a political standpoint, Gorbachev's reforms attempted to gradually reduce the identification between government and party, allowing for the gradual introduction of aspects of political pluralism. The goal of eliminating party censorship and party truth, which became clear following the 1986 Chernobyl accident, was also pursued (Ibidem).

Figure 4. Gorbachev became President of the Communist Party in 1985 [Photo] - Cultural diplomacy
Figure 4. Unknown (1985). Gorbachev became President of the Communist Party in 1985 [Photo]. Cultural diplomacy

Internationally, the distinction between Gorbachev and past Soviet political leaders was obvious. Gorbachev recognised that the tense atmosphere undermined the Soviet system and prevented the hoped-for resurgence, even going so far as to eliminate the state's police forces. He initiated a diplomatic discourse on armaments with the United States, and in October 1986, he met with Reagan in Reykjavik concluding the signing of the Treaty on Euromissiles, which banned an entire category of weapons and provided the groundwork for the START negotiations (Sakwa, 1999). Furthermore, Gorbachev ordered the departure of Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan, which was completed in 1989, as well as the beginning of diplomatic operations in Africa to evacuate Soviet forces. Particularly significant was the process of rapprochement with the Vatican, which culminated in a conversation and communication process and was concluded by the Pope's visit in 1989 (Chamberlin, 1999).

Given the changing mood of international détente, the Soviet leadership embarked on a policy of removal of armed forces in Europe beginning in 1988 (Ibidem). The goal was to stimulate internal changes in individual states in order to boost their legitimacy and connections with the USSR. However, only Hungary and Poland moved in this direction: in the first case, economic reforms and Kadar's replacement as leader created opportunities for pluralism; in the second, Jaruzelski's defeat in the economic reform referendum in 1987 signalled a turning point and the new legitimacy of the Solidarity policy (Suny, 1998). The signs of openness in the other countries of the Soviet system, and in the very heart of the USSR, laid the groundwork for the explosion of nationalism, beginning with the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1985, to the Georgian unrest and the Baltic countries' self-inflicted pressures (Ibidem).

The return of nationalism was fueled not only by the thaw, but also by the constraints imposed by the Soviet system, from which some former communist leaders sought to distance themselves in order to give new birth to their own nationalisms. Gorbachev did not interfere militarily in the Soviet Union, but he quickly lost control of the situation. The satellite states of the USSR witnessed an acceleration of internal difficulties and system reforms in 1989. The first ones were, once again, Poland and Hungary, which held free multiparty elections (Kenez, 1999). The Budapest government finally agreed to dismantle border controls with Austria in May 1989, resulting in a vast movement of refugees from east to west. The German Democratic Republic was the most affected by this migrant phenomenon, so much that the Berlin Wall was finally destroyed on November 9, 1989, following the announcement of migration liberalization (Ibidem).

Figure 5. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 [Photo] - Europeana
Figure 5. Unknown (1989). The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 [Photo]. Europeana

At the same time, Czechoslovakia saw the Velvet Revolution, which resulted in Husak's demise and the reinstatement of Dubcek as president of the new parliament. The promotion of freedom was more challenging in the northern half of the USSR (Chamberlin, 1999). Minorities were mistreated by the Bulgarian and Romanian regimes. In Sofia, popular upheavals resulted in system reforms and free elections won by the Communist Party in November 1989. In Bucharest, however, Ceausescu's resistance was overcome by a palace uprising led by Iliescu's National Salvation Front (Ibidem). The territory of tsarist Russia began to suffer from the new system as well: the 1990 reforms had resulted in a terrible recession, and the party had failed as a tool for governing subversive elements. Meanwhile, Gorbachev was elected President of the USSR, but the nationalities' crisis persisted. Despite Gorbachev's efforts, the Warsaw Pact was disbanded following German reunification (Sakwa, 1999).

The USSR quickly descended into the ultimate catastrophe. The attempted revolt against Gorbachev, orchestrated by the party's traditionalist wings, declared the end of both Soviet central power and the Russian empire. Individual republics declared their independence once the Soviet Communist Party's activities were halted. Only eight Asian countries joined Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus' proposal for a Community of Independent States. Noticing the new situation and his incapacity to control it, Gorbachev resigned in December 1991 from the post of President of the USSR, an institution that had now collapsed, and was succeeded by Boris Yeltsin. The great history of the USSR, a giant in international relations since the tsars, had come to an end, leaving place to a state entity that would endeavour to preserve that position of preeminence over time and that contrast with the capitalist West that had always marked it.



Chamberlin, W. H. (1999). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9.

Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition

Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press

Image references

Figure 1. Ганф (Янг) И.А. (1925). Propaganda manifesto in USSR against the capitalism [Image]. Red Avantgarde.

Figure 2. Unknown (1979). Red Army in Afghanistan [Photo]. La voce e il tempo.

Figure 3. Unknown (n. d.). Graffiti supporting Solidarnosc in Gdansk during the protests period [Photo]. Fondazione Giacomo Feltrinelli.

Figure 4. Unknown (1985). Gorbachev became President of the Communist Party in 1985 [Photo]. Cultural diplomacy.


Author Photo

Federica Panico

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