In December 1991, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) disintegrated when 11 Soviet Republics announced that they would no longer be part of the Soviet Union. At the time, these ‘states’ declared that they would establish a Commonwealth of Independent States instead. These were:
The Russian Federation
The 3 Baltic states; Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, had already declared independence, and only Georgia remained, which also fell out after 2 years.
Russia thus became an independent Republic in 1991 with the fall of the once mighty Soviet Union.
A number of factors are responsible for the unfolding of this monumental event. The reasons are rooted in the unique composition and history, both political and economic, of the former Soviet Union itself.
The Soviet Union was born in 1917 after the fall of Czarist Russia. A socialist state was created in the territory that had once belonged to the Russian Empire. In 1922, Russia joined the Soviet Union and Lenin became its first leader. What was to be a state built on the Communist ideology quickly transformed into a totalitarian state, which was no less repressive than the one it had eliminated. The brutal policies continued during Stalin’s reign and maintained the control of the single party over the entire population. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the leaders shifted focus to the Cold War with the western powers that escalated into an arms race with the United States.
Meanwhile, many issues had emerged within the socialist state, that eventually would get out of control. The non-Russian ethnic groups resisted the totalitarian regime. The economy fell into shambles, particularly when so much money was being focused on the arms race. Most importantly, the basis of the Union which was the ideology of Communism could not take root, leading to the fall of the superstructure was imminent.
In 1985, amidst a stagnant economy and political turmoil, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. He believed the only way forward was to introduce reforms. He introduced two sets of policies that would affect the future of Soviet Union, though these were slow to yield results. ‘Glasnost’ meant political openness and freedom of speech. Under this, all signs of a repressive regime were sought to be eliminated, such as banning of books and newspapers and the secret police; political prisoners were released and common people were given more freedom. ‘Perestroika’ meant economic restructuring. For the first time in years, individuals and cooperatives were allowed to open businesses, workers were given the right to strike for better wages & conditions, and foreign investment in the economy was encouraged.
Gorbachev’s pursued policies that led to crumbling of Eastern European alliances. He also vowed to be out of the arms race and announced that he would withdraw troops fighting in Afghanistan, and reduced Soviet military presence in the Eastern European nations.
The first revolution happened in Poland in 1989, where the non-communist trade unions got together to bargain with the government for freer elections. These protests were quite successful and soon peaceful revolutions across Eastern Europe began. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and the communist government in Czechoslovakia was overthrown by a revolution. These successes and Gorbachev’s loosened grip on Soviet satellite-states sparked a series of independence movements in the republics, a first in the fringes of the Union.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were first to declare their independence from the Soviet Union. This was followed by the Republic of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine, who created the Commonwealth of Independent States. In the following weeks, eight more republics of the Soviet Union broke away, followed by Georgia two years later.
On December 25th, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev had resigned. By January 1992, the Soviet Union had fallen, and the republics that constituted it formed their own independent nations. Russia was one of these 15 countries.
The fall of the Soviet Union was hailed in the west as a victory for democracy over totalitarianism, and capitalism over socialism. It is interesting to note that Vladimir Putin, in a much-quoted address, hailed the fall of Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.”