Unrest in the Soviet Union
Protesters of the Soviet Union in Armenia
As territories in Eastern Europe that belonged to the Soviet Union began to gain independence, various groups began to call for their own freedom from Soviet control. This pressure increased exponentially. Non-Russians outnumbered Russians by a large margin, and reforms which loosened the grip of the state on the citizens spread unrest throughout the populace.. Nationalist and religious groups throughout the Soviet Union demanded independence, but the first major move to separate came from Lithuania.
Lithuania Defies Gorbachev
Lithuanians flock to defend their government against communist troops
Lithuania had been an independent country between the two World Wars, but had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940. In March of 1990, however, it declared independence. Gorbachev resorted to strong measures to force Lithuania back, and in January of 1991 Soviet troops invaded the country, occupying its capital, Vilnius. This event, known as Bloody Sunday, ended with hundreds wounded and fourteen dead.
Yeltsin Denounces Gorbachev
Boris Yeltsin during his election speech
Following the attack on Lithuania, former Moscow mayor Boris Yeltsin harshly criticized Gorbachev for the loss of life and dictator like actions he took, along with Gorbachev's slow economic reform. The Russian people agreed with Yeltsin, and overwhelmingly voted for him to be president. Meanwhile, the Communist hardliners of the old regime despised Gorbachev for his political actions, and vowed to overthrow him and undo his reforms.
The August Coup
Soviet military tanks rolling through Moscow during the coup
On August 18, 1991, Communist hardliners captured Gorbachev at his vacation home in Crimea, demanding his resignation. These hardliners then marched hundreds of military vehicles into Moscow, hoping that it would ensure obedience. However, the Russians did not back down, and along with Yeltsin protested the Communists. Yeltsin even climbed on top of a tank and delivered a speech, further strengthening the people's resolve. On August 20, the hardliners ordered the military to attack the parliament, which was met with refusal. They subsequently withdrew from Moscow and Gorbachev was released.
The End of the Soviet Union
Newspaper announcing the end of the USSR
Following the attempted coup, Gorbachev resigned from his position as the general secretary of the Communist Party. This was quickly followed by declarations of independence from surrounding republics, and by December of 1991 all fifteen republics had ceded from the Soviet Union. These new states, with the help of Yeltsin, formed the Commonwealth of Independent States, or the CIS. All but the Baltic States and Georgia joined the federation. Finally, on Christmas Day Gorbachev resigned from his position as president of the Soviet Union, ending the USSR.
The Yeltsin Era
Boris Yeltsin preparing to give a speech
Boris Yeltsin subsequently became the leader of the new Russian Republic, and as president had many challenges to face, both economic and political.
Yeltsin Faces Problems
The parliamentary coming under siege
Yeltsin faced many problems, especially with the economy. To that end Yeltsin attempted a form of shock therapy to jump start Russian economy, like lowering trade barriers and removing price controls to create a more free market society. It failed, and resulted in hyperinflation and a skyrocketing unemployment rate. This was followed by a shutdown in parliament, as legislators locked themselves inside the parliament building in protest. Many surrendered or died after Yeltsin ordered troops to bombard the building.
The capital of Chechnya, Grozny, after bombardment from Russian forces
Yeltsin also had to deal with political strife, as he refused to allow the region known as Chechnya to break away from Russia in 1991, leading to a war in which the capital of Chechnya was reduced to rubble. Yeltsin then signed a quick peace treaty to guarantee his reelection. War broke out again after Yeltsin was reelected, leading to his resignation and appointing of Vladimir Putin as president in 1999.
Yugoslavia Falls Apart
Couple searching for firewood in the ruined city of Sarajevo
Ethnic conflict also plagued Yugoslavia, as centuries of ethnic and religious differences caused strife between the different groups. This was made worse when it became a federation of six republics, all of which contained mixed populations with long standing feuds.
A Bloody Breakup
A newspaper discussing the genocide in Serbia
Map detailing the breakup of the Baltic region
Josip Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia from nineteen forty to nineteen eighty, kept the country together. After his death ethnic tensions boiled over, leading to declarations of independence from Slovenia and Croatia, which were secured through a bloody war with Serbia. Bosnia-Herzegovina followed suit in nineteen ninety-two, leading to war between the Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. The Serbians proceeded with an ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population, which finally ended along with the war in nineteen ninety-six. The picture shows a monument that commemorates those killed by the Serbs in their attempt at ethnic cleansing.
Rebellion in Kosovo
Serbian troops withdrawing from Kosovo after NATO bombings
The Balkan region again experienced conflict in 1998, this time in Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia made up of Albanians. These ethnic Albanians became increasingly violent in their attempts for independence, causing Serbian forces to invade and fight back with extreme brutality. This was met with bombings by NATO, and in 1999 the Serbs were forced to withdraw their troops from Kosovo.
Eastern Europe Faces Problems
Protesters demanding Slovakian independence
Unlike Yugoslavia, Eastern Europe stayed relatively stable during the 1990s. However, countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia still faced challenges economically and politically.
Poland Votes Out Walesa
Alexksandr Kwasniewski after being elected president of Poland
In 1991 Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland. Walesa attempted the same strategy as Yeltsin to revitalize the economy using shock therapy. While the economy did improve, the Poles were relatively unhappy with the economic growth and elected former Communist Alexksandr Kwasniewski, who vowed to combine free market principles with social benefits.
Czechoslovakia Breaks Up
Czechoslovakian president Havel pleading for national unity
In Czechoslovakia shock therapy was also attempted to rebuild the economy. Unlike Poland, shock therapy failed, leading to a spike in unemployment, and especially hurting Slovakia, leading to calls for independence from both halves of the country. While Vaclav Havel pleaded for unity, his pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears, and the country split into two parts - Slovakia and the Czech Republic- on January 1, 1998.
Terms and Definitions
Boris Yeltsin: Former mayor of Moscow that was a harsh critic of his predecessor Gorbachev. He was elected president of the Russian Republic in 1991, but resigned in 1999.
CIS: Abbreviation for the Commonwealth of Independent States, a federation of many former Soviet territories organized in collaboration with Russian president Boris Yeltsin.
Shock Therapy: Method originally used by Boris Yeltsin to jump start the economy by implementing major changes to rapidly create a more free market style of economy.
Ethnic cleansing: The systematic killing of a specific ethnic group for racial or religious reasons, an example being the Serbs slaughtering the Muslim population of Serbia.
“Jesus was the first socialist, the first to seek a better life for mankind.”-Mikhail Gorbachev
Gorbachev believed that Jesus was a socialist because he was a communist, and because of this Gorbachev saw Jesus’s actions, especially giving alms to the poor and helping the needy, as what communists and socialists strive to do. Communists and socialists view themselves as the giver, and in their mind are imitating people like Jesus of Nazareth.
“You can build a throne with bayonets, but you can't sit on it for long.”-Boris Yeltsin
Yeltsin is saying that you can build your rule upon military prowess and might, but don’t expect that you will be ruling for a while. Yeltsin’s opinion was influenced by showcases of failed attempts to secure a position of power militarily, like the hardlining communists in their failed attempt to overthrow Gorbachev, or even Gorbachev’s use of the military to quash rebellion in Lithuania.
“We have spilt an ocean of blood for the brotherhood and unity of our peoples and we shall not allow anyone to touch or destroy it from within.”-Josip Tito
Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia until 1985, held this ideal because he brought his country’s many different ethnic minorities together through bloodshed. Because they had gone through so much for unity, he believed that no one and nothing would be allowed to break the bond forged, especially from a threat that came from within.
Jan 11, 1991: More commonly known as Bloody Sunday, it is the day that Soviet soldiers began attacking civilians in Lithuania, ending with 14 dead and hundreds injured. It marks the first day that Gorbachev is openly defied and lead to the eventual election of Yeltsin to the presidency. Additionally, it can be pointed to as the day that sent the Soviet Union in a spiral downward, resulting in its collapse.
June 1991: Yeltsin is elected president of the Soviet Union, or what will be the Russian Republic. His election brings about swift, though ineffective, economic reform and the eventual rebellion in Chechnya.
August 18, 1991: The beginning of the August Coup by the hardlining communists, starting with the capture of Gorbachev at his vacation home. This coup fails, and it earns Yeltsin a positive reputation
Dec 14, 1995: The Dayton Accord is signed, which ends the warring in the Balkans, along with the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population of Serbia. Additionally, this treaty guaranteed independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina from Yugoslavia.
December 25, 1991: Gorbachev resigns from his position as president of the Soviet Union. This date is especially important because it marks the end of Communist Russia, because with his resignation the country known as the Soviet Union ceases to exist.
The Most Influential People in the Fall of the Soviet Union
Gorbachev is the most influential person when speaking about the fall of the Soviet Union. It was he who began its spiral downward towards obliteration on January 11, 1991 in Lithuania when he ordered Soviet troops to occupy the country. His poor economic policy and foreign policy ended up sentencing the country to decimation. Additionally, he officially ended the Soviet Union through his resignation on Christmas Day in that same year, a move that further solidified his role in its destruction.
Yeltsin is the second most influential person when discussing the fall of the Soviet Union because he was a driving force behind reform during Gorbachev’s presidency, and through his economic policies and methods, like shock therapy, he not only created the modern day Russia but also affected other countries, like Poland and Czechoslovakia, where the same methods were attempted in reforming their respective economies. Additionally Yeltsin, through his war with the Chechnians, is responsible for the appointment of Vladimir Putin as president of Russia, giving us the country we know today.