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USSR Collapse: A Crash Course

Why was the Soviet Union dissolved?

The Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. A new documentary, USSR Collapse: A Crash Course, looks at the historic moments and central figures that are key to understanding the collapse of the world’s largest and seemingly most unshakable country.

Mikhail Gorbachev, general-secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the USSR’s first and last president, gets credit for ending of the Soviet Union outside his country, but is often excoriated for just that at home. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he proclaimed the need to make changes within the country, which was afflicted by stagnation. Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness), two popular words of the era, were aimed at transforming Soviet society. However, these flagship policies only aggravated the country's deficit of goods and unleashed a flood of criticism.

Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin appeared on the Soviet political scene in the late 1980s. Once Gorbachev’s protege, he quickly became his mentor’s main rival and was ready to go much further with the reforms.

At the same time, nationalists were beginning to come out of the shadows in the Soviet republics. Calls for secession were heard in the Caucasus, Baltics, and Central Asia. In March 1991, an all-union referendum was held asking Soviet citizens if the USSR should be preserved , but in a less centralised form. Some 77% supported the proposal. Gorbachev announced that work would begin on a new Union Treaty to consolidate the remaining republics, but his plans to sign a new treaty on August 20 were derailed.

A group of Party men, led by the Soviet Union’s Vice President, Gennady Yanayev, decided to take matters into their own hands and force Gorbachev to step down. The dramatic events that took place on August 18-21, 1991, became known as a coup. While Gorbachev and his family were held captive at this dacha in Crimea, the conspirators announced the creation of a State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP). Tanks rolled into Moscow, while thousands of anti-coup protesters gathered in central Moscow. On August 19, Yeltsin arrived at the White House, a focal point for resistance, and denounced the move as a ‘reactionary coup’.

The August coup failed. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus later signed the Belovezha Accords that dissolved the USSR. On December 25, 1991, the Russian tricolour replaced the hammer and sickle flying above the Kremlin.

Was it possible to prevent the Soviet Union’s dissolution? Might the USSR still exist if it were not for Gorbachev’s reforms? Do you regret the collapse of the Soviet Union? Participants in the events, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Leonid Kravchuk, and Stanislav Shushkevich, recollect the final years of the USSR, while ordinary witnesses describe how its collapse affected their lives.