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USSR Breakup: Tracing The Collapse Of The World's Last Great Empire (Part 1)

Ten years ago this month, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus met at a hunting lodge near Minsk. On 8 December 1991, they signed the Belovezh Agreement, dissolving the Soviet Union and establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States. Later that month, the crimson flag bearing the hammer and sickle was lowered at the Kremlin for the last time. The USSR died quietly, 74 years after its founders had vowed communism would triumph across the world. In the first of a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten traces the collapse of the world's last great empire.

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When he began his twin campaign of glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev intended to reform the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev had not counted on the fact that greater freedom would fan the forces of nationalism, and he vastly underestimated the speed of the country's economic decay. Together, these factors led to the rapid disintegration of the world's last major empire.

By 1990, Lithuania had declared independence. Armenia and Azerbaijan were at war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Kremlin was linked to the brutal clampdown on revolts in Tbilisi, Riga, and Vilnius. Shortages of basic household goods and foodstuffs were growing. At times, it felt as if Moscow was losing control.

Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, in an interview with RFE/RL, recalled the atmosphere: "The whole country was falling apart before our very eyes and not because we were planning it. The Baltics had left the fold, the war in Armenia, Azerbaijan, the events in Tbilisi. The whole country was waiting in lines. The economy was plummeting, and we needed to find a way out."

In December 1990, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze abruptly resigned, warning of a creeping coup by those opposed to reforms.

The rest of the winter, into 1991, was lived in an atmosphere of escalating tension as the leader of the Russian republic, Boris Yeltsin, increased his rhetoric against central Soviet institutions amid discussions of a new union treaty to loosen the bonds of the USSR.

Hard-liners -- as Shevardnadze predicted -- spoke out with increasing agitation against what they saw as the country's dissolution. Gorbachev zigzagged in his policies, trying in vain to pick a middle course between the two camps.

On 8 March 1991, the Kremlin unveiled a draft union treaty. The document offered the republics greater sovereignty, granting them control of economic and cultural development, and allowing them to establish diplomatic ties, sign international treaties, and join international organizations. A new name for the country was to be discussed, excluding the words "Socialist" and "Soviet."

Despite the conciliatory language, six of the USSR's 15 republics chose to ignore a referendum on the issue. Undeterred, Gorbachev continued to work on the treaty.

At the start of August, presidential adviser Aleksandr Yakovlev -- called by some the "architect" of perestroika -- resigned, warning his boss of the dangers of a coup. Before that, then-U.S. President George Bush had taken the unprecedented step of telephoning Gorbachev from Washington to warn him of the same. The Soviet president was unfazed, as he recalled in a 1996 interview with RFE/RL: "Bush phoned me, and I said: 'George, you can sleep soundly. Nothing's going to happen.' That's what I said."

On 4 August, Gorbachev left with his family for his annual vacation in the Crimea, intending to complete a new version of the union treaty. On 18 August, shortly before five in the afternoon, Gorbachev's chief of staff, accompanied by Politburo member Oleg Shenin and a small clutch of senior government officials, arrived at the presidential dacha. They demanded that Gorbachev sign a decree declaring a state of emergency, or resign.

Gorbachev refused to do either. The officials confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, the so-called "nuclear briefcase." Gorbachev and his family were, in effect, under house arrest.

The next morning, on 19 August, the coup leaders went public. TASS news agency carried an announcement that Gorbachev had been relieved of his duties for health reasons. His powers were assumed by Vice President Gennadii Yanayev. A State Committee on the State of Emergency (GKChP) was established, led by eight officials, including KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov, Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov, and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov. All strikes and demonstrations were banned.

Soon, the "Gang of Eight," as they were later dubbed, appeared on television. Yanayev seemed especially nervous -- or perhaps drunk. His hands shook. He told viewers that, due to illness, Gorbachev had been forced to give up his duties. Yanayev said he would be the country's acting president.

"Because of Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev's inability to perform his duties as the president of the USSR, due to health reasons, in accordance with Article 127 of the Constitution of the USSR, the vice president of the USSR has temporarily assumed the office of acting president."

Although he pledged that the GKChP would continue Gorbachev's policies, Yanayev said the disintegration of the USSR could not be allowed to proceed.

"In many regions of the USSR, as a result of ethnic conflicts, blood is being shed, and the disintegration of the USSR would have the most serious consequences, both domestic and international."

Later that morning, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and other key Russian politicians denounced the coup as unconstitutional and called for a general strike. A joint statement -- by Yeltsin, Russian Prime Minister Ivan Silayev, and Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was to become chairman of the Supreme Soviet -- was issued, condemning the motives of the coup-plotters.

"On the night of 18-19 August 1991, outside of the ruling power and the law, the president of the country was removed. No reasons can be given to justify this removal. This is a case of a right-wing, reactionary, anticonstitutional coup. We believe, and believed, that these methods of force are unacceptable. They discredit the Soviet Union before the entire world, damage our prestige in international society, and return us to the Cold War era and the isolation of the Soviet Union from the rest of the world."

Yeltsin told a news conference that the GKChP's orders would not be carried out in Russia. Demonstrators began gathering on Moscow's Manezh Square, outside the Kremlin.

At 1 p.m., Yeltsin climbed atop a tank outside parliament -- known as the White House -- and issued a call for mass resistance. Tanks took up positions on all the bridges in central Moscow. Movement on the capital's main Tverskaya Street was blocked by armored personnel carriers.

Moscow military commander Nikolai Smirnov said a state of emergency had been declared and that troops had been brought in to defend order and interdict "terrorist acts."

At 4:30 p.m., Moscow Deputy Mayor Yuri Luzhkov denounced the coup and called on citizens to heed Yeltsin's call for mass protests. A few minutes later, Yeltsin issued a decree declaring all USSR government bodies located on Russian territory, including the KGB, subordinate to his authority.

Demonstrators around the White House spent the afternoon building barricades in anticipation of an army assault. That evening, Russian Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, whose legendary military career made him a powerful spokesperson, urged his fellow soldiers to side with those fighting the coup.

His words were to take an ironic significance just two years later, when Rutskoi himself was arrested for participating in an armed uprising against Yeltsin, his former ally.

"Comrades, I am an officer of the Soviet Army, a colonel, a hero of the Soviet Union, vice president of the Russian Federation. I have walked through the fiery path of Afghanistan and seen the horrors of war. I call on you, my comrade officers, soldiers and sailors, do not take action against the people -- against your fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters. I appeal to your honor, your reason and your heart. Today the fate of the country, the fate of its free and democratic development, is in your hands. I call on you to cross over to the side legally elected by the people, the organs of power, the president of the Russian Federation and the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federation of Soviet Socialist Republics."

That same evening, Leningrad Mayor Anatolii Sobchak called for a citywide strike to begin the next day. Across Russia, confusion reigned, as some officials publicly declared their allegiance to Yeltsin. Others adopted a wait-and-see attitude. The night passed without incident, amid mounting tension.

On 20 August, Yeltsin spoke by telephone with then-U.S. President Bush, who told him Washington would not recognize the Yanayev government. In the evening, with reports of tanks moving toward the White House, Yeltsin offered amnesty to all military personnel and police who switched their allegiances and ignored the GKChP's orders.

Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who went on to cover the wars in Chechnya, filed frequent reports from inside Russia's White House during the attempted coup. On the night of 20 August, he reported on attempts to prepare the defense of the parliament building.

"The action around the parliament building is reminiscent of an anthill. People continue to build barricades, although the entrance to the building is already blocked with layers of material and all the nearest points are firmly secured. Granite blocks are surrounding the building, cars have been turned on their side. In the past several hours, security headquarters has moved to the center of the parliament building, where people are working out the plan for the defense of the building and coordinating the action of the defenders. The defenders have at their disposal automatic weapons and bottles of homemade incendiary liquid, boxes of which are standing right here."

Shortly after midnight on the morning of 21 August, a column of military vehicles approached the barricades around the White House. Clashes ensued. Two protesters attempting to block the vehicles' way were shot, a third was crushed under tank treads. Crowds swarmed the vehicles. One armored personnel carrier was set on fire. The others soon retreated. The coup had collapsed.

The next day, the "Gang of Eight" was arrested. The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the secret police in 1917, was toppled in front of KGB headquarters in central Moscow. Gorbachev was free to return. But the crowds were chanting Yeltsin's name.

Yeltsin and the entire Russian leadership would not give up this chance. As Gorbachev himself noted, in his 1996 interview: "The initiative shifted fully to the Russian leadership, which had defended democracy and naturally felt itself to be in the saddle."

Yeltsin, speaking on 23 August 1991, called on an exuberant crowd of supporters to work for the rebirth of Russia.

"The people have already freed themselves from the fear which they harbored just a few years ago. I call on all my fellow citizens, in the name of unity, to get to work for the renewal and resurrection of Russia, to work for the victory of democracy over reactionary forces, so that things can be as they were in the times of [the early Russian state of] Rus'! Hurray!"

Within days, the USSR's republics would declare their independence, and by December, the USSR would formally cease to exist. Gorbachev resigned as a leader without a country.

"Dear compatriots, dear fellow citizens. In view of the situation that has arisen, with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, I am ending my term as president of the USSR. I am making this decision as a matter of principle. I campaigned for the independence of peoples and for the sovereignty of the republics. But at the same time, I campaigned for the preservation of a single state on the territory of the whole country. But events have gone in another direction. Yet what has been accomplished should be properly valued. Society has received liberty, it has been freed from its shackles -- both politically and spiritually -- and that is the main achievement."

The dream and promise of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin, made in 1918, was now consigned, ironically, to the ash heap of history.

"Soviet power, no matter what happens -- to the supporters of communism in various countries -- Soviet power is inescapable and in the near future will triumph across the world."

For a time during the 20th century, it appeared Lenin's prediction might have come close to being realized. But like all regimes and ideologies, Soviet communism had a limited lifespan.

Ten years hence, however, Lenin himself remains in his mausoleum on Moscow's Red Square -- the inheritors of his legacy still debating whether to curse him or honor him.

(This is the first of three parts.)

(RFE/RL's Pavel Boutorine in Prague and Francesca Mereu in Moscow contributed to this report.)