Skip to main content
Skip to main Navigation
Skip to Search
toggle search input
toggle main navigation
All RFE/RL sites
End Of An Empire
December 07, 2016 11:24 GMT
On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus declared that the Soviet Union had "ceased to exist." Twenty-five years later, we look back on some key milestones -- inside and outside the Soviet Union – on the road to its collapse.
1979: Pope John Paul II tours his native Poland, drawing the biggest crowds in the country’s history. He avoids directly criticizing the country’s communist rulers, but his carefully worded speeches on the "inalienable" rights of people help reawaken the spirit of resistance in Poland. Months later, Solidarity, a trade union with strongly anti-Soviet leadership, is founded in Gdansk and within a year has nearly 10 million members.
September 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007, en route from the United States to Seoul with 269 passengers and crew, drifts off course and into Soviet airspace. Soviet fighter jets are scrambled amid suspicions the intruder is a U.S. spy plane. After warning shots go unnoticed, Su-15 interceptor pilot Gennady Osipovich slams a heat-seeking missile into the Boeing 747. The shattered plane plunges into the Sea of Japan, killing all onboard.
1985: Mikhail Gorbachev, here greeting U.S. President Ronald Reagan, becomes general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The new leader promises a more open and democratic Soviet future. Such statements have been heard before and few expect change, but this time it’s for real.
1986: World oil prices crash, falling from $27 to below $10 a barrel. The U.S.S.R. can no longer afford to prop up the moribund economies of its satellite states.
April 1986: The Chernobyl nuclear disaster: Reactor No. 4 at the plant north of Kyiv explodes in a routine test gone horribly wrong. Despite Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, old habits die hard. The Kremlin stays silent for days while radioactive dust rains down on Europe.
May 1987: Teenage "oddball" Mathias Rust takes off from Helsinki in a rented Cessna and veers towards the U.S.S.R. The inexperienced German pilot unwittingly eludes Soviet fighter jets and radar before landing next to the Kremlin, hoping to talk world peace with Gorbachev. Gorbachev uses the humiliation to purge the military of resistance to his reforms.
December 1988: Armenian earthquake. In less than 20 seconds, entire apartment blocks collapse into rubble. Reinforcing rods that should have been used in the construction of some buildings had been stolen and sold on the black market. Western aid is accepted, but much of the rescue and medical equipment gets snared in red tape and never arrives. More than 30,000 people die.
February 1989: After nine years of fighting to prop up a communist government in Kabul, the Soviet Army pulls out of Afghanistan. Despite a carefully stage-managed withdrawal, the flowers and applause cannot conceal the shock of defeat for the "invincible" Soviet Army. Around 15,000 Soviet troops had died in the conflict, along with more than 1 million Afghan civilians.
April 1989: The Tbilisi tragedy. Soviet troops attack pro-independence demonstrators with nerve gas and shovels. The crackdown claims the lives of 20 people, including a 16-year-old girl who is beaten to death. The year continues disastrously for the U.S.S.R. as Soviet-imposed communist regimes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania
and Czechoslovakia come crashing down.
November 1989: Fall of the Berlin Wall. A bungled press conference by an East German official gives the impression that the borders between East and West are open and curious crowds pour onto the streets. Faced with thousands of excited Berliners, panicked border guards lower their weapons and let people through. A trickle becomes a flood and the wall is soon destroyed.
December 1989: Revolution in Romania. After scores of civilians are killed in a crackdown on antigovernment demonstrators, communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu makes a speech aimed at demonstrating the people’s "devotion" to him and his equally hated wife. Remarkable live footage of the address broadcasts the moment crowds
and the omnipotent tyrant shrinks into a confused old man. As people flood the streets the Ceausescus flee in a helicopter. They are soon caught and executed by firing squad.
January 1990: In the Caucasus, independence movements begin to crack along ethnic lines. On the streets of Azerbaijan, about 90 Armenians are killed in a pogrom, some of them tortured to death. When Soviet troops move in, ostensibly to stop the violence, more than 100 Azeris are killed. Vast crowds gather for the funerals (pictured) of Azerbaijani victims of the Soviet crackdown.
1991: As Lithuanians clamor for independence, Gorbachev flatly refuses to allow the Baltic states to secede from the U.S.S.R. Tensions rise and armor rolls into Vilnius, including a crack KGB fighting squad whose presence is secret. Thirteen civilians are killed, one dies of a heart attack, and a KGB operative is killed by friendly fire. A dark joke of the time notes that Gorbachev’s "perestroika" (restructuring) is turning into "perestrelka" (a shootout).
August 1991: In Moscow, the specter of civil war looms after KGB and army hard-liners stage a coup aimed at halting the unraveling of Soviet power. Gorbachev is detained while on holiday in Crimea and tanks roll in to surround the White House parliament building with Yeltsin inside. After people pour onto the streets to resist, the soldiers waver and the coup fails. With Yeltsin ascendant, Gorbachev appears out of touch when he returns to Moscow using triumphant communist language.
December 1991: Gorbachev resigns as president of a country that has ceased to exist. The 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner, always more popular with the Western public than his own, believed in communism to the end, but the reforms he set rolling ended up spinning out of his control.
'I Feel Free': Russian Students In U.K. Unmoved By Kremlin's Call To Come Home
Back to top