The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a most remarkable phenomenon in the 20th century and both its development as well as disappearance will long be a topic for disputes in social science and humanities. It existed for about 70 years as a global alternative to the “capitalist” world order, ensuring support for some, fighting against colonialism.

Text: Tigran Zakaryan


In 1970’s and even 1980’s few would believe that a powerful state with a dreadful nuclear arsenal, no matter how economically less impressive than its adversary, would fall apart in a matter of several years.
The USSR fell apart due to ideological bankruptcy, rather than financial, although the economic factors had their part to play. In late 1980’s the USSR’s hard currency assets dwindled, however they could be a match to the figure of 1970’s and by that time the Soviet Union was by no means on the brink of collapse.
Albeit the 1970’s were known in the Soviet Union as the time of “zastoi”, the same period was also marked for most soviet people as time of relative prosperity, when items otherwise considered luxurious, such as a TV, a refrigerator, or even a car became affordable, although not always through the mediation of corrupt schemes and black market.

However USSR’s involvement into the costly Afghan war since 1979 increased dissatisfaction over the unexpectedly high number of casualties. The soaring Soviet military budget coupled with plummeting hard currency incomes, namely due to the dropping oil price resulted also in cuts of social expenditures. Following the start of the Afghan war the budget expenditures on health care, schooling and culture were drastically cut as the soviet people, already accustomed to relative prosperity and nominally free (although sometimes difficult to get) social benefits, witnessed an increasing pauperization.
In the same time the Soviet Union under Brezhnev and the West came to an arrangement on peace and stability in Europe, seemingly at a low price for Moscow. In 1975 the CSCE (Council of Security and Cooperation in Europe, later OSCE) Helsinki Final Act was called to finally legitimize the results of the World War II recognizing the existing borders while in the same time the agreement, at the request of the western powers, urged that observing human rights be an international commitment. The Soviet leadership had made a serious miscalculation, by being overconfident of its own might to exclude any effective foreign intervention and excluding the possibility that the agreement might step up domestic movements for rights. Hence the human rights condition in the USSR became an international issue and no arrest of dissidents by the KGB was possible without more or less significant international reaction.
So the lack of social progress coupled with an increasing realization of the lack of the freedom of speech started to generate dissatisfaction over the “system”. It is no coincidental that jokes about Brezhnev deriding the soviet government and lifestyles became widely popular in 1970’s and 1980’s. The system although still wielding power, was gradually becoming funny and not that scary.
Another reason, which obviously was important, was the rise of nationalism coupled with the abovementioned democratic movements. Nationalism was at least partially contained phenomenon in the USSR, although at times it was displayed and also used. Soviet authorities tended rather to “tame” the national feelings, coloring them rather playing ethnic identity factor against a full-fledged nationalism, which might bring forward political demands, including a complete cessation from the USSR.
There were different pattern of the union republics seceding from the Soviet Union. The Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with a tradition of independence between 1918 and 1940 were naturally at the forefront of the movement. Whereas Central Asian republics with a certain exception of Kazakhstan, all established as nations only after the soviet power came into their territory, were following the events and it was not until when the failed August putsch in 1991 apparently left the soviet authorities isolated that they declared their full sovereignty.

Baltic independentists
In Latvia and Estonia the drive towards independence started, as in some other republics, with a public revision of the soviet mainstream historiography, with an aim of challenging the official version on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 which effectively sealed the fate of the Baltic states as annexed parts of the Soviet Union. As early as in 1987 in Estonia the national tricolor (blue-black-white) was displayed and the 1918-1920 war of Estonian independence was publicly remembered.

Lithuania, which seemed to join the camp comparatively later, started a powerful movement for independence since 1988, when in May of that year the movement “Sajudis” (literally meaning “movement”) was founded. Even Moscow’s newly appointed First Secretary Algirdas Brazauskas had to bow under pressure and legalize flying the Lithuanian tricolor (yellow-green-red) since October 1988 and agree to a law making Lithuanian the only official language.    
In 1989, also influenced by the “velvet revolutions” occurring in central Europe, Baltic states engaged into more ambitious programs leading to full independence. A grandiose all-Baltic peaceful political demonstration in the form of a human chain was held on August 23, 1989 extending across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania marking the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The fact that later that year the soviet leadership had to condemn the pact made the claim of those states for independence as legally well-grounded. Meanwhile a revolution occurred in Lithuania, shaking the very bases of the Soviet power not only in that republic, but also elsewhere. Sajudis in the elections to the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in 1989 won the majority whereas Communist Party of Lithuania under the leadership of Algirdas Brazauskas, split from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and abandoned its claim to have a constitutional "leading role" in politics in line with other central European states. This was a devastating blow to the power and prestige of Moscow in the Baltic states. Sajudis won the elections in 1990 and on 11 March the new parliament passed a resolution on “Re-Establishment of the State of Lithuania”, making Lithuania the first Soviet Republic to break away from the USSR.

Latvia declared the restoration of independence on 4 May, 1990, with the declaration stipulating a transitional period to complete independence as Estonia passed a similar resolution on 30 March 1990.
However, Moscow was not ready to yield its positions that easily. In January 1991 soviet troops tried to storm the TV tower in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, during which civilians were killed. Similar developments occurred in January in Latvia. All those attempted punitive actions by Moscow, in which Soviet troops looked more like foreign invaders, only stiffened resistance of the Baltic nations, rather than gave any results. Ultimately the three Baltic states were recognized by Soviet Union in 1991 after the August failed could (the “putsch”), when a group of conservatives tries to oust Gorbachev and reinstate Moscow’s rigorous control over the republics.

South Caucasus, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova
South Caucasus republics, particularly Georgia, had their own memories of independence and such popular demands were heard as early as in 1956 riots in Tbilisi , when, oddly enough, it was coupled and powered by a popular discontent over de-Stalinization launched by Moscow. Calls for independence were publicly heard in Georgia since November 1988 however on 9 April 1989 the soviet troops brutally suppressed a huge demonstration, killing about 20 protesters. In the meantime in Georgia’s Abkhazia autonomous republic a movement started calling for secession from Tbilisi. Nevertheless, Moscow lost control over Georgia in November 1990, when the Georgian Round Table-Free Georgia won elections and on the symbolic date of 9 April, when soviet troops crushed the demonstration in Tbilisi, declared independence.
The option of independence for Armenia and Azerbaijan were tightly linked in their inter-ethnic bitter conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh autonomy, which, being almost exclusively Armenian populated at the onset in 1920’s was increasingly azerbaijanized and Armenians of the region felt threatened as a group. As Moscow made efforts to repress popular discontent, which almost exclusively was coming from the Armenian side, Azerbaijani society on the whole was loyal to the Soviet Union. Meanwhile the lingering conflict started to be used as a mobilization tool by Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, which starting from late 1988, when the exodus of Azerbaijanis from Armenia started, to put forward political demands. The Popular Front since 1989 started to effectively replace the local soviet authorities in place, and in September 1989 a law was passed giving precedence of local laws over Soviet legislation.    
Political changes in Azerbaijan were occurring against the background of even more mobilization of nationalistic sentiment against ethnic Armenians, culminating in 1990 January pogroms, to which soviet troops interfered only days after the riots started and at a moment when the soviet power was deeply threatened in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile during the January events thousands of Azerbaijanis crushed Soviet border infrastructures which they said were separating them from their ethnic kin living in Iran. The suppression of the Azerbaijani uprising was brutal and caused over 100 deaths. Despite this, Azerbaijani communist leadership, which preserved its power in contested election, in view of the situation in Karabakh, made a decision to stay formally loyal to Moscow and Azerbaijan, unlike it Caucasus neighbors Armenia and Georgia did take part in the 1991 March referendum on preserving the Soviet Union voting almost unanimously in favor of preserving the union.  
Armenia was quite a remarkable case among the movements for independence which sparked out in the soviet republics. Unlike Baltic states Armenia did not have lots of outspoken champions for independence, however national problems were on top agenda in Armenia since early 1988’s Karabakh movement demanding unification of the autonomous region with Armenia. Soon Moscow manifested itself not as a “fair arbitrator” but rather an impediment to the cause and even a supporter of Azerbaijan. As early as in November 1988 the parliament (supreme soviet) of the Armenian SSR adopted a resolution recognizing primacy of Armenian legislating over the Soviet laws, however immediately after that Soviet troops effectively made a military coup, taking the power in Armenia into their hands for several months. With soviet troops in Yerevan and a curfew established in the night hours, Armenia felt itself as occupied and the reactions soon started to move towards a cessation from the Soviet Union.
1989 was a turning point and future Armenian president, then leader of the national movement Levon Ter-Petrosyan recalled that the issue of independence had broken apart the Karabakh movement, with some moderate figures considering that the independence demands would only be detrimental in talks with Moscow. Ter-Petrosyan also recalled that the movement embarked upon the independence project only after a major strike of miners in Russia in 1989, in which they also put forward political demands, including democratization etc.
The new parliament was elected in Armenia in 1990 with Ter-Petrosyan’s Pan-Armenian Movement as its majority and the parliament on 23 August adopted a “Declaration on Independence” stating independence as an ultimate end and meanwhile suppressing soviet symbolic from its coat of arms, flag etc. Armenia held its independence referendum on 21 September 1991, after the putsch and declared its independence based on its results.
In Ukraine the movements were centered on historical memory and ethno-religious and linguistic issues of Ukrainians, having as a center the western city of Lviv with its peculiar historical tradition.
Separation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow’s control and recognition of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church were important issues in that movement. Starting from October 1989 the Ukrainian parliament abrogated Communist party’s “leading role” in the country and introduced Ukrainian as the only official language.  However the Communists in Ukraine, unlike many other republics, had a large support and in 1990 election they won majority and the parliament speaker was a communist. Later the same year he was replaced by Leonid Kravchuk the first president of Ukraine. The parliament voted for declaration of state sovereignty of Ukraine. Ukraine was among the last to formally declare as independent after a referendum held in December 1991, when it was apparent that the fate of the USSR is sealed.
Unlike that the transition of Belarus into an independent state was rather smooth.
Moldova followed in general the Caucasus pattern with ethnic tensions erupting into violence inside its territory in Transnistria and the regions inhabited by the Gagauz ethnic minority.
In Belarus the demonstrations were targeting environmental issues, including the nuclear plant of Chernobyl on the border between Ukraine and Belarus.  In 1990 the parliament, still dominated by the communists, voted for a declaration on “state sovereignty” and the country became fully independent only after the Belovezh agreement on 8 December 1991, which drove a final nail in the coffin of the Soviet empire.
The same pattern was observed in the Central Asian republics, which were mostly loyal to the Moscow authorities, despite some ethnic tensions.
In most republic former communist leaders of the “last generation” appointed by Moscow became presidents in their respective countries. All of them during the referendum of 1991 voted for the preservation of a modified Soviet Union and became independent at a point when the Union effectively did not exist.
A major reason of the comparative weakness of the center, which is sometimes underestimated, was the active rivalry between the soviet authorities and those of the RSFSR, by far the most important member of the Union. A critic of the Gorbachev-style perestroika, a Moscow’s Communist Party leader Boris Yeltsin soon became the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR in 1990 and as first Russian president in 1991.
Yeltsin’s historic speech mounted on a tank turret during the August coup in 1991 which had a galvanizing effect on the people of Moscow showed ultimate who the master at home was. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow after the putsch was repressed, he did not seem to be in command of anything.
Ultimately the first and the last president of the Soviet Union resigned on 25 December, when some of the former republics not only had declared their independence, but those were also recognized by the UN and international community. Prior to that on 8 December the leaders of the three Slavic republics, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus gathered in a locality in Belarus called Belovezh where they finally abrogated the 1922 agreement on the creation of the Soviet Union.