Winter 1991: the final collapse of the USSR

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The Soviet Union had been in terminal decline before the winter of 1991 but the final act of its collapse was played out at stunning speed.

With the Soviet economic model no longer sustainable and its leader Mikhail Gorbachev embarking on unprecedented reform, Lithuania and Georgia had in 1990 and 1991 become the first republics to declare their independence.

A coup in August by hardliners against Gorbachev ended in failure and only hastened the end of the USSR empowering the charismatic Russian president Boris Yeltsin.

By the end of October 1991, every republic of the USSR had declared its independence with the exception of Kazakhstan and Russia. Many questioned whether the USSR still existed in any form.

Gorbachev wanted to save what he could of the USSR by reforming it into a Union of Sovereign States. But Yeltsin had other ideas and the different visions of the future came to a head in winter 1991.

Here is a summary of the key events leading to the formal liquidation of the Soviet Union. The quotes are taken from the memoirs of Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

-- November 25

NOVO-OGARYEVO, Russia: Yeltsin stuns Gorbachev by refusing to initial a draft agreement creating a confederation state to replace the USSR, at a meeting with Soviet republic leaders outside Moscow.

"Gorbachev jumped out of his chair and stormed out of the room. It was then that we understood we had gathered here for the last time," said Yeltsin.

-- December 1

KIEV, Ukraine: Ukraine votes overwhelmingly, with over 90 percent in favour, for independence in a referendum that helps undermine any remaining rationale for keeping the USSR together.

-- December 8

BELOVEZH FOREST, Belarus: Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus meet at a hunting lodge outside Minsk to coordinate their actions. "It was a perfect winter evening. Just below zero. A light snowfall. The three of us had gathered to decide the fate of the Union," Yeltsin remembered.

They agree to create a Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to replace the Soviet Union. The USSR would cease to exist and the CIS would not be a state in itself.

Gorbachev is not invited and Yeltsin first spoke by telephone to US president George Bush to inform him of the outcome. When he finally spoke to the Soviet leader, Gorbachev told him. "What you have done behind my back, in agreement with the president of the United States, is shameful!"

--December 9

MOSCOW, Russia: Yeltsin goes to see a furious Gorbachev back in Moscow. "The Union no longer exists, don't you understand? And there is no way back," Yeltsin told the Soviet president.

-- December 21-22

ALMATY, Kazakhstan: At a meeting in the Kazakh city of Almaty, all republics of the USSR -- excluding the three Baltic States and Georgia -- agree to join the CIS. The agreement states clearly that neither the Soviet Union nor the post of Soviet president exist. "The statehood of the peoples of a great country is beginning a new history," Gorbachev told delegates. "It will not be easy."

-- December 23

MOSCOW, Russia: With the Soviet Union by now clearly without any viable future, Yeltsin holds a long eight-hour meeting with Gorbachev to discuss the modalities of the handover of power. "Over the course of many hours, with just small breaks, I discussed with Yeltsin the questions about the transfer from a Union State to the CIS," Gorbachev wrote.

-- December 25

MOSCOW, Russia: Gorbachev formally resigns in an address broadcast on Soviet television. "The line of dismembering the country and breaking up the state has won, which I cannot accept," Gorbachev said. He is calm and dignified but makes no secret of his frustration. That night, the Soviet hammer-and-sickle red flag is taken down from the Kremlin.

--December 31

MOSCOW, Russia: Midnight -- the Soviet Union ceases to exist as a legal entity.

© 2011 AFP

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