The Last Days of the Soviet Union

Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union dissolved before our eyes. Here’s a look back at the months leading up to the surprising collapse of a global superpower.

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On December 25, 1991, the red Soviet flag, emblazoned with the iconic hammer-and-sickle, was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. In its place rose the traditional tricolor Russian flag, heralding a transition few could have fathomed: the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet Union, sealed in the grainy glow of President Mikhail Gorbachev’s televised resignation. Above, he raises a glass at his going away party the day after. 

As the bastion of communism fell in a symbolic boon for capitalism and democracy, some people celebrated in the streets, embracing the promise of their newfound freedom. Others mourned the loss of their global might and feared an uncertain future. The young countries of the former Soviet Union then began the daunting task of adopting new governments, new economies, and new ways of life. While hailed in the West as a sign of the inevitable march of progress, the transition to capitalism would be profoundly disorienting for many in the former USSR.

Leading up to its collapse, the Soviet Union was buried deep in economic stagnation. Food shortages and grinding poverty were widespread. Yet many Soviet citizens took pride in their industry, technological advancements, and status as a superpower. The fall of the empire meant not only a change in the world order, but also a change in the way of life and self-perception for many of its inhabitants. Here is a look at the last days of the Soviet Union.

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In March of 1985, Gorbachev came to the helm of a stagnating Soviet economy. He immediately imposed reforms that ranged from lifting restrictions on freedom of speech to adopting market-oriented economic policies. Perhaps one of Gorbachev’s most stringent and unpopular policies was an anti-alcohol campaign to combat heavy alcoholism in the Soviet Union.  
But limiting the sale of alcohol only led to a black market. Using sugar from the stores, basements became laboratories for homemade moonshine. Store-sold vodka became a coveted commodity. Above, two happy men wait in line to buy vodka in Smolensk, a small city west of Moscow.

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Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. W. Bush put the U.S.-Soviet arms race to a diplomatic end when they signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in July, 1991. The treaty, which was the product of nine years of negotiations, would cut both superpowers’ nuclear arsenals by up to a third. Above, Gorbachev, his wife Raisa, Bush, and U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush pose for a photo at the Kremlin during the summit.

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At a Siberian coal-mining and steel-manufacturing community, two children — their faces dirty — look out the window. Coal-miners and steelworkers toiled under difficult conditions with little compensation. As the Soviet economy stagnated in the 1980s, the economic pressures increased on industry workers.

In an ironic twist, Gorbachev’s economic reforms gave workers the right to strike. In Mar. 1991, the Coal-miner’s union vowed to strike until he resigned.  

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Red Army tanks occupied the entrance to the Kremlin and St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow on Aug. 19, 1991, in a coup attempt that temporarily deposed Gorbachev, the Soviet president. The coup was led by Communist hardliners known as “the Gang of Eight,” including KGB Chief Vladimir Kryuchkov and Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev. The self-proclaimed new government declared a state of emergency and threatened anyone who would speak out against it.

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In the wake of the coup attempt, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin stood on top of an armored tank outside the White House and denounced the decision to depose Gorbachev, calling for people in the streets to raise barricades against the tanks and troops. In a spontaneous outpouring of civil resistance, students alongside grandmothers rushed to face the tanks. Two days later, on Aug. 21, 1991, the coup collapsed and the defense ministry ordered all troops to withdraw from Moscow. Gorbachev was reinstated as the Soviet President, but Yeltsin had become a star.

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A pro-democracy demonstrator, answering Yeltsin’s call of resistance, fights with a Soviet soldier on one of the tanks parked in front of the Russian White House. While the military was called upon to aid the coup, many soldiers ended up defecting and siding with Yeltsin, eventually using the tanks to aid the citizens rather than the Communist hardliners.

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Residents of Moscow lined the streets to cheer the Soviet tanks that protected the government against the coup. On Aug. 21, 1991, when the coup was officially over, the military left Red Square flying the tricolor flag of the Russian Federation.

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With the coup attempt over after a mere three days, Gorbachev made his first appearance, speaking to reporters at his country dacha on Aug. 21, 1991. According to reports at the time, the president seemed isolated, scared by a rebellion led by his closest allies and was wary of Yeltsin, who had emerged as his main political rival.

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While Gorbachev’s reforms sought to unify the country, the openness he preached resulted in Soviet republics demanding independence from Moscow. On Aug. 30, 1991, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to celebrate the proclamation of its independence.  

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On September 2, 1991, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia were all declared independent, giving their civilians cause for celebration. Above, two young Lithuanians gleefully display a hammer and sickle, the communist emblem which was removed from a facade of a building in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

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After successfully resisting the August coup attempt, more than 10,000 giddy Muscovites gathered on the evening of Aug. 23, 1991, to watch construction cranes dismantle a statute of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the feared Soviet secret police, which had stood in front of KGB headquarters since 1958. They covered the empty base of the statue with slogans like,"Felix, This Is Your End” and “Free Russia,” and even painted the KGB office with swastikas. 

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Not everyone rejoiced over the changes. Above, an elderly woman kisses the steps leading to the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square on Oct. 5. 1991. She was among a thousand demonstrators who protested the desecration of Soviet Founder Vladimir Lenin's memory and the removal of Lenin statues from prominent places since the failed coup.

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Empty shelves were a common sign of economic hardship in the Soviet Union and a byproduct of centralized economic planning. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, nearly every kind of food was rationed in state-owned stores. Private non-state stores began to appear in the 1980s, but the prices of food and consumer goods were often out of reach for the average citizen.

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A man harvests wheat on a collective farm. Gorbachev introduced reforms that opened up a measure of private ownership over farming, but failed to address fundamental problems of centralized control and government subsidies that lowered incentives to work and production continued to suffer.

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A nurse draws a blood sample from a female AIDS patient in a Moscow hospital. During the political and economic instability of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Soviet agencies downplayed the risks of HIV and AIDS and it was stigmatized as a disease that came from a “corrupt lifestyle,” meaning drug use and homosexuality, which were both illegal.

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Muscovites wait in a food lines to buy bread and whatever goods are available amid shortages.

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A Baptism ceremony outside Leningrad, present-day St. Petersburg, on June 30, 1991. It’s a public scene that wouldn't have been possible just a few years earlier because atheism was the official doctrine of the Communist Party. Under Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev allowed greater freedom for religious groups.

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Many Soviet republics, fearing another coup attempt, had already declared independence by the time Gorbachev officially resigned. In this photo, taken on Dec. 8, 1991, Yeltsin signs the Belavezha Accords with the new leaders of Ukraine and Belarus. The document declared that the Soviet Union would be officially dissolved and announced the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, a new organization to bind the former Soviet countries.

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A resident of Baku, Azerbaijan, hacks a portrait of Lenin. Azerbaijan joined the Soviet Union in 1920, but declared its independence in the wake of the August coup, along with 10 other republics between August and December.

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Fireworks burst over Red Square on New Year's Eve, 1991. The Russian flag flies over the Kremlin as the Soviet Union gives way to a new Russian-led commonwealth.

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