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. VITALY ARMAND/AFP/Getty Images
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.