Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s historical novel August 1914 recounts the beginnings of of the USSR. The novel centers on the disastrous loss in the Battle of Tannenberg in August 1914, and the ineptitude of the military leadership of Czarist Russia, and how a series of mistakes led to the end of Czarist rule and allowed the rise and victory of Communism in Russia. The book was never published in the Soviet Union. It instead appeared first in France in 1971, before being translated into English and other languages.
Ironically, it was twenty years ago in another August—this time in 1991—that the Soviet Union whose birth Solzhenitsyn had chronicled—began to come to a sputtering end. Only after the Soviet Union was no more, would Russians at last be able to freely and easily read what Solzhenitsyn had written.
The Fall of Soviet Communism did not begin in August 1991, however, any more than its rise began in 1917 when Lenin proclaimed the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fall of Communism began nearly two years earlier: in 1989.
Following World War II, the Soviet Union had managed to take control of Eastern Europe, picking up the flaming wreckage of Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and the eastern part of Germany among other nations such as Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia. But by 1989, the economies of the Soviet Union and the eastern European nations were a shambles. Mikhail Gorbachev, who had become the sixth General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, was forced by rapidly deteriorating circumstances to attempt structural changes in the Soviet Union. He completely failed to staunch the decline and instead hastened the destruction of what the American President Ronald Regan called “the Evil Empire.”
The authoritarian systems in the Eastern European nations soon began to break apart. Strikes in Poland led to the collapse of the pro-Soviet government and the Soviet Union was now powerless to do anything about it. Soon, Hungary underwent a similar change—and the unrest in the remaining Soviet-dominated nations exploded.
By November 9, 1989 the East German government felt compelled to announce that its citizens were now free to visit West Germany and West Berlin. Crowds of East Germans crossed and climbed over the Berlin Wall, joined by West Germans. Over the following weeks, people began chipping the wall apart, hauling it away for souvenirs. Ultimately, the bulk of it was then torn down with industrial equipment by the German government. Less than a year later, on October 3, 1990, East Germany ceased to exist when formally unified with West Germany.
By the summer of 1991, Eastern Europe had completely moved beyond communist control: the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet’s answer to NATO was formally dissolved on July 1, 1991.
Terrified of what was happening across their former empire, the communist hardliners in Moscow staged a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet Union and placed him under house arrest on August 19, 1991. Instead of stabilizing the USSR and maintaining the communist system, their action led to its almost immediate demise. Within 72 hours, the coup had collapsed, and with it, the Soviet Union itself began falling apart. Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Republic, took over the running of the nation.
On August 20, Estonia declared its independence from the Soviet Union, followed the next day by Latvia. On August 24, Ukraine declared its independence, followed like dominoes by the other constituent republics that had made up the old Soviet Union. By December, ten of the republics had declared their independence and so on December 8, 1991 Russia, Ukraine and Byelorussian republics signed a treaty declaring the end of the Soviet Union.
On December 21, 1991, representatives of all member republics except Georgia signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That same day, all the former Soviet republics agreed to join what they called the Commonwealth of Independent States, with the exception of the three Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) and Georgia.
The Alma-Ata Protocol authorized Russia to assume the Soviet Union’s United Nations membership, including its permanent membership on the Security Council. The Soviet Ambassador to the UN then delivered to the Secretary General a letter informing him that, in virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for purposes of UN membership.
In the early hours of December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Republic. That night, the red communist flag with the hammer and sickle came down for the last time from above the Kremlin. The next day, the red, white and blue tri-color flag took its place for good.
The Soviet Union—and with it, Communism as a viable system—came to a surprisingly peaceful end.