Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mapping Out the Soviet Union's Disintegration

When Soviet citizens woke up on Monday, Aug. 19, 1991, and heard that their president, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been deposed by Communist hardliners and tanks had rolled into Moscow, many were hit by the news as if by lightning out of a blue sky.

But the rift that had polarized the country's political elite and culminated in the disintegration of the Soviet Union was no overnight phenomenon. It had been growing steadily throughout Gorbachev's reign, as the relatively young Soviet leader — who made unprecedented attempts to liberalize the economy, augment civil liberties, decentralize government control and chip away at the political monopoly of the Communist Party — increasingly found himself caught between die-hard conservatives and reformers far more radical than himself.

By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union faced two major challenges: a stagnant economy and vehement calls for greater independence in its 15 republics. The dismal economic situation was punctuated by miners' strikes and empty store shelves, while the rise of reform-minded and nationalist forces in the republics had led to bids for sovereignty in the Baltics — which struck panic in the hearts of the Communist old guard — and bloody ethnic conflicts in Transcaucasia.

A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.
For Gorbachev, solving these two problems became inextricably linked: Economic prosperity and preserving a union of Soviet states, he believed, should go hand in hand.

However, Gorbachev's political moderation prevented him from keeping up with the dizzying speed of the reforms ushered in by his perestroika, both in Eastern Europe and at home. Later, he would call the government's caution in pushing through political and economic change in 1987-88 "a strategic miscalculation."

Arguably, Gorbachev's biggest mistake lay in these awkward attempts at maintaining a centrist position. By the end of 1990, his constant pendulum swings between conservatives and reformers had alienated both groups and, over one year, his rating among the Soviet public had dropped by 25 percentage points to a shaky 56 percent.

Below is an outline of some of the key events in the months leading up to the August 1991 coup, Gorbachev's imminent fall from power and the rise of independent Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin.

Dec. 17, 1990
In a shift toward conservatives, Gorbachev announces a tightening of control by the central government.
The following day, Gorbachev's opponent Boris Yeltsin, then the chairman of the Russian republic's parliament, attacks Gorbachev's initiative as a "restoration of the Kremlin dictate."

Dec. 20, 1990
Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, one of Gorbachev's closest allies, resigns in protest.
"Dictatorship is coming. … No one knows what kind of dictatorship this will be and who will come — what kind of dictator," Shevardnadze warns in remarks to parliament.

Jan. 2, 1991
Soviet Interior Ministry troops seize the Communist Party headquarters in Lithuania and major editorial offices and printing facilities in Latvia. In the following days, paratroopers also occupy a major Lithuanian printing plant.
Lithuania was the most secessionist-minded of the Baltic republics. In November 1989 its Communist Party declared independence from the central headquarters in Moscow and, in March 1990, the republic declared its own independence. The declaration was suspended in June after Gorbachev imposed an embargo, including cutting off supplies of oil and gas.

Jan. 13, 1991
Soviet paratroopers storm a television tower in Lithuania's capital Vilnius, despite protests by a few hundred people. The troops open fire, killing 15 and wounding about 100 people. The tragedy is dubbed "Bloody Sunday."

Jan. 16-17, 1991
The paratroopers storm the Latvian Interior Ministry in the capital Riga. Five people are shot dead.
In Moscow, thousands of demonstrators protest the violence, but Gorbachev is unrepentant. The man behind the commands to shoot is Interior Minister Boris Pugo, a future member of the State Committee for an Emergency Situation, or GKChP, that would overthrow Gorbachev in August.

Feb. 6, 1991
After the bloodshed in Latvia and Lithuania, six republics — Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Armenia and Moldavia, now called Moldova — say they will not participate in Gorbachev's referendum on preserving the Soviet Union. The referendum is immensely significant for Gorbachev as a public legitimization of his attempts to preserve the union.
The increasingly popular Yeltsin supports the dissenters' position.

March 17, 1991
The referendum takes place in the remaining nine republics. The question is: "Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics, in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?" More than 80 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots and 76.4 percent support the union.
Some republics add their own questions, and 70 percent of voters in Russia support Yeltsin's idea of an elected president for the republic. Yeltsin so irritated Communist conservatives that, in late March, his opponents in the Russian parliament begin gathering signatures to oust him from his post as chairman.

March 28, 1991
Soviet Prime Minister Valentin Pavlov orders a three-week ban on public gatherings in Moscow to obstruct plans for a rally in support of Yeltsin. The rally takes place in spite of the ban, with some 100,000 Yeltsin supporters showing up on Manezh Square.
Also in March, plagued by economic and political problems, a group of top Soviet leaders begins drafting a special plan to introduce a nationwide state of emergency in the event of further deterioration of government control.

April 23, 1991
Gorbachev, who reportedly supported the initial emergency plan, sees that the Baltics, Transcaucasian republics and Moldavia are still restless and swings back toward the democrats.
He holds a meeting at his dacha in Novo-Ogaryovo, attended by leaders of the nine more moderate republics, to agree on a draft of the treaty that would maintain a sovereign Soviet Union, while enhancing the political and economic independence of its signatories. The treaty is dubbed "Nine Plus One."

June 12, 1991
Yeltsin, a supporter of strong republics and a relatively weak central authority, is elected president of the Russian republic with 57 percent of the vote.

June 17, 1991
Prime Minister Pavlov announces that Gorabachev's health is failing and the president needs more rest. He demands that part of Gorbachev's powers, especially in the economic sphere, be transferred to him.
Two more future coup plotters, KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov and Defense Minister Dmitry Yazov, attack Gorbachev for neglecting the dangers posed by the capitalist West. Kryuchkov speaks of a Western conspiracy to destroy the Soviet Union from within by introducing liberal reforms and filling the Kremlin with "sleeper agents" planted in the 1970s.
The parliament rejects Pavlov's initiative by a crushing 262 to 24 votes.

July 11, 1991
The Congress of People's Deputies approves the general framework of the treaty.
Throughout the month, Gorbachev is busy preparing for the first G-7 meeting to be attended by a Soviet leader, as well as working out the details of the new treaty. Yeltsin and Ukrainian leader Leonid Kravchuk call for the agreement to give republics more independence.

Aug. 4, 1991
After setting a signing date of Aug. 20 for the first two signatories, Russia and Kazakhstan, Gorbachev leaves for a vacation at his luxurious dacha in the Crimean Black Sea resort town of Foros.
The details of the union treaty are kept secret. However, about five days before the planned signing date, its text is leaked to the press, causing outrage among hard-liners who see the document as the definitive end to the Soviet Union and to the immense powers of the central government.

Aug. 17, 1991
KGB head Kryuchkov gathers the men who will soon become known as members of the GKChP for a secret meeting in Moscow.

Aug. 18, 1991
A delegation goes to Foros in an attempt to persuade Gorbachev to abandon the treaty and agree to impose a state of emergency.
Gorbachev refuses and the next day the coup plotters implement their plan.