On This Day

boris yeltsin, yeltsin, President Boris Yeltsin, yeltsin gorbachev
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Mikhail Gorbachev, right, stands with Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, 1991.

On This Day: Dissolution of Soviet Union Declared

December 08, 2010 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine declared the death of the Soviet Union and formed a Commonwealth of Independent States.

“The U.S.S.R. Is Ceasing Its Existence”

The three leaders, Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus, met secretly for two days in a hunting lodge 50 miles north of Brest, Belarus. At the conclusion of the meeting, they released a statement proclaiming the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

“As founding states of the U.S.S.R. ... we declare that the U.S.S.R. is ceasing its existence as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality,” the statement read.

The announcement effectively ended the authority of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. “The Brest statement does not reckon with Mr. Gorbachev; it simply ignores him,” wrote The New York Times.

Gorbachev’s power had been weakening in the preceding years, and he was nearly removed from power in August 1991, when Communist hardliners arrested him and kept him in his country home for several days. Though the coup was put down and Gorbachev was restored to his office, his authority was effectively destroyed.

Yeltsin, who had climbed atop a tank outside the Russian parliamentary building and called for resistance against the coup, emerged a hero. He had won the support of the Russian people and the Russian government began to take control of Soviet government ministries.

Gorbachev was powerless to stop the demise of the Soviet Union. The Russian legislature ratified the agreement on Dec. 12 and eight other Soviet republics joined the CIS nine days later. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day and the Soviet Union was officially dissolved the following day.

The CIS Today

The CIS continues to exist as neither a state nor a super-state under which all 12 members “coordinate its members’ policies regarding their economies, foreign relations, defense, immigration policies, environmental protection, and law enforcement,” explains Encyclopedia Britannica.

The republics have each suffered through economic and political problems after independence. Russia’s International Independent University examined the first ten years of the CIS in 2001.

Key Players: Gorbachev and Yeltsin

Mikhail Gorbachev
Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985 and installed liberal reforms such as “glasnost” and “perestroika” to repair the crumbling union. However, the policies undercut his own power and weakened the union; a string of Eastern Bloc countries declared their independence in 1989 and nationalist movements in Soviet republics grew. His own reforms helped lead to his downfall and the downfall of the Soviet Union.

“This man with the stain on his forehead attempted simultaneously to contain and transform the country, to destroy and reconstruct, right on the spot,” wrote Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstaya in Time. “One can be Hercules and clean the Augean stable. One can be Atlas and hold up the heavenly vault. But no one has ever succeeded in combining the two roles.”

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin will be remembered as the man who defied a coup attempt and took over as Russia’s first freely elected leader. But he was also known as a man who was subject to alcohol-driven diatribes and bouts of poor health. He served as Russian president until 1999, when he resigned and ceded power to Vladimir Putin.

“Mr. Yeltsin was at once the country’s democratic father and a reviled figure blamed for most of the ills and hardships after the Soviet collapse,” wrote The New York Times following his death in 2007.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines