(END of the COLD WAR and the SOVIET UNION – continued)

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The Soviet Union Disintegrates

In various republics the Soviet Union's economy was not an argument for staying in the Union. There was talk of breaking away from Russia and of their republic organizing economically better than could bureaucrats in Moscow. Also, nationalism was alive within the republics. There was some hostility for Russians who had moved in and tended to be opposed to breaking away from Moscow. Like them, Gorbachev wanted to keep the Soviet Union together. Elections in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1990, however, gave overwhelming victories to political parties favoring independence. A nationalistic desire for separation also appeared within the largest of the republics – Russia.

In the Russian republic's parliament, Boris Yeltsin was president. He had been dismissed from the Party's presidium by Gorbachev and others in 1987. Yeltsin was described by Sakharov as a man he liked but of a "different caliber" than Gorbachev – different suggesting lesser. He lacked Gorbachev's grace, but the common Russian tended to like him. Yeltsin criticized the policies of Gorbachev, and he denounced the party that had demoted him. It is said that Yeltsin owed at least some of his popularity to Gorbachev's unpopularity.

Perhaps it can be said that Yeltsin was following a grudge. In July, 1990, Yeltsin convened Russia's parliament and called for economic sovereignty for the republic, in other words, taking control of the economy away from Gorbachev. Other republics wished to follow suit. The Ukraine called for the return of all Ukrainian soldiers from the Soviet military and the creation of an independent Ukrainian military. In the new atmosphere of freedom and democracy, the Soviet Union was unraveling.

The Soviet Union's Communist Party was split between reformers and conservatives, and both were critical of Gorbachev, who was trying to steer a middle ground between state control of the economy and free enterprise. Gorbachev spoke of his belief in socialism and of his being a Communist. He was holding to Lenin's New Economic Policy of the early 1920s as his model for what should be done. note27

To many in Russia, Gorbachev seemed weak and unable to make up his mind. One moment Gorbachev was praising a conservative Communist such as Yegor Ligachev, and another moment he was praising the liberal Party ideologue Alexander Yakovlev. People were wondering whether he knew where he stood.

In 1991 Gorbachev's popularity in the Western world was at an all-time high, but his approval rating in the Soviet Union was at an all-time low – not only because of the economy but also because of the fall of Communism in the satellite countries. Many in the Soviet Union were angry with Gorbachev for having allowed Germany to unite again. Some, including conservative and patriotic Communists, saw Gorbachev as having disarmed the Soviet Union. Among the Russians was the simplification that was common among peoples across the world. They saw him as having thrown away the victory in World War II that had cost twenty million lives.

In 1991 more Soviet factories were closing down. The parliament in the Russian Republic passed a few reforms in the direction of a market economy, and Yeltsin cut funding to various Soviet agencies based on Russian soil. Gorbachev was being destroyed by the new freedoms he had helped to create. He saw the power of the Soviet government as falling away, and he turned his strategy in the direction of preservation – what some would call a turn to the right. Gorbachev's al foreign minister, Shevardnadze, resigned. Shevardnadze warned that "a dictatorship is coming."  Gorbachev suggested to the conservatives around him, including the leader of the Soviet Union's military, that they were free to take whatever extraordinary action was necessary to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In August they obliged him. They made their move while Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were vacationing in the Crimea. The leaders of what some call a coup claimed that Gorbachev was ill. Gorbachev played along. He was, it appeared, under house arrest, but he had a telephone with which he could call anyone he wished.

The coup was a shock to Russians, who saw their nation as something different from what they thought was a Latin American banana republic, and many of them went into the streets to protest. They called for the protection of democracy. Yeltsin stood with people who were in the streets. Ideologically "the masses" were much respected in the Soviet Union, and military men were easily persuaded to side with Yeltsin and the people in the streets. So-called coup leaders did not believe in their coup to the extent that they would commit themselves to a military takeover. Gorbachev's turn to the right and the coup were colossal failures. Gorbachev pretended to be liberated, and Yeltsin was more of a hero overshadowing the hapless Gorbachev. (See book review on Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders.) In triumph, Yeltsin by presidential decree banned the Communist Party in the Russian Republic and seized all its property.

At the end of the year, 1991, the other former Soviet Republics followed the Russian Republic into independence. Abroad, all Soviet embassies and consulates became Russian embassies and consulates. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist as a legal entity, and Gorbachev was now out of a job, and bitter, blaming Yeltsin for breaking up his beloved Soviet Union.

Relaxed tensions between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West had paid off for the West. Those who had equated bargaining with the Soviet Union and "peaceful coexistence" with appeasing Hitler at Munich had been proven wrong. The Soviet Union fell apart not at a height in belligerence by the United States but when relations were good. Communism was still around, but it had declined dramatically.


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