Recently declassified documents reveal how hard Mikhail Gorbachev struggled throughout 1990 and 1991 to preserve the Union against the independent-minded leaders of Soviet republics, primarily Boris Yeltsin of Russia, but also Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine.

Thirty years ago, a new national flag was hoisted over Moscow’s Kremlin when, on 25 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union for almost seven years, stepped down from office. We saw him announce his resignation in a 10-minute speech broadcast live on our small, unreliable, Russian-made, black-and-white television sets, as the USSR passed into history. The Soviet flag, bearing the hammer and sickle on a red background, was lowered over the Kremlin and in its place we witnessed the hoisting of the tricolour flag of the Russian Federation. The iconic symbol of a failed socio-economic experiment called Soviet communism had gone. It was the end of an era.
In the weeks before, from my office in the British Embassy directly across the river Moskva, I had watched the hammer and sickle fluttering over the Kremlin waiting for the inevitable. It was not a question of “if”, but “when”. The year 1991 had been an extraordinarily momentous year in Russian history, rather as 1947 was for India. In August there had been a coup by communist hardliners in a failed attempt to overthrow Gorbachev and stop his failing reforms. A month later, the secession of the three Baltic states from the Soviet Union, was recognised. Then in early December, the Presidents of three others, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus recognised each other’s independence, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States, which replaced the Soviet Union. The old order was quickly disintegrating, and the dissolution of the Union that had been set up by the Bolsheviks 69 years earlier was now inescapable. As Gorbachev said to the nation during his televised speech: “We’re now living in a new world.”
The few historians blessed with hindsight claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was inevitable. It was not. Those of us who had studied the brainchild of Vladimir Lenin over many years believed at the time that Gorbachev would muddle through. In political circles there was no discussion about a collapse of the Soviet Union and everyone assumed that it would continue in some form or other for a generation at least.
There were certainly some massive long-term structural problems bequeathed to Gorbachev by his incompetent predecessors. Issues such as a bankrupt planned economy, a defunct communist ideology, and anti-Russian nationalism in the borderlands. There were also pressures on the Kremlin from falling oil prices, the military implications arising from US President Reagan’s “star-wars”, and the painful defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan. The downstream effects of the Chernobyl disaster, and even Gorbachev’s deeply unpopular anti-alcohol campaign played their part. But nobody forecast the collapse that happened in just a few months.
Although all the external factors were significant, it was an implosion from the centre that killed the Soviet Union. When Gorbachev became leader in 1985, he put in place two policies to address the moribund economy and crumbling political system: glasnost (openness or transparency) and perestroika (economic restructuring). His idea was to create transparency in governance, such as curbing state censorship to allow the reporting of painful truths in society, and economic reforms designed to move the Soviet Union away from a central-command model toward a hybrid communism-capitalism one.
To anyone familiar with a buoyant private sector market economy, a short walk around the drab, understocked state shops was enough to illustrate that the command system was failing badly. By contrast, foreigners with dollars could shop at the state-run Beriozka shops, where you could buy luxury goods that were unavailable in the traditional Soviet markets and shops. In Beriozkas you could also brush shoulders with Communist Party apparatchiks who mysteriously had access to US dollars. But then perestroika appeared and suddenly citizens were allowed to open private businesses and foreigners could enter the country to take part in joint ventures. We were now able to shop at the small kiosks that began to litter the streets, run by private individuals who quickly realised that they could sell products for more than they paid therefore making a profit, a novel idea for anyone brought up under communism. They were tasting capitalism.
So what went wrong?
Most historians now agree that the primary drivers behind the quick demise of the Soviet Union were Gorbachev’s ill-designed economic reforms that ruined the rouble, and his rapid political liberalisation. The growing pains of perestroika led to a new wave of shortages and economic hardship, and the newly empowered regional leaders used their freshly opened political process to demand autonomy from the Kremlin.
Changes were also rumbling across Eastern Europe. Shortly after Gorbachev announced at the United Nations that he would loosen military control on neighbouring Warsaw Pact countries, those nations pushed immediately for more autonomy. Communist regimes toppled in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. At a scheduled meeting in Berlin on 9 November 1991, my West German interlocutors were stunned to be told that the Berlin wall had been opened at Checkpoint Charlie and that East Germans were pouring through to the West. Needless to say, the meeting was immediately closed as we all rushed to witness this world-shaking event. German reunification had begun. It all happened so quickly. As people began to taste freedom, by the time Gorbachev tried to dial-back his reforms it was too late. Vast social forces had been unleashed, forces that he was unable to stop.
But it could have been so different.
Recently declassified documents reveal how hard Mikhail Gorbachev struggled throughout 1990 and 1991 to preserve the Union against the independent-minded leaders of Soviet republics, primarily Boris Yeltsin of Russia, but also Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine. These primary sources also reveal that keeping the Union together, and backing Gorbachev personally, remained at the core of United States’ policy throughout 1991. The White House believed that keeping the Soviet Union going, even with a weak centre, was the best alternative to violent disintegration. US officials were greatly concerned that Soviet tactical nuclear weapons were spread about in 14 of the 15 republics, with over 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons stationed outside Russia in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.
In Moscow, Gorbachev remained firm in his view that the Soviet Union could be integrated into Europe and that ensuring external aid was the strongest means of keeping a new Union project on track. For two years, Gorbachev had been attempting to work out a new Union Treaty for a more decentralised system, giving the various Soviet republics more autonomy. And he nearly succeeded. The foolish, failed coup attempt by communist hardliners in August 1991 achieved exactly the opposite. Instead of reviving their beloved Soviet Union, they actually destroyed it, together with the compromise Gorbachev was trying to create. Their failure allowed Russian nationalism to surge, invigorated by the image of Boris Yeltsin climbing on to a tank parked just outside the Russian White House.
A new state structure was established, the State Council, consisting of leaders of the republics whose first task was to design a new Union Treaty and oversee the process of transition. It held its first meeting on 11 October 1991, and for a fleeting moment in mid-October it seemed that Gorbachev’s project was on the right track. Gorbachev worked on the basis of a single country with unified armed forces, a popularly elected president, a unified power grid, a transportation network, communications and a single economic space. At the State Council meeting on 15 October, Boris Yeltsin supported the document, but at the following dramatic meeting on 4 November he abruptly changed his mind and refused to sign, clearly intending Russia to go it alone.
At the same time, nationalist forces were developing strongly in Ukraine. Although President George H.W. Bush had given his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech in the country’s capital earlier on 1 August, cautioning against “suicidal nationalism” and encouraging the people to support Gorbachev’s plan, they voted decisively in the referendum on 1 December to withdraw from the Union. Seven days later, without the knowledge of Gorbachev, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belovezhie agreement to dissolve the Soviet Union.
Just before giving his historic televised speech, Gorbachev phoned Bush, who was at Camp David for his family Christmas with his grandchildren, to express appreciation for all they had done together. Gorbachev said a simple “goodbye” and shook Bush’s hand virtually. These were the parting words in the conversations that ended the Cold War and transformed the world.
An eye-catching postscript appeared last week. Vladimir Putin, who back in 2005 said that the demise of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, revealed in a documentary that he drove a taxi at the time “to make ends meet”. A former KGB agent who soared to the top on the back of the failure of the Yeltsin years, Putin was using the story to illustrate his own personal hardship in the early 1990s. “Honestly, it’s not very pleasant to talk about”, he admitted.
“What-if-historians” will now be contemplating the mischievous scenario that if the events of 1991 had turned out differently and Mikhail Gorbachev had succeeded in keeping the Union together, or if the coup-plotters had been victorious, or if the charismatic but doomed-to-fail Boris Yeltsin had not jumped on that tank, visitors to St Petersburg today might discover the driver of their taxi to be a short 5ft 7inch, 69-year-old man with a receding hairline, answering to the name of Vladimir.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.