Seemingly inevitable in retrospect but utterly unprecedented, the end of the Soviet Union was made official on December 26,1991. President Mikhail Gorbachev resigned his post as General Secretary of the Communist Party and the Russian tri-color was raised in the place of the Soviet flag over Red Square. Twenty-five years later there is still no singular narrative of how a multitude of forces came together to dissolve the largest nation on earth.
On November 21, 2016, some of the leaders responsible for bringing a formal end to the Soviet Union spoke at the Davis Center and shared what it was like to chart the futures of millions in such an unpredictable time. The panel included Gennady Burbulis, First Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation (1991–1992); Andrei Kozyrev, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1990–1996); Leonid Kravchuk, President of Ukraine (1991–1994); and Stanislau Shushkevich, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Republic of Belarus (1991–1994). They all were involved in the writing and signing the Belavezha Accords, the document that officially declared the end of the USSR. Moderated by Mark Kramer, Program Director of the Cold War Studies Project at the Davis Center, the symposium “The Dissolution of the USSR: 25 Years Later,” drew a standing-room crowd to Tsai Auditorium.
The Belavezha Accords were written four months after the aborted August 1991 coup in Moscow that attempted to unseat Gorbachev in favor of tighter, more conservative Communist rule; after Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Georgia officially left the USSR; and shortly after Ukrainian voters overwhelmingly approved Ukraine’s declaration of independence. Faced with the instability of the Soviet Union, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly gathered at the state dacha in Belovezhskaya Pushcha to discuss how to proceed. Many thought the leaders had gone to the forest straddling Belarus and Poland simply to “drink and go hunting,” recounts Shushkevich. In reality, the leaders discussed how to move forward from an “unmanageable” USSR. “We could all feel it,” remembers Kravchuk. Kozyrev agreed that “the bureaucracy, red tape, and the attitude towards the republics from the central leadership of the Soviet Union led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.”
Even as they were creating the Accords, the leaders faced the ever-present hassle of Soviet bureaucracy. Shushkevich and Kozyrev called President Gorbachev and President George H. W. Bush, respectively, to inform them of their activities in Belavezha. Kozyrev reached Bush sooner, even though they started the calls at the same time and Shushkevich was on a special state phone line. When Shushkevich finally connected to Gorbachev and told him about the document they were creating, he remembers Gorbachev asking, “Did you think about the view of the international community and how they’re going to take it?” to which Shushkevich replied, “You know, President Bush is viewing this quite positively.”
The signators’ hopes and feelings coalesced around the famous phrase penned by Burbulis: “the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, ceases to exist." While other aspects of the document were debated, this phrase remained constant. “He was offering what I had been dreaming of,” said Shushkevich. The key objective of the rest of the document was to ensure that millions of people were not “buried under the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Kravchuk.
“Only when everybody agreed to each article of the Accords did we adopt it,” remembers Shushkevich. Now, 25 years after the mostly peaceful dissolution of one of history’s largest land empires, Kozyrev, echoed by the other speakers, hopes that the Belavezha Accords can serve as “an example of how to solve complex issues based on consensus and based on the people’s will.” Said Burbulis, “World history did not have a precedent for such a dangerous state ceasing to exist in such an unexpectedly natural way,” but perhaps their practice of consensus at Belavezha helped set one.
“When I first started studying the Soviet Union, I never thought it would disappear,” reminisces Mark Kramer. He designed the exhibit “The End of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991: A 25-Year Retrospective” to reflect the element of contingency in its disappearance. The exhibit opened concurrent with the symposium on November 21, 2016, and is on display through January 23, 2017, in CGIS South. It includes nine sections with detailed summaries and takes viewers through the buildup to and fall of the USSR. Made up of over 200 images, artifacts, and declassified documents—many contributed by members of the Davis Center community—the exhibit provides the information and context for people to form their own narratives of the events of 1985–1991 and their consequences.
Kramer hopes the exhibit reaches visitors at a personal level, regardless of where or how old they were in 1991. He says some “will look back and think, ‘Wow, has it already been 25 years since that happened?’” whereas younger generations have a lot to learn. “It’s hard for people under 30 to remember how despotic and repressive the Soviet Union was.” Ultimately he hopes that people come away with their own understanding of how and why the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
Watch the full symposium in English or Russian below: