Twenty years ago, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, declaring the office extinct and dissolving the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, a massive communist empire that had existed since 1922. The USSR had been in a long economic stagnation when Gorbachev came to power in 1985. In order to bring about change, he introduced several reforms, including perestroika and glasnost (openness). Glasnost opened the floodgates of protest and many republics made moves toward independence, threatening the continued existence of the USSR. In August of 1991, a group of Communist Party hardliners frustrated by the separatist movement attempted to stage a coup. They quickly failed due to a massive show of civil resistance — but the already-faltering government was destabilized even further by the attempt. By December of 1991, 16 Soviet republics had declared their independence, and Gorbachev handed over power to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, ending the USSR. Collected here are photos from those tumultuous months 20 years ago.
A woman reaches into her bag, which rests on a fallen Soviet hammer-and-sickle on a Moscow street in 1991. December 25, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union.
Lithuanians carry Lithuanian flags in the center of Vilnius on January 10, 1990, during demonstration asking for the country’s independence. In early 1990, Sajudis-Reform Movement of Lithuania backed candidates won the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Soviet proclaimed the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence. The Baltic republics were in forefront of the struggle for independence and Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, center, in animated conversation with residents of Vilnius, Lithuania, on Thursday, January 11, 1990. Gorbachev was in the Lithuanian capital to press for reversal of the local communist party’s decision to split from Moscow and to slow the republic’s drive for complete independence.
A crowd blocks the passage of Soviet tanks on a road near Ganja, formerly Kirovabad, in Soviet Azerbaijan, on January 22, 1990. Troops sent into the area last week to quell ethnic violence met both armed and peaceful resistance.
People buy teacups in the Vilnius downtown shop on Friday, April 27, 1990. Despite an economic blockade of Lithuania by Soviet forces, shops in Vilnius are well supplied with food and other goods as Lithuania entered the 10th day of a blockade.
Residents face a cordon of Soviet Interior Ministry troops in front of the local Communist Party Headquarters in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, on February 15, 1990. Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency in the city, following ethnic rioting.
Two Soviet paratroopers inspect weapons confiscated from a local militia organization in Kaunas, Lithuania on Sunday, March 26, 1990. Soviet President Gorbachev ordered all Lithuanians to surrender their firearms to Soviet authorities.
Soviet mothers who lost their sons in the Red Army are held back by State militia as they hold photographs of their loved ones in Red Square, on Monday, December 24, 1990. A group of about 200 Soviet parents who have all lost sons through ethnic violence and accidents within the Soviet armed services demonstrated outside the Kremlin. 6,000 Soviet service men were killed during 1990.
About 100,000 demonstrators march on the Kremlin in Moscow on January 20, 1991. Many called for the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev protesting against the Soviet army crackdown against the nationalist Lithuanian authorities. Lithuania had been the first Baltic Republic to proclaim its independence in March 1990.
Soviet soldiers patrol an emptied Red Square in Moscow, on March 27, 1991, after the area had been blocked off in anticipation of a pro-Yeltsin rally.
Anti-Soviet political graffiti filled an entire wall in Vilnius on January 17, 1991. The wall surrounding the Lithuanian parliament was erected to defend against a possible raid by Soviet troops. Many Soviet army deserters pinned their draft cards to a defaced poster of President Mikhail Gorbachev.
In this photo taken on January 13, 1991, a Lithuanian demonstrator runs in front of a Soviet Red Army tank during an assault on the Lithuanian Radio and Television station in Vilnius. Soviet troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in Vilnius, killing 13 people and injuring 100 others.
An armed Lithuanian volunteer guard wakes up as his fellow compatriot slept in Vilnius, Lithuania, on January 23, 1991. Hundreds of gunmen held vigil in the heavily fortified Lithuanian parliament while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev urged all Baltic republics to prevent further violence.