Dignified but bitter farewell to the Soviet Union – archive, 1991

27 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev resigns as Soviet president, and the USSR ceases to exist

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signs his resignation minutes before a live address on national television, 25 December  1991. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signs his resignation minutes before a live address on national television, 25 December 1991. Photograph: Stringer Russia/ReutersSoviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signs his resignation minutes before a live address on national television, 25 December 1991. Photograph: Stringer Russia/Reuters

John Rettie in MoscowMon 27 Dec 2021 00.30 EST

President Gorbachev’s extraordinary six-year rule and the country over which he presided came to an end with a whimper.

When the moment came for the Soviet leader to sign himself and the USSR into history on Christmas Day, his pen ran out. He had to borrow one from an American television interviewer to sign the decree that passed control over the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal to Boris Yeltsin. Then he gave a brief interview to the cameras, stood up and walked out of the Kremlin.

There was bitterness in his departure. He looked exhausted and drained on Wednesday when he made his broadcast to the nation announcing his resignation, just before signing the decree. But he spoke with dignity and courage, listing the achievements of perestroika and once more bemoaning the disintegration of the union he believed in so profoundly, almost alone.

Characteristically, too, he fought on almost to the end, trying to preserve the union and his own position. He sent signals to the military, hoping the last all-union institution would back him in action against what he saw as an unconstitutional seizure of power by Boris Yeltsin and his colleagues in Ukraine and Byelorussia.

Communist hardliners stage coup against Gorbachev – archive, 20 August 1991

According to diplomatic sources, the presidents of those two republics, Leonid Kravchuk and Stanislav Shushkevich, avoided coming to Moscow in case they were arrested.

But Mr Gorbachev’s position was fatally weakened by the republics’ refusal to fund his government.

He tried playing the Central Asia card, knowing he had a strong pro-union ally in Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, and that the other Central Asian leaders preferred him to Mr Yeltsin. But Mr Nazarbayev, though angry at not being invited to the first Slav meeting in Brest to set up the Commonwealth of Independent States, felt which way the wind was blowing.

So power slipped inexorably from Mr Gorbachev’s grasp, and he was left only with a humiliating shell of office from which he had no choice but to depart.

But Mr Gorbachev was not changing his views. It was, he told the nation, a matter of moral principle. ‘I have firmly supported the independence of peoples and the sovereignty of republics. But at the same time I am for the preservation of the union state … The most dangerous thing about this crisis is the collapse of statehood,’ he declared. ‘I am concerned that the people of this country have ceased to be citizens of a great power.’

Nationalism was always his blind spot. He just could not understand it. But loyalty triumphed to the country he surely still considers himself a citizen of. He did not believe in the commonwealth, he said, but now that the decision to set it up had been taken by the 11 presidents in Alma Ata last Saturday, ‘I will do everything I can to ensure that the agreements signed there lead to real concord in society.’

He admitted he had made mistakes in carrying out perestroika and glasnost, and he knew how many people felt about him, but he had no regrets. It was always a risky business launching reforms on this scale, he said, ‘but even today I’m convinced that the democratic reform we launched in the spring of 1985 was historically correct.’

Finally, he appealed to the nation ‘to preserve the democratic achievements won during the past few years. They were acquired through much suffering and tragedy. They are not to be abandoned, whatever the circumstances or pretexts.’

Unloved and unappreciated by the overwhelming majority of former Soviet citizens, Mr Gorbachev nonetheless received many moving tributes from admirers and former colleagues for his historic role.

Ukraine challenges Yeltsin

By John Rettie in Moscow
27 December 1991

The spectre of discord was growing between two key republics of the former Soviet Union yesterday as if in answer to the grim warnings of the departed President Gorbachev.

Collapse of the USSR – in pictures

As the world hastened to recognise the main members of the new Commonwealth of Independent States within a day of the Russian tricolour replacing the Red Flag over the Kremlin, there were vehement protests from Ukraine against Russia making itself ‘the legal inheritor of the Soviet Union’.

The Ukrainian president, Leonid Kravchuk, declared uncompromisingly: ‘There is no centre in Moscow.’

Despite its agreement that Russia should have the Soviet seat on the UN security council, and that the finger of the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, should be on the nuclear button – albeit under a system of consultation with the other nuclear republics – Ukraine is deeply dismayed by what it sees as Russian dominance of the 11-member commonwealth.
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