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Soviet Union proclaimed… and dissolved

This Day in World History

December 30, 1922, and December 31, 1991

Soviet Union proclaimed… and dissolved

“Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, December 30, 1922–December 31, 1991.” So might read the epitaph of one of the dominant political forces of the twentieth century, the world’s first communist state and, after World War II, one of two world superpowers.

The U.S.S.R., or Soviet Union, was born in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Communists, or Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin took control of that revolution, formed a provisional government, pulled out of World War I, and fought and won a civil war against their opponents. By 1922, they had effectively ended opposition. They had also managed to gain control of several neighbors that had once been part of the Russian Empire, where some people hoped for independence. Communist leaders debated how to integrate these other lands. Joseph Stalin wanted to absorb them into Soviet Russia. Lenin insisted on admitting them as ostensible equals. Through promulgation of the Declaration of Union and Treaty of Union on December 30, 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was formally established.

By 1991, the U.S.S.R. was in serious trouble. The economy was moribund, and efforts to reform it spearheaded by Mikhail Gorbachev had proved fruitless. Several constituent states had active independence movements. Hard-line Communists, many in the military, feared loss of power and dissolution of the Soviet empire. They attempted a coup, ousting Gorbachev and trying to seize control of the government. Russian President Boris Yeltsin led popular opposition to that coup, other army leaders refused to join it, and the effort collapsed. In its wake, several constituent republics proclaimed their independence. On December 25, Gorbachev somberly announced his resignation as president of the U.S.S.R., which entity, he said, would cease to exist on December 31.

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