Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, dies after 17 years in power. The last years of his reign are marked by social and economic stagnation.
The Soviet dissident movement, which included both anti-Soviet activists and leftists, is totally routed by the KGB. Hundreds of people are arrested, while many others are forced to emigrate.
The Leningrad Rock Club is founded. Many popular groups of the perestroika period get their start in the club which was organized under control of KGB.
The Fellowship of Experimental Visual Art (TEII), an association of Leningrad nonconformist artists, is given permission to hold exhibitions, which are a huge hit with the wider public.
Mikhail Gorbachev is appointed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party.
START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) talks begin between the Soviet Union and the US. The Soviet Union declares peacemaking, disarmament, and dialogue with the west the priorities of its foreign policy.
“A Citizens’ Summit”—a telebridge between studio audiences in Seattle and Leningrad hosted by Phil Donahue and Vladimir Posner—is the first manifestation of the Soviet Union’s newfound openness to the west.
Gorbachev formulates the new Party line: perestroika, democratization, and glasnost. He declares: “The expansion of glasnost [openness] is a fundamentally important issue for us. It is a political issue. Without glasnost there can be no democratism, political creativity on the part of the masses, and their participation in governance.”
The mass media are given greater liberties in covering social problems and Party affairs.
Books that had previously been banned in the Soviet Union begin to be published.
Tengiz Abuladze’s film Repentance, an allegorical but harsh critique of Stalinism, is released. Varlaam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is published for the first time. These events catalyze a discussion in the Soviet Union on the Great Terror and the Gulag.
An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant sparks a massive environmental catastrophe and becomes a symbol of the era.
In December, the scientist Andrei Sakharov, a leader of the dissident movement since the late sixties, is released from exile in the closed city of Gorky.
The Soviet émigré filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky dies in Paris. Previously banned, the films he made while abroad are shown for the first time in the Soviet Union.
140 dissidents are amnestied and released from prison. Previously tiny and divided, the dissident movement is given new impetus by the official campaign for greater democracy. Several dozen informal, loosely structured discussion clubs and other organizations are formed. The movement also begins to produce the first independent journals and newspapers.
Mathias Rust, a young West German man, lands a small plane near Red Square in Moscow. This incident is the formal excuse for the dismissal of many high-ranking military officials who are opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms.
Gorbachev publishes the book Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, in which he argues that the economic differences between the socialist and capitalist world-systems should take a back seat to the necessity of defending universal human values.
Boris Yeltsin, a member of the Central Committee and a radical opponent of Gorbachev, begins to gain popularity amongst the populace. Yeltsin argues that the pace of reforms must be quickened.
The 17th Youth Exhibition in Moscow, an official event, presents the works of conceptualists and other unofficial artists to the greater public for the first time.
Joseph Brodsky, a poet who was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972, is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. This event leads to a lifting of the ban on publication of his poems in Russia as well as the publication of a huge number of works by other émigré writers.
In May, Pamyat, a Russian ultranationalist organization, holds its first demonstration in Moscow.
The government launches a strict anti-alcohol campaign that is broadly rejected by the population.
Most Soviet cities are hit by heavy food shortages.
The film ASSA, the first depiction of the alternative “anti-Soviet” bohemian community, is released. The final scene shows the Leningrad band Kino performing the song “We Want Change!” The song becomes the era’s anthem.
Crisis erupts in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave formally part of Soviet Azerbaijan. Many Armenians inside and outside the enclave demand its “reunification” with Armenia. In response, Azeris carry out a pogrom against Armenians in the town of Sumgait, which is the first incident of massive ethnic violence in recent Soviet history. Demonstrations and riots break out in both republics, and thousands of refugees on both sides flee their homes. This is the first sign of the Soviet Union’s imminent collapse.
The Soviet Union begins withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan.
The Sąjūdis Reform Movement is organized in Lithuania. The Popular Front is founded in Latvia. In Estonia, several hundred thousand people gather on the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds and sing patriotic songs. This Baltic-wide movement for independence becomes known as the Singing Revolution.
The Soviet authorities finally cease jamming broadcasts of Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and other western radio stations.
Rallies are held in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk under the slogans “Give Us Perestroika!” and “Onwards to a Leninist Understanding of Socialism!”
The Democratic Union holds a series of anti-communist demonstrations in Moscow and Leningrad during which the pre-Revolutionary Russian tricolor is raised for the first time.
An earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 leads to massive destruction and loss of life in the Spitak region of Armenia. Humanitarian aid pours into the region from around the world.
Elections are held to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies, the newly recreated supreme governing body of the Soviet Union. These are the first free elections with multiple candidates. Discussion of the candidates’ platforms, which includes televised debates, are an unprecedented manifestation of free speech and a real challenge to the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.
An exhibition of works by Kazimir Malevich opens at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is the first public viewing of his works since 1930.
The journal Novy Mir begins publishing Sozhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in serial form.
Nonconformist artists in Leningrad open the famous squat at Pushkinskaya, 10.
Various regions of the Soviet Union are hit by a wave of strikes. The demands of the strikers include political reforms and support for the independence of the Baltic republics. The most serious strikes are carried out by coal miners, who paralyze the entire industry.
Ration coupons for basic foodstuffs, alcohol, cigarettes, and soap are introduced in many cities and towns.
Next Stop Soviet, a Danish initiative to bring young people in Scandinavia and the Soviet Union into direct contact, takes place.
Peaceful independence demonstrations in Tbilisi are dispersed by Soviet troops, resulting in twenty dead and hundreds of injured.
Andrei Sakharov dies.
During 1989, approximately 5,300 demonstrations take place in the Soviet Union. Around 12.6 million people take part in these rallies.
Parliamentary elections in Poland lead to a stunning victory for the Solidarity movement.
The Berlin Wall falls.
The Velvet Revolution takes place in Czechoslovakia. The famous dissident playwright Vaclav Havel is elected president.
Revolution in Romania: dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu is ousted by the National Salvation Front and executed.
The number of protest rallies in the Soviet Union continues to rise, involving millions of people.
A state of emergency is declared in Baku, the capital of Soviet Azerbaijan. Soviet troops are brought in, ostensibly to calm the situation. During three days of street fighting more than 130 people are killed.
The first congress of independent workers movements takes place in Moscow. Representatives of strike committees and Unions of Laborers announce the formation of the Confederation of Labor.
A large May Day demonstration on Red Square demands the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev and the rest of the country’s leadership.
Gorbachev’s visit to Vilnius provokes a 250,000-strong demonstration by supporters of the Lithuanian independence movement.
On June 12, a new Soviet law forbidding censorship and guaranteeing freedom for the mass media is passed.
Boris Yeltsin is elected chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.
The 28th Party Congress is held: it will be the last. Yeltsin attacks the Communist Party and its leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and announces his resignation from the Party.
Gorbachev signs a decree formally rehabilitating all victims of political repressions during the Stalinist period.
Viktor Tsoi, lead singer for the band Kino and the embodiment of freedom for millions of young people throughout the Soviet Union, dies in a car crash at the age of 28.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is awarded a State Prize.
Young unofficial artists represent the Soviet Union at the Venice Biennale.
After Lithuania declares its independence, Moscow sends in special-forces units, who storm the headquarters of Lithuanian Teleradio and the Vilnius TV tower. 13 people are killed and several hundred wounded during the fighting. In Moscow, several hundred thousand people demonstrate in support of independence for the Baltic countries.
A referendum on the future of the Soviet Union is held. Voters are asked: “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” Turnout is 80% across the Soviet Union, and 76.43% of these voters vote in favor of the resolution.
Lithuania and Georgia announce their independence from the Soviet Union. They are soon followed by Estonia, Latvia, Moldova, and Armenia.
Hardliners attempt a coup d’état against Gorbachev and his reform policies while the Soviet president is on vacation in the Crimea. The conspirators declare a state of emergency and send tank divisions into Moscow. Gorbachev demands that a session of the Congress of People’s Deputies be called. Massive popular resistance against the coup in Moscow and elsewhere leads to troops and army commanders refusing to fire on protesters. During street skirmishes in Moscow, only three protesters are killed. Yeltsin, who leads the resistance in Moscow, emerges victorious after the coup fails.
The famous art squat on Trekhprudny Alley in Moscow opens.
In December, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus sign the Belavezha Accords behind Gorbachev’s back, effectively dissolving the Soviet Union.
What Might Have Happened
·The Soviet Union is transformed into a federative state based on broad autonomy for republics, districts, and cities.
·Workers take full control of all factories and enterprises.
·All political authority is transferred to factory and local councils (soviets).
·The west undergoes its own version of perestroika. Inspired by the processes underway in a renewed Soviet Union, western societies carry out a series of radical social-democratic reforms.
·Governments fully disarm and unite to create a fund to ensure the future of the planet.
·Socialist culture enjoys a rebirth worldwide.
What Has Happened Instead
·The Soviet Union collapsed.
·The national economy has been stolen from the people through “privatization” that leads to the rise of a class of oligarchs.
·The population has suffered massive impoverishment.
·Extreme forms of nationalism and religious obscurantism have become widely popular. Civil wars and terrorism have afflicted large parts of the
former Soviet Union.
·Economic collapse has led to a severe decline in health care, education, scientific research, and culture.
·Neoliberalism has triumphed throughout the world. The interests of the majority have been sacrificed to the needs of speculative transnational capital.