Russia, 1991: The last night of the Soviet winter

It is a virgin area as there are none left, an interlacing of oaks and lime trees as far as the eye can see, a space populated by bison and wild horses: the park of Bialovèse, split between Poland and Belarus, is the most beautiful relic of the primary forests of Europe. It is in its bosom that hides, it is said, the residence of Dzied Maroz, the Belarusian Santa Claus promoted by the Soviets to replace in hearts the Christian Saint Nicolas. There is also the house where the USSR died.

30 dates to understand the history of Russia

“L’Obs” invites you to dive into a millennium of Russian passions by telling you about the key moments in the formation of the empire, through 30 key dates, which you will find as you go along in our file between 21 December 2022 and 1er January 2023.

December 7, 1991, 8 kilometers from the Polish border. The snow is thick around the presidential dacha of Viskuli, which secretly welcomes a gathering of political figures. The new Russian President Boris Yeltsin was invited by his Belarusian counterpart Stanislaw Shuchkievich. A third man precedes them in the luxurious hunting lodge, Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk. A notable absentee: Mikhail Gorbachev, president of a USSR hanging by a thread. The place is isolated, the meeting secret, the agenda unclear. After a night of work, the three heads of state give birth to an explosive treaty which proclaims: “We note that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality has ceased to exist. » This is the obituary of the USSR – the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the XXe century “, let go of Vladimir Putin in 2008.
What is at stake is certainly less the killing of an empire than a simple report by a medical examiner. The three presidents have “confirmed a state of affairs, which today many still cannot get used to – the empire had ceased to exist: if the Soviet Union had not already disintegrated, they would not have been able to change like this The world map “, will notice the Russian online media Gazeta thirty years later. In the summer of 1991, in its cover file “A world without communism”, “Le Nouvel Observateur” wrote: “Europe, Asia and America witness, fascinated and incredulous, his agony. And everyone wonders how such a collapse can be done with so little noise. »
Moribund, the USSR then saw for years an interminable disintegration: fall of the Berlin wall and reunification of Germany, defeat of the communist governments in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, palace revolution in Romania and Bulgaria at the end of 1989, independence of the Baltic countries and Georgia in 1991. The rapidity of the movement took the Soviet leaders by surprise, without it being known whether the policy of liberalization driven by Gorbachev accompanied or accelerated the trend. The Warsaw Pact dissolves and Soviet soldiers leave most Eastern European countries. The economic situation is dire. The appearance of political opposition in 1990 with the “Democratic Russia” coalition, combined with an unprecedented rise in prices, led to a wave of strikes in the spring of 1991, against a background of nationalist aspirations.

From one coup to another

Gorbachev is working on a treaty of union supposed to give more sovereignty to the republics, which earned him on August 19 to face a putsch fomented by the old conservative guard. This coup, nipped in the bud by popular reaction, accelerated everything. It gives a new character the opportunity to shine: the liberal Boris Yeltsin, first president of the Russian Federation, elected by universal suffrage two months earlier. Place du Manège, right next to the Kremlin, he climbs an armored vehicle and poses as a bulwark of democracy. While Gorbachev is cloistered in his Crimean dacha, the new master of Moscow is reaping great legitimacy from the sequence and the support of business circles. Under the acclamations of Parliament, he suspended the Communist Party.

Boris Yeltsin in the Parliament of the Russian Federation, August 22, 1991.
Boris Yeltsin in the Parliament of the Russian Federation, August 22, 1991. (CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/AP/SIPA)

1er December, Ukrainians vote overwhelmingly for independence. After three centuries in the Russian imperial bosom, kyiv no longer wants anything to do with Moscow. It is in this state of mind that President Kravchuk goes to Viskuli. Chouchkievich, he is not aware of what is going on: “When I invited Boris Yeltsin, I had in mind exclusively the question of gas and oil deliveries”, he will swear to the Lenta news site three decades later. In the plane that takes them to the dacha, the Yeltsin camp displays other ambitions. We will talk about the “Minsk coup”. “For the second time in four months, betrayed by his people, Gorbachev is the victim of a putsch”, writes KS Karol in “Le Nouvel Observateur”, but a putsch “quiet, almost legal”. Its detractors will speak of a treaty “written on a corner of the table”.
What happened that night? In their accounts, the Belarusian Chouchkievich speaks of a sauna and massages, the Ukrainian Kravtchouk denies any moment of relaxation – he has just gone to shoot game while waiting for the Russian delegation. Boris Yeltsin immediately proposed a new “union”, a word banned on the Ukrainian side. We agree on the word sodruzhestvo, which evokes in Russian the British Commonwealth. We are moving towards the creation of a “community of democratic states”. But that still sounds too communist to Ukrainians who are pushing to replace the last term with “independents.” All right, so it will be the IEC.

Whiskey and vodka

The discussions stretch until three o’clock in the morning, gossips evoke the place of the Żubrówka in the negotiations. “We worked with concentration. Of course, after a hard day’s work, we also drank whiskey and vodka. We were thirty years younger at the time,” confessed in a recent conference in Vienna the former Ukrainian Prime Minister Vitold Fokin. But in the morning, he says, “everyone was completely sober again.” As the Soviet anthem resounds on the radio on December 8, some eyes are foggy. The treaty was initialed at 4 p.m. under the watchful eye of a few journalists: the heads of the three states, which had founded the USSR sixty-nine years earlier, had just signed its dissolution. When Shuchkievich calls Gorbachev, he chokes with rage, humiliated to learn that US President George Bush got the news first.
The Soviet leader is expected to speak on TV news on Monday. He does nothing about it, weakly protesting in a press release against the illegality and haste of the process. Three days later, the Federal Supreme Soviet ratified the agreement, soon joined by eight other former Soviet republics – the Baltic countries, which dreamed of union with Europe, declined the invitation. When Gorbachev finally appears on the screens on December 25, it is to confirm what the whole world already knows: the USSR is no more. A few minutes later, instead of the hammer and sickle, the Russian tricolor flutters over the Kremlin.

Russia, 1991: The last night of the Soviet winter