Skip to main content
Skip to main Navigation
Skip to Search
All RFE/RL sites
End Of An Empire
December 20, 2016
On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus declared that the Soviet Union had "ceased to exist." Twenty-five years later, we look back on some key milestones -- inside and outside the Soviet Union – on the road to its collapse.
April 1986: The Chernobyl nuclear disaster: Reactor No. 4 at the plant north of Kyiv explodes in a routine test gone horribly wrong. Despite Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, or openness, old habits die hard. The Kremlin stays silent for days while radioactive dust rains down on Europe.
May 1987: Teenage "oddball" Mathias Rust takes off from Helsinki in a rented Cessna and veers towards the U.S.S.R. The inexperienced German pilot unwittingly eludes Soviet fighter jets and radar before landing next to the Kremlin, hoping to talk world peace with Gorbachev. Gorbachev uses the humiliation to purge the military of resistance to his reforms.
December 1988: Armenian earthquake. In less than 20 seconds, entire apartment blocks collapse into rubble. Reinforcing rods that should have been used in the construction of some buildings had been stolen and sold on the black market. Western aid is accepted, but much of the rescue and medical equipment gets snared in red tape and never arrives. More than 30,000 people die.
February 1989: After nine years of fighting to prop up a communist government in Kabul, the Soviet Army pulls out of Afghanistan. Despite a carefully stage-managed withdrawal, the flowers and applause cannot conceal the shock of defeat for the "invincible" Soviet Army. Around 15,000 Soviet troops had died in the conflict, along with more than 1 million Afghan civilians.
End Of An Empire
Back to top