Many trace the evolution of the collapse of the Soviet Union to the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. Throughout his tenure, Gorbachev introduced dramatic reforms. which included pulling the country out of the Afghanistan War, providing better access to information for the general public, and instituting major economic changes. At the international level, he deeply altered the USSR's relationship with the West, effectively ending the Cold War. Gorbachev himself has stated repeatedly that it was never his intention to bring an end to the Soviet Union. He only wanted to solve problems that he felt were putting the country in peril. Over time, however, some of these reforms took on lives of their own. With a much less restricted press, and improved rights to free speech, the culture of the country was changing. Intense conflict arose between the younger and older generations over the future direction of the country. Economic reforms brought severe financial hardship to millions, which in turn created even more internal conflict. Furthermore, at the same time Gorbachev was implementing his strategy of gradual reform, another political force came into play in the figure of Boris Yeltsin, who bluntly pushed for more radical reforms than Gorbachev was prepared to enact. Over the years, the Yeltsin-Gorbachev conflict became a seriously destabilizing factor. Finally, at the very end of the1980s, several Soviet republics began openly pushing for independence.
All of these issues came to a head with the attempted coup of August 19, 1991, in which a group of eight Communist hardliners attempted to take over the country. The coup, failed after three days, and over the coming months, the Soviet Union devolved rapidly. Gorbachev lost political influence while Yeltsin steadily Gained influence.
In 1985, Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR. In that same year, Gorbachev proted Boris Yeltsin to head the Moscow City Council (equivalent to being mayor of the city). Over the next 2-3 years Gorbachev began instituting political and economic reforms under the slogans Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness). During the same period Yeltsin began to criticize Gorbachev for not being radical enough in his reforms. Eventually, in 1987, Yeltsin was fired for insubordination. A year later, in 1988, Gorbachev announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
In 1989, it became more evident that changes were accelerating into revolutionary territory. Eastern European states began overthrowing Communist rule, and Gorbachev announced that the USSR would not intervene. In the meantime, Yeltsin was gaining power, first by being elected to the new Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, and then as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1990. Yeltsin was now a serious rival to Gorbachev for power.
In 1990, Lithuania declared its independence, beginning the breakup of the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1991, a nationwide referendum was held in the USSR in which 78% of voters supported the idea of a more loosely defined Soviet Union, in which republics were officially granted the right to secede. In June, 1991, Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.
In 1991, there was a coup attempt by Communist Party hardliners which failed after only three days. Yeltsin emerged as a hero. Four months, on December 21, latermost of the Soviet republics agreed to the dissolution of the USSR at the Alma Ata Protocol. On December 25, Gorbachev resigned his post at the Kremlin, handing over power to Yeltsin. The next day, the Supreme Soviet met for the final time and voted to disolve itself.
The collapse of the Soviet Union had profound effects for the country's citizens. During the Yeltsin years, Russians experienced greater freedom than at any other time in their history. For a time there was nearly complete freedom of the press, and of religion. Small enterprises began to prosper, and there was a great deal of investment in Russian from other countries. At the same time, it was a period of extreme corruption, in which organized crime flourished and spread almost unchecked. Those who benefited from the privatization of state-owned enterprises moved much of their wealth out of the country, which resulted in a near collapse of the Russian economy in 1998. In turn, foreign investors fled, and Yeltsin lost his credibility. In 2000, Yeltsin resigned and appointed Vladimir Putin as his temporary successor. Putin was later elected and served as President until 2008, during which time he successfully fought internal corruption, but at the cost of many of the freedoms Russians had enjoyed under Yeltsin.
The breakup of the USSR was an event of great significance around the world. It was generally welcomed in the West, and was seen as the final act of the Cold War. It drastically changed the balance of power in the world, eliminating the bipolar spheres of influence of the US and the USSR that had existed since the 1950s. It also opened the path for the formation of the European Union, and an increased prominence for Europe in general. NATO eventually began expanding by admitting a number of Eastern European countries. Initially, Russia was seen as an excellent place for foreign business investment, and a huge amount of activity was seen in this sphere during the early and mid 1990s. Russia also began to develop its natural resources, particularly oil and natural gas, and eventually would become a primary supplier of these products to Europe.
Geographically, the Soviet Union was transformed from a single country into 15 independent countries. Some of these nations, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, joined in a loose union called The Commonwealth of Independent States. Others, such as Georgia and the three Baltic states, chose complete independence. Russia inherited the Soviet Union's permanent position on the UN Security Council. Many of the nations of Eastern Europe shifted alliances from East to West. Indeed, many of them have become members of the European Union and of NATO. As a result, Russia has felt itself increasingly isolated, which has created new tensions with the West.