The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

6
1991: The End of the Empire

1991--the Soviet empire's last year--began with the bloody events in Vilnius, where, on January 13, Soviet paratroopers attacked a television station and killed fourteen people. This attack was undoubtedly a rehearsal for a widespread crackdown on democratic forces across the country, which was to be accompanied by the restoration of totalitarian rule. Other actions by Gorbashev--including appointing Valentin Pavlov as prime minister and Boris Pugo as minister of internal affairs--provided additional evidence of Gorbashev's movement toward the right. The conservatives used the Gulf crisis to launch a frontal attack against Gorbashev's foreign policy, denouncing it as capitulation before the West and as a betrayal of the Soviet Union's vital interests. The conservative offensive was in full swing, apparently with Gorbashev's active participation.

However, Gorbashev seriously underestimated the public's angry reaction to his move toward the right. Residents of several cities took to the streets to support the Lithuanian independence movement and denounce Gorbachev. In a February 17 television interview, Yeltsin went so far as to demand Gorbashev's resignation.

In an attempt to destroy Yeltsin, who had emerged as the opposition movement's leader, Gorbashev arranged an attack against Yeltsin from inside the Russian parliament. Gorbashev's goal was to strip Yeltsin of his position as chairman at the next session of the Russian Congress of People's Deputies. On March 27, the eve of the session, Gorbashev ordered tanks into Moscow and positioned them around the Kremlin palace. Although his intention was to pressure and intimidate the deputies, Gorbashev's actions only strengthened Yeltsin, who received additional powers from the Congress.

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