On this day in 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announces that he is resigning as president of the Soviet Union.
In truth, there was not much of a Soviet Union from which to resign–just four days earlier, 11 of the former Soviet republics had established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), effectively dismembering the USSR. The Soviet Union, for all intents and purposes, had already ceased to exist.
In his farewell speech to the nation, Gorbachev indicated that the recent establishment of the CIS was the primary motive for his resignation, claiming he was “concerned about the fact that the people in this country are ceasing to become citizens of a great power and the consequences may be very difficult for all of us to deal with.”
In words that were sometimes prideful, sometimes resentful, Gorbachev stated that he stood on his record of achievement. He had, he claimed, overseen the Soviet Union’s trip down the “road of democracy.” His reforms “steered” the communist economy “toward the market economy.” He declared that the Russian people were “living in a new world” in which an “end has been put to the Cold War and to the arms race.” Admitting “there were mistakes made,” Gorbachev remained adamant that he “never had any regrets” about the policies he pursued.
In reality, Gorbachev had lost much of his power and prestige in the Soviet Union even before the establishment of the CIS. The economy was unstable. No one seemed pleased by Gorbachev-some opponents demanded even more political freedom while hard-liners in his government opposed any movement toward reform.
In August 1991, he survived a coup attempt only through the assistance of Russian Federation president Boris Yeltsin. Following the failed attempt, Yeltsin became a vocal critic of the slow pace of economic and political reforms in the country.
As Gorbachev’s power slipped away, Yeltsin took over the Kremlin and other Soviet government facilities and replaced the Soviet flag with the flag of Russia. After over 70 years of existence, the Soviet Union-America’s archenemy in the Cold War-was gone.