25 Photos Showing the Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Mikhail Gorbachev, head of the Communist party from 1985 to 1991, is a reforming politician who introduces policies of perestroika and glasnost (restructuring and openness) at the 27th party congress in 1986.

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Margaret Thatcher declares that Gorbachev is someone she ‘can do business’ with. As Politburo member he is invited to Chequers to meet the British cabinet in December 1984.

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Gorbachev visits Sofia in Bulgaria in October 1985, as part of a tour to gain support for his reforms both inside and outside the USSR.

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US president Ronald Reagan and Gorbachev during a historic fireside chat in a Geneva boat house on 19 November 1985. This is followed by the Reykjavik summit in 1986, culminating in a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in December 1987.

Photograph: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Gorbachev talks to potato farmers during a visit to the Zavorov collective farm near Moscow in August 1987.

Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

Signs of nationalism emerge in Kazakhstan in 1986 and quickly spread to other Soviet states. In August 1987, Estonians demonstrate against the Molovtov-Ribbentrop pact which allowed the Soviet Union to annex the three Baltic countries.

Photograph: Andrey Solovyov/AFP/Getty Images

The Soviet-Afghan war ends in May 1988, signaled warming relations between America and the USSR.

Photograph: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Gorbachev’s reforms fail to revive the economy and menial jobs are found to keep people employed.

Photograph: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty Images

The final years of the USSR are plagued by empty grocery stores, queues for food and widespread shortages.

Photograph: Gennady Galperin/Reuters

On 9 November 1989, protesters pull down the Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany.

Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex Features

In December 1989 Czechoslovakia forms a non-Communist government and begins to dismantle divisions between the East and West.

Photograph: Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images

January 1990 and the demand for independence has spread to Baku in Azerbaijan.

Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

A state of emergency is declared in Dushande, Tajikstan, in February 1990.

Photograph: Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

A pro-independence rally is held in Lvov in Ukraine in February 1990.

Photograph: Chris Niedenthal/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Lithuania declares independence in March 1990. In January 1991, Soviet forces move into the center of Vilnius, killing 13 people.

Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In Bulgaria, protesters set fire to the Communist party headquarters during a demonstration on 26 August 1990.

Photograph: Reuters

Gorbachev is booed during the May Day parade in 1990. Popular among reformists, his policies have split the country and greater freedoms allow regular demonstrations by opponents.

Photograph: Andre Durand/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-reform hardliners stage a military coup while Gorbachev is on holiday in Crimea, culminating in the early hours of 20 August 1991 when tanks are sent into central Moscow.

Photograph: Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

Rallies in support of Gorbachev and against the coup plotters, the State Committee on the State of Emergency (known as the Gang of Eight), are held across Russia, including in Leningrad.

Photograph: Alexander Demianchuk/Reuter

In Moscow, pro-democracy demonstrators try to turn the army.

Photograph: Dima Tanin/AFP/Getty Images

Three people die during the three-day coup and their funeral is attended by thousands.

Photograph: Dimitri Korotayev/AFP/Getty Images

Gorbachev’s then ally, Boris Yeltsin, has set himself up in the White House, seat of the Russian government. He helps defeat the coup by leading the Moscow protests and calling for a general strike.

Photograph: Andre Durand/AFP/Getty Images

Gorbachev, who has been forced to remain at his dacha in the Crimea, returns to Moscow.

Photograph: Stephane Bentura/AFP/Getty Images

Although he survives the August coup, Gorbachev’s political career is over. On 25 December 1991 he announces his resignation on television and by the end of the year the USSR has collapsed. Yeltsin, his former friend turned nemesis, remains as head of the Russian Federation.

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