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20 Years Since The Fall of the Soviet Union

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Twenty years ago, on December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union, declaring the office extinct and dissolving the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), a massive communist empire that had existed since 1922. The USSR had been in a long economic stagnation when Gorbachev came to power in 1985. In order to bring about change, he introduced several reforms, including perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Glasnost opened the floodgates of protest and many republics made moves toward independence, threatening the continued existence of the USSR. In August of 1991, a group of Communist Party hardliners frustrated by the separatist movement attempted to stage a coup. They quickly failed due to a massive show of civil resistance -- but the already-faltering government was destabilized even further by the attempt. By December of 1991, 16 Soviet republics had declared their independence, and Gorbachev handed over power to Russian president Boris Yeltsin, ending the USSR. Collected here are photos from those tumultuous months 20 years ago. Bonus: Memories of photojournalist Alain-Pierre Hovasse, first-hand witness to these events, are collected at the end of this entry. [43 photos]

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A woman reaches into her bag, which rests on a fallen Soviet hammer-and-sickle on a Moscow street in 1991. December 25, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman reaches into her bag, which rests on a fallen Soviet hammer-and-sickle on a Moscow street in 1991. December 25, 2011 will mark the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)
Lithuanians carry Lithuanian flags in the center of Vilnius on January 10, 1990, during demonstration asking for the country's independence. In early 1990, Sajudis-Reform Movement of Lithuania backed candidates won the elections to the Lithuanian Supreme Soviet. On March 11, 1990, the Supreme Soviet proclaimed the re-establishment of Lithuanian independence. The Baltic republics were in forefront of the struggle for independence and Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence. (Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images) #
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, center, in animated conversation with residents of Vilnius, Lithuania, on Thursday, January 11, 1990. Gorbachev was in the Lithuanian capital to press for reversal of the local communist party's decision to split from Moscow and to slow the republic's drive for complete independence. (AP Photo/Victor Yurchenko) #
A crowd blocks the passage of Soviet tanks on a road near Ganja, formerly Kirovabad, in Soviet Azerbaijan, on January 22, 1990. Troops sent into the area last week to quell ethnic violence met both armed and peaceful resistance. (AP Photo) #
People buy teacups in the Vilnius downtown shop on Friday, April 27, 1990. Despite an economic blockade of Lithuania by Soviet forces, shops in Vilnius are well supplied with food and other goods as Lithuania entered the 10th day of a blockade. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic) #
Residents face a cordon of Soviet Interior Ministry troops in front of the local Communist Party Headquarters in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, on February 15, 1990. Soviet authorities declared a state of emergency in the city, following ethnic rioting. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti) #
Two Soviet paratroopers inspect weapons confiscated from a local militia organization in Kaunas, Lithuania on Sunday, March 26, 1990. Soviet President Gorbachev ordered all Lithuanians to surrender their firearms to Soviet authorities. (AP Photo/Vadimir Vyatkin/Novisti) #
Soviet mothers who lost their sons in the Red Army are held back by State militia as they hold photographs of their loved ones in Red Square, on Monday, December 24, 1990. A group of about 200 Soviet parents who have all lost sons through ethnic violence and accidents within the Soviet armed services demonstrated outside the Kremlin. 6,000 Soviet service men were killed during 1990. (AP Photo/Martin Cleaver) #
About 100,000 demonstrators march on the Kremlin in Moscow on January 20, 1991. Many called for the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev protesting against the Soviet army crackdown against the nationalist Lithuanian authorities. Lithuania had been the first Baltic Republic to proclaim its independence in March 1990. (Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images) #
Soviet soldiers patrol an emptied Red Square in Moscow, on March 27, 1991, after the area had been blocked off in anticipation of a pro-Yeltsin rally. (AFP/EPA/Alain-Pierre Hovasse) #
Anti-Soviet political graffiti filled an entire wall in Vilnius on January 17, 1991. The wall surrounding the Lithuanian parliament was erected to defend against a possible raid by Soviet troops. Many Soviet army deserters pinned their draft cards to a defaced poster of President Mikhail Gorbachev. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing) #
In this photo taken on January 13, 1991, a Lithuanian demonstrator runs in front of a Soviet Red Army tank during an assault on the Lithuanian Radio and Television station in Vilnius. Soviet troops opened fire on unarmed civilians in Vilnius, killing 13 people and injuring 100 others. (Stringer/AFP/Getty Images) #
An armed Lithuanian volunteer guard wakes up as his fellow compatriot slept in Vilnius, Lithuania, on January 23, 1991. Hundreds of gunmen held vigil in the heavily fortified Lithuanian parliament while Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev urged all Baltic republics to prevent further violence. (AP Photo/Liu Heung Shing) #
Pall-bearers carry a flag-draped casket during a funeral procession through Vilnius, on January 16, 1991, for 10 of the 13 people killed when Soviet troops stormed the Lithuanian broadcast center the previous weekend. Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians jammed the procession route to mourn their national heroes. (AP Photo) #
Editor's Note: This photograph was discovered to have been manipulated, part of the crowd copied and pasted. Full story here -- Hundreds of thousands of protesters pack Moscow's Manezh Square next to the Kremlin, on March 10, 1991, demanding that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and his fellow Communists give up power. The crowd, estimated at 500,000, was the biggest anti-government demonstration in the 73 years of since the Communists took power, and came a week before the nationwide referendum on Gorbachev's union treaty. (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard) #
A few weeks before the Coup, Mikhail Gorbachev stands surrounded by his so-called friends, all of them soon to be leaders of the August Coup against him. Vice President Gennady Yanayev, second from right, became the most visible of the Coup leaders. Here, they are lighting the flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier outside the Kremlin wall in May of 1991. (AFP/EPA/Alain-Pierre Hovasse) #
Soviet Army tanks parked near Spassky Gate, an entrance to the Kremlin and Basil's Cathedral in Moscow's Red Square after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on August 19, 1991. Tanks rolled through Moscow towards the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin, leader of the Soviet-era Russian republic at the time, gathered his supporters after denouncing the coup. (Dima Tanin/AFP/Getty Images) #
The leaders of the August Coup: from left, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo, Soviet Vice President Gennady Yanayev, and Oleg Baklanov, the first Vice-President of the Soviet Defence Council. These men were members of the self-styled "committee for the state of emergency" which headed the coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Here, they gave a press conference on August 19, 1991 in Moscow. (Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images) #
A crowd gathers around a personnel carrier as some people climb aboard the vehicle and try to block its advance near Red Square in downtown Moscow, on August 19, 1991. Military vehicles were on the streets of Moscow following the announcement that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was replaced by Gennady I. Yanayev in a coup attempt by hard-line Communists. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko) #
Supporters of Russian president Yeltsin roll a large metal pipe to use as a barricade near the Russian federation building in Moscow, on August 19, 1991, following a military coup attempt by Soviet hardliners. (Anatoly Sapronyenkov/AFP/Getty Images) #
Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) stands on top of an armored vehicle parked in front of the Russian Federation building as supporters hold a Russian federation flag on August 19, 1991, during a coup attempt. Yeltsin addressed a crowd of supporters calling for a general strike. (Diane-Lu Hovasse/AFP/Getty Images) #
A picture shows Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev speaking in a video message taped on August 19, 1991, the second day of his captivity. Gorbachev said there had been an unconstitutional coup and that he was completely well. Photo taken on August 25, 1991. (NBC TV/AFP/Getty Images) #
A pro-democracy demonstrator fights with a Soviet soldier on top of a tank parked in front of the Russian Federation building on August 19, 1991, after a coup toppled Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. The same day, thousands in Moscow, Leningrad, and other cities answered Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin's call to raise barricades against tanks and troops. (Dima Tanin/AFP/Getty Images) #
A defiant Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) raises a fist to his supporters from the Russian Federation building in Moscow on August 19, 1991, calling on them to hold a general strike and to resist the pro-communist coup against Soviet President Gorbachev. (Dima Tanin/AFP/Getty Images) #
Over 50,000 people ignore a declared state of emergency and gather in front of the Russian parliament building in order to support Boris Yeltsin, on August 20, 1991. (Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images) #
A pro-democracy demonstrator argues with a Soviet soldier late on August 20, 1991, as a tank blocked access to the center of Moscow. (Andre Durand/AFP/Getty Images) #
Residents play music and talk to soldiers in front of the Russian White House in central Moscow early on August 20, 1991. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images) #
People stand on a barricade in front the Russian White House in Moscow on August 21, 1991. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images) #
A soldier waves a Russian flag from the top of his tank as armored units leave their positions in Moscow following the collapse of the military coup against president Gorbachev on August 21, 1991. Coup leaders fled the capital and president Gorbachev was rumored to be returning soon. (Willy Slingerland/AFP/Getty Images) #
Part of a large crowd, outside the Russian Parliament building in Moscow, celebrates the news that the hardline Communist coup has failed, on August 22, 1991. (AP Photo) #
Celebrations in Moscow after the failure of the coup attempt, and remembrances of those killed in the violence, in August of 1991. (AFP/EPA/Alain-Pierre Hovasse) #
A crowd watches the statue of KGB founder Dzerzhinsky being toppled in Lubyanskaya Square in Moscow, on August 22, 1991. (Anatoly Sapronenkov/AFP/Getty Images) #
President Mikhail Gorbachev, in the Soviet Parliament right after his return from being under house arrest during the August, 1991 coup. (AFP/EPA/Alain-Pierre Hovasse) #
People follow a funeral procession for the victims of the coup in front of Russian White House in Moscow on August 24, 1991, after the coup attempt failed. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images) #
A group of Boris Yeltsin supporters rip apart one of the barricades surrounding the Russian federation building in Moscow, on August 25, 1991, following a coup attempt a few days before that eventually failed. (Alain-Pierre Hovasse/AFP/Getty Images) #
A Baku resident uses an axe to hack apart a placard showing a portrait of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin, on September 21, 1991. Azerbaijan was proclaimed a Soviet Socialist Republic by Soviet Union in 1920. The Azeri National Council voted for its declaration of independence in 1991. (Anatoly Sapronenkov/AFP/Getty Images) #
A member of the KGB (right) who requested anonymity hands over his weapon to a Lithuanian official before leaving the KGB headquarters in Vilnius after Lithuanian government decided to drop the Soviet secret service organization, on August 31, 1991. (Stephan Bentura/AFP/Getty Images) #
Soviet rock fans attend a concert in Moscow on September 28, 1991. Half a million people jammed an airfield to see the Monsters of Rock concert featuring AC/DC, Pantera and Metallica at the Soviet Union's biggest Western rock concert, touted as a gift to Russian youth for their resistance to last month's coup. (AP Photo/Massimo Alabresi) #
A young Lithuanian girl sits on the toppled statue of Russian Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin in Vilnius after the monument was removed from the center of the Lithuanian capital, on September 1, 1991. (Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images) #
A jubilant Chechen secessionist with clenched fists opens his arms to the crowd during a rally in Grozny, on November 14, 1991, to celebrate the pullout of Soviet troops from the Muslim enclave in Southern Russia. (AP Photo) #
Citizens of the Ukraine vote on a referendum for independence from the Soviet Union at the Ukraine Embassy in Moscow, on December 1, 1991. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko) #
The Musichick family watches Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's resignation speech on Soviet television in their downtown Moscow apartment, on December 25, 1991. Gorbachev, whose reforms gave Soviet citizens freedom but ultimately led to the destruction of his nation resigned on as President of a Communist empire that no longer exists. (AP Photo/Sergei Kharpukhin) #
For one of the last times, the Soviet flag flies over the Kremlin at Red Square in Moscow, on Saturday night, December 21, 1991. The flag was replaced by the Russian flag on New Year's. (AP Photo/Gene Berman) #

My friend Alain-Pierre Hovasse is a photojournalist who was based in Moscow in August of 1991, and was a firsthand witness to many of the historic events - six of the photos above were taken by him. I asked if he'd be interested in sharing some observations from that time, happily he agreed and has shared his memories here:

In 1991, I was hired away from Reuters in London to be Chief Photographer for the Agence France Presse and the European Press Agency in Moscow. It was perestroika (restructuring) under Gorbachev's tenure in the USSR; changes had been taking place since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other Soviet satellites in 1989, and AFP had until then no permanent photographer in Moscow.

Two weeks after I arrived, the biggest spontaneous political gathering since the Revolution took place near Red Square. These were pro-Yeltsin people, a few months before the very first democratic elections took place in the history of Russia and the USSR elected him president of the Russian Federation and put him on a collision course with Gorbachev. It wasn't always easy knowing what to cover and how, and my only assistant was a really bad KGB-apppointed photo stringer whose only claim to fame was to be the illegitimate grandchild of Lenin's French mistress! There was a great team of AFP reporters at the time, however, and little by little I began to hire local photographers and train them from scratch as events unfolded.

Sending photos back to Paris had to be done through the only international phone line our office was allowed to have, and since the correspondents used it as well, there was always a certain amount of delay. For assignments outside of Moscow, photographers simply had to fly back the same day with their film.

Although there was plenty going on, mostly the political movement took place out of sight, and I did a lot of features to show how Moscovites lived and the rapid changes taking place. Moscow was relatively quiet that summer. Most correspondents were away on holiday and on Monday morning, August 17, I woke up to the BBC World Service announcing a Coup against Gorbachev and a certain mobilization of troops. I sprang out of bed, grabbed my cameras and started driving around town looking for activity, of which there was very little. Finally, around 9 in the morning, a line of armed personnel carriers parked on a quiet street. Then a line of tanks crossed a bridge across from the Russian Parliament, and crowds started to gather. It was a photographer's dream and as my apartment was right next door to the Parliament, I had front row seats to the events. I took a lot of photos, and knowing that Paris would be anxious for some early photos, I raced off to the office to file them.

My wife had been standing outside our apartment when she saw Yeltsin emerge from the building and climb on top of one of the tanks. Her snapshot of the event became one of the iconic images of the coup, showing the courage of the Russian leader refusing to surrender to the aging and inept Soviet cabal supposedly in charge.

The next few days were a blur, as hundreds of people gathered around the Parliament amid rumours of counter-coups, army and air attacks, and so on. It was all quite tense and I had by then flown my pregnant wife back to London. No one knew what would take place. The tank commanders, initially placed to protect the coup itself, had quickly changed their allegiance to Yeltsin and so "protected" the White House. The leaders of the coup, all so-called "friends" of Gorbachev, were inept and disorganized and the whole thing fell apart quickly. Yeltsin's appearance on the tank, and his general pugnacious nature, really shifted a lot of popular opinion to him.

A few days later as the coup collapsed, Gorbachev came back but really miscalculated the significance of the event, and Yeltsin took advantage of his growing popular support to consolidate his power. I took hundreds of photos at the Russian Parliament nearby and the Soviet parliament across town in the Kremlin. We really had a notion that life here was changing dramatically, almost every day. Being a child of the Cold War, I remember feeling elated and privileged to be there at that time, to witness the apparent demise of this repressive political regime.

Before the coup, Yeltsin's photographer, Dima would come by once in a while to sell me photos. On the day of the Coup however, I had an idea of putting him on exclusive contract with me, something he readily accepted since TASS, his agency, tended to bury all Yeltsin photos. But it was obvious that Yeltsin's star was rising fast, and having open access to him would be a good thing!

From the coup onwards, the job was 24/7 and my crew grew to around a dozen very able local stringers. It was such a big story. We covered everything and Paris was very, very happy. I was in the Kremlin the day Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party, which was pretty momentous. The Soviet Union was falling apart, with conflicts and protests in the Ukraine, Georgia, Abkhazia, and many other places. We covered as much as we could and by the fall and winter of that year, food was in short supply. The ruble was nearly worthless. The major concern from the world's major powers was over control of the huge Soviet nuclear arsenal, and I sat countless times in Gorbachev's private office while various world leaders and their representatives came to offer help and get reassurances.

On Dec 25, Gorbachev signed the decree finally dissolving the USSR, and I watched as he read his speech in the Kremlin. This was a key moment, of course, but Gorbachev's relations with Yeltsin had gotten worse, and he failed to announce a peaceful transfer of power to Yeltsin, which was the moment we had all been waiting for. Yelstin was nowhere to be found, but as I stepped out of the Kremlin, I saw that the Russian flag had replaced the Soviet flag over the Kremlin. One of my stringers had caught the moment of transfer earlier that night, which won us a double page in Time magazine.

Later that night, Yeltsin's photographer called around midnight to offer me photos of Yeltsin sitting with General Shaposhnikov, the new head of the Russian Armed Forces (he had prevented an air attack on the Russian White House during the August Coup, and had been well rewarded) along with a couple of KGB experts being shown the famous briefcase which controlled the nuclear arsenal. This was a huge scoop and the two photos were played worldwide.

-- Alain-Pierre Hovasse

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