When the red flag bearing the hammer and sickle was thrown to the ground in a crowd, it was an action rich in symbolism, the flag of a nation which at times had drawn taught, tensions with the west. Twenty years ago it signalled the end of the USSR and the birth of Russia.
It became a political reality on December 8th 1991 in Minsk. Boris Yeltsin, President of Russia and his counterparts from Belarus and Ukrainian signed the dissolution of the union and created in the USSR’s wake the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Baltic states had become independent in September, in December all of the USSR was dissolved. Fifteen Soviet republics became independent and 11 constituted the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Baltic countries remained outside the bloc.
One man is seen to be responsible for the vast and at one time unimaginable changes — Mikhael Gorbachev. He came to power in 1985 with a comprehensive plan for reform to save the economy. The word perestroika, which means re-structuring, resonated around the world. With it came a new style and young reformers including Boris Yeltsin.
The politics and personalities of the two men were not easy bedfellows and Yeltsin began to emerge as one of Gorbachev’s most powerful opponents. Critics said reforms were not happening quickly enough. Yeltsin began to take centre stage and became the first president of Russia in 1991.
The old order had staged a coup against Gorbachev aiming to restore the Communist power structure before the fall of the USSR. Boris Yeltsin seized his moment in Moscow, his image atop a tank calling on the people to resist left an indelible mark on history. He became a popular hero. Gradually he took over in the Russian Federation, with control over the media and key industries.
Returning from a trip to the Crimea where he had been held for a number of days by rebels Gorbachev knew his time was up and on Christmas Day in 1991 resigned.
Twenty years later, Mikhael Gorbachev has taken his place in history. Yeltsin has gone, his successor Vladimir Putin, though still largely popular, is facing protests.
“We do not have a real democracy and we will not have it if the government is afraid of their people, afraid to say things openly, to prove their point and to suggest their projects,” said Mikhael Gorbachev.
Twenty years on and in this week’s elections the Communists became the second most powerful party in Russia with almost 20 percent of the vote, that is nearly double from what it achieved four years ago. Is it nostalgia for the past or a vote for change? The Russians still seem to find the path between past and future.