Find out more about the history of the Soviet Union and the parallel stories of the characters from the documentary My Perestroika.
A History of the Soviet Union
Explore the histories of Borya, Lyuba, Ruslan, Olga and Andrei
In Moscow, Borya, Olga, Andrei, Ruslan and Lyuba join the Octobrists. Octobrist is the name of the Communists’ youth organization for kids between the ages of 7 and 9.
Now in middle school, Borya, Olga, Andrei, Ruslan and Lyuba join the Pioneers, the Soviet youth organization for children in middle grades. The Pioneers wear red neck kerchiefs.
May 21, 1979
Elton John becomes the first Western rock musician to tour the Soviet Union, performing to sold-out crowds. In addition to his own songs, John plays a beloved Russian banquet song and a fragment of a Tchaikovsky concerto. Read More
Photo: Elton John. (Flickr user dubpics via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)
The U.S. Olympic ice hockey team defeats the Soviet hockey team, considered the best team in the world, by a score of 4-3 during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. The U.S. hockey team would go on to win the gold medal. The Soviets took home silver. Read More
Photo: Sports Illustrated Cover, 1980.
The United States boycotts the Summer Olympics in Moscow, protesting Soviet military operations in Afghanistan, which had begun a year earlier. During the Olympics, Soviet children are evacuated from Moscow so that they can avoid contact with foreigners.
Leonoid Brezhnev, the only leader Borya and the other children — now in their teens — have known, dies of a heart attack after 18 years of uninterrupted rule. Yuri Andropov, 68, succeeds him as the leader of the Soviet Union.
Borya, Olga, Andrei, Ruslan and Lyuba join the Komsomol, the youth division of the Communist party for children in upper school grades and young adults. It is assumed that all young people will join the Komsomol, especially since it’s difficult to get into any university or get a good job without having been a member.
Less than two years after taking over leadership of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov dies. He is succeeded by 72-year-old Konstantin Chernenko.
Borya, Ruslan and Andrei, like all young men in the state, are required to do two years of service in the Soviet Army.
September 1, 1984
The First of September, also known as the Day of Knowledge, celebrates the new school year and the incoming class of first graders. Schools hold festive events, and students and parents give teachers flowers.
After just over a year in office, Konstantin Chernenko dies. Mikhail Gorbachev, a youthful 54, becomes the General Secretary of the Communist Party.
With “glasnost” (“openness”), a policy of increased political transparency and greater freedom of information, Gorbachev hopes to revitalize the Soviet Union.
When Borya, Ruslan and Andrei return from the Soviet Army a few months later, they find the USSR significantly changed.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine explodes and releases radiation over Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Gorbachev’s dedication to glasnost is tested as officials fail to protect the people living in those areas or the volunteers who end the fires. While the incident cripples the Soviet economy and is embarrassing for Gorbachev, it further demonstrates how necessary glasnost has become.
Photo: The location of Chernobyl in Ukraine. (Holek via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.5-pl)
A series of political and economic reforms, termed “perestroika” (“reconstruction” or “rebuilding”), is introduced by Gorbachev. The reforms allow multiple candidates to run for the same office and private ownership of businesses. In the short term, these revitalization efforts backfire and lead to widespread food shortages. Perestroika soon becomes a vehicle for Soviets to criticize their society.
June 12, 1987
After abandoning Nixon’s détente strategy in favor of a vigorous anti-communist policy, U.S. president Ronald Reagan implores Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, the most visible symbol of the division between East and West.
Billy Joel stages three shows in Moscow and three shows in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). In Leningrad, 17,500 listeners jump up and down, breaking hundreds of chairs, and then lift Joel and pass him around over their heads. Read More
Photo: Billy Joel’s Live in Leningrad.
Gorbachev and Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons in mutually verifiable ways.
Photo: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
In a cultural exchange, Mr. Rogers appears on a Soviet children’s television program, whose host then appears on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Read More
Photo: Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on PBS.
Gorbachev launches a series of radical reforms designed to loosen the Communist Party’s grip on the government. The highest legislative body of the land, the Supreme Soviet, dissolves itself and is replaced by the Congress of People’s Deputies, which allows ordinary people to participate in government for the first time. Families are glued to their television sets to watch the sessions, during which politicians begin to acknowledge publicly what has previously only been whispered in kitchens.
Pepsi, the first American consumer product sold in the Soviet Union, also becomes the first American brand to air commercials — including ones featuring Michael Jackson — on Soviet Television. In 1988, Soviets buy one billion servings of Pepsi. Read More
Photo: The Pepsi logo in the Soviet Union. (Rones via Wikimedia Commons, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)
Ruslan helps form the punk band NAIV, Borya and Lyuba quit the Komsomol, and Olga gets married.
A series of revolutions sweep across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe, resulting in the collapse of communist governments in Hungry, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania.
November 9, 1989
After the Communist East German government announces that its citizens could travel freely to democratic West Germany, Germans from both sides demolish the Berlin Wall. The fall of the wall leads to German reunification in 1990.
Photo: The Berlin Wall, partly torn down. (Jurek Durczak from Poland (Blast from the past) via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-2.0)
McDonald’s opens its first Soviet restaurant in Moscow, a few blocks from the Kremlin. Hundreds of customers line up to buy Big Macs and milkshakes. Read More
Photo: McDonald’s in Saint Petersburg. (Photo by Dirk Ingo Franke via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA)
March 11, 1990
Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia are among the first Soviet republics to declare independence from the Soviet Union.
March 15, 1990
In the country’s first multiparty elections, Gorbachev is elected the first (and only) president of the Soviet Union. He also continues in his role as general secretary of the Communist Party.
June 12, 1991
Boris Yeltsin handily defeats Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, to become the first president of Russia, the largest of the 15 republics in the USSR.
August 19, 1991
In order to stop the dissolution of the USSR, a faction of Communist hardliners within the Politburo launches a coup, placing Gorbachev under house arrest. During the coup, all television stations in Russia broadcast Swan Lake. Gorbachev is returned to his position, but all power resides with Yeltsin.
Photo: Demonstration in the streets of Moscow during the 1991 coup d’etat attempt.
August 19, 1991
Lyuba, Boris and Ruslan join the crowd of tens of thousands at the Russian White House. These mass demonstrations, along with lack of support from the army, foil the coup.
August 24, 1991
Gorbachev resigns as general secretary of the Communist Party. Within a month, all of the Soviet republics except Russia declare their independence.
Photo: (Jialiang Gao via Wikimedia Commons, GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0)
November 6, 1991
The Communist Party is banned in Russia by Boris Yeltsin.
December 25, 1991
Gorbachev steps down from his position as president of the Soviet Union. The next day the country officially ceases to exist. Russia, the largest former republic, becomes an independent country, and Yeltsin remains president of Russia for the remainder of the decade. Privatization is encouraged, and wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the oligarchs. Corruption runs rampant. New television channels are started, and they broadcast voices critical of the government. More Russians travel abroad than ever before.
Lyuba joins Borya and starts teaching at School #57.
NAIV embarks on a whirlwind European tour.
Mark Meyerson, Lyuba and Borya’s son, is born.
After a family tragedy, Olga starts working at a billiard table company to provide for her son.
December 31, 1999
Plagued by continuing economic problems, as well as accusations of drunkenness, Yeltsin steps down and place Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB (state security) official, in charge. Elections follow shortly thereafter, formalizing the change. Over the next few years, independent television stations are taken over by government or government-run corporations. Putin is re-elected in 2004 with 71 percent of the vote. Under Putin, power is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the central government.
Ruslan quits NAIV, and his son, Nikita, is born in October.
Ruslan and his second wife break up.
Andrei opens his first Café Coton store in Moscow. Within three and a half years, Andrei will have 17 stores in operation across Russia.
At a press conference, Putin declares that new textbooks will be written for teachers to help inspire a new generation of young Russian patriots. This signals a return to state control of the country’s historical narrative.
Putin is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, and selects Dmitry Medvedev to run for president. With television coverage exclusively promoting Medvedev, and several opposition candidates barred from the ballot due to “technical violations,” Medvedev becomes president of Russia and immediately selects Putin as his prime minister. They rule together, although it is generally acknowledged that Putin has a great deal of control.
Photo: (www.kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0)
Note: Video embedded in this timeline is archival and from YouTube, and was not produced by POV, PBS or the filmmakers of My Perestroika.