Mikhail Gorbachev Resigns, 1991

In the aftermath of the revolutions of 1989, as formerly Marxist–Leninist states of Central and Eastern Europe held multi-party elections resulting in regime changes, the Soviet Union itself was accelerating towards its demise. The Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev refused to send in troops to Eastern Europe and Germany and agreed to a German reunification.

In July 1990, despite harsh criticisms from the hardliners, Gorbachev was re-elected the leader of the Soviet Communist Party with the support of three-quarters of delegates present. A year later, the hardliners staged an abortive coup, after which the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all Communist Party activity, effectively ending communist rule in the Soviet Union. Leaders of the constituent countries within the Soviet Union started planning their exits.

By 20 December 1991, the leaders of all those countries except Georgia had signed up to an agreement to dismantle the Soviet Union.

On December 24, the AP’s Moscow photo chief, Liu Heung Shing received a call, inviting him to the Kremlin the following evening for a live televised address. On the Chri stmas Day, he and a crew led by CNN President Tom Johnson went to the Kremlin.

Liu took his position under a TV camera tripod and a KGB guard sternly warned him not to take any pictures during Gorbachev’s speech so that the click of his camera’s shutter wouldn’t disturb the live broadcast. Liu agreed, but decided that he would take an image of Gorbachev putting down his speech at the end of the address. He could not use a flash and opted for a slow shutter speed.

Gorbachev formally announced his resignation as Soviet president and Commander-in-Chief, and once the speech was over and Gorbachev closed the folder containing it, Liu took a photo. He recalled: “As soon as I took that one picture the KGB guard standing on my left behind the camera … punched me through the tripod. But it didn’t hurt really bad.”

Eager to process the film and send it out, Liu ran down the Kremlin, past hundreds of journalists still waiting to get in: “I heard them all screaming four-letter words to me and sticking middle fingers up in the air, but I just kept running. I went straight to my car and I saw the Soviet Union’s flag coming down and the Russian flag, the Russian Federation flag, went up and I was driving madly to go back to the bureau.”

He did not even realized whether his image was sharp or in focus due to the slow shutter speed. But the photo turned out ok and the photo appeared on front page many newspapers around the world the following day (some other papers used Liu’s earlier shots before the speech, where Gorbachev was checking his speech). That day, 26 December, the Soviet of the Republics, the upper house of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, formally voted the country out of existence.

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