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Cayla Delardi

Understanding the Collapse of the Soviet Union and its Historical Significance

The December 1991 collapse of the USSR is one of the most shocking and monumental
events not only of the 20th century, but in all of history. Brought on by the increasingly stagnant
economy under Mikhail Gorbachev, who seemed to be more concerned with tearing down
Stalinism and maintaining an image of true communism than with making long-term reforms,
and the stress of 10 years and millions of rubles spent fighting Afghanistan in the Cold War, the
fall reshaped the new Russian economy, and, more importantly, the global economy at large.
From the ashes of the Soviet Union rose 15 independent countries, including Ukraine, Estonia,
Lithuania, and, of course, Russia. Several of its former allies, like Cuba and Vietnam, quickly
slipped into a recession when their valuable trade lines were cut off. It also made the United
States of America the only superpower left standing, and allowed for the rise of China, who
would attempt to become the worlds second largest superpower. Essentially, it transformed the
international power system from bipolar to unipolar, and eventually gave way for the era of
globalization.
While it is difficult to pinpoint an undisputed, exact date that set off the collapse of the
Soviet Union, one of the most commonly looked to moments is the end of Nikita Khrushchevs
leadership and start of the Brezhnev era. Nikita Khrushchev, who took over control of the USSR
after Stalins death, maintained more or less the same stranglehold on the Union as his
predecessor for the short time he was in office, though he was considerably less murderous. This
is because Khrushchev had what comparative politics specialist Professor Valerie Bunce calls a
Jacksonian theory of governing, wherein he believed that conflict and heightened competition

was a viable way to transform the system.1 Leonid Brezhnev on the other hand, who became
General Secretary of the Communist Party after Khrushchevs resignation in 1964, was
essentially the opposite; he believed in minimal conflict, security, and moderate policy reforms.

Brezhnevs USSR: The Soviet-Afghan War and Impending Economic Crisis


If Leonid Brezhnevs goal was to remain moderate and not radically change (or thereby
improve upon) any aspects of the former government, he certainly succeeded. In his 20 years as
General Secretary, he did not implement any major domestic reforms, which effectively led to
what Gorbachev would later call the Era of Stagnation in the 1980s. Even the exact causes for
this era in Soviet history are much debated, but one theory is that as the push towards industrial
labor increased, the demand for unskilled workers in government owned factories and mines
grew steadily into the 1980s, and this caused a significant decline in productivity and a shortage
of capital.2 There was also push towards military expenditure, especially with the impending
occupation of Afghanistan which would cost the Union millions of rubles and a stir of discontent
among Soviet citizens.
In 1979, the Soviet Union made a decision to begin an occupation of Afghanistan for
several reasons, one being that the regime in Afghanistan was, upon evaluation by the Politburo,
on its way towards becoming anti-communist and pro-Western, which the USSR saw as a threat
that they sought to prevent by intervening. They were essentially hoping to overthrow the
Afghan government and replace it with a leader of their choice, all while keeping the Peoples
Democratic Party of Afghanistan (or PDPA) strong, as they were a pro-Soviet orthodox socialist
1 Valerie

Bunce, The Political Economy of the Brezhnev Era: The Rise and Fall of
Corporatism, British Journal of Political Science 13.02 (1983), 136.
2 Howard J. Sherman, Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union. International Journal of
Political Economy, 24.01 (Spring, 1994), 5-18.

party.3 Brezhnev also simply wanted the current leader, Amin Hafizullah, out of power for
personal reasons, because it was under his regime that an important PDPA leader whom
Brezhnev was fond of was murdered. All of these factors ultimately lead up to Brezhnev and a
few other Politburo members making the hasty decision to begin what they thought would be a
quick intervention of Afghanistan. While the initial goal of ousting Amin and placing in a new
leader, Babrak Karmal, was achieved, this did not have the effect that Brezhnev thought it would
because the entire party system was not reorganized. Basically, it operated in the same way it
had pre-intervention, only with a new person at the top. Only a year into the occupation many
Soviet officials were showing signs of doubt about their plans, because they saw that this would
not be as fast of a job as they thought it would be and that their political reforms were not going
according to plan, yet they remained in the country well beyond Brezhnevs death. Because they
had no timetable for military withdrawal to present to the UN in 1983, negotiations could not be
furthered and Brezhnevs successor, Yuri Andropov, and then Konstantin Chernenko after him,
were unable to make any strides in completing their goals, and instead only increased the amount
of military personnel that they sent over. At this point, they were pouring money and time into a
reform effort that nearly all recognized as hopeless, but still no one could make the decision to
end it. That was, until Gorbachev came to power. By the time Gorbachev became General
Secretary and managed to work past several large complications to pull their troops out of
Afghanistan, 10 years had gone by and a lot of negativity surrounding the occupation was
stirring at home- negativity that was ultimately detrimental to the Soviet Unions preservation. It
seems that aside from costing a lot of money that the Soviet Union could not afford to expend
with its domestic economy already on the decline, the occupation of Afghanistan also made
3 Fred

Halliday, "Soviet Foreign Policymaking and the Afghanistan War: From 'Second
Mongolia' to 'Bleeding Wound'" Review of International Studies 25.4 (1999), 678.

Soviet citizens question the efficiency of their military, the ability of advances of socialism both
in other countries and their own country, and the concept of internationalization namely in
countries that they felt little personal connections to, and thus simply cared very little about.4
This critical shift in attitudes from generally supportive to overwhelmingly oppositional
ultimately aided in the fall of the Union.

The 1973 Recession and the Burdening Dependence of the East Bloc
During Brezhnevs time in office, the Union also saw a close relationship between
domestic and international affairs and a dependence on economics for political strength and
stability. The global recession of the mid-70s was the most important test of just how dangerous
those relationships were, and yielded undesirable results.
In 1973, the West saw an end to the post-WWII economic boom, and due to an oil crisis
and increasing competition from the East, it landed itself in a depression that would initially last
for only 2 years, but would see a swift return again in the 1980s. The effects of the recession
were not strictly limited to the West, though, because inflation and increasing national debts
caused a trade imbalance in the East Bloc, which was then made up of the Soviet Union, Poland,
Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Essentially, the depression
completely severed crucial Soviet trade ties to the West. As Valerie Bunce succinctly states,
The global recession of the mid-1970s and again in the later 1970s directly and
indirectly cut deeply into soviet economic growth, by closing down western
markets for soviet goods, diminishing the supply of low-interest western capital and trade

4 Halliday, "Soviet

Foreign Policymaking and the Afghanistan War: From 'Second Mongolia' to


'Bleeding Wound', 689.

credits, and forcing the soviet union to shoulder in the process not just their economic
burdens, but also those of their client states. 5
Although the Western economy saw some growth in the mid 70s, trade deficits were still in place
and inflation was still extremely high, and the Soviet Union was feeling the burden of their client
states more than ever. To put the severity of the situation into perspective, it has been calculated
that the Unions debt to the West grew to nearly the equivalent of 100 billion current US dollars,
and their total subsidies to the other parts of the bloc reached almost 10 billion (current US)
dollars.6 It is clear that the almost inseparable ties Brezhnev made between domestic politics and
economic growth is what put the Union into such serious debt, because even though this
recession began in the West, depending so heavily on an international market that is subject to
radical shift creates a huge potential for failure and collapse. The instability of the global
economy and the fracturing of trade deals not only hurt the economy for the Soviet Union and its
satellite states, but it also increased tensions between the East and West. The Unions competition
with the United States for World Superpowerdom was increasingly costly, and its higher
international standing clearly did not prove as fruitful as was necessary to keep the Union strong,
both economically and politically. The war between these nations also drew much-needed
attention away from important domestic issues as foreign policies took the main focus. Overall,
the Soviet economy was steadily declining as domestic demands increased and could still not be
met, and as the focus on production moved more towards the industrial and away from the
agricultural without a full financial commitment to the technological equipment needed for such
a shift.

5 Bunce,
6 Bunce,

51.

The Political Economy of the Brezhnev Era: The Rise and Fall of Corporatism, 149.
The Political Economy of the Brezhnev Era: The Rise and Fall of Corporatism, 150-

Gorbachevs Vision of Communism, Radical Policies, and International


Acclaim
After Brezhnevs death in 1982 and his short-lived successors deaths, Yuri Andropov and
Konstantin Chernenko in 1984 and 1985 respectively, Soviet officials realized they needed
someone young who would stay in power for a long time and would uphold their communist
policies. They found all of this in Mikhail Gorbachev, who, at a comparatively young age of 54,
would become General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985 and see the Union through to
its last day. One of the most appealing things about Gorbachev was that he was considered both
a party man and a revolutionary; he was very familiar with the workings of the Communist party
from his time as a Politburo member, but he also believed that bold, measured reforms would
create a stronger Soviet Union. He also saw the gap between the government and society as the
largest issue in the USSR, which had hardly been a concern in previous authoritarian rule where
those in power were far too wrapped up in keeping their own privileges and monopolies to
consider giving any power to the masses. Gorbachev, in contrast, wanted to give the people of
the Union more of a voice because he felt that they held all of the the intellectual knowledge and
widest variety of skills, and would come to reflect this in his policies much to the surprise of his
constituents. At first, Gorbachev was supported even by the Politburos hardline conservatives,
because no one thought he was actually going to carry out the reforms that he spoke of, and
instead believed that he would, as all other leaders had, eventually continue in the same pattern
of policymaking and governing as his predecessors. The rest of the East Bloc was eager to back
him because they were in a crisis so they were willing to pursue more radical options because
they felt that things couldnt get much worse. Finally, the West was also happy with Gorbachevs

radical policies because by signing agreements with the USA like the nuclear disarmament
agreement, it proved to the West that they had won their long-standing competition.
What all would soon come to realize, though, is that Gorbachev merely had a vision, but
not a concrete plan. Essentially, he knew what kind of USSR he didnt want, but didnt know
exactly what he did want, let alone how to go about getting it. He also admitted to having no
knowledge of economics or the severity of national tensions within the Bloc, which would have a
large hand in his downfall. In terms of policy, he wanted to boost the economy at home, tear
down the remaining pillars of Stalinism, and improve the Soviet Unions international image,
which led him to implement 2 main reform strategies: glasnost and perestroika. Glasnost was
Gorbachevs way of democratizing and liberalizing the Union. This meant free speech and no
more heavy censorship, and was ultimately meant to improve his image with the public and
maintain their trust. Perestroika was the bureaucratic restructuring plan that would decentralize
the economy, dismantle the monopolies, and move towards more of a free market system. This
was the policy that had conservatives most worried, because since they were paid comparatively
little to Western politicians, their unique privileges and monopolies were the most beneficial
aspects of their positions, and they were not willing to compromise them. In an effort to convince
both the Soviet people and the conservatives that his reforms were beneficial and logical,
Gorbachev said of perestroika,
And solidarity is a universal value which is becoming indispensable for progress and for
the survival of humankind. But a modern state has to be worthy of solidarity, in other
words, it should pursue, in both domestic and international affairs, policies that bring
together the interests of its people and those of the world community. This task, however
obvious, is not a simple one. Life is much richer and more complex than even the most

perfect plans to make it better. It ultimately takes vengeance for attempts to impose
abstract schemes, even with the best of intentions. Perestroika has made us understand
this about our past, and the actual experience of recent years has taught us to reckon
with the most general laws of civilization.7
It was his own democratizing policies like glasnost and perestroika, though, that quickly brought
major issues to light and eventually had a hand in his downfall. Because the people of the Union
were suppressed for so long under the previous governments which enforced heavy censorship
laws, they took full advantage of their new freedom of speech. Most notably, there was ample
discussion in the media and in public sector about the effectiveness of Gorbachevs current
government as well as Stalin and Lenins previous regimes. In these discussions, people began
to undermine Lenin, who Gorbachev openly revered, and because of this it seemed that the
Communist party (called the Bolsheviks in Lenins time) and the Soviet Union at large had no
real basis or purpose for existing. To undermine Lenins work was essentially to undermine the
entire existence of the Union, and it was this lack of appreciation and respect for the past that is a
large part of why the USSR was destined to fail. Gorbachevs own propaganda about what true
communism was and his speeches in favor of Lenin caused people to further speak out in
opposition to him too, because they were hearing so much about the past and not enough about
long-term, concrete future reforms or even current domestic progress. This was something that
Gorbachev never imagined as a result of his own policies, and he became increasingly frustrated
with his position. Not only was the public and eventually Gorbachev himself frustrated with
how little progression the Union was seeing, the conservatives were also frustrated with his
policies, because, as previously stated, they remained completely against giving up their absolute
power and authority. For this reason, Gorbachev was constantly trying to compromise with them
7

"Nobel Lecture." Mikhail Gorbachev. N.p., n.d.

and with the liberal progressives, showing just how often he was made to switch from a radical
progressive to a more complacent party man.
Now equipped with the power of free speech, the people of the Union were soon given
their first real taste of democracy and free elections, because in 1998, they were able to vote on
representatives for Congress. The votes caused general discontent and a push for democratic
reform, which led most people to vote for Boris Yeltsin, a man whom Gorbachev had demoted
after openly opposing him and his perestroika plan, and give him back a vital congressional seat.
This was yet another example of Gorbachevs reforms working against him in ways he had never
imagined, and truly marked the beginning of the end of his good political standing at home.
But while the domestic economy continued to decline because of too little large-scale
reform and Gorbachevs image with his people declined too, his foreign policy expanded
seemingly for the better, rising him to an acclaimed international standing. The very next year
after the congressional elections, Gorbachev announced that he was ending Soviet intervention in
Eastern Europe and effectively drawing the Warsaw Pact into obsolescence, which led Poland
and other neighboring countries to hold free elections instead of continuing with a communist
regime. It was Polands first free election that brought down the Iron Curtain and the Berlin
Wall, and opened up to travel to the West. Gorbachevs democratization of the East Bloc was so
well-received that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, and was a new position that
had never before been part of the Soviet Government: President of the Soviet Union.

Yeltsins Rise to Power and the Collapse of the Union


As Boris Yeltsin grew more and more opposed to Gorbachevs reforms and increased
ranking in the Soviet government, he continued to gain power and support from the unimpressed

and weary people in the Soviet Union, and eventually called for Gorbachevs resignation.
Although that call was not heard, in 1991, Yeltsin convinced Parliament to create a position for
President of Russia, in an attempt to further undermine Gorbachevs power. Despite Gorbachevs
attempt to overthrow this decision, the people still voted and chose Yeltsin as President. Soon
after, Yeltsin attempted a coup in Moscow while Gorbachev was at his holiday home, but it
ultimately failed because it was spontaneous and not well-organized.8 Now that Yeltsin matched
Gorbachevs power, though, and even had better congressional standing, he was able to
essentially outlaw Communism in Russia and force Gorbachev to resign. This took place on
December 25th, 1991, one day prior to the collapse of the Union.
Interestingly enough, the final decision to dissolve the Union was made not by public
vote, but by Yeltsin and the leaders of Belarus and Ukraine.9 This, as Yeltsins first action without
Gorbachev, essentially went against everything he had been fighting for. It seems that he did so
mainly to rid the nation of Gorbachevs presence entirely and possibly because he knew the
people would vote to save the union as they had previously done, and that was not in his
interests.

After the Fall: Russias Wavering Political Future, the Shift in the International
Power Structure, and the Era of Globalization
The collapse of the Union immediately spawned 15 independent countries, with Russia
being the largest, whose political and economic fates were largely unknown. Even economists
and historians were left unsure as to exactly what would become of the Russian and surrounding
former satellites governments after Gorbachev and as Yeltsin was coming into power, mostly
8 End
9 End

of the USSR. Discovery Channel, n.d. TV Documentary. 2008.


of the USSR. Discovery Channel, n.d. TV Documentary. 2008.

because of the dramatic increase in how much liberty the people had been granted compared to
the previous Stalinist and authoritarian regimes. It is clear that one of the reasons why
Gorbachev failed was because although he dismantled Stalinism as it was known, he was unable
to remove all of the constructs that made dictatorship possible, which meant that it could
potentially happen again. However, it seemed as though the people would not be so quick to
return to a dictatorship, because they finally had been given a taste of freedom and democracy,
and would no longer be easily suppressed by an authoritarian regime. One thing was certain
though: the economy and political structure was still collapsing at an alarming rate, and
something drastic needed to be done soon.
Although the collapse didnt rid Russia of political and economic turmoil even under
Vladimir Putins constitutional republic of today, or rid the world at large of conflict, economic
downturn and political chaos, it did create a pivotal shift in the international power structure.
During much of the USSRs time, the world was essentially split into 2 large powers: itself and
the United States. When the Union collapsed, though, the US no longer had anyone to compete
with, and for a while it remained the superpower standing. Soon, China began attempting to
prove itself as the Worlds second superpower, but while it is indeed one of the more influential
and economically important countries today, it has not yet lived up to the standard that was set by
the Soviet Union. The power system also saw a shift that simply didnt allow for that rise.
Because of the increased international dependence on trade that even the most prominent global
powers like the United States have, the world seems to be in a more truly globalized age than
ever, which has broken down the conventional boundaries of polarity in international relations
and opened itself up to true multipolarity. It seems that while some countries are still viewed as
more of cultural influencers, and are more wealthy and developed than others, there is no longer

a need to categorize them into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world or by which is or is not a so-called
superpower. Furthermore, this new globalized era is partially responsible for the highly
consumerist and mass media-centric world we live in today, namely because of the
aforementioned interdependence and expansion of trade which allows for a wider and newer
range of products than has ever been seen before, and continuous advances in technology which
allow people to learn about and consume culture from all across the world more easily than ever.
History was certainly not in Mikhail Gorbachevs favor, particularly because of
Brezhnevs short-term policymaking, costly occupation of Afghanistan, and inability to maintain
a stable relationship with the West, but it was ultimately his own radical reforms and lack of
long-term planning that led to his resignation as a leader and the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Although even today many Russians wish for a return of the USSR10, its collapse caused for a
shift away from an international system defined by superpowers and polars and into the age of
globalization.

10 Born

in the USSR: 28 Up. Dir. Sergei Miroshnichenko. Narr. James McAvoy. 2012.

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