On December 25th, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The sickle and hammer flag of the USSR was lowered from the Kremlin. Power was handed from the Communist State to the former Soviet States that now formed the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev had resigned. Boris Yeltsin, Russian President, assumed power as head of state. The Fall of the Soviet Union and dissolution of the member states was relatively fast and relatively peaceful. The decline of the Soviet Union accelerated following the appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev. Lauded in the west for his reforms, they contributed to the collapse of the very system they were intended to save.
When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party in March 1985, none of his contemporaries anticipated a revolutionary crisis. Although there were disagreements over the size and depth of the Soviet system’s problems, no one thought them to be life-threatening, at least not anytime soon. Leon Aron, June 2011
You may think that after ongoing stagnation and economic decline the fall of the Soviet Union was quite predictable. Far from it, the collapse of the USSR caught the world by surprise. Western Leaders had noted their expectations that Perestroika would get ‘back on track’ and whatever issues Gorbachev may face, he was assured of power as there was a 4 million strong army behind him. Reform had happened before in the USSR, it had not led to any signs of collapse.
Why did the Soviet Union Collapse in 1991?
Perestroika and Glasnost
Perestroika and Glasnost played a part in the fall of the USSR. Designed to reform the economy and restructure society, they were slow to improve things. Years of stagnation had led to much discontent. The freedoms that were now allowed led to open criticism of the state. Instead of saving the Soviet Union, the twin policies contributed to it’s downfall.
15% of the Soviet Union was non Russian. The 14 other states of the Soviet Union often loathed the Russian dominance. Despite Socialist ideals, equality of the minority groups was not very evident. Russia received a much better deal from the USSR than these outlying states did. Glasnost allowed criticisms not only in the Russian State but in the other 14 Soviet States. Nationalism, latent for so long, was able to express itself. The Baltic States challenged Soviet authority and found that little was standing in the way of their freedom. As Eastern Europe moved away from Soviet domination the Soviet States of the Baltic region challenged the union, and were able to force independence.
Openness led to Opposition
People were willing to challenge the leadership. The relaxation of rules meant that free elections took place. People, like Boris Yeltsin, who were outspoken were able to gain positions of importance. The excesses of the soviet leadership came back to hurt them. In an age where most Soviets were struggling, the lavish lifestyles of the Politburo were noticed and despised: some senior party officials lost their positions as a result of the free elections.
Soviet society had been based around the economics of the Stalin regime for decades. The introduction of limited consumerism in the 60’s and the opening of free market opportunities under Gorbachev simply highlighted the faults in the system. The country was geared towards capital projects. The people wanted goods that enhanced their quality of life. As the new freedoms led to an increased awareness of living conditions outside of the Soviet Union, the faults of the system became more apparent. It was hard for the state to claim that life in the soviet union was superior when it’s failings were so obvious. The impact of Social Reforms over the Soviet era had become too much, counter revolution was festering.
Reagan. The relationship between Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan is often seen as a warm one. The leaders seemed to like each other. Thatcher in the UK said of Gorbachev that he was a man that she could do business with. Yet the Western powers made life incredibly hard for the Soviets. Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative forced the Soviets into increased spending on the military: something they could not afford to do. Simultaneously the west were changing global markets for oil. The value of a barrel of oil dropped quickly in the final years of the Soviet Union. This deprived them of a huge proportion of their national income. The economy, already struggling, was crippled as a result.
Norwich (USA) University – 5 Reasons why the Soviet Union Collapsed
The Guardian – The Collapse of the USSR in Photographs
Cold War Museum – Collapse of the USSR