The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union was once the largest and most powerful community country in the world. Emerging from the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917, it was formally established in 1922 as a federal union of multiple national republics governed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
It also had the second-largest economy in the world and was responsible for producing several social achievements and technological innovations. It also had a large standing military army that made significant contributions to the victory of the Allies during the Second World War.
The entire federal union demonstrated its influence in the realms of international relations when it became one of the founding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. After the Second World War, it became one of the superpowers alongside the United States and was instrumental in promoting socialism and communism in other countries.
However, in 1991, it ceased to exist. 11 Soviet Socialist Republics declared their independence and Russia was left with no choice but to acknowledge the collapse of the federal union. But what exactly are the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed?
Understanding the Dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic: Factors and Causes of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
There is no single factor, cause, or reason behind the collapse of the Soviet Union. The events leading to its formal dissolution in 1991 showcased the social and political conditions and issues that affected the stability and sustainability not only of the government but also the general economy and localized economies across the federal union.
Understanding the reason why the Soviet Union collapsed requires looking at the different factors at play. These factors range from the political and economic conditions to the internal cultural heterogeneity and its relationship with the international community.
Emerging and Worsening Stagnation of the Soviet Economy
The Soviet Union had one of the largest economies in the world. In an analysis by economics history professor Robert C. Allen, the economy of the USSR experienced rapid growth from 1930 to roughly before 1970 because the government concentrated its investment activities on heavy industries and utilized a fiscal policy centered on soft budget constraints.
However, beginning the 1970s and onwards, the Soviet economy went on a growth slowdown. Allen explained that this was due to disastrous investment decisions, removal of surplus labor, and the diversion of research and development resources to the military.
Nataliya Kibita also mentioned that the Soviets were already aware that its centralized command and planned economic system had inefficiencies. Nikita Khrushchev, then-First Secretary of the Communist Party, attempted to pursue decentralized economic control in the 1950s but was eventually forced to revert to a command economy in the early 1960s.
Liberalizing the economy of the Soviet Union and transitioning it to a more decentralized economic system was incompatible with the institutions established by the command economy and the core sociopolitical principles of socialism and communism.
The Soviet Union entered a period of economic stagnation. Industries involved in manufacturing were not growing. There were few consumer goods. Massive unemployment was looming in the 1980s on top of the already high unemployment rate. The ruble only had paper value due to abundance in the money supply. Inflation rate was high.
It is also important to note that the military spending of the Soviets increased in response to the Strategic Defense Initiative and other military programs of the United States. Remember that the two were in a Cold War and both were on a military arms race.
The Soviet military remained well-funded and expenditure trended upward since the 1970s despite the prevailing problems in the economy. Economic problems collectively represent one of the reasons the Soviet Union collapsed. However, the economic situation was only a catalyst to other causes or factors leading to its final and formal dissolution in 1991.
Glasnost and Perestroika Policies of Mikhail Gorbachev
Mikhail Gorbachev was the General Secretary of the Community Party and the de facto eighth leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991, as well as the Chairperson of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet from 1988 to 1989, the Chairperson of the Supreme Soviet from 1989 to 1990, and the President of the Soviet Union from 1990 to 1991.
Political analysts and historians have partly attributed the collapse of the Soviet Union to his leadership. To be specific, after assuming office in 1985, he advocated and pushed an economic reform program called the “glasnost” and “perestroika” policies.
The glasnost policy reform revolved around maximum openness in the activities of state institutions and freedom of information. It fundamentally represented “openness” and “transparency.” This term was used together with the perestroika political movement that pushed for the reconstruction or reformation of the Communist Party.
Foreign policy scholar Diana Villiers Negroponte noted that Gorbachev remains the central figure in explaining why the Soviet Union collapsed. She explained further that his policy empowered the people to speak up and protest against their government.
In addition, remember that the glasnost and perestroika policies aimed to resolve the political and economic issues of the Soviets. However, despite advocating for restructuring, the former General Secretary remained ignorant of the economic problems and the uncertainty created by his multiple and divergent economic plans.
He also effectively abolished the authority of the Communist Party and lessened its political influence when he loosened centralized control of several businesses and encouraged the inclusion of reformists in Congress beginning in the late 1980s.
The aforementioned policies and decisions eradicated the central organizing principle that made the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics possible. The absence of a central principle also meant abolishing traditional party structures. The government was left without a set of guidelines to make decisions. It fundamentally became ineffective and inefficient.
Public Dissent and Nationalist Sentiments Across the Soviet Union
Although it seemed that the Soviet Union was a rock-solid communist state made of different national republics with shared aspirations, the truth was that cultural heterogeneity prevailed. The entire federal union was diverse. This was evident from different cultural heritages, as well as different languages, norms and traditions, and cultural values.
The glasnost and perestroika policies of Gorbachev were counterproductive. To be specific, the promotion of openness and transparency encouraged public dissent. The government also lost control of both the media and the public sphere.
Democratic reform movements across the different Soviet republics gained momentum. Adding to this was the lackluster economic condition. A lot of people grew tired of their economic situations. Numerous protests and resistance movements emerged after the government relaxed the constraints to free speech and political dissent.
In July 1986, the Helsinki-86 became the first openly anti-communist organization in the Soviet Union and the first organized opposition of the Communist Party. The Russian nationalist group Pamyat held an open demonstration in Moscow on 6 May 1987.
There were also riots transpiring in Kazakhstan in December of 1986 following the removal of First Secretary Dinmukhamed Kunaev by Gorbachev. Demonstrations by the Crimean Tartars also took place near the Kremlin Wall in July 1987. Thousands of protesters in three Baltic capitals marked the commemoration of the 1939 Molotov Pact.
About 5000 people also gathered at the Freedom Monument in Riga in Latvia to commemorate the mass deportation of Latvians in 1941 by Joseph Stalin. About 3000 Armenians also staged a protest in Yerevan in Armenia to complain about environmental issues.
Baltic republics started to clamor for independence from the Soviets. Factions in Latvia and Estonia headed the movement. The Caucasus also descended into violence and civil war beginning in February 1988 when the Regional Soviet voted to join the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia. Gorbachev started to lose control of several Baltic republics beginning in 1989.
Hungary also completed the dismantling of its border fence with Austria by the end of 1989. A strong sense of solidarity spread in Poland. The Berlin Wall had been toppled and the Iron Curtain had fallen. The collapse of the Soviet Union was looming.
Multi-Party System, Creation of Presidency, and Boris Yeltsin
Remember that Gorbachev was instrumental in weakening the influence of the Communist Party. He allowed the creation of a multi-party system and the participation of different parties in the elections. He also created the presidency for the Soviet Union as part of his political reform programs and efforts to democratize the political institutions and the economy.
Boris Yeltsin was elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies of Russia on 4 March 1990. He was also elected as the Chairperson of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation on 29 May 1990. He advocated for democracy and rapid economic reforms.
Some members of the Communist Party refused reforms. Gorbachev faced strong political pressure from the Yeltsin and Communist factions. The U.S. still believed in him because of his openness to reforms. However, he still had to deal with the internal conflicts in the Soviet Union following the series of demonstrations and clamors for independence.
Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on 12 June 1991. Meanwhile, faced with growing separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized federal union through the New Union Treaty.
The treaty aimed to transform the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics. But the communist hardliners staged a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 as part of their goal to thwart his plan toward political and economic reforms. However, it failed. Yeltsin played a critical role in preventing the coup from transpiring.
Note that the unsuccessful coup attempts effectively sealed the future of the Soviet Union. The misalignment with the Communist Party meant that Gorbachev had already lost his political capital. He resigned as the General Secretary of the part on 24 August 1991.
Gorbachev lost control of Moscow around September 1991. He also lost influence across the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the situation also allowed Yeltsin and members of the democratic faction to rise further in prominence within Russian and Soviet politics. The Russian president moved to ban communist activities in Russia in November 1991.
The Reasons Why The Soviet Union Collapsed: The Events During and Following the Final Phase of the Collapse of the Soviet Union
The collapse of the Soviet Union was already brewing elsewhere. Ukraine passed the Declaration of Independence in August 1991 and the subsequent national referendum held on 1 December 1991 resulted in a majority vote for independence from the Soviet Union.
Note that the final phase of the collapse of the Soviet Union began with the formal independence of Ukraine. On 8 December 1991, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine held a classified meeting and signed the Belavezha Accords. The document declared that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and would be replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The CIS was intended as a looser association of the former members of the USSR. Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine invited other former members to join. Gorbachev called the establishment of this organization a rebellion against the Soviets.
However, through the Belavezha Accords, the dissolution of the Soviet Union became official. The document remains an internationally recognized treat. The USSR ceased to exist immediately after its signing. Russia formally ratified the Belavezha Accords on 12 December 1991 and denounced the 1922 Union Treaty that created the USSR.
Three Baltic republics and nine of the 12 remaining Soviet republics signed the European Energy Charter as sovereign states together on 17 December 1991. The following day, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR adopted a statement accepting the Belavezha Accords.
On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev made a television appearance and announced his resignation as the president of the USSR. He also declared the office nonexistent along with its functions and powers. All of its powers were ceded to Yeltsin. Russia formally changed its name from “Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic” to “Russian Federation.”
The Soviet of Republics and the Upper Chamber of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union voted USSR out of existence on 26 December 1991. The collapse of the Soviet Union became final by the end of 1991. The new sovereign states moved on the following year.
Nevertheless, based on the discussions above, the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed or why the USSR disintegrated and disbanded come from the interplay between different factors. These include the economic downfall of the federal union that began around the 1970s and the changing Soviet political landscape under the reign of Gorbachev.
The unsustainability of socialism and communism, specifically the limitations of a centralized command economy played a critical role in this collapse. It affected not only the economic potential of the Soviets but also their social and political progress.
Some other more specific factors of the collapse of the Soviet Union include the economic pressure placed by the United States during the Cold War, the Chernobyl Nuclear Meltdown, and the war with Afghanistan. These events or situations weakened not both the economic integrity of the Soviets and the political stability of the Communist Party.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Allen, R. 2001. “The Rise and Decline of the Soviet Economy.” The Canadian Journal of Economics. 34(4): 859-881. JSTOR: 3131928
- Kibita, N. 2015. Soviet Economic Management Under Khrushchev: The Sovnarkhoz Reform. ISBN: 9781138182950
- Negroponte, D. V. 2019. “Would the Soviet Union Have Collapsed Without Mikhail Gorbachev?” Order From Chaos. Brookings Institute. Available online