WHY DID THE SOVIET UNION COLLAPSE BY 1991?
- Economic stagnation in the Soviet economy
- The Soviet Union of Afghanistan
- The end of Détente and Reagan's military spending
- Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost and Perestroika
- Increasing nationalism in the USSR
To recap, let's examine each cause in turn.
1. Economic stagnation in the Soviet economy
Economic stagnation means slow or sluggish economic growth. If an economy stops growing altogether and begins shrinking, it enters into recession.
The Soviet Union had a centrally planned economy. This means that the government decided what factories would produce and set quotas of production.
By the mid 1970's it was becoming increasingly obvious that Soviet economic growth was slowing down. Added to this, the cost of living was increasing. Despite guaranteed jobs for life, a government apartment, free universal healthcare and a pension, Soviet citizens were struggling to afford basic necessities such as bread, milk and toilet paper (even though these were subsidized by the government).
The root causes of these problems were low industrial and agricultural output. In short, there were minimal incentives for Soviet citizens to work hard as they were guaranteed jobs for life and a number of benefits. As with many centrally planned economies, decision making at a management level was also inefficient. Added to this was a high level of work absenteeism. Workers would often not always work a full day, taking time off to work a second job (known as 'moonlighting'). The level of alcoholism was also worrying and this too was affecting production.
2. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
In 1979, the Soviet Union decided to invade the central Asian country of Afghanistan to support the communist government who were in the midst of a civil war. They did this because:
- Shortly after the Prague Spring, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev declared the Brezhnev Doctrine. This promised to support any communist government, with military force if necessary. Intervention in Afghanistan fell under the guises of the Brezhnev Doctrine.
- They were concerned about the spread of militant Islam, especially in the central Asian republics within the USSR (such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan etc.) which had large Muslim populations. They were worried that this brand of Islam was spreading after the Islamic Revolution in Iran (also 1979) and it was Islamic fighters who were resisting the communist government in Afghanistan.
How did the war in Afghanistan contribute to the collapse of the USSR?
- It became a huge drain on Soviet resources at a time when the economy was stagnating. Like the US involvement in Vietnam, it became a costly war both in terms of money and soldiers with no end in sight.
3. The end of Détente and Reagan's defense spending
Détente ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The US suspected that the Soviets were trying to take advantage of the instability in Iran (due to the Islamic Revolution there) and invaded Afghanistan in order to get better access to the oil in the Arabian Gulf. The US responded to the invasion of Afghanistan by refusing to trade with the USSR and by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games (the Soviet Union then boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games).
More significant however, was the increased US defense spending that occurred under Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. The USSR tried, but could not keep pace with the new arms race, and put extra strain on a struggling economy that was already funding a war in Afghanistan. The classic example of Reagan's defense spending was his proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative (or 'Starwars'). This was a research project investigating the viability of build a laser defense shield aimed at preventing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles hitting the USA. This helped increase tension between the USA and USSR in 1983, as the main principle of Mutually Assured Destruction was now removed. In theory, if the SDI became a reality, the US could launch nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union knowing that it was safe from any retaliation.
Ultimately, the end of Détente and the start of the 'new Cold War' was bad for the Soviet Union.
4. Gorbachev's policies of Glasnost and Perestroika
Onto this stage stepped Mikhail Gorbachev. He was appointed leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 and was a reformer who was determined to solve the problems within the Soviet Union. He realized that the economic systems needed to be changed in order for his country to survive. Like Khrushchev, he blamed Stalin for corrupting Lenin's communist dream. His economic reform, Perestroika, aimed to improve the economic systems within the USSR by introducing some free market (capitalist) ideas. Perestroika called for allowing farmers and workers to make individual profits once production quotas were met and allow factory managers to play more of role in the economic decision making process. However, he failed to introduce this reform successfully because of resistance from within the Communist Party, especially from older, more conservative members who had benefitted greatly from the existing system and did not want change.
Therefore, Gorbachev had to introduce political reform in order for Perestroika to be successfully implemented. Glasnost (openness) called for more freedom of speech and press and allowed an element of democracy in state duma (parliament elections). Gorbachev wanted to remove some of the older members of the party, who were resistant to change, from power. This meant that potentially there could be electoral candidates from outside of the Communist Party. By 1988, this was indeed happening.
The unintended consequence of Glasnost was that it encouraged the Soviet people to criticize the system. Once given some freedom, they only wanted more. After 70 years of communism, it was clear that they wanted change. This snowballed into a much bigger movement with calls for more fundamental reform of the USSR.
5. Increasing nationalism
By 1988, the changes in the Soviet Union had drawn attention from Eastern Europe. The majority of the populations there had long since wanted change after living under repressive regimes that took their orders from Moscow. Even if many of the citizens in Poland, East Germany and Czechoslovakia (to name just a few satellite states) enjoyed some of the benefits of communism, they did not subservience to the USSR. For example, many Hungarians still had bitter memories of the Red Army marching into Budapest in 1956 to put down the Hungarian Uprising. By the late 1980s, there was an increase in nationalism all across Eastern Europe as they sensed that they had the opportunity to gain independence from Moscow.
In some cases, specific events occurred to increase nationalism further. For example, the appointment of the first Polish pope, John Paul II, galvanized an extremely Catholic country where the Church had long been a potent symbol of resistance to communism. in 1988, Gorbachev announced that the USSR would be withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan, and more significantly, that there would be an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine. Now people in the satellite states knew that the Red Army would not intervene if there were challenges to communist control. When Gorbachev visited East Berlin to mark the 40th anniversary of the creation of East Germany in 1989, the crowd chanted 'save us Gorbi'. He was now a hero to millions.
After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, nationalism increased in the Soviet Republics in much the same manner. Throughout 1990 and 1991, the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan among others all declared independence from the USSR. However, the most important republic to leave the USSR was Russia in 1991. Russia had elected a new president, Boris Yeltsin, who could see that the Soviet Union was doomed.
In a last gasp effort to save the USSR, communist hardliners launched a coup d'état and placed Gorbachev under house arrest. Tanks were sent out onto the streets to restore order. It seemed the same thing that had occurred in Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968 was going to happen in Moscow. However, the Russian people did not back down. Led by Yeltsin, the Red Army were confronted outside the Russian parliament and backed down. The hardliners had to accept defeat and released Gorbachev. However, Gorbachev too realized he had reached the end and the USSR could no longer continue. Despite trying to save it, Gorbachev had hastened the demise of the Soviet Union, and officially signed the order to dissolve it on Christmas Day, 1991.
Who or what was most responsible for the collapse of the USSR? Mikhail Gorbachev. Although his reforms were intended to save it, he ironically helped to destroy it. Once people living in the Communist Bloc got a taste of freedom, they just wanted more. To Gorbachev's credit, he was a great humanitarian who did not believe in imposing communism on others. He believed, mistakenly as it turned out, that given the choice, the people would choose communism. Once, Gorbachev lost control of the situation and nationalist sentiments took over, unlike his predecessors, he did not use military force to intervene.