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The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War – 1991)

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The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War – 1991)


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The Cold War, the Soviet’s failure to match technological advancement, and the arms race are seen as the major contributors to the collapse of the Soviet Union which happened in 1991. There have been several arguments and contentions which are attributed to this fall. Two major interrelated factors that are linked to this disintegration are the manipulation which was initiated by the then new Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the soviet national republics’ rise.

This presidency manipulation by Yeltsin became a power struggle between him and Gorbachev, the soviet leader, both of whom had quite differing personalities and political orientations (Grigor, 1993, 16).

The national question had already dominated the Soviet’s politics by 1990-1. at the same time, analysis of the economic crisis that had occurred in soviet in the late 1980’s give a clear impression of the economic phases that the soviet was undergoing during this period. This was an eminent indication that sooner or later a collapse was inevitable, and which eventually took the order of the day in December, 1991.

However, albeit more tentatively, the Soviet Union collapse is more attributed to the nationalities question rise than to any other factor, such as the economic collapse and the cold war.

 This collapse of the Soviet Union has become one of the major turning points in the twentieth century history. The Union took its very first steps to become a civil society in during the “perestroika” or the transformation period and commenced re-examination of the Stalinist ideology.

This paper therefore aims at giving some accessible and succinct information as well as interpretation of the most remarkable events that took place during this era and which consequently led to the collapse. An overview of the nationalities Vis-a- Vis the Soviet policy, ethnic pressures within the Soviet Union, and how these separatist movements as well as the ethnic unrest weakened the society. Moreover, it is imperatively important to mention how Gorbachev failed to institute a viable compact between the periphery and the centre in his initial rule years (Wilcoxsn, 2004, 31). On the same note, Gorbachev did not have the will power to apply decisive force that was necessary to quell the nationalist and ethnic challenges. In addition, a core Russian core group of elites defected from the soviet regime and this had paramount impact on the Soviet’s society demise.


There is much to understand regarding the history of the rise and fall of the last great superpower empire, the USSR. During its formation, there was dire need to fuse the Russian society with the Soviet- the two passionately held identities and beliefs as a result of the overarching motherland idea. This revolved around the triumphs and failures of key personalities and the external pressure and influence wherefrom. Similarly, it involved the creation of the New Soviet Man as well as the contrasts that emerged between Moscow which was at the centre and the national problem including the rest segments of the sprawling empire.

Several profound changes were experienced by the Soviet Union during the Soviet rule that lasted for seven and a half years. There were adverse demographic and economic trends by the late ‘70s and ‘80s that resulted to widespread public cynicism particularly among the younger generation. When Gorbachev came to office in 1985, he was already aware of the discontent that was rampant in the Soviet society. Among his major priorities when he took over leadership was a reformation program that desired to rejuvenate the society and remedy the ills that had harshly hit the Union, although he failed in the end. The most significant thing that was vivid by 1991 was that as a whole, the society no longer had any hopes of the USSR’s survival (Watson, 1998, 25).

The Soviet Union’s collapse which started early in 1985 led to the formation of independent nations, after the Soviet had built up its military might at the domestic development’s expense. This made the economic growth of the system come to a standstill, which became even worse with the Afghanistan war and failed economic reforms. There was open criticism of the Moscow regime especially in the Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics. The actions of the Soviet leadership were significantly influenced by the dramatic oil price fall between 1985-6 and the consequent loss of foreign exchange reserves in the subsequent years. This meant that enough grains and other amenities could not be purchased.

There was a complex role of external governments in the fall of the Soviet Union. There were two major fundamental factors that resulted to the undermining of the Soviet state and these are: the deteriorating economic chaos under the stewardship of Mikhail Gorbachev, and the increasingly growing internally aggravated political dissent. This categorically implies that Gorbachev’s original initiative to embark on the economic reform program was a simple reflection of the latent pressure he was getting from the western military deployments and defense spending (Edelist, 2003, 61).

There were severe weaknesses that debilitated the Soviet economy, with excessive military expenditures and resources misallocations being just but minor portions of the whole underlying problem. After his initial reformations failed, Gorbachev decided on another alternative which sought to cut military spending through arms control. However, only some belated cuts were done and these proved to be relatively of little progress.

The Soviet collapse was evidently hastened by the Western pressure on Gorbachev which restricted him from cracking down on the separatism and the political dissent. Similarly, the West refused to pour financial support to the Soviet system unless Gorbachev was able to prove structural reforms evidence. As a consequence, these policies denied resources to the Soviet system, resources that would have probably prolonged the systems survival. Equally, the policies also deterred Gorbachev from sternly addressing the various elements that were quickly tearing the Soviet apart (Beissinger, 2002, 17).

An example of the collapse process is the peaceful disintegration of Eastern Europe Communism in 1989. This is a profound reflection of the changes that had been made by Gorbachev in his foreign policy. Although this was successful in Eastern Europe, the repercussions it had on the Soviet Union were quite destabilizing, both directly and indirectly.

The Union’s coffers were progressively emptied by the USSR’s trade gap which was created by increased democratization (which was called for by Gorbachev in January, 1987) as a result of the central control resistance by several Soviet Socialist Republics. This was brought about by the greater social and political freedoms which were instituted by Gorbachev as he made concerted efforts to abide with the Western pressure. Many dissidents and political prisoners in thousands were released. The press also became freer in its endeavors with less authoritarian control and the freedom of speech was equally under minimal control (Wicoxson, 2004, 92). At the same time, democratization allowed the infusion of various democratic elements like the multiple candidates elections into the political process in the Soviet system. This was done because of the belief Gorbachev held that deep economic management transformations could not be realized if corresponding changes were not instituted in the political system.

In 1988, the Law on Cooperatives was enacted and for the first time since the New Economic Policy by Vladimir Lenin, private business ownership in the manufacturing, foreign trade sectors, and services was permitted. Gorbachev had expected support from the whole Soviet from his ideology of different categories of openness, participation, and debate. This perhaps formed the most radical economic reform among all those that were initiated by Gorbachev during his reign in the Soviet Union. The aftermath of the failure was the eventual bankruptcy which led to the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 when the failed coup’s aftermath saw Yeltsin’s power seizure (Edelist, 2003, 79).

The unintended consequences of Gorbachev’s efforts to revive and streamline the Communist system came even with the promises that his plans had offered. The ultimate of all the efforts proved to be highly uncontrollable and eventually they cascaded to events that concluded with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The glasnost and perestroika policies were intended to act as tools that would bolster the economy but the end results were quite devastating to the system.

Glasnost brought considerable relaxation on the media which before long began to publish severe economic and social problems that had been for many years been actively concealed and denied by the Soviet government. This led to immeasurable embarrassment to the authorities and the Communist system lost the absolute grip it had on the media and the peripheral entities. Other crimes that had been committed by the Soviet regime and Stalin were also exposed. Some of the problems that received increased attention of the media included; drug abuse, poor housing, pollution, alcoholism, and corruption of all magnitude (Watson, 1998, 68). Some of the crimes that Stalin had committed included the gulags, which was the treaty he had signed with Adolph Hitler as well as the Great Purges which the official media had ignored for long.

In simple understanding, this implied that the public changed its opinion regarding the former positive view of the good Soviet life that the media had presented for long. The former image was dismantled, and the negative aspects of life were illuminated to the spotlight, resulting to the undermined public faith in the Soviet Union. The social power base that had been held by the Communist party was eroded and as thus the integrity and identity of the Soviet Union was threatened and eventually collapsed. Additionally, nationalism rise under glasnost sooner or later reawakened the simmering ethnic tensions within various Soviet republics and this further discredited the ideal of Soviet peoples’ unification (Grigor, 1993, 161).

The desire for a market economy was so acute and when the first multi-candidature elections were held in 1990, ethnic national activists and reformers took most of the seats. Yeltsin’s presidency also fueled this dire need for a market economy whose benefits were perceived superior to the disintegration of the Soviet society.


There are four basic principle elements that we find in the old Soviet system and which led to the collapse of the same. These are the hierarchy of soviets, state socialism, Communist party dominance, and the ethnic federalism. Radical unforeseen impacts were brought about by Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika reform programs and these also fundamentally resulted to the down fall of the system. He implemented these measures as efforts to resolve the severe economic problems as well as the political inertia that were eminently threatening the Soviet Union into a long-term stagnation (Beissinger, 2002, 39).

However, by applying the structural reforms that would allow popular movements to gain substantial influence in the union’s republics and wider opportunities for other leaders, Gorbachev also created loopholes through which populist forces and nationalists managed to oppose his liberalization attempts to revitalize Communism. This is how independence of the national republics was demanded and which ultimately led to the Soviet collapse. The massive august demonstrations had made this very clear that nothing less than democracy would be accepted and as thus the clock could not be reversed any longer.

Work cited:

Beissinger Mark. Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; pp.17, 39

Edelist Ran. Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990: Ten Years That Did Not Shake the World. New Jersey; Frank Cass, 2003; pp.61, 79

Grigor Ronald. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford; Stanford Press, 1993; pp.16, 161

Watson William. The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union. London; Greenwood Press, 1998; pp.25, 68

Wilcoxson Elizabeth. The Collapse of the Soviet Union. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods, Vol. 29, 2004; pp.31, 92

Cite this The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War – 1991)

The Collapse of the Soviet Union (Cold War – 1991). (2017, Feb 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union-cold-war-1991/

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