The Collapse of the Soviet Union

Every revolution is a spark among the world, instigating the possible collapse of centralized, governmental power far and wide. Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union aptly spread their Communist sphere of influence across the next several decades to come, inciting a largely Western fear of Democratic instability through Communist-led terror, reform, foreign relations, and war. When we speak of the Soviet Union now, we largely refer to those that were in power of the state — Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. Under these men, the Soviet Union grew into a super power that was unparalleled. Thus, the December 31, 1991, collapse of the Soviet Union was unanticipated — to both its/ citizens and world observers.

When the shortfalls of the Soviet system, particularly for their desertion of socialist reform across Eastern Europe, became more ostensible, it became clear that trust issues began to form. The reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse have been contested by many, but the primary instigators tend to be described as the role of its culture, economics, non-Russian nationalities, and its foreign affairs and how they conflicted with the state. In reality, the Soviet Union’s internal and foreign conflicts that amplified following the end of the Cold War are wed lead to its sole demise.

The Cold War had been ongoing for decades up until the Soviet Union’s collapse. While the USSR government still harbored a glimpse of hope for communism across Eastern Europe, a sudden shift had begun around 1985. Within a short period of time, internal and external Soviet conflicts had begun mounting — the Soviet Union’s economic crisis, the continuation of a political system based on the fear of the people, the continued presence of nationalism within the individual states of the USSR, the failure in the Afghanistan campaign, the dual collapse of the Soviet military, the workers’ rebellions, and Yeltsin’s extreme opposition to Gorbachev — and it began revealing the cracks in the Soviet’s infrastructure.

Gorbachev, who served as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s downfall (and for most of the prior examples). Under his Glasnost policy, Gorbachev had hoped to give the people more freedom and openness, both within the realm of speech and expression. This became noticeable when the state had begun allowing for wider and more accurate reporting of events within policies and problems within the Soviet Union.1 Beginning with the Glasnost policy, Gorbachev aimed to fix the errors that were left by past-Soviet leaders, seeking a reformation for its period of stagnation:

“The country’s historical destiny and the positions of socialism in today’s world depend in large part on how we handle matters from now on.”2

Gorbachev’s implementation of Glasnost backfired, though. Gorbachev’s Glasnost policy and the oncoming democratization of the state only ended up burying the ideology of the USSR, all the while destroying the Communist party in turn.3 Due to the openness of Glasnost, people within the USSR’s individual republics became more oustpoken in regards to nationalism; however, not for the collective Soviet Union, but their personal states. Even Russians within the Soviet Union felt discriminated against under Gorbachev’s rule, arguing that they lacked their very own party organization or Central Committee.4

For the failure of his policy, general faith in Gorbachev began to diminish. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, the openness and freedom of speech codes laid within Glasnost allowed for criticism of the state to continue (since it was no longer running solely as a propaganda machine of the state). Allowing for the freedom of the arts and human rights, Soviet artists and media outlets began heavily criticizing both Gorbachev and the Communist. With the media’s mass criticism of the Soviet government, the Communist Party witnessed a massive drop in membership in the late 1980s (nearly 800,000 party members defecting from the party in the first half of 1990).5 Through his contradictions of the Communist party and the public’s continued criticism, Gorbachev weakened the Soviet Union.

In Gorbachev’s perspective, he believed that the inevitable corrosion that the Soviet people were facing in the past decade of stagnation was due to the Party. Wishing to provide more power to the congress and restricting the power of the party, Gorbachev sought to further reduce the party’s authority within the government:  

“The principal cause…was that the CPSU Central Committee and the country’s leadership…were unable to promptly or fully appreciate the need for changes and the danger of the mounting crisis phenomena in society or to work out a clear-cut line aimed at overcoming them and making fuller use of the possibilities inherent in the socialist system.”6

However, this only managed to raise questions as to the legitimacy of Gorbachev’s regime, since the party was the vehicle that had allowed him to garner the power he then held.7

In an attempt to legitimize their power, the Communist party staged a coup d’état in August 1991 to overthrow Gorbachev. Their attempts would eventually fail at their own expense, but the outcome was one that proved fruitful those wishing to displace the current government, and for historians alike, as this moment provided an absolute objectification for the reason behind the Soviet Union’s dissolution. By giving people democracy within the Soviet Union, it allowed people to finally have an opinion towards the Communist party, especially towards whether or not they wanted to be a part of it. Glasnost and Gorbachev’s open attacks against the Communist party were what weakened its very strength, while in turn, weakening the Soviet Union.8

Under Stalin, the Soviet Union was a prime example of industry and mechanical power. The fixed authority instilled in within the Communist party was what had allowed for this mechanization and collectivization of the Soviet Union to thrive. However, the democratization introduced under Gorbachev was absolutely contradictory to the Communist party itself. The original intention of Glasnost was to reveal the public’s dissatisfaction with the economy and Communist party of the Soviet Union, all the while providing political existence and support in the interest of its people.9 During a speech to the Supreme Soviet in October, 1988, Gorbachev supplemented these very intentions:

“Make them both people’s bodies and bodies of power, in the full sense of these words. Assertive, energetic, businesslike defenders of the interests of citizens. Powerful engines of the development of their villages, cities, districts, provinces and republics …”10

Through the formation of Perestroika and Glasnost, Gorbachev had the keen intention of allowing for the Soviet voice to be heard,

“Restructuring means the energetic elimination from society of distortions of socialist morality, and the consistent implementation of the principles of social justice …”11

The intentions were wholesome in that they hoped to praise those smaller, non-congressional voices of society, even if it meant allowing for vocal dissension against the government; however, Glasnost would become out of control, as described by John B. Dunlop, which lead to

“The complete discrediting of the ruling ideology and to a harsh questioning of the “socialist path” taken in 1917.”12

It was now, in this state of the Soviet Union, that we began to see a reinvention of the democratic revolution that was instituted some 70 years earlier. With the democratization implemented by Glasnost under Gorbachev, people were able to freely express their criticisms toward the Communist Party. During, and following, the disaster at Chernobyl, Gorbachev’s silence only allowed the media to twist the perspective on the events, painting it as a disaster for both his and the government’s image.13 

Furthermore, with the freedom of the media, further ability for travel into and out of the Soviet Union for citizens, further introduction of the television, and an increasing number of publications (both Soviet and foreign, translated works) circulating through Soviet culture, it allowed for greater scrutiny to be read en masse. Whether analyzing the methods of the 1917 October Revolution, its subsequent reformation of government and power, and the current Soviet ideology, the public finally began questioning the USSR’s history with one another, free of fear.14 For the people’s growing consciousness, there was a teeming impatience, pushing the USSR to the brink of insurgence.15 Through the use of media, Glasnost had reached levels in which, “the common people who were no longer afraid to tell a Russian speaking foreigner what they thought about Soviet politics and present.”16

In the late 1980s, Glasnost had begun inciting revelations of the party’s impotency. Up until this point, his policies had begun forming a path for democracy to coincide with communism within the Soviet Union; however, the criticism that allowed, and likewise encouraged, of the CPSU was tortuous for the Soviet Union’s image. The people were no longer fearing the government’s wrath, as they had under Stalin. Political condemnation had begun on a mass-scale, and within the 15 socialist states of the Soviet Union, which had all proclaimed independence at that time, it had begun to disassemble the Soviet Union. The idea of communism as an all-union ideology was no longer present. Under Gorbachev, the all-union ideology had become one of “diversity for all.”

The feeling of unity that was key to the USSR and communist ideology had been forgotten. Rioting was incited throughout the states, and thousands began fighting against the nationalistic idea of “Russification”. With demonstrations in the streets, voting referendums for independence and resurgence for the republics of the Soviet Union from the Russian system had begun.

The extreme criticism of the CPSU continued, especially coming from Gorbachev. In response, the Communist Party sought to incite a putsch against Gorbachev, attempting to remove him from his seat and restore the party’s power, stating,

“Malicious outrage against all state institutions is being imposed. The country has in fact become ungovernable. Having taken advantage of the granted liberties and encroaching upon the first sprouts of democracy, there have emerged extremist forces that have embarked on the course toward liquidating the Soviet Union, ruining the state, and seizing power at any cost.”17

The putsch failed, and under the commission of Yeltsin, the Communist Party ceased to exist on Nov 6, 1991.18 Despite all measures taken by the CPSU, the anti-popular coup would face an even greater exacerbation, with following disintegration. The seventy year old regime had ended.

Gorbachev would soon resign from the presidency, and the Soviet Union would formally collapse. Many factors had played a part within the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the foremost predicament arose from Gorbachev’s idealism of the Glasnost program. With worthwhile intentions, the policy was a failure — criticism of the government was amplified within the country, both for Gorbachev and the CPSU, republics of the USSR began rebelling for their national sovereignty and independence, the CPSU would fall, and the Soviet Union would ultimately collapse. Due to ineffective leaders and both misinformed and misguided reformations, the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Soviet historical legacy is one wrought with many conflicting views. Over the course of its 74-year history, there many notable landmarks: the October Revolution of 1917, the rise of the Communist Party, the death of Stalin, the rise of Stalin, the great purges, the victory during the Great Patriotic War, etc.. The rural areas of Russia became an industrial society, and for some time, it was able to lead the country through the production of meat, butter, the space race, and the accumulation of nuclear weapons. Through the imperialistic goals that were re-adopted, the Soviet and Russian tides were able to coexist and spread its influence and power across Eastern Europe, causing much resentment following World War II and on.

Great internal conflicts rose in due time. With the harsh, deplorable Gulag camp system, paralleled with mass purges – fear-mongering, imprisonment, and execution – the Soviet Union was run by a state of propaganda, and moreover, a state of imposed fear situated from the top down. Although workflow was seemingly maximized and it outwardly appeared as if the Soviet Union was headed towards a Utopian conglomeration of states, propaganda was that which disguised its failures and the falsehood of its impeccable image (propaganda and the state of extreme control/fear is that which allowed for the Soviet Union’s survival for those several decades). 

Following the demise of the KGB, the stagnation of Brezhnev, and the openness fermented by Gorbachev (along with his condemnations of the Party), the CPSU began to falter. No longer having the power or support that it once felt under the period of Stalin, the stability of the CPSU declined greatly and was ultimately destroyed by both Yeltsin and Gorbachev.19

The Party was strong, and the pride of the USSR was unmatched following its 1917 revolution and during the years of Stalin. However, the Soviet leaders following Stalin only weakened the Party’s structure, damning the USSR’s image while decentralizing the power of the government, which lead to the mass segregation of the republics of the Soviet Union from Russia. The Bolshevik revolution was a feat of public revolution, and, although brought upon only by atrocious means (mass incarceration, death, starvation, etc.), Stalin’s successes were unprecedented, but for its unstable government, extreme miscommunication, power-hungry leaders, and a union built on propaganda, fear, and subjugation of its people, the Soviet Union’s existence was doomed from its creation.


Works Cited

  1. Marples, David R. Russia in the Twentieth Century, (London, Pearson Education, 2011), pp. 269-70
  2. Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXXVII, No. 17 (May 22, 1985).
  3. John Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993) pp. 4.
  4. Marples, pp. 279
  5. Marples, pp. 281
  6. Current Digest XXXVII
  7. Marples, pp. 277-8
  8. Stuart Loory and Ann Imse, Cnn Reports Seven Days That Shook the World. (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1991) pp. 25.
  9. S. Duncan, “The Collapse of the Soviet Union was a Revolution from Below,” in The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union, ed. Laurie Stoff (Farmington Hills: Thomson Gale, 2006), pp. 147.
  10. Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XL, No. 39 (October 26, 1988), pp. 5-6.
  11. Current Digest XXXVII
  12. Dunlop, pp. 4
  13. Marples, pp. 266
  14. David Marples, The Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991. (Harlow: Pearson Education, 2004) pp. 19-20.
  15. Marples, The Collapse, pp.19
  16. Dunlop, pp. 81
  17. Committee on the State of Emergency, Message to the Soviet People from the State Committee for the State of Emergency. TASS, 18 August 1991.
  18. Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XLIII, No. 35 (December 11, 1991), p. 4.
  19. Marples, Russia, pp. 301

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