Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?

How the Cold War Ended

Soviet motifs in Moscow Metro, Russia
Soviet Union Symbols in a Moscow Metro Station. Moment / Getty Images

On December 25, 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Using the words, “We’re now living in a new world,” Gorbachev effectively agreed to end the Cold War, a tense 40-year period during which the Soviet Union and the United States held the world at the brink of nuclear holocaust. At 7:32 p.m. that evening, the Soviet flag above the Kremlin was replaced with the flag of the Russian Federation, led by its first president, Boris Yeltsin. At the same moment, what had been the world’s largest communist state broke into 15 independent republics, leaving America as the last remaining global superpower.

Of the many factors leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, a rapidly failing post World War II economy and weakened military, along with a series of forced social and political reforms like perestroika and glasnost, played major roles in the fall of the mighty Red Bear.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union Fast Facts

  • The Soviet Union officially dissolved on December 25, 1991, effectively ending the 40-year-long Cold War with the United States.
  • When the Soviet Union dissolved, its 15 former Communist Party-controlled republics gained independence, leaving the United States as the world’s last remaining superpower.
  • The Soviet Union’s failing post-World War II economy and weakened military, along with public dissatisfaction with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s loosened economic and political policies of perestroika and glasnost, contributed to its ultimate collapse.

The Soviet Economy

Throughout its history, the Soviet Union’s economy depended on a system under which the central government, the Politburo, controlled all sources of industrial and agricultural production. From the 1920s to the start of World War II, the “Five Year Plans” of Joseph Stalin placed the production of capital goods, like military hardware, over the production of consumer goods. In the old economic argument of “guns or butter,” Stalin chose guns.

Based on its world leadership in petroleum production, the Soviet economy remained strong until the German invasion of Moscow in 1941. By 1942, the Soviet Gross Domestic Product (GDP) had plummeted by 34%, crippling the nation’s industrial output and retarding its overall economy until the 1960s.

In 1964, new Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev allowed industries to emphasize profit over production. By 1970, the Soviet economy reached its high point, with a GDP estimated at about 60% that of the United States. In 1979, however, costs of the Afghanistan War took the wind out of the Soviet economy’s sails. By the time the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, its $2,500 billion GDP had dropped to just over 50% of the United States’ $4,862 billion. Even more telling, the per capita income in the USSR (pop. 286.7 million) was $8,700, compared to $19,800 in the United States (pop. 246.8 million). 

Despite Brezhnev’s reforms, the Politburo refused to increase the production of consumer goods. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, average Soviets stood in breadlines as Communist Party leaders amassed ever greater wealth. Witnessing the economic hypocrisy, many young Soviets refused to buy into the old-line communist ideology. As poverty weakened the argument behind the Soviet system, the people demanded reforms. And reform they would soon get from Mikhail Gorbachev.

Soviet soldier with Soviet flag
Soviet Soldier with Soviet Flag. Corbis Historica / Getty Images

Gorbachev’s Policies

In 1985, the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, came to power ready to launch two sweeping policies of reform: perestroika and glasnost.

Under perestroika, the Soviet Union would adopt a mixed communist-capitalist economic system similar to that of modern-day China. While the government still planned the direction of the economy, the Politburo allowed free-market forces like supply and demand to dictate some decisions on how much of what would be produced. Along with economic reform, Gorbachev’s perestroika was intended to draw new, younger voices into elite circles of the Communist Party, eventually resulting in the free democratic election of the Soviet government. However, while the post-perestroika elections offered voters a choice of candidates, including for the first time, non-communists, the Communist Party continued to dominate the political system.

Glasnost was intended to remove some of the decades-old limitations on the daily lives of the Soviet people. Freedoms of speech, the press, and religion were restored, and hundreds of former political dissidents were released from prison. In essence, Gorbachev’s glasnost policies promised the Soviet people a voice and the freedom to express it, which they would soon do.

Unforeseen by Gorbachev and the Communist Party, perestroika and glasnost did more to cause the fall of the Soviet Union than they did to prevent it. Thanks to perestroika’s economic drift toward Western capitalism, coupled with glasnost’s apparent loosening of political restrictions, the government that Soviet people once feared suddenly appeared vulnerable to them. Seizing on their new powers to organize and speak out against the government, they began to demand the total end of Soviet rule.

Chernobyl Disaster Exposes Glasnost

The Soviet people learned the realities of glasnost in the aftermath of the explosion of a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station in Pryp’yat, now in Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. The explosion and fires spread more than 400 times the amount of radioactive fallout as the Hiroshima atomic bomb over much of the western USSR and other European countries. Instead of immediately and openly informing the people of the explosion, as promised under glasnost, Communist Party officials suppressed all information about the disaster and its dangers to the public. Despite the risk of radiation exposure, May Day parades in the affected areas were held as planned, as paid covert government agents called “apparatchiks” quietly removed Geiger counters from school science classrooms.

Not until May 14—18 days after the disaster—did Gorbachev issue his first official public statement, in which he called Chernobyl a “misfortune” and slammed Western media reports as a “highly immoral campaign” of “malicious lies.” However, as people in the fallout zone and beyond reported suffering from the effects of radiation poisoning, the falsehoods of the Communist Party propaganda was exposed. As a result, public trust in the government and glasnost was shattered. Decades later, Gorbachev would call Chernobyl “perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

Democratic Reform Throughout the Soviet Block

At the time it dissolved, the Soviet Union was composed of 15 separate constitutional republics. Within each republic, citizens of diverse ethnicities, cultures, and religions were often at odds with each other. Especially in the outlying republics in Eastern Europe, discrimination against the ethnic minorities by the Soviet majority created constant tension.

Beginning in 1989, nationalist movements in the Warsaw Pact Soviet satellite nations, such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia resulted in regime changes. As the former Soviet allies divided along ethnic lines, similar separatist independence movements emerged in several of the Soviet republics—most notably, Ukraine.

Even during World War II, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army had conducted a guerilla warfare campaign for Ukrainian independence against both Germany and the Soviet Union. After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, as the new leader of the Soviet Union, allowed an ethnic Ukrainian revival, and in 1954, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became a founding member of the United Nations. However, the continued repression of political and cultural rights by the Soviet central government in Ukraine spurred renewed separatist movements in the other republics, which fatally fractured the Soviet Union.

The Berlin Wall

Since 1961, the heavily guarded Berlin Wall had divided Germany into Soviet-communist ruled East Germany and democratic West Germany. The wall prevented—often violently—dissatisfied East Germans from fleeing to freedom in the West.

East Berliners on top of the Berlin Wall, 1989
East Berliners climb onto the Berlin Wall to celebrate the effective end of the city's partition, 31st December 1989. (Photo by Steve Eason/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Speaking in West Germany on June 12, 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously called on Soviet leader Gorbachev to “tear down that wall.” By this time, Reagan’s anti-communist Reagan Doctrine policies had weakened Soviet influence in Eastern Europe and talk of German reunification had already begun. In October 1989, East Germany’s communist leadership was forced from power, and on November 9, 1989, the new East German government did indeed “tear down that wall.” For the first time in nearly three decades, the Berlin Wall ceased to function as a political barrier and East Germans could travel freely to the West.

By October 1990, Germany was fully reunified, signaling the coming collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist Eastern European regimes.

A Weakened Soviet Military

The economic liberalization of perestroika and the political chaos of glasnost severely reduced military funding and strength. Between 1985 and 1991, the residual troop strength of the Soviet Military fell from over 5.3 million to fewer than 2.7 million.

The first major reduction came in 1988, when Gorbachev responded to long-stalled arms reduction treaty negotiations by drawing down its military by 500,000 men—a 10% reduction. During the same time period, more than 100,000 Soviet troops had been committed to the Afghanistan War. The ten-year quagmire that became the Afghan War left more than 15,000 Soviet troops dead and thousands more injured.

Another reason for the troop decline was the widespread resistance to the Soviet military draft that arose when the new freedoms of glasnost allowed conscripted soldiers to speak publicly about the abusive treatment they suffered.

Between 1989 and 1991, the now weakened Soviet military was unable to suppress anti-Soviet separatist movements in the republics of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Lithuania.

Finally, in August 1991, Communist Party hardliners, who had always opposed perestroika and glasnost, led the military in an attempt to overthrow Gorbachev. However, the three-day August Coup—possibly the last attempt by the hardline communists to save the Soviet empire—failed when the now-fragmented military sided with Gorbachev. Though Gorbachev remained in office, the coup further destabilized the USSR, thus contributing to its final dissolution on December 25, 1991.

Blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union is often unfairly placed solely on the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev. In the final analysis, it was his predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, who wasted the nation’s massive profits from a 20-year-long oil boom on an unwinnable arms race against the United States, rather than working to raise the standards of living of the Soviet people, long before Gorbachev came to power.

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