5 Reasons for Collapse of Soviet Union
Collapse of Soviet Union: “Today we are coming to realize that an epoch in history is over . . . The Iron Curtain remained in place for more than 40 years. Few of us expected to see it lifted in our lifetime. Yet with great suddenness, the impossible has happened. Communism is broken, utterly broken . . . We do not see this new Soviet Union as an enemy but as a country groping its way towards freedom. We no longer have to view the world through a prism of East-West relations.
1. The Cold War is over
Margaret Thatcher, August 1990 For more than four decades, the Soviets and the Americans went toe to toe in a battle for world domination. The Cold War was the post-WWII phenomenon.
The entire world was on the edge of their seats as the two sides competed in nuclear programs. When the Russians became the first nation to go into space, the Americans had to follow. Similarly, once the Americans had revealed the potential of the atomic bomb in the Second World War, the Russians needed to respond. To think that this game of cat and mouse went on for over 40 years is astounding. Entire generations were caught up between the East and the West. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet Union broke into 15 independent states.
The Soviet flag at the top of the Kremlin was brought down, and in its place now hung the flag of the Russian Federation. The Soviet collapse did seem like it had happened all of a sudden, but to those that were looking closely, it was a mere eventuality. However, given the dual nature of life in a post-WWII world, hardly anyone was looking at the situation without a bias.
The two sides of the globe were two entirely different representations of the future of humanity. Just like the Crusades, the Cold War is often misunderstood since we tend to look at a biased interpretation of it. We will try to tackle the story from both ends to see how events were perceived on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Here are five reasons the USSR collapsed: Oil Prices According to Yegor Gaidar, the Prime Minister who pursued radical economic reforms in post-Soviet Russia,
“The uncertainty of weather-dependent harvests, particularly after the 1950s decision to exploit virgin lands, and the continuing low oil prices made the foreign trade balance catastrophic. [This] was the first cause of the crisis in the Soviet political and economic structure.”
In 1985, Saudi Arabia was increasing its share in the oil market. As they increased production, the price of oil dropped considerably. Oil revenues were an important part of the Soviet economy, and oil sales were crucial for the purchase of grain. Soviet production was not always what it was hyped up to be, and 17 percent of their grain had to be imported.
The Politburo controlled all sources of industrial and agricultural production, but while the Soviet economy was not opened up, it was still largely dependent on foreign factors. As such, oil was only part of the problem. The larger issue was the overall economic inefficiency.
2. Economic Inefficiency & Western Competition
The West had formed NATO, and the Soviets had reached and divided Germany. Both sides were wary of each other and were interpreted as hostile on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The competition between the two sides extended to everything, whether it was proxy wars or the economy. This race started at the end of the Second World War when the US used its nuclear weapons on Japanese territories.
The Soviets wanted to assert their dominance and began diverting resources toward their nuclear program. In economic terms, the nuclear marathon was not a good idea. In an attempt to boost morale, the Soviets spent millions. But, one has to realize that at the time, the Soviets felt that their hand had been forced. They had saved Western Europe from a potential Nazi rule, but instead of being grateful, there was an air of propaganda in the West.
In October 1990, after the fall of the Wall, Margaret Thatcher claimed, “Free enterprise overwhelmed socialism.” Many critics have pointed out the narrow-mindedness of this approach, in which “the other side” was labeled “different” to justify their differences.
In his book, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, Noam Chomsky says, “Suppose you ask a simple question: namely, why do people like the editors at The Nation say that “socialism” failed, why don’t they say that “democracy” failed? – and the proof that “democracy” failed is, look what happened to Eastern Europe.
After all, those countries also called themselves “democratic” – in fact, they called themselves “People’s Democracies,” real advanced forms of democracy. So, instead of concluding that “socialism” failed, why don’t we conclude that “democracy” failed?. . And it’s obvious why: the fact that they called themselves democratic doesn’t mean that they were democratic. Pretty obvious, right?” Chomsky further proceeds to list the qualities of socialist economies and points out how none of these countries had those properties either, yet we refer to the Soviet collapse as a failure of socialist practices, “Okay, then in what sense did socialism fail?
I mean, it’s true that the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe called themselves “socialist” – but they also called themselves “democratic.” Were they socialist? Well, you can argue about what socialism is, but there are some ideas that are sort of at the core of it, like workers’ control over production, elimination of wage labor, things like that. Did any of those things exist in those countries?
They weren’t even thought there.” So, in essence, he claims that they were neither entirely democratic nor completely socialist. However, in the West, the idea of the rise of socialism against their capitalist system was used to spur the feelings of the world. Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, claimed that “the most important thing about Reagan was his anti-Communism and his reputation as a hawk who saw the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire.’”
This aura of Western aggression and competition isolated the Soviets from the rest of the world economy. The decline in oil prices was a massive blow to the already dwindling economy.
The Soviet GDP had fallen by 34 percent between 1940 and 1942, and its effects reached well into the 60s. By 1970, the Soviet economy had recoiled since Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev gave industries a chance to prioritize profits instead of production. But then, like the space and nuclear race before it, the Afghan War proved to be far too taxing on the economy. Until then, however, most of the work had been done.
The communist elite was busy hoarding wealth, and the blatant poverty in the country was in perfect contrast to their ideology. Young people did not believe in the communist ideal anymore, which meant that reforms were needed.
3. Gorbachev’s Reforms
“The Soviet people want full-blooded and unconditional democracy.” – Mikhail Gorbachev Gorbachev came into power in 1985 and pursued perestroika and glasnost, two policies based on political and economic openness principles. To get the economy back on track, he emphasized the need for a hybrid of communist-capitalist culture. “As a young man, I really took to heart the Communist ideals.
A young soul certainly cannot reject things like justice and equality. These were the goals proclaimed by the Communists. But in reality, that terrible Communist experiment brought about the repression of human dignity. Violence was used in order to impose that model on society. In the name of Communism, we abandoned fundamental human values. So when I came to power in Russia I started to restore those values; values of “openness” and freedom,” said Gorbachev.
The values of openness and freedom did wonders for them in the beginning. The press was free, people were given religious freedoms, and political prisoners were released. Things were going well for the Soviets, but that was neither the public nor the international community’s perception.
Gorbachev’s policies were seen as a sign of weakness and, in some instances, the work of foreign powers to drive the Soviet world towards “Western debauchery.” Despite Gorbachev’s sincere efforts for “modernized socialism,” the blowback was overwhelming. Totalitarian ideas had sustained Soviet rule, but the newfound liberal stance was incompatible with keeping several republics in line. And, so, they began to demand independence.
4. The Ethnic Diversity of the East
The Ethnic Diversity of the East People in the USSR came from diverse backgrounds, yet the Soviets wanted to mold them into one whole. Something like that is easier said than done. Artists, filmmakers, and poets would talk about the need for freedom, and some of them would see the inside of jail cells for it.
In Poland, filmmaking giants like Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski struggled to make sense of life under communist rule. Like the Soviet and later Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Literary figures became outspoken critics of the systems.
Then, there were others like the Supremacist master, Kazimir Malevich, who had non-material philosophies. Even though Malevich found fame internationally, his art was referred to as “elitist” in Russia. It was not until Gorbachev’s rule that his paintings were shown in public. “We expected that people were just waiting for the collapse of the Soviet Union, or at least for its retreat, and they were going to be full of initiative in all areas of life – in culture, in the economy, and in politics.” – Andrzej Wajda, Polish filmmaker
The disregard for the diversity of the ethnic and social makeup of the different countries of the Union led to discrimination against minorities. The Communist rule wanted to put everyone in the same box and treat them the same way, which did not always please everyone. In his book, In the First Circle, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, claims that “No one, even as a joke, could call a member of the All-Union Communist Party a Neo-Hegelian, a Neo-Kantian, a Subjectivist, an Agnostic, or, God forbid, a Revisionist. But “epicurean” sounded so harmless it could not possibly imply that one was not an orthodox Marxist.”
This sort of rigid behavior led to increasing ethnic nationalism in the Soviet republics. It was not long before riots and unrest became commonplace. Events like the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and the rioting in Kazakhstan drove the point home. In 1989, there was a regime change in Poland. Similar nationalist movements popped up across all of Eastern Europe. Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and others began to drift away from the larger Soviet rule. By the late 1980s, things had reached a boiling point. And so, happened.
5. The Fall of the Wall
The wall was the symbol of the divide. While the Western side of Berlin was enjoying the spoils of capitalism, the east was vying for a sense of collectivist harmony. In 1987, Reagan called upon Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” The reunification of Eastern and Western Europe was already the talk of the town. Europe waited for the moment with bated breath.
In 1989, East Germany’s communist rule was overthrown amid the many revolts in Eastern Europe, and the new government did “tear down this wall.” By late 1990, Germany was reunited. In 1991, the writing was on the wall. With the most explicit symbol of the divide torn down and East and West Berlin reunited once again, the message was loud and clear. The Soviet Union’s weakness was on display for all to see, and they could not delay the inevitable.
On December 25, 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev said, “We’re living in a new world,” the Cold War was over. Gorbachev resigned, and the next day, the Union was dissolved. “My response to the end of Soviet tyranny was similar to my reaction to the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. In all cases, it is a victory for the human spirit. It should have been particularly welcome to socialists since a great enemy of socialism had at last collapsed.