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5 Factors That Led to the Collapse of the Soviet Union

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Read on to learn about five factors that led to the Soviet Union's collapse.

Read on to learn about five factors that led to the Soviet Union's collapse.

The End of the Soviet Union

On Christmas Day 1991, Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev declared, "We’re now living in a new world.” It marked the end of the Soviet Union and the forty-year cold war that had raged between Russia and the United States.

Even today, many Russians consider Gorbachev a weak leader and blame his policy of glasnost (openness) for the Soviet collapse. It was he, they claim, who signalled Soviet capitulation by allowing the first McDonalds to open in Russia.

But the fall had been set in motion years before, and Gorbachev simply hastened the inevitable. William Taubman, historian and author of Gorbachev: His Life and Times, writes: "The Soviet Union could have survived for a number of years, but it would have grown weaker and more decrepit."

Here are the five factors that eroded the foundations of Communist Russia.

5 Factors That Ended Soviet Russia

  1. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
  2. Economic Collapse
  3. Political Corruption
  4. The Chernobyl Disaster
  5. Disillusionment With Communism

1. The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

In 1979, Afghanistan's communist government, allied with the Soviet Union, faced an Islamic uprising led by the Mujahideen (Arabic for "those who engage in jihad"). Soviet armies entered Afghanistan to prevent the government from being overthrown and discovered that Afghanistan is called the "graveyard of empires" for a reason.

The Soviets became trapped in a quagmire for ten years. The Mujahideen, bolstered by volunteer Jihadists (including a Saudi Arabian prince named Osama Bin Laden) and armed by the United States, utilised guerilla tactics to devastating effect.

Finally, in 1989, the Soviets withdrew after suffering around 15000 casualties. They would never recover from the financial damage and loss of face, but they wouldn't be the last ones to make the mistake of invading Afghanistan.

2. Economic Collapse

Under Stalin, Russia's state-controlled economy transformed the country into an industrial powerhouse that broke the back of the Nazi legions. An oil boom kept the economy strong for a few decades following that, but by the time Gorbachev came around, things had deteriorated badly.

Most of the money from the oil boom had been spent on the arms race with the United States. The industrial economy established by Stalin was looking outdated in a world increasingly driven by technological innovation and information systems.

In response to this, Gorbachev introduced the policy of perestroika, which means market restructuring. The Soviet Union adopted a market-based economy, but the foundations for such an economy were not in place, and the policy ended up exacerbating the situation.

Agriculture, which had been centralised and subsided under the Soviet government, was slow to adapt to the new profit-driven system. This led to rising food prices. The centralised economy was no longer producing goods, which resulted in shortages. The people became increasingly desperate.

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Gorbachev summed it up best in his farewell address: "The old system collapsed before the new one had time to begin working."

3. Political Corruption

Corruption is hardly unique to the Soviet government, but it was made all the worse by the lack of luxury goods and distractions that make corruption bearable in Western countries.

Furthermore, it was especially galling in a society founded on principles of equality. Was the working man not supposed to be the primary beneficiary of a communist society? Yet politicians engaged in bribery and acquired privileges just as they would in a capitalist society.

A 1978 article in The New York Times reported: "This is a society of shortages caused by an inefficient bureaucracy. And bribery and corruption are sometimes the only way to get something."

In 1984, Eduard Shevardnadze (who would serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1985 to 1991) told Gorbachev, "Everything is rotten. It has to be changed".

Chernobyl 4th reactor core after the explosion, 26 April 1986.

Chernobyl 4th reactor core after the explosion, 26 April 1986.

4. The Chernobyl Disaster

In 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded, emitting a burst of radiation that could be felt throughout Europe.

What was so damning was not just the disaster itself, which was a result of substandard equipment and inefficiently trained personnel, but the fact that the Soviet government attempted to cover up. They even allowed the May Day parades in Kyiv to go ahead, despite the danger, to avoid drawing suspicion.

But the game was up when a nuclear plant all the way in Sweden detected increased radiation levels (radioactive fallout remains an issue in Sweden even today, especially for farmers). Pressure from the Swedish government forced the Soviets to admit an accident had occurred. Still, it was only once they began evacuating the entire area that the world realised the scale of the catastrophe.

It was a disaster of epic proportions that endangered not just the Soviet public but people far beyond Russian borders. The government managed to seal off the reactor with a steel and concrete structure (known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant sarcophagus).

The Soviet government lost face as the inferiority of their technology compared to their capitalist rivals was exposed. They also lost what little trust they still had among the public. Former President Gorbachev said that the Chernobyl accident was a more important factor in the fall of the Soviet Union than his policy of Perestroika.

HBO's popular miniseries about the Chernobyl disaster, which aired in 2019, was condemned by the Putin government for misrepresenting the disaster and failing to depict Russian heroism adequately. The production was banned from Russian airwaves, and the government undertook to make their own version that would show what "really happened".

Russian House of Soviets, Lenin on Moscow Square. St. Petersburg.

Russian House of Soviets, Lenin on Moscow Square. St. Petersburg.

5. Disillusionment With Communism

It may be controversial to say this, but it's what Gorbachev himself believed, hence his policy of perestroika (economic restructuring).

Perestroika is blamed by the likes of Putin for Soviet collapse, but in many people's view, it was an attempt to save an already-declining system. Communism had failed to produce the abundance that was promised. The quality of living in Western societies was surging ahead.

The dream of equality among men had failed to materialise. Russia remained as it was before communism: a class-based society with the all-powerful government at the top and the peasants below.

Under the government of Leonid Brezhnev, a popular saying expressed the Russian public's cynical attitude toward the Soviet system: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work!"

Not that the transition to capitalism would solve Russia's problems. As evidenced by the current relationship between Russia and the West, the Soviet Union may have ended, but the Cold War never really did.

References

Ray, Michael. Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse. Britannica

2022, April 19. Collapse of the Soviet Union. History.com

Janos, Adam. 2021, December 15. Was the Soviet Union’s Collapse Inevitable? History.com

Hoffman, David L. 2021, December. The Soviet Collapse. Origins.

Whitney, Craig R. 1978, May 7. In Soviet, Widespread Practice of Bribery Helps One Get a Car, Get an Apartment and Get Ahead. The New York Times.

Maranzani, Barbara. 2019, February 22. Did Perestroika Cause the Fall of the Soviet Union? History.com

2022, April. Chernobyl Accident 1986. World Nuclear Association.

Prysiazhniuk, Marianna. 2019, June 20. What the Russian Media Thinks of HBO's 'Chernobyl'. Vice.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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