Since the Russian Revolution of 1917, Communism dominated not only Russia but also the satellite states that formed the Soviet Union, which included approximately 290 million people by early 1991. A nuclear power with influence throughout Eastern Europe, the USSR was a major global force.
So what caused the USSR’s dissolution on 26 December 1991, and with it the collapse of communism? Rather than a single cause, a number of different factors played a role.
By the 1980’s, the ‘Era of Stagnation’ had gripped Russia’s economy, threatening its superpower status.
Although large, Russia’s economy was relatively backwards, with a sizeable black-market and outdated factories and mines (which also impacted the environment such as the drying up of the Aral Sea). Fiscal mismanagement meant Russia was economically vulnerable to external events, including the March 1986 oil price drop which significantly reduced its income.
By the end of the 1980’s, the economy had deteriorated, with large budget debts and food and consumer goods shortages. Wage increases following perestroika-based reform were facilitated by the government printing more money, leading to inflation. Many people were considerably poorer than the poorest people in the capitalist West.
The military was prioritised, and well-funded due to the Cold War. However, this meant technological innovators and entrepreneurs were put to work in defence industries rather than helping facilitate a partial transition to a market economy.
Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR on 11 March 1985, aiming to reverse the economic decline and streamline government bureaucracy. After this proved slow, he made a speech to the Communist Party Congress in February 1986 where he spoke of the need to implement political and economic restructuring (‘perestroika’) and called for a new era of openness and transparency (‘glasnost’).
Glasnost gave people freedoms they hadn’t previously experienced, including greater freedom of speech. Control of the press was relaxed and thousands of dissidents were released from prison. Significantly however, Glasnost also had the effect of opening the whole Soviet system up to criticism. The state lost media control and democratic reform movements grew throughout the Soviet bloc.
The population were tired of the widespread corruption, and dissatisfied with the police state and censorship. Glasnost brought a rush of new ideas and experiences, from politics to western-style fast food, leaving people feeling newly empowered.
Through Perestroika, Gorbachev eased centralised control of many businesses, allowing some farmers and manufacturers to decide which products to make and what to charge. Nevertheless, many bureaucratic structures remained, with corrupt Communist officials blocking policies that didn’t benefit them.
Communism’s failure in Eastern Europe and revolution
As in 1956 Hungarian Uprising and 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, relaxations by the Soviet government encouraged revolutions in Eastern Europe. Gorbachev’s abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine (which called on the Soviet Union to intervene in countries where socialist rule was under threat) meant unlike previous occasions, the USSR no longer had the means or will to impose military control.
Gorbachev did not believe holding democratic elections would lead Eastern European countries to abandoning their commitment to socialism, yet in June 1989, Solidarity (a previously banned trade union) swept to power in Poland and Lech Walesa became Poland’s first non-communist president.
By the end of 1989, Hungary had removed its border fence with Austria, and the Baltic states were also taking steps toward independence. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 further demonstrated that The Iron Curtain was falling.
The war in Afghanistan
In 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan to help the communist government, which was being attacked by Muslim Mujaheddin fighters. The Mujaheddin were armed with American missiles and the conflict had become another Cold War-era proxy war. It lasted nearly a decade, involving roughly a million Soviet troops, with millions of Afghans being killed or displaced.
By 1986, Glasnost had created the environment for wider vocalisation and protests against the unpopular war. To the Baltic states, the war was viewed similarly to the Russian occupation of their own countries – paving the way for protests. Under pressure from the UN and following US economic sanctions on Russia, Gorbachev announced that Soviet troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 1988. This failure to win the war undermined the image of the army as invincible and also Soviet legitimacy, emboldening those seeking independence.
The end of the Cold War
Ronald Reagan had become US President in 1980. Fervently anti-communist, he described the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan had deepened its rift with America, and Reagan increased spending on arms, developed the neutron bomb, and the cruise missile ‘Star Wars’ satellite defence system.
After Gorbachev came to power, both he and Reagan recognised change was coming, and wanted to be on the right side of history. Gorbachev was keen to reform the Soviet system and improve living standards, realising the USSR could only afford this through reducing military expenditure.
After encouragement and pressure from Reagan, Gorbachev agreed nuclear arms reduction with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) and the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987.
Following the democratic elections in Eastern Europe, and with Germany reunified following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many declared the Cold War already over.
On 26 April 1986, the Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl power station exploded during a routine maintenance check, creating a nuclear disaster.
Despite Glasnost, Communist officials tried to quickly suppress information about the incident, taking days to inform the world and ensuring planned events for May Day went ahead, exposing many people to radiation.
Gorbachev dismissed western media coverage and reports of dangerously high levels of radioactivity as ‘malicious lies’, yet the physical effects from radiation poisoning from those in the contamination zone were undeniable. Gorbachev finally ordered full aid to the site on 14 May, by which time many more people had been put in danger.
Chernobyl had exposed the government’s lack of openness to its people and the international community. It not only proved costly to clean-up but broke trust in the Communist party and was a blow to national pride.
Attempted coup and the rise of Yeltsin
An advocate for democracy, Boris Yeltsin was elected Russian President in June 1991 following the introduction of competitive elections. He had previously been a member of the Communist Party, yet had quit the Politburo after clashing with Gorbachev over the pace of reform.
In August 1991, there was an attempted coup against Gorbachev from the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union. Those involved were hardline opponents of Gorbachev’s, opposed to perestroika and the decentralising of power to the republics. However, Yeltsin raced to the Russian White House to defy them, famously climbing on a tank to condemn the coup against his rival. He later issued a presidential edict declaring the coup illegal, reinstating Gorbachev.
Although restored to his position, Gorbachev had been destroyed politically. He attended a session of the Russian Supreme Soviet on 23 August, where Yeltsin criticized him for having appointed many of the coup members to start with. Yeltsin then announced a ban on the Russian Communist Party. On 29 August, the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all Communist Party activity, ending Communist rule in the Soviet Union.
With his power hugely diminished, Gorbachev resigned on 25 December 1991 with the Soviet Union formerly dissolved the next day. Yeltsin went on to become the first freely elected leader in Russian history.
(Main Image: Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, 1991. Image Credit: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo).