Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? What Led to Its Downfall?

Why did the Soviet Union collapse? The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was influenced by a combination of internal and external factors. These factors included ethnic tensions, economic challenges, the end of the Cold War, etc. Read on to find out how these factors led to the end of the Soviet Union.

Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?

Back on January 1, 1991, the Soviet Union held the title of the largest country in the world. It covered a vast area of about 8,650,000 square miles (22,400,000 square km), which was nearly one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface. 

The population exceeded 290 million, and within its borders, there were 100 different nationalities. 

The Soviet Union also possessed a massive arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and its influence extended across Eastern Europe through mechanisms like the Warsaw Pact.

However, within just a year, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. It’s challenging to pinpoint a single cause for such a complex and far-reaching event like the collapse of a global superpower. 

Nevertheless, a combination of internal and external factors played a significant role in the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.

The Political Factor

Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascent to the position of general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 marked a turning point. His objectives were to revive the stagnant economy and streamline the bureaucracy. 

When initial reforms fell short, he implemented glasnost and perestroika. However, glasnost’s unintended consequence was widespread criticism of the Soviet system, while perestroika’s limited market principles couldn’t overcome bureaucratic resistance. 

Gorbachev’s departure from the Brezhnev Doctrine and these reforms accelerated the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

By the end of 1989, Hungary, Poland, and the Baltic states were pursuing democratic changes, and the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union’s impending demise.

The Economic Factor

In 1990, the Soviet economy was considered the world’s second-largest by certain measures. However, there were frequent shortages of consumer goods, and hoarding was a common occurrence. 

The Soviet black market economy was estimated to be more than 10 percent of the country’s official GDP. Economic stagnation had plagued the nation for years, and the perestroika reforms only worsened the situation.

To support wage increases, the government resorted to printing more money, which fueled a cycle of inflation. Poor fiscal management left the country vulnerable to external factors, and a significant drop in oil prices sent the Soviet economy spiraling downward. 

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the Soviet Union stood as one of the world’s leading producers of energy resources like oil and natural gas, and the export of these commodities played a crucial role in sustaining the largest command economy in the world.

However, when the price of oil plummeted from $120 a barrel in 1980 to $24 a barrel in March 1986, this vital source of external capital dried up.

Although there was a temporary price increase following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, by that point, the collapse of the Soviet Union was already well underway.

The Military Factor

There is a widespread belief that Soviet defense spending greatly increased in response to Ronald Reagan’s presidency and proposals like the Strategic Defense Initiative. 

However, the reality is that the Soviet military budget had been steadily rising since at least the early 1970s. Western analysts had to rely on educated guesses since exact numbers were hard to come by. 

Estimates of Soviet military spending ranged from 10 to 20 percent of GDP, and even within the Soviet Union, it was challenging to obtain an accurate account due to various government ministries with their own conflicting interests.

What we can say for certain is that military spending remained unaffected by overall economic trends. Even during times of economic struggle, the military continued to receive ample funding. 

Moreover, the military was given priority when it came to research and development talent. 

Individuals with technological innovation skills and entrepreneurial aspirations, who could have contributed to Gorbachev’s efforts to transition to a market economy, were instead directed toward the defense industries.

Afghanistan

The Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989 had significant consequences for both Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. The Soviet army faced a challenging situation against mujahideen fighters armed with American missiles, resulting in casualties for both sides. 

The conflict revealed widespread weariness and opposition, eroding public support for the war. The Soviet army lost influence and faced protests from veterans and various republics within the Soviet Union. 

The war contributed to the secessionist movements, leading to the Baltic states declaring independence in 1990. Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan played a crucial role in its eventual breakup.

The Social Factor

In 1990, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, symbolizing the triumph of Western capitalism and attracting eager crowds. 

This excitement reflected the changing atmosphere in the final years of the Soviet Union, where glasnost allowed new ideas and experiences to flood the country. 

The Soviet citizens eagerly embraced these opportunities, exploring political philosophies and experiencing Western-style fast food. Widespread corruption and a desire for change fueled the public’s discontent with the Soviet state. 

Gorbachev’s reforms aimed to transform the Soviet spirit and rebuild the relationship between the regime and its people. However, a failed coup attempt by hardline Communists ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Nuclear Factor

In 1990, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow, representing the success of Western capitalism. The event sparked excitement, similar to the enthusiasm for liberal newspapers during the final years of the Soviet Union. 

Glasnost allowed new ideas to flourish, and Soviet citizens eagerly embraced them. They consumed essays on democratization and experienced a taste of the market economy through fast food. Widespread corruption within the Soviet state had fueled public discontent. 

Gorbachev aimed to transform the Soviet spirit through glasnost and perestroika, but the growing tension between the empowered citizenry and the discredited state proved insurmountable. A failed coup attempt ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Final Thoughts

The Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms of glasnost and perestroika were pivotal factors in the collapse of the Soviet empire. 

The Afghan conflict strained the Soviet economy and public support, while the reforms unleashed forces that eroded the regime’s control, leading to its ultimate demise.

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