Thirty years ago, in 1991, the USSR suddenly collapsed, and 15 new countries emerged from the former Soviet Union. What led the planet’s second most powerful nation to vote itself out of existence, a step unprecedented in the history of the world?
Here is a short synopsis of what happened.
Life behind the Iron Curtain was pretty bleak, except for those in charge who had special privileges. There were no democratic elections. Once a policy had been agreed on behind closed doors unanimous support was expected, and no debate was permitted. Innovation was discouraged and free exchange of ideas not allowed. Having lived behind the Iron Curtain for the better part of a year in the 1970s, I saw these conditions first-hand. For example, one Romanian co-worker was fined three months’ salary for being “uppity” — he had the gall to suggest a better way to do a routine task. He couldn’t quit his job, though, because the Romanian government was, in fact, the country’s only employer.
As long as the general populace could be repressed, Eastern Bloc totalitarian governments would stay in power. Something had to happen to change the system. Something did.
Economics. Managers were forced to take shortcuts to try to meet impossible production targets. Shoddy apartment building construction was responsible for most of the 200,000 killed and injured in an Armenian earthquake in 1988. Safety compromises were responsible for the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.
Siberian oil deposits were managed for short-term production goals at the expense of the long term health of the fields, resulting in an inevitable decline. When oil and grain export revenues fell the USSR had to borrow billions in hard currency to cover imports from the West.
Soviet military expenditures averaged 15% to 17% of their GNP, about triple the U.S. percentage at the time. The military got everything it wanted, while consumer goods easily available in the West were in extremely short supply or non-existent.
Control of the satellite republics. A revolution in Hungary in 1956 and liberalization of citizens’ rights in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were brutally repressed by the Soviet military. The USSR supported a Marxist leader in Afghanistan, but when he was assassinated and his successor started making overtures to the West, in 1979 the Kremlin ordered an invasion to re-establish a friendly government on its southern border.
In the 1980s increasing economic ties with the West (and fear of economic reprisals) made the Soviets reluctant to intervene militarily in the affairs of their buffer states. So when Polish workers (emboldened by the election of a Polish Pope) struck for freedom of speech and the right to form unions, the USSR permitted Poland’s government to handle the situation themselves. The first crack had appeared in the Soviet façade.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he further reduced the Soviet grip on Warsaw Pact countries, declaring that the USSR would no longer interfere in their domestic affairs. With the threat of intervention gone, Eastern Europe started drifting away from totalitarian communism.
Economic reforms. Gorbachev was the first USSR leader who did not come from the Stalinist era, and the first to criticize their inefficient economic system. He recognized that he had to reduce their foreign commitments and military expenditures to limit the Soviet Union’s economic decline. Withdrawal from Afghanistan was initiated. Expenditures to foment revolutions in third-world countries were eliminated. Détente with the U.S. resulted in two nuclear arms reductions treaties and another agreement that reduced conventional forces in Europe.
To Gorbachev it also was obvious that the USSR could not compete with the West in technology, and in fact was rapidly falling further behind. For example, the Soviet military was extremely concerned about U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” missile defense program, because they thought this would give the U.S. a first-strike capability with impunity from any Soviet counter-strike.
Gorbachev tried to restructure the Soviet economy, not by abandoning communism but by making changes within the system. Some private corporations were permitted to form that could decide what and how much to produce and to set prices; adding the profit incentive was supposed to help the economy grow and make consumer goods more available. And while some new products became available, without government subsidies most people couldn’t afford them. A huge black market flourished, and the economy got worse, not better. These changes to the communist central planning system were well-intentioned; the problem was not with the changes, but with the system itself.
Political reforms. ‘Glasnost’ (transparency) as instituted by Gorbachev was initially meant to allow a more open government and wider dissemination of information, but still assuming that communism was inherently superior to capitalism. But Glasnost quickly morphed into full-fledged freedom of speech and democratic elections that resulted in western-style campaigns for office. Press restrictions were lifted, and television covered legislative debates. Suddenly there was no more unanimity of message, but instead fierce disagreements about the course the USSR was taking. More contact with the West led Soviet citizens to realize how economically disadvantaged they were under communism. Political parties started to form. More control was shifted from the central government to local and regional bodies, severely weakening the national Communist Party.
The collapse. In 1989 these economic and political conditions triggered the sudden collapse of totalitarian regimes in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and started Germany on the path to reunification. Nationalist movements in Soviet republics took root, and eventually all 15 Soviet republics including Russia declared their independence from the USSR. Glasnost was the immediate cause, but most experts agree that the economic situation alone had already condemned the Soviet Union to eventual dissolution.
So, in 1991, Gorbachev turned the nuclear missile release codes over to Boris Yeltsin, the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation. And the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics just faded away.
(Jim Janke is a retired chemical engineer and amateur historian living in Waynesville, North Carolina. © 2021 J.A.Janke.)