The Collapse of the Soviet Union

On 25 December 1991, the red flag was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time in history. At the same time, Mikhail Gorbachev (the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union) announced his resignation as Soviet President live on television. Such an occurrence had previously been unthinkable before Gorbachev came to power. Indeed, only Ernst Mendel and Leon Trotsky had ever predicted that the Soviet Union would not be able to survive in what was effectively a form of limbo between Capitalism and Communism. Given that Gorbachev had unilaterally reduced the Soviet military presence in Europe and had given the states of the Soviet Bloc the right to self-determination, it is certainly possible to argue that it was his policies that ultimately led to the collapse of the USSR. However, it must also be noted that Gorbachev had only introduced such policies as a result of his desire to reform a crumbling government. In short, even though the collapse of the Soviet Union did also come in part as a result of outside pressures and the pressing need for domestic reform, this essay will argue that the collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed the unintended result of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies.

In spite of this, it must also be noted that the country which Gorbachev inherited on 1 March 1985 was already in a disastrous economic state. By the time Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982, over 50% of the Soviet Union’s GDP was being spent on keeping up with the USA in the ongoing nuclear arms race. This was made even worse by the introduction of the “Strategic Defence Initiative” (an anti-Ballistic Missile System based in Space) by US President Ronald Reagan in March 1983. This would effectively make the Soviet nuclear arsenal obsolete if they did not stretch their already flailing economy even further (after all, the programme did cost over $17 Billion). In addition to this, Reagan increased defence spending by over 13% in 1982 and then increased it by 8% during the following two years. Given that the USA was far superior in terms of both technology and its economy, it is very likely that they could have buried the USSR anyway had they continued to apply such intense pressure. Such an assumption is somewhat ironic given that the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev promised to ‘bury’ the USA during the Camp David talks of 1957. If Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to avoid becoming snowed under by the USA, then it is likely that he would have had to appease it in some way. A gradual transition into a market economy and a democratic system of government seemed the most obvious ways in which to do this. Finally, it was not only Gorbachev who had thought about liberalizing the dictatorship of the Soviet Union; his predecessor Yuri Andropov (the former head of the KGB) had begun to reduce Soviet expenditure on armaments and had also offered to terminate the Brezhnev Doctrine which justified the use of force in order to hold the Soviet Bloc together. For this reason, it could be argued that the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev (which were implemented with the intention of reforming the Soviet Union) were not what ultimately resulted in its collapse.

However, there were many other policies that were introduced by Gorbachev that could have definitely contributed to the collapse of the USSR. Among his most notable actions was his decision to cut down Soviet military expenditure, to reduce the size of the Soviet Army by 500,000 troops, and to accept the mutual withdrawal of all NATO “Cruise” missiles and Soviet SS-20 rockets from Europe (otherwise known as the “NATO Zero”) without consulting any of his military advisers or hard-line Politburo colleagues. To add insult to injury, Gorbachev had done this unilaterally and demanded very few concessions from the USA. This helped to greatly weaken the Soviet Union and helped to take away the only effective means it had of keeping its sphere of influence together. The Soviet Union had, after all, used its army to crush anti-Communist rebellions in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). The Soviet Politburo was angered by this ‘Surrendering to the USA’. This hence increased tensions in the Soviet Politburo, and this was one of the factors that ultimately contributed towards the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Moreover, Gorbachev’s domestic reforms were also unnerving the people of his own country. When he was driving through France with his wife Raisa in 1985, Gorbachev observed that the Soviet Union, with its high rates of poverty and unemployment, ‘couldn’t go on living like this’. For this reason, he set about to reform it. This did not, however, mean that he wanted to break up the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he was a keen and devoted Marxist who believed that the system had the potential to deliver on its promises of providing the ordinary people with higher wages, more housing and better food supplies. In order to fulfil these promises, Gorbachev announced the introduction of his policy “Perestroika” (Restructuring). This ended the centralised Soviet Economy that had existed since the time of Stalin. However, despite its good intentions of encouraging initiative and terminating unemployment, it took away a sense of certainty from the Soviet people, who had been used to receiving dictates from their local Commissars for generations. In an effort to kick-start the system, Gorbachev had instead destabilised it. Worse still, it failed to improve the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev’s other policy of ‘Glasnost’ (meaning ‘Openness’) was even more dangerous to the Soviet System. Like ‘Perestroika’, this policy also had honourable intentions, such as increasing the freedom of communication in order to deal more effectively with regional disasters like the 1986 nuclear explosion in Chernobyl. However, it also allowed opposition members to voice their contempt for the government in public, making it much harder for the state to control the various underground protest movements. Finally, Gorbachev’s introduction of a ‘Congress of People’s Deputies’ in 1986 was essentially a precedent for free and fair elections in the Soviet Union. This was more than many Soviet hardliners in the Soviet Politburo were prepared to accept. As a result of their outrage, a group of Communist hardliners, under the Soviet Vice-President Yedanayev, attempted to depose Gorbachev in a coup. This incident caused the ascension of Boris Yeltsin, who saved Gorbachev from being deposed by force in order to increase his popularity. Such an increase in popularity resulted in him becoming leader of the Soviet Republic of Russia in a landslide election victory. Not only would he be instrumental in pulling the rug out from under Gorbachev’s feet by banning the Communist Party in Russia (effectively stripping the political system of any base in which to operate), but he was also heavily against the existence of the Soviet Union. This meant that he was all too happy to replace it with the ‘Commonwealth of Independent States’ in December 1991. Had Gorbachev not introduced Glasnost, his military would have been less likely to turn against him. This would hence have never led to the coup that provided Boris Yeltsin with the springboard from which to demand further reaching and faster reforms. Had Yeltsin not been able to demand further-reaching and faster reforms as a result of Glasnost’s introduction, the Soviet Union might perhaps have taken longer to collapse.

It was not only Gorbachev’s domestic policies that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union; but it was also due to the fact that his foreign policy had been unlike that of any other previous Soviet leader. His decision to replace the Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko (scathingly nicknamed ‘Mr. No’ by the West) with the reformist Edvard Shevardnadze was a striking example of this. In many respects, Gorbachev’s Foreign Policy helped to enhance his reputation. He was one of the only Soviet leaders to travel outside of the USSR; bringing with him a smile which, in the words of one Historian, ‘Conquered the West’. Opinion polls conducted in 1991 revealed Gorbachev to be far more popular than any other Western leader, and when he visited East German leader Erich Honneker in July 1991, he was greeted by crowds of cheering youths. However, an aspect of Gorbachev’s policy that seriously damaged his reputation at home was his decision to grant the member states of the Warsaw Pact the right to choose their own futures. Being a convinced Marxist-Leninist, Gorbachev was convinced that these countries would choose ‘Socialism with a human face’ and would even be grateful to Moscow for allowing them to decide upon their own routes to Communism. Because of this, he hoped to strengthen and not weaken ties between the Soviet Union and its satellite states. What he did not take into account was the fact that long periods of brutal oppression by Soviet backed puppet Governments had caused anger in Eastern Europe to boil over. When he announced that force would not be used to crush opposition to the Communists in the Hungarian elections of March 1989, it encouraged other protest movements (like the ‘Solidarity’ movement in Poland) to become stronger and stronger, sweeping aside long-established Communist governments without a drop of blood being spilled. The only exception to this was Romania, in which the brutal dictator Nicolai Ceausescu and his wife were deposed and then executed on Christmas Day 1990. Gorbachev’s decision to give freedom to the Eastern European states ensured the triggering of the Domino Effect, gradually tearing the Iron Curtain to pieces. This hence made it very difficult for Gorbachev to maintain a hold over the Baltic States, even when troops were called in to disperse pro-democracy protests. In short, Gorbachev’s decision to grant a degree of freedom to the satellite states only led to them breaking away from the Soviet Union, rather than forming closer ties with it as he had originally hoped, thus meaning that the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe was the unintended result of Gorbachev’s policies.

Overall, it is certainly true that the USA played a significant part in ensuring the Soviet Union’s collapse. Not only did they have a clear advantage in the number of submarine launched ballistic missiles, but they were also far stronger technologically and economically than the Soviet Union. By being able to spend far more money on armaments than the Soviet Union ever could, the US was effectively driving the Soviet economy into the ground. However, given that many of Gorbachev’s liberalization policies were carried out without any reciprocal demands, one might argue that he was effectively surrendering the initiative to the Soviet Union’s long time arch-rival. Moreover, orthodox historians might argue that Gorbachev was also trying to reform an unmalleable system. As soon as he introduced free speech in a single party state, Gorbachev was on the start of a very slippery slope. As discontent boiled over, protest movements became more vigorous and Gorbachev’s policies of ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Self Determination’ meant that there was nothing the Soviet government could do to maintain control over the situation. This resulted in the loss of Eastern Europe and the ensuing coup by hard-core Communists against Gorbachev. After this coup, a rising tide of nationalism swept the anti-Soviet politician Boris Yeltsin into power. This ultimately paved the way for the banning of the Communist Party in Russia (the largest Soviet Republic) and the ensuing dissolution of the Soviet Union. Because of this, it is possible to conclude that the collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies, even though they had been implemented to revitalise the Communist system.

Remi Trovo, U6th IB pupil

≪ Back to House Magazine Winter 2017