Why did the Soviet Union collapse in 1991?  It is an almost singular event in political history – empires have been broken apart after military defeat and territories have won statehood after civil war, but it is almost unprecedented to have a federal state decide to dissolve itself and to do so mostly peacefully.

In class we will discuss theories of why this happened; in this video I will talk about how it happened.

Economic context

By the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union was facing economic stagnation at home and increased competition abroad.  The Soviet model of rapid industrialization led to high growth and increased living standards in the 1950s and 1960s, but growth rates declined, petty corruption increased, and public dissatisfaction increased over time.  Discontent was not expressed through open protest, but more through the rise of social problems such as alcoholism.  One academic estimated that alcohol consumption in the Soviet Union grew 600% between 1940 and 1980, while the population grew only 25%.

We in the United States like to give Ronald Reagan credit for ending communism, primarily by increasing the economic pressures on the Soviet state through an arms race.  Soviet military spending was a disproportionately large part of its budget (an estimated 40% in the 1960s, but around 20% in the 1980s; by comparison the U.S. currently spends around 15% of its budget on the military), and the need to increase spending did increase pressure, but doesn’t explain the timing or specific events of Soviet collapse.

Equally important on the international front was the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, which took place between 1988-89 after a decade of unsuccessful guerrilla warfare.

Gorbachev’s reforms

When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary in 1985, he already recognized the need for reform.  What happened was a massive set of unintended consequences.

The most common criticism of Gorbachev is that he pursued simultaneous economic and political reforms.  While this may be the case – more on this later – the pursuit of simultaneous reforms wasn’t an accident, but was by design.  Gorbachev wanted managed reform, but believed major reform was needed.  Political reforms were seen as essential to inject new ideas and new thinking into the general public, as well as to make economic reforms (such as anti-corruption efforts) work at all.

There were three main categories of reform:

  • New Thinking, which was primarily about foreign policy,
  • Glasnost, which was about easing restrictions on political freedoms, and
  • Perestroika, which was economic reform.

I’m not going to talk much about the easing of Soviet control over the Eastern Bloc, except to note that the demonstrated success of popular protest movements in eastern Europe (like Solidarity in Poland or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) did have a spillover effect within Soviet borders.

Glasnost, or “openness,” had two elements – easing of restrictions on freedom of speech and what was literally called democratization.  On the speech front, eased standards led to the public exploration of contemporary social problems (such as those faced by veterans returning from Afghanistan) as well as a reexamination of the legacies of Stalin and even Lenin.  On the political front, Gorbachev created a new set of political institutions designed to separate the party from the state (this was supposed to increase monitoring of performance) that eased restrictions on who could run for office as an independent candidate.  New elections were held in 1990 and 1991 at the national and republic levels.  While these elections were not fully free and fair, they did empower a new group of elites in the constituent republics – people like Boris Yeltsin.

On the economic front, perestroika, or “restructuring,” was meant to introduce limited market reforms and private property while moving the economy away from central planning.  Gorbachev planned to accelerate economic production, then liberalize management.  Some specific policies just backfired.  For example, an early anti-alcohol campaign led to budget shortfalls (in 1985, an estimated 13% of state revenue came from alcohol taxes).  The bigger problem was that few economic reforms were actually implemented.  While recognizing the need for reform, Gorbachev remained a believer in socialism and resisted proposals for significant privatization and other large-scale reforms.

The end result was that in the late 1980s and early 90s, the Communist party was delegitimized as the sole source of political authority, new elites who had popular support were taking power in the provinces, and the economy itself was contracting.  Rather than experiencing growth, the Soviet economy shrunk in both 1990 and 1991.


When the end came, it came fairly quickly.  Nationalist protest movements played an important role in starting the process – notably the “singing revolution” in Estonia (known for its use of traditional songs as forms of protest and a two-million person human chain across the Baltic states) and the Karabakh movement in Armenia, which protested the administrative inclusion of an Armenian-majority territory (Nagorno-Karabakh) under Azerbaijan’s jurisdiction.  These early protests mostly sought reforms within the Soviet state, but quickly snowballed into independence movements.  Conservative forces attempted to counter these movements with a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, but failed after Russian street protests, famously led by Yeltsin giving a speech on top of a tank outside the Russian White House, which housed the republic government.  The end came not with protests, however, but as a negotiation between the leaders of three Soviet republics – Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.  After they declared the creation of a confederation (the Commonwealth of Independent States) to replace the USSR on December 8, Gorbachev acknowledged that the Soviet Union was gone and resigned two weeks later.

Vladimir Putin has called the end of the Soviet Union the biggest catastrophe of the 20th century.  While it is not seen that way in eastern Europe and most former Soviet republics, where it is celebrated as a national liberation, the legacies of the end of communism remain debated today.  And it is undeniable that the end of the USSR led to a decade of political and economic decline in Russia.  We talk about the 1990s in two weeks, but for now we will look at the inevitability of this collapse.