USSR Collapse

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USSR Collapse

USSR 1991


Beginning under Nikita Khrushchev from 1953 to 1964 and throughout the period after his resignation as general secretary, the USSR stagnated. The leaders of this totalitarian regime had a thirst for power but questionable ability. The economy suffered from lack of investment, and the government's reaction to general dissatisfaction was to counter with repressive measures. Though many historians agree that Yuri Andropov, general secretary from 1982 to 1984, was a reformer, his only achievement was to promote younger, more liberal communists on to the Politburo. The fact that the Politburo elected the conservative former KGB officer Konstantin Chernenko as Andropov's successor, however, highlights the fact that the liberal element lacked decisive influence. By the time of Chernenko's death, 13 months after Andropov, many of the "old guard" Brezhnevites had also died. This allowed Mikhail Gorbachev, a Leninist reformer, to be elected with the unanimous support of the Politburo, a decision met with euphoria among the Communist Party membership. Gorbachev inherited a state that was in virtual collapse. His reforms, intended to reinvigorate communism, actually dealt the USSR its deathblow. As a political and civil society developed and the various nationalities within the Soviet Union demanded independence, it was clear that the state was fragmenting. In an attempt to reverse this situation, in 1991 a group of communists attempted to remove Gorbachev from office. The coup's failure marked the end of communist rule. As it had been a century earlier, the only alternative to instituting change was to allow the Russian people to bring about change from below.


  • 1968: After Czechoslovakia adopts a more democratic, popular regime, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces invade to crush the uprising.
  • 1975: U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft link up in space.
  • 1979: More than a year after Afghan communists seized control of their nation, Afghanistan is in disarray, and in December, Soviet tanks roll in to restore order, as they once did in East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. This time, however, the task of suppressing the local populace will not prove so easy: little do the Soviets know that they are signing on for a decade-long war from which they will return in defeat.
  • 1983: A Soviet fighter plane shoots down a Korean Air Lines 747 that had strayed into Soviet airspace. All 269 passengers, including 61 Americans (among them U.S. Congressman Larry McDonald), are killed.
  • 1989: The Iron Curtain begins to crumble, most dramatically in Berlin, where massive protests erupt at the hated Wall on 9 November. Two days later, for the first time in 28 years, the Wall is opened between East and West. The following month, on Christmas Day, the people of Romania execute the dictator Ceausescu and his wife.
  • 1991: The United States and other allies in the UN force commence the war against Iraq on 15 January. By 3 April the war is over, a resounding victory for the Allied force.
  • 1991: South African Parliament repeals the laws establishing the system of Apartheid.
  • 1991: After a stormy confirmation battle in which Professor Anita Hill accuses the appointee of sexual harassment, the U.S. Senate approves the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
  • 1991: In December the last three U.S. hostages held in Lebanon are freed.
  • 1994: Russian troops invade Chechnya to stop its attempted secession from the Russian Federation. The Russians will soon depart, but in 1999 will return with an even larger force.
  • 1999: Longtime Russian President Boris Yeltsin steps down, and Vladimir Putin is elected to replace him.

Event and Its Context

Perestroika and Glasnost

Mikhail Gorbachev was elected within 11 hours of Chernenko's death, an unprecedentedly swift transition. With the backing of a number of liberals and the sponsorship of Andrei Gromyko, elder statesman of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev's accession seemed inevitable. Historians suggest that there was a consensus surrounding the need for reform. Culture Minister Pyotr Demichev supported him, saying Gorbachev had "a feeling for the new." Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze declared Gorbachev's accession was "something the whole country and the entire party are expecting." Clearly public opinion backed Gorbachev's vision for the USSR. His statement that "we can't go on living like this anymore" was indicative of the mood in the Soviet Union. Furthermore his plan to redesign Marxist-Leninism to suit the requirements of modern Russia, eventually outlined in Perestroika, enjoyed the support of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

The CPSU was, however, the obstacle to reform. The majority of Gorbachev's supporters favored cosmetic and superficial restructuring that would not alter the power relations from which they benefited. These inconsistencies also prevailed in Gorbachev's thinking. On the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution, he at once condemned and applauded Joseph Stalin: on the one hand Stalin was the shameless perpetrator of genocide, and on the other he was the defender of socialism. Gorbachev's approach combined modest reforms with "business as usual."

Debate centered on the "capitalization of society" and introduction of market economics, which Gorbachev rejected. Perestroika (reconstruction) was a program of democratization that reestablished the CPSU as the vanguard of the people. The USSR remained a totalitarian state, but with a more responsive government. This ignored the obvious conclusion that democratization was possible only with the dissolution of the totalitarian, bureaucratic model of government. Gorbachev, however, refused to permit political competition or to create completely new institutions for governing Russia.

Glasnost (openness), however, allowed the people to voice such ideas and to establish competing groups. Alternative thinking became widespread, and CPSU meetings attracted fewer delegates and membership plummeted. Effectively, by 1987, the CPSU was in a position to melt away despite being the instrument of government.

Gorbachev sidelined the domestic difficulties to concentrate on his world image. In October 1989 the USSR abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine and allowed the Warsaw Pact nations freedom from Soviet influence. In March, Gorbachev withdrew Soviet troops from Afghanistan, which made him popular with Western governments. In December 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. With his award of Time Magazine Man of the Year, he was the most popular world figure in opinion polls during the period from 1988 to 1990. In the USSR, however, Dmitri Volkogonov, deputy director of the Political Department of the Soviet Army, a subdepartment of the Central Committee, argued that Gorbachev was viewed as the "little-respected leader of a bankrupt party." His attachment to the ideology of Marxist-Leninism led him to hinder the progress he had instituted.

The Coup

Between 1989 and 1990 the "velvet revolution" swept across the former Soviet satellite states, and democracy displaced communism. At the same time the USSR was also moving toward a transformation into a union of sovereign states that would be closer to the European Union model than that established under Stalin. These trends exacerbated tensions between the competing factions within the CPSU. The reformists, nominally led by Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Boris Yeltsin, were happy to cede power and stand for election. The conservatives, however, were highly fearful of the place they might have in a post-communist Russia. Gorbachev's attempts to appease both sides actually appealed to no one. The conservative communists had only one chance to retain their grip on power and to keep the USSR intact, and that would involve decisive action against Gorbachev and the reformers.

Although the timing of the attempted coup was, perhaps, too late, the CPSU had enormous power still at its disposal. The military, the police, and the KGB all had primary loyalty to the CPSU, and the leaders of each institution were loyal communists. The announcement that a treaty was to be signed with ceding Soviet republics on 20 August 1991 triggered a revolt. The mastermind of the coup was KGB chief Vladimir Kriuchkov; the leader, for the sake of legitimacy, was Gennadii Ianaev, Gorbachev's vice president. Under the assumption that Gorbachev would acquiesce to their demands, on 18 August a delegation went to his dacha on the Crimea to ask for his resignation. His refusal created panic among the plotters, and they attempted to oust him by force.

Over the night of 18 August the military seized government buildings in Moscow and arrested all of the reformers that they could find. At 6 A.M. on 19 August, Moscow Radio broadcast an appeal for the support of the Soviet people. The appeal, made in the name of the CPSU, claimed that the action was necessary because Gorbachev's policies had failed and made the USSR ungovernable.

Boris Yeltsin was instrumental in defeating the coup. Despite being Gorbachev's bê te noire, Yeltsin opposed any move that would undermine what Gorbachev had achieved. Yeltsin also understood that the public mood, including among the troops, was ambivalent to the CPSU, which gave him a strong position from which to fight. On hearing the radio broadcast, Yeltsin made his way immediately to the White House. He navigated through the lines of tanks and dared the soldiers to arrest him. Standing astride the gun barrel of a tank, he demanded that Gorbachev be restored to the presidency, called a general strike in support of democratization, and asked the soldiers and people to pledge their loyalty to an elected government. Following the initial confusion, the majority of troops rallied to Yeltsin. Sporadic fighting ensued but by 21 August, at the cost of only three lives, the coup was defeated. Though Gorbachev was able to return to Moscow as the victor, the glory belonged, as did public support, to Yeltsin. Effectively, the Soviet Union and the CPSU were no more.

The Collapse of Communism and the USSR

The republic's leaders, fearing another coup, rushed to declare their independence from Russia, thus backing Yeltsin's declaration. Though Gorbachev attempted to utilize his skills as a negotiator to prevent a complete break up, he was thwarted. The instability of politics in Russia, the former hub of control, and the beliefs that the republics could govern themselves successfully, led them to secede. Within Russia, also, he was blamed for the ills of society. His attachment to Marxist-Leninism was seen as the cause for the failure to arrest economic collapse. The Minsk Declaration accepted that the Commonwealth of Independent States had superseded the USSR; by 21 December 1991 it had the support of 14 former Soviet republics, with only the Baltic States and Georgia choosing complete independence from Russia.

On 31 December, Gorbachev resigned as president. Six days earlier he had declared in a televised speech that under his leadership "Society . . . has been emancipated politically and spiritually," but warned the people that their task now was to "learn how to use that liberty." Political power passed to Yeltsin, who in October 1991 had been granted emergency powers to implement economic reforms by decree. Though the transition of power was undemocratic, the fact that Yeltsin enjoyed a large popular mandate indicated that he would have won a presidential election. Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin, showed no adversity to subverting the democratic process when necessary. Russia finally became democratic according to scales set by the United Nations. Regular elections and a fairly smooth transition to capitalism allowed significant progress and made Russia a partner in the world order. The inequalities and class system that have been consequences of marketization have led some to hark back to the "good old days of communism," but in general there are few who miss Soviet communism. Within Russia, and across the world, the CPSU is synonymous with repression, brutality, and stagnation.

Key Players

Gorbachev, Mikhail (1931-): Lifelong communist and leader of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991. He is perhaps best remembered for his role in ending the Cold War; within Russia, however, he is vilified as the man who destroyed communism or the man that kept it alive for too long. His Memoirs(1995) is an unrivalled document of Soviet history.

Yeltsin, Boris (1931-): The first democratically elected leader of Russia. A former engineer and loyal communist, he recognized that the problems of the Soviet Union could not be solved by the Communist Party. He charted his life and ideas in Against the Grain (1990) and The Struggle for Russia (1994).

See also: Russian Revolutions.



Aron, Leon. Boris Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. London:Harper Collins, 2000.

Gorbachev, Mikhail. Perestroika. London: Collins, 1987.

——. Memoirs. London: Transworld Publishers, 1995.

Lewin, Moshe. The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A Historical Interpretation. London: Hutchinson Radius, 1998.

Sheehy, Gail. Gorbachev: A One-man Revolution. London:Mandarin, 1991.

Volkogonov, Dmitri. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire. London: Harper Collins, 1998.

—Darren G. Lilleker