The Collapse of the Soviet Union: major reasons and implications

By Helena Mullock


Described as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century by the current president of Russia Vladimir Putin (BBC, 2005, online), the collapse of the Soviet Union has caused profound changes in global political and economic affairs, impacting the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) has been formed in 1922 and it has enjoyed the culmination of its influence in the global scale following its victory in World War Two within the period from mid 1960s to mid 1980s being able to send the first man to the outer space in 1961 and achieving relative stability in the standard of life of member state citizens.

Initially, Soviet Union comprised only six member states in 1922 – Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Azerbaijan, Georgian and Armenian Soviet Socialist Republics; however its size has been gradually increased during the following two decades until 1941 to reach the numbers of member states to 15 through expanding into Central Asia and Balkan states.

Nevertheless, due to the range of reasons discussed below the existence of USSR came to its end officially in 1991. Although more than two decades have passed since the collapse of the USSR this topic is regularly explored in academic levels due to its importance and impact to the formation of present geo-political situation.

This essay attempts to analyse the major reasons and implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Economic, cultural, social and political factors contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union are discussed in this essay and implications of this event on regional level for former USSR blog countries, as well as, on the global landscape are assessed.

Collapse of the Soviet Union

Economic factors contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union

Assessment of economic factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union can be effectively conducted by dividing economic history of the Soviet Union into four stages as proposed by Thompson (2009).

The first stage, primitive socialism covers the period between 1917 and 1928 and this stage includes the Civil War and introduction of New Economic Policy (NEP). Interestingly, NEP contained some elements of communistic approach to economy such as payment of wages in cash and dismissal of surplus employees.

The second stage – Stalinism started after the decease of Vladimir Lenin, and lasted until the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. Introduction of ineffective five-year planning practices of the national economy and huge expenses associated with World War Two mark major economic events of this period.

The third stage in Soviet Union economic history is marked with de-Stalinisation and this stage lasted from 1953 to 1985. De-Stalinisation stage has involved de-centralisation of economic decision-making to member countries to a certain extent and deep economic stagnation due to refusal to innovate economic and a wide range of other processes.

The last stage in the economic history of USSR corresponds to ‘Perestroyka’. Although this stage has been the shortest, lasting from 1985 to 1991, dramatic events at this stage have played direct and substantial role to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the ways that are explained below in greater details.

Economic factors have played an immense role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and this role relates to the negative impacts of centrally-planned economic system. Substantial disadvantages associated with centrally-planned economic system include inefficiencies associated with resource distribution, lack of economic stability and lack of motivation for quality improvement due to the absence of competition (Cassis, 2011) and each of these disadvantages have played their part.

One of the major problems with communistic approach to economy relates to the attempt to integrate growth with social justice (Langley, 2006). Achievement of economic growth and social justice are two distant problems and failure of communistic economists to acknowledge this fact can be stated as one of the core reasons of the collapse of USSR.

Moreover, socialism can be defined as “policy which aims at constructing a society in which the means of production are socialised” (Mises, 1951, p.20) and communistic form of socialism does not involve direct interest of producers of products and services on the levels of sales, and therefore there is no place and need for competition amongst producers. Absence of competition amongst producers of products and services has negative implications on the quality and may result in shortages of certain types of products.

At the same time it has been argued that “it is not appropriate to blame socialism for the fall of the Soviet Union. This is because the type of socialism (communism) adopted and implemented in the Soviet Union has encountered several deviations from the socialism of Marx and Engels” (Khan, 2008, p.82).

According to this viewpoint the model of socialism proposed by Marx and Engels eliminates the use of power and advocates evolutionary approach establishing socialism, whereas alternative approach has been employed by Vladimir Lenin when establishing socialism in Soviet Union. However, it is not possible to assess the level of effectiveness of socialism of original version propose by Marx and Engels due to the absence of relevant case studies in the history.

The role of corruption in at various levels on the fall of USSR does not need to be underestimated. The corruption in the Soviet Union had a systematic nature and the majority instances of corruption were caused by the attempts to cover shortcomings of five-year government plans for the national economy (Sakwa, 1999).

Moreover, corruption has been caused by scarcity of certain types of products such as colour television sets, electronic devices and even quality clothes (Eaton, 2004), for reasons discussed above, and special contacts were needed in certain places in order to be able to purchase such products. At the age of 54, Mikhail Gorbachev became the youngest Soviet leader since Joseph Stalin, and his appointment by Politburo – central apparatus of Communistic party was warmly welcomed by the majority of Soviet people.

Rationale behind high levels of popularity of Gorbachev at the beginning of his leadership relates to the fact that two of his predecessors – Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were of an old age with no charisma and with little or no connection with the Soviet people in emotional levels (Khan, 2008).

Therefore, Gorbachev’s appointment was received with enthusiasm by Soviet people and nobody knew at the time that radical reforms to be introduced by the younger leader would trigger a series of consecutive events that that would cause the USSR to be dissolved. Gorbachev granted rights to people to express their viewpoint regarding a wide range of issues as an integral part of his ‘glastnost’ initiative discussed further below, and these rights were used by Soviet people to pressure Gorbachev’s government to address economic problems.

As a result, the process of ‘perestroyka’ or economic restructuring initiated by Gorbachev has failed to address systematic economic problems of the Soviet Union due to the level of severity of those problems, as well as, inexperience of economists in managing economic systems other than centrally planned market economy.


‘Glastnost’ and its role in the collapse of the Soviet Union

After assuming top leadership position in USSR “in reaching out to the rest of the world, Gorbachev strove to be more direct and open and displayed a willingness to listen to the concerns and opinions of others” (Thompson, 2009, p.552). However, this practice came to contradiction with the core identity of the Soviet political system to the much disappointment and anger of many conservative leaders of communistic party.

Application of Gorbachev’s ‘glastnost’ in practice has resulted in churches being opened, release of some dissidents from prisons, weakening of censorship on television and print media and publication of first articles that were critical of officials (Khan, 2008).

Political system in the USSR has been traditionally highly totalitarian and it was based on zero intervention of citizens on political affairs and even politicians and public sector leaders in regional levels were discouraged from displaying political initiatives or acting on their own.

Therefore, being granted with unprecedented levels of rights and freedom Soviet people started to express their discontent publicly about systematic economic problems such as shortages of food and other products in shops, and a wide range of other social problems.

However, solution of issues raised by protesters was only possible by introducing profound changes in economic system. Specifically, lack of competition and direct benefit in manufacturing and services was the main reason behind shortages of products in shops


Cultural and factors contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union

The role of cultural factors in the collapse of USSR relates to vast and fundamental cultural differences between certain members of the Soviet Union. Scholars note that “culture gives people a sense of who they are, of belonging, of how they should behave, and of what they should be doing” (Moran et al., 2007, p.6) cultural differences may prove to be a substantial issue in terms of people feeling the citizens of the same country, which may be the case with USSR member states. For example, there were major differences between Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and Kirghiz Soviet Socialist Republic in terms of language, customs and traditions, clothes, climate, appearance and many other aspects.

Moreover, although the practice of religion was officially unwelcome during the Soviet Rule, religious teachings still had certain influence on society, especially in Middle Asian part of USSR (Eaton, 2004), and fundamental differences in this perspective between some member states can be specified as a substantial factor the had negative implications on the unity of USSR.

Accordingly, it can be argued that even if severe economic and political shortcomings of the Soviet Union discussed above did not exist, the existence of USSR for long-term perspective was under great doubt due to vast and fundamental cultural differences between USSR member countries. Fail of multiculturalism in the UK publicly and formally acknowledged by UK Prime Minister David Cameron (Kuenssberg, 2011, online) can be referred to in order to justify the validity of this argument.

Collapse of the Soviet Union due to the combination of factors

A Baltic state Lithuania, followed by Estonia and Latvia became the first members of USSR to challenge its authority and express pro-independence viewpoint. This was no surprise taking into account their geographical proximity to Europe and the shortest history of being USSR members since 1940. USSR reaction of sending troops to the capital of Lithuania in January 1991 killing 14 unarmed civilians and wounding hundreds of people (Langley, 2006) caused substantial damage to the image of USSR in general, and Gorbachev’s image in particular. Public criticism of Gorbachev by Boris Yeltsin, former Moscow mayor and a popular politician have compromised the chances of the former to oversee the completion of ‘perestroyka’ and complete economic reforms according to his plans.

Moreover, some conservative members of Politburo imposed bigger challenge to Gorbachev’s reforms than Yeltsin because of their fear of losing status quo which meant threat to their own positions in Politburo, as well as threat to the role and influence of Moscow in member states and world in general (Lauritden, 2011). Most conservative and determined hardliners within party leadership became members of State of Emergency Committee aiming to oust Gorbachev from leadership.

State of Emergency Committee attempted to take charge of USSR by detaining Gorbachev at his government vacation on August 18, 1991 and plans were made to reverse Gorbachev’s reforms in order to safeguard traditional political system in the country.

The failure of the State of Emergency Committee to achieve its objectives because of active intervention of Boris Yeltsin and refusal of Muscovites to give up their newly obtained freedom had confirmed irreversibility of dramatic changes in the union of states that was known as USSR.

The final stage of the collapse of USSR has been marked with Gorbachev’s resignation as General Secretary of Communistic Party and declaration of independence of Estonia and Latvia within a few days, which has been followed by all other members of USSR within months. Although there is a consensus amongst historians, politicians and ordinary people in modern day Russia about the critical role of Gorbachev in the collapse of the USSR, opinions differ in Russia and abroad regarding Gorbachev’s contribution to forwarding the cause of democracy and contribution to the world prosperity.

On one hand, a large segment of population in modern day Russia perceive Gorbachev to be rather a negative historical figure ultimately responsible for chaos and severe economic hardships the country had to go through during the last decade of the 20th century (Eaton, 2004, Khan, 2008, Thompson, 2009). According to this viewpoint, although changes to the Soviet economic and political system were necessary, such changes could be introduced in gradual manner so that economic chaos could have been avoided.

On the other hand, Gorbachev has been awarded with Nobel Piece prize on the west, and he is highly praised for forwarding the cause of democracy with his 80th birthday lavishly celebrated in London’s Royal Albert Hall with the participation of many famous individuals in various fields around the globe.

Prolonged existence of Soviet system despite systematic shortcomings

There is an interesting question that needs to be answered. If the Soviet Communistic system has been associated with systematic flows and was doomed for failure, how the system was able to survive for almost seven decades reaching its peak during the period from mid 1960s to mid 1980s? Answer to this question has three parts.

Firstly, USSR emerged victorious from the Second World War and this victory contributed to the image of USSR and communistic system extending the deadline of its collapse for several decades. In other words, severe economic problems and low standards of life following the decades after the war were interpreted solely as consequences of war and thus attention was shifted from shortcomings of Communistic economic system. The fact that West Germany has been able to restore its economy within a short period of time although it was defeated during the war can be mentioned to justify this argument.

Secondly, due to the reliance on totalitarian rule Soviet system had zero tolerance to criticism and rare individuals such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsin, Andrey Sakharov and Yelena Bonner who dared to criticise the system were systematically harassed by powerful Soviet Committee of State Security (KGB) and had to engage in exile (Sakwa, 1999). Soviet system would not be able to last for so long if elements of democratic rule existed within the system in greater extent.

Thirdly, official statistical information about the performance of the national economy and effective propaganda machine has played their part in ensuring the longevity of the Soviet system. Free press did not exist in USSR and government media agencies covered world affairs in highly subjective manner creating a false assumption in Soviet people that they enjoyed significantly higher standard of life compared to the rest of the world.


The Collapse of the Soviet Union: Geo-Political implications 

Collapse of the USSR has had major economic, political, and social implications for its former members and the rest of the world.  Collapse of the Soviet Union has been widely interpreted as the victory of capitalism over communism, in the battle between the two contrasting economic and ideological viewpoints in academic and practical levels.

However, recent global economic and financial crisis of 2007 – 2009 has cast significant level of doubt on the levels of effectiveness of capitalism market economy on its pure form as well. In other words, one of the key reasons of the recent global economic recession has been specified as lack or absence of government intervention in economic processes in the US that enabled the pursuit of profit maximisation by financial institutions in the US in irresponsible manners (Nevin, 2013). The crisis has shed a light on substantial disadvantages of capitalism, and this fact has direct implications on still continuing communism versus capitalism debate.

Moreover, economic implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the global scale relates to creation of new markets for developed countries. After the collapse of the USSR all former members of the blog have decided change their economic system to the market economy of supply and demand, although there were substantial differences amongst newly independent states in terms of the manner in which market economy needed to be implemented.

For example, top economists in Russia had chosen the strategy of ‘shock therapy’ transfer to the market economy that involved extensive privatisation of public goods and transfer to the market economy during the shortest period of time (Dewatripont et al., 2011). Other former members of USSR such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, on the other hand, selected the route of gradual transfer to the market economy and the transition period was intended to last for several years.

Regardless of the choice of route to the market economy in former USSR countries, the collapse of Soviet Union had created possibilities for major businesses in developed countries to engage in revenue maximisation through entering the markets of newly independent states. Major US and European companies were provided with opportunities of entering new markets through exporting, formation of joint-ventures, initiating wholly-owned subsidiaries, franchising, licensing and other new market entry strategies.

Political implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union relates to strengthening the role of the United States in global affairs. Due to the collapse of USSR, the USA lost a strong competitor in global affairs and this fact has had immense positive implications on the level of hegemony of the US. Furthermore, it can be convincingly argued that regardless of motives, US military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and a range of other countries during the last two decades might have been prevented if not for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

It is important to note that under the rule of present president of Russia, Vladimir Putin since 2000 Russia has been able restore its influence and position in dealing with global affairs to a certain extent (Thompson, 2009). However, drawing parallels between current position of Russia and the influence of USSR is not fully appropriate due to substantial changes in geo-political landscape that took place during the last two decades caused by intensifying forces of globalisation, increasing role of information technology and internet, unprecedented level of threat of international terrorism and a range of other reasons.



Collapse of the Soviet Union is a large topic and reasons and implications associated with this event cannot be fully addressed within the scope of one book, let alone one essay. Nevertheless, an attempt has been made in this essay to reflect on the main points related to reasons and implications associated with the event. Factors that have fuelled the collapse of USSR include but not limited to substantial disadvantages associated with centrally-planned economic system such as inefficiencies associated with resource distribution, lack of economic stability and lack of motivation for quality improvement due to the absence of competition.

Moreover, high levels of corruption at various levels in USSR member countries and vast and fundamental cultural differences between certain members of the Soviet Union coupled with dramatic reforms initiated by Gorbachev that the country was not ready for can be highlighted as main reasons behind the collapse of the USSR.

This essay has argued that despite systematic inefficiencies at various levels within the Soviet system the system was able to last till the last decade of the 20th century due to its victory in the Second World War, exercise of totalitarian rule and non-tolerance to criticism, and manipulations with official statistical information about the performance of the national economy and effective propaganda machine.

Implications associated with the collapse of USSR have been found to relate to both levels – economic and political. Specifically, in economic level the collapse of the Soviet Union has created new markets for businesses headquartered in the USA, Europe and elsewhere to benefit from through exporting, formation of joint-ventures, initiating wholly-owned subsidiaries, franchising, licensing and other new market entry strategies. On political level, on the other hand, with the collapse of the Soviet Union no country was left in the world map that could possibly challenge hegemonic ambitions of the United States.

To summarise discussions, it can be stated that assessment of implications of the collapse of Soviet Union provided above are based on the realities of current geo-political environment. Accordingly, as many other events in history assessment of the role and implications of Soviet Union may be perceived differently in the future than it is perceived today due to other major geopolitical events that yet to take place.


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Category: Politics