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Encyclopedia > Collapse of the Soviet Union

History of Russia
Early East Slavs
Kievan Rus'
Volga Bulgaria
Mongol invasion
Golden Horde
Imperial Russia
Revolution of 1905
Revolution of 1917
Civil War
Soviet Union
- Russian Federation


The rise of Gorbachev

Although reform stalled between 19641982, the generational shift gave new momentum for reform. Changing relations with the United States might also have been an impetus for reform. While it was Jimmy Carter who had officially ended the policy of Détente following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, East-West tensions in the early 1980s reached levels not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (19811985).

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev ushered in the process that would lead to the political collapse of the Soviet Union and the resultant dismantling of the Soviet administrative command economy through his programs of glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring), the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages.

Perestroika and Glasnost

For further details see perestroika and glasnost.

Mikhail Gorbachev took office in March 1985, shortly after Konstantin Chernenko's death. Gorbachev instituted a number of political reforms under the name of glasnost; these included relaxing censorship and political repression, reducing the powers of the KGB and democratisation. The reforms were intended to break down resistance to Gorbachev's economic reforms by conservative elements within the Communist Party. Under these reforms, much to the alarm of party conservatives, competitive elections were introduced for the posts of officials (by people within the Communist Party).

However, Gorbachev's relaxation of censorship and attempts to create more political openness had the unintended effect of re-awakening long suppressed nationalist and anti-Russian feelings in the Soviet Union's constituent republics. During the 1980s calls for greater independence from Moscow's rule grew louder. This was especially marked in the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which had been annexed into the Soviet Union by Joseph Stalin in 1940. Nationalist feeling also took hold in other Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan. These nationalist movements were strengthened greatly by the declining Soviet economy, whereby Moscow's rule became a convenient scapegoat for economic troubles. Gorbachev had accidentally unleashed a force that would ultimately destroy the Soviet Union.

On February 15, 1989, Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviet Union continued to support the communist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan with substantial aid until the end of 1991. In 1989 the communist governments of the Soviet Union's satellite states were overthrown one by one with feeble resistance from Moscow.

By the late 1980s the process of openness and democratisation began to run out of control, and went far beyond what Gorbachev had intended.

Relaxation of censorship resulted in the Communist Party losing its grip on the media. Before long, much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems which the Soviet government had long denied existed and covered up. Problems such as poor housing, alcoholism, and the second-rate position of women, which the official media had ignored, were now receiving increasing attention.

The media also began to expose crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as Gulags and the Great Purges. In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight. This began to undermine the faith of the public in the Soviet system.

Political openness began to produce unintended consequenses. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined.

Yeltsin and the dissolution of the Soviet Union

For further details see Soviet coup attempt of 1991.

Gorbachev has accused Boris Yeltsin, his old rival and Russia's first post_Soviet president, of tearing the country apart out of a desire to advance his own personal interests.

On February 7, 1990 the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party agreed to give up its monopoly of power. The USSR's constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow, and started a "war of laws" with the central Moscow government, in which the governments of the constituent republics repudiated all-union legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation, as supply lines in the economy were broken, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.

Gorbachev made desperate and ill-fated attempts to assert control, notably in the Baltic Republics, but the power and authority of the central government had been dramatically and irreversibly undermined. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania declared independence and announced that it was pulling out of the union. However, the Red Army had a strong presence there. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians." In January of 1991, clashes between Soviet troops and Lithuanian civilians occurred, leaving 20 dead. This further weakened the Soviet Union's legitimacy, internationally and domestically. On March 30, 1990, the Estonian supreme council declared Soviet power in Estonia since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state. On March 17, 1991, in an all-Union referendum 78% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form. Ukraine and the Baltics boycotted the referendum. Also amongst Gorbachev's reforms was the introduction of a directly elected president of the RSFSR (Russia). The election for this post was held in June 1991. The populist candidate Boris Yeltsin, who was an outspoken critic of Mikhail Gorbachev, won 57% percent of the vote, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Former Prime Minister Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote.

On August 20, 1991, the republics were to sign a new union treaty, making them independent republics in a federation with a common president, foreign policy and military.

However, on August 19, 1991, Gorbachev's vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister, defense minister, KGB chief, and other senior officials acted to prevent signing of the union treaty by forming the "State Committee on the State Emergency." (see Soviet coup attempt of 1991) The "Committee" put Gorbachev (vacationing in the Crimea) under house arrest and attempted to restore the union state.

While coup organizers expected popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in Moscow was largely against them. Thousands of people came out to defend the "White House," then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup.

After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. But Gorbachev's powers were now fatally compromised. Neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands. Through the fall of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party of the Soviet Union throughout the Russian republic.

After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic states. In December 1, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence from the USSR after a popular referendum in which 90% of voters opted for independence.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha to issue a declaration that the Soviet Union was dissolved and replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev became president without a country. On December 25, 1991, he resigned as president of the USSR and turned the powers of his office over to Boris Yeltsin. The next day, the Supreme Soviet voted to dissolve itself and repealed the declaration written in 1922 that had officially established the USSR. By the end of the year, all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations.

The four principal elements of the old Soviet system were the hierarchy of soviets, ethnic federalism, state socialism, and Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev's program of perestroika produced radical unanticipated effects that brought that system down. Gorbachev successfully built a coalition of political leaders supportive of reform and created new arenas and bases of power.

But by using structural reforms to widen opportunities for leaders and popular movements in the union republics to gain influence, Gorbachev also made it possible for nationalist, orthodox communist, and populist forces to oppose his attempts to liberalize and revitalize Soviet socialism. Although some of the new movements aspired to replace the Soviet system altogether with a liberal democratic one, others demanded independence for the national republics. Still others insisted on the restoration of the old Soviet ways. Ultimately, Gorbachev could not forge a compromise among these forces.

Restructuring the Soviet system

For details see also History of post-Soviet Russia.

To restructure the Soviet administrative command system to effect a transition to capitalism, Yeltsin's shock program, employed days following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cut subsidies to money-losing farms and industries, decontrolled prices, moved toward convertibility of the ruble, and moved toward restructuring the largely state-owned economy. Existing institutions, however, were abandoned before the legal structures of a market economy that govern private property, oversee the financial market, and enforce taxation were functional, despite the fact that the two major components of a macroeconomy are a banking system and the state budgetary system.

Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create a movement outward towards production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization.

However, Russia currently faces many problems, including the 25% of the population that now lives below the poverty line, the drop in life expectancy, a low birthrate, and the drop in GDP, which halved after the USSR's collapse.

End of the Cold War

As the Soviet Union was unraveling, Gorbachev and U.S. President George H.W. Bush declared a U.S._Soviet strategic partnership at the summit of July 1991, decisively marking the end of the Cold War. President Bush declared that U.S._Soviet cooperation during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-1991 had laid the groundwork for a partnership in resolving bilateral and world problems. Following the Soviet Union's collapse, relations with the United States lost none of their significance for Russia, despite Russia's loss of superpower status. Russia viewed summitry with the United States as the mark of its continued status as a great power and the world's second leading nuclear power.

<< History of the Soviet Union (1953_1985)

External links

  • Reform, Coup and Collapse: The End of the Soviet State (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/coldwar/soviet-end-01.shtml)

Further reading

  • The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Helene Carrere D'Encausse, Franklin Philip, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0465098185
  • The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Ronald Grigor Suny, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0804722471

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