I was recently engrossed in a debate about the importance of nuclear weapons, which inevitably led to a debate about the reasons for the collapse of the USSR. This post is going to focus on how internal factors were more important than external forces in bringing the Soviet Era to an end in 1991.
The political class had lost the will to rule, and the ruled had lost the will to resist.
Towards the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was wracked with problems. Though relations with the West were significantly relaxed, the USSR’s home-grown issues were rapidly increasing. In a way, it was the internal issues that led to the development of its external issues.
Gorbachev had no alternative but to end the Second Cold War confrontation with the US because it was bleeding the economy. He convinced the Western governments of this purpose, as a result of which he became extremely popular in the West. This did not prove true in the USSR. Gorbachev and Reagen met in 1986-7, agreeing to cut down and destroy thousands of land-based missiles. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, also under Gorbachev.
The Soviet Union disintegrated because glasnost brought an end to the structure of authority and perestroika destroyed the old mechanism without producing any new ones. The country moved towards electoral democracy along with economic anarchy. In 1989, for the first time, Russia did not have a five year plan.
Politically, the USSR had decentralized. The republics had an unprecedented degree of autonomy and by Brezhnev’s time, the party chiefs were dependent on the central party apparatus for postings & transfers – besides this, they were autonomous. The “second economy” functioned on a system of deals, barters and exchange of favors. The command economy was inefficient and corrupt. Party authority was all that remained. As Gorbachev and Yeltsin worked to shift their power base from party to state, nobody took any notice; there was no more ‘governing’ or ‘obeying’ in the Soviet Union anymore. A rudderless Soviet state drifted towards disintegration. As constitutional president, Gorbachev had legally accumulated powers greater in theory than any earlier Soviet leader had ever enjoyed, surpassing even Stalin.
Economic dissolution led to political fragmenting. There was no Plan, no command, no national economy left. A rush for bilateral exchanges, barter, self protection & self sufficiency prevailed. The economy had effectively relapsed into primitive practices.
By 1989, the situation was beyond repair. The breakdown followed the calling of new democratic assemblies (such as in France, 1789). The entire process of economic collapse took place between October 1989 and May 1990.
Party and State continued to wither away slowly until August of 1991. Perestroika had failed. The last years of the Soviet Union were a slow motion catastrophe. The Eastern European satellites fell in 1989. Moscow reluctantly accepted German re-unification. All semblance of international power was now lost. The USSR was unable to play a role in the Gulf War of 1990-1991.
The last two years of the once-superpower’s life were marked by hunger and shortages. This, naturally, colored everything. Reformers thought nothing could be done without completely hacking down the old system and building a new one from scratch. This theory was based on free-market-system-based-ignorance & was supported by US & Brit economists who knew nothing about the Soviet economy. Both knew the system wasn’t working, but nobody proposed how to change it. Elementary economic concepts were repeated. Adam Smith’s invisible hand was idealised. Once supply and demand began working, shelves would be stacked full of good. This did not happen.
The final crisis was political – not economic. Once the center, Russia, dissolved, break up was inevitable. August 20th. Coup d’etat. This proved unsuccessful since there was neither a central power nor obedience by the people. Yeltsin dissolved the Communist Party & took over the Russian Republic and whatever was left of the USSR (which formally ceased to exist a few months later).
The problems of state, society and economy were worse. There was a rush of total separation, and now all semblance of a union and the Commonwealth of Independent States soon lost all reality. A reversal of 400 years of Russian history.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was driven by the collapse of the political system, the inability to reform, and increasing socio-economic problems. The breakdown of Communism in Eastern Europe began in 1980 and the clash with the West had lessened to a great degree. The US & USSR were negotiating arms limitation deals, deterrent policies, etc.
So everything external was kind of ranked second place when compared to all the turmoil within.