The collapse of the USSR came about from a number of factors and was most definitely hastened along by Gorbachev’s policies, however the extent to which the demise of the USSR can be directly linked to Gorbachev is still widely debated.
All the Yes points:
- Perestroika put the final nails in the USSR’s economy
- Glasnost facilitated Opposition to Concentrate against the Regime
All the No points:
- Lenin and Stalin the real destroyers of the USSR for destroying Socialism’s Appeal
- Failure of the ‘Command-Administrative’ Economic System
- Regional Nationalism and Independence Movements
- Yeltsin Factor
- August 1991 Coup Counter Productive, Bringing About What It Sought To Prevent – The End of the Soviet Union
- The System Needed to Change in Order to Survive in the Longer Term; That Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms Failed Showed that the USSR Could Not be Saved
- War with Afghanistan Drained USSR of Patriotic Morale
- It was dead from the time Stalin took control
Perestroika put the final nails in the USSR’s economy
One of the first main policies Gorbachev adopted was Perestroika – reform of the economy. Hoarding and reciprocal favours (blat) had been a means of survival in the Soviet Union, thieving to ‘moonlight’ was also common and this cost the regime a lot. The ‘command-administrative’ system had become obsolete in the Post-Industrial era and was curtailing economic development 1. To solve this, Gorbachev wanted to give enterprise managers control over contracts and introduce aspects of the market economy, to make it managers’ responsibility to gain contracts and to make sure the enterprise makes a profit. However, in practice the way the enterprises operated remained unchanged except in terms – ministries rephrased their commands as contracts 2. Private enterprise was also permitted, which seemed to contradict Gorbachev’s claim to be committed to Marxist-Leninist thought which was vehemently opposed to capitalism which Marxist’s argue exploit the proleteriat – so to actually create a class of capitalists who (according to Marxist doctrine) would exploit the workers who were supposed to be living in socialist – i.e. ‘classless society’ seemed contradictory to the very ideological concept the regime’s power was based upon. A small amount of private enterprise emerged, but the profiteering was very much resented by the general population – goods and services were sold for four or five times their subsidized price due to shortages. Another aspect of Perestroika was entry into the market economy – many of the social benefits given by the enterprises had to be done away with, as they could not make a profit and afford to maintain the benefits, resulting in a stagnant economy occuring simultaneously with a collapsing social welfare system. Gorbachev’s reforms did not work and only succeeded in hastening the economic collapse that was inevitable.
1 Hosking, G. History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
2 Hosking, G. History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
Glasnost facilitated Opposition to Concentrate against the Regime
Allowing freedom of thought from the ‘mono-ideological controls’ that existed for decades and allowing pluralist thought and leadership meant a weakening of power for the Communist Party – it had to convert into a proper parliamentary party to survive. Furthermore, in a regime based on oppression and propaganda, when these are removed and freedom of speech and freedom of the media are introduced, nasty elements about the system in the past are going to be revealed, and when there is 70 years of repression being reported all at once, it is inevitable there will be extreme hostility toward those responsible – the Party 1, this especially fuelled the anger of the nationalities who had been oppressed and triggered a nationalist movement.
The population were dissatisfied with the dire state of affairs and could voice their discontent openly with glasnost, which led to Gorbachev becoming very unpopular by 1991, in which year the economy had contracted by 18% 2, people were also very concerned over the incompetence of the command-administrative system and irresponsibility of the leadership with regards to the 1986 Chernobyl power station disaster 3.
In a state committed to one ideology, the removal of mono-ideological controls, and the ability of other ideological persuasions to come to power meant the Party had lost its RIGHT to govern the people unless the people themselves WANTED the Party to rule. Thus, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) had to win the support of the people in order to govern effectively. However, in a society that was becoming increasingly liberal and ‘bourgeois’ (the USSR was largely middle class, private property was protected and capitalism was legalised), the people had to believe in socialist ideology – which would have been almost impossible to achieve.
Gorbachev’s reforms themselves undermined some of the principle features of socialist rule in the USSR, e.g. atheism, mono-ideological control, one-party state, economic monopoly and the suspendability of law. Gorbachev’s ideology itself – his focus on ‘all-human values’ instead of the class struggle, the rule of law, international peace and proper parliamentary representation have more resonance with John Stuart Mill than Karl Marx 4 – Gorbachev was subconsciously moving the USSR in this ideological direction.
With democratization and pluralist thought permitted, Gorbachev found himself operating within an increasingly wide political spectrum – with the reformist ‘democrats’ on one side and the conservative Communist Party members on the other. There was a constant power struggle between the two and Gorbachev dealt with this by constantly playing one side against the other and compromising. One of Gorbachev’s critics at the time said this was like trying to marry a hare to a hedgehog. The two sides were very much irreconcilable and instead of trying to defeat one side, Gorbachev sat on the fence and as a result his policies were constantly inconsistent – you cannot mix radical reforms with conservatism 5. The dangers of this were apparent when Shevardnadze, Foreign Minister at the time, resigned because he warned a dictatorship was approaching, Gorbachev ignored this threat and dismissed this claim with overconfidence 6.
1 Kagarlitsky, B. Russia under Yeltsin and Putin: neo-liberal autocracy, London: Pluto 2002
2 Service, R. History of Modern Russia: from Nicholas II to Putin, London: Penguin 1997
3 Haynes, M., Russia: Class and Power, 1917-2000, London: Bookmarks 2002
4 Service, R. History of Modern Russia: from Nicholas II to Putin, London: Penguin 1997
5 Sheehy, G. The Man who changed the World, New York: HarperCollins 1991
6 Sheehy, G. The Man who changed the World, New York: HarperCollins 1991
Lenin and Stalin the real destroyers of the USSR for destroying Socialism’s Appeal
By a certain point, Lenin knew that something had gone seriously wrong and wrote about the dangers of Communist chauvinism and increasing bureaucratic solutions to problems 1, and yet he allowed this to persist. Lenin recognised that the difference between the original vision and the reality was vast, i.e. self-governing communes in a Communist paradise devoid of selfishness and greed where goods were plentiful versus the reality of a big brother-like supervision and repression of thought and activity, corruption and a centrist administrative system where queuing for goods had become a way of life. This failure of socialism in practice rather than simply on paper led to the end of populist support for the regime and a loss of the Party members’ original passions and aspirations. However, instead of abandoning power, Lenin carried clinging onto power and exacerbated problems by increasing power of the Centre, instead of allowing socialism to develop at a later stage under different circumstances in which it might have worked.
Stalin brought further problems by increasing significantly the represssion of his own people – killing millions (estimates vary from a modest 3 million to a huge 60 million) of his own people through ‘purges’, gulags, and forcibly confiscating harvests for export, causing the Ukrainian famine to occur, not to mention deporting other millions of ethnic minorities within the USSR.
Is it any wonder that for many, the demise of socialism in the USSR did not occur at the end of 1991, but several decades before, effectively leading to the inevitability of its eventual formal demise?
1 Hosking, Geoffrey. History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
Failure of the ‘Command-Administrative’ Economic System
The economy of the Soviet Union had been stagnant for decades – and would continue to stagnate until it was reformed.
Gorbachev’s attempts to reform the economy failed because corruption, bureaucracy and ‘the system’ were so entrenched that little could be done. When factory manager’s were left to source and buy their own materials and make a profit, everything went wrong, and yet nothing really changed: Gorbachev’s reforms were not successful because the economic system was so entrenched into a stagnant system that was not dynamic and broke down essentially due to its’ inability to respond effectively to reforms.
Regional Nationalism and Independence Movements
These original flaws in the system were largely responsible for its own downfall – in particular the nationalities issue – the decision to maintain the Empire without granting real power to the nationalities whilst simultaneously repressing them left most of the nationalities feeling bitter when glasnost revealed the truth about how they had been treated in the past and democratisation gave them the power to chose representatives who would really represent people’s interests (the nationalist movement) whilst at the same time being given by Gorbachev an appetite for power – a fatal combination.
The wealthier regions wanted a separation from the USSR because of the feeling they were being milked from the centre and many other regions wanted to become independent because they did not want to be part of an economic disaster area which became apparent when the Donbass miners who had no commitment to nationalism thought their future would be safer if the Ukraine wasn’t part of the USSR 1.
The nationalist movement emerged when freedom of speech, media and association along with democratisation and the loss of fear of repression allowed people to voice pride in their nation and resentment at past repressions as well as the ongoing special treatment of Russians in the Regions, who had access to better housing and other special privileges the locals did not.
Certain Republics felt nationalism more strongly than others, most notably the Baltic States who felt a strong cultural attachment to the West and felt they were being unfairly occupied. Gorbachev’s mistake here was to downplay the importance of nationalism and not treat the Baltic States as a special case 2. After all, most of the population of the USSR wished to preserve the Union – 76% voted to preserve the Union in March 1991 (except the Baltic States, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia who did not conduct the referendum) 3. After the failed coup, most states declared their independence, even if they did so with reluctance, as there was a general feeling there was no alternative. Gorbachev tried to persuade the Republics not to become fully independent. However, in early December, the Ukraine held a referendum where the population voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, even after Gorbachev stated “there can be no Union without Ukraine”, on 8th December, Yeltsin met with the Ukrainian and Bielorussian leader and declared a formal end to the USSR and the establishment of the Confederation of Independent States which they invited the other states to join.
There was nothing left Gorbachev could do, democratisation had brought about the means for independence and Gorbachev didn’t feel he could argue with people’s wishes carried out through democratic means and, on 25th December he resigned with regret.
1 Hosking, G. History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
2 Brown, A. The Gorbachev Factor, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996
3 Brown, A. The Gorbachev Factor, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1996
Boris Yeltsin emerged as the true hero and strong leader for the fearlessness to condemn the coup – in a press conference afterwards Yeltsin ordered Gorbachev around undermining his position, then used his institutional powers derived from democratization to appoint Egor Gaidar, an economist dedicated to laissez-faire economics, as his Finance Minister and suspension of the CPSU pending an investigation into the coup. Gorbachev half heartedly argued against this but it was no use – he was seen as a weaker leader along with discontent over his policies, whilst Yeltsin’s radicalism was keeping pace with developments and his popularity at an all-time high, Gorbachev’s position was also much less weaker without the Communist Party. Also, the Soviet Union really could not exist without the Communist Party arguably as they had political and economic monopoly on society and the Communist Party went from controlling these aspects of society to ceasing to exist, the Soviet Union could not function and the economy spiralled out of control.
August 1991 Coup Counter Productive, Bringing About What It Sought To Prevent – The End of the Soviet Union
By August 1991 Gorbachev’s popularity was at an all-time low both in the Party and outside it. Despite being advised by some of his staff to sign the Treaty agreement granting the republics real autonomy before going on holiday and some suspicious circumstances he should have been more questioning about, he planned on signing the agreement when he returned. This was a big mistake and allowed the conservatives to stage a coup. The Emergency Committee made no reference whatsoever to Marxism-Leninism or the class struggle in their speech, meaning it was a coup in the hope of returning the Soviet Union to ‘normal’ i.e. an Empire controlled from Moscow and putting the final nails in the coffin of socialism in the USSR 1.
The failed coup triggered the very thing it sought to prevent – the break-up of the Soviet Union 2.
1 Hosking, Geoffrey, History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
2 Hosking, Geoffrey, History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
The System Needed to Change in Order to Survive in the Longer Term; That Mikhail Gorbachev’s Reforms Failed Showed that the USSR Could Not be Saved
By the Gorbachev era, all hopes of fulfilling the original Marxist-Leninist dream were gone and most did not feel passionately about communism, even within the Party. There was a general acknowledgement that the USSR could not continue in the same way as before – Andropov, Gorbachev’s predecessor also realised this and set about changing society through repressive measures such as harsh labour discipline enforced by cutting payments from workers for work deemed poor quality and restrictions on the sale of alcohol and prohibition of alcohol on official occasions was felt overly repressive and for many – Gorbachev was seen as a positive, energetic leader who would overcome the USSR’s problems in a less repressive manner. With economic stagnation and an economy dependent on the exportation of natural resources to survive 1, an unsuccessful war (Afghanistan) and an ageing Party Membership to combat, Gorbachev was the candidate for those who wanted change or at least realised change could no longer be postponed 2.
Autocracies survive due to repressing their people to the extent that they are not given the freedoms required to change their government, rather than because the people want them to stay in power. Mikhail Gorbachev’s conscience and sense of responsibility for his population dictated that the system could no longer be propped up like this, and that the people needed and deserved the freedoms and basic human rights they had been denied for decades. That the system could not encorporate such freedoms meant that the system morally should not be allowed to perpetuate itself, and thus the Soviet Union fell apart because it was unrepresentative and did not support the population’s human rights means the fall of the USSR should be applauded, not mourned for its’ population.
1 Volkogonov, D.A. The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: political leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev, edited and translated by M. Shukman, London: HarperCollins 1998
2 Hosking, G. History of the USSR, 1917-1991, London: Fontana 1992
War with Afghanistan Drained USSR of Patriotic Morale
The war in Afghanistan was a key contributing factor to the breakup of the USSR. Reuveny and Prakash argue that the Soviet-Afghan war contributed to undermining the Soviet Union in many ways. First, it discredited the Red Army, and impacted negatively upon the image of the Red Army as a strong, almost invincible force, which gave nationalist movements in the Republics hope that they might succeed in attaining independence after all. Second, it impacted upon leadership perception on the usefulness of utilising the military to keep the union intact and as a force for foreign intervention. Third, it created new forms of political participation, which had begun to impact upon media reporting even before glasnost, and began the first calls for glasnost, as it created a number of war veterans, who went on to form organisations which weakened the total authority of the CPSU 1.
1 Reuveny, Rafael, and Prakash, Aseem, ‘The Afghanistan War and the Breakdown of the Soviet Union’, Review of International Studies (1999), 25:693-708
It was dead from the time Stalin took control
Gorbachev finished it off, but Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev etc. really killed it. Lenin had nothing to do with that, he was a socialist-marxist, not a communist. You obviously don’t know the difference. Learn it before you blindly yell your opinion into the dark of the internet.