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How did the Soviet Union collapse? (Collapse meaning loss of central power over its member states who declared their independence.)

  • Was it economic, and to what extent?
  • Was it Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher's military, and to what degree did military pressure act as a causative effect?
  • Was it "Openness" and "Restructuring", to what degree was this propaganda or actually formative?

How does an empire with a history of manipulating events and public perceptions in other nations fail to hold itself together? Were all of its states nearing open rebellion? If so, why? Iron-fisted corrupt officials? Empty store shelves? Poverty in every class but the elite?

The Kims have managed to keep their grasp on North Korea. China's leadership would quickly put down insurrection. Cuba, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, no signs of waning control. Why could the USSR, under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, not maintain control?

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closed as too broad by Tom Au, Mark C. Wallace, Pieter Geerkens, Kobunite, o0'. Mar 26 '14 at 9:50

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Far too broad and speculative to be answered in this forum. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 25 '14 at 15:52
Are you seriously comparing NK with USSR? Do you realise there is a slight size difference, yes? – o0'. Mar 25 '14 at 16:24
@Lohoris scale alone doesn't explain why the DPRK doesn't collapse where the USSR did. It might well be a factor, but there are other things at work as well. – jwenting Mar 26 '14 at 8:06
Boris Yeltsin never was a leader of the USSR. – Anixx Aug 21 '14 at 13:42

This is a very broad question but I will try to summarize it simply into a few paragraphs. Of course, I will probably be lynched by this, as the consensus ranges from economic and military to accusations of conspiracy.


In short, all 3 factors which you listed contributed to the fall. Reagan and Thatcher's increased belligerence towards the Soviet Union caused an arms race which the significantly weaker Soviet economy could not keep up. This then wrecked havoc on the Soviet public as light industries were switched to heavy industries (yes I know it was going on already, but one could argue that it was even more prevalent in the 80's) and public spending was tapped off for defence spending - keep in mind that the Communist state emphasizes heavy public spending anyway. This then led to consumer shortages, poorly funded housing programs, poorly funded social security programs, etc. which of course leads to discontent. The high number of complaints (for example, Radio Yeveran jokes were very popular in the Soviet states) then led to Gobrachev's policy of Glasnost and Perestroika which precipiated the downfall of the Warsaw Pact.

The debate amongst historians here is not what the cause is, but which is the most significant.

The 2 main interpretations: 'Mainstream' Liberal and Anarcho-Liberal/Marxist

Economic Liberals will argue that it is another case file in the long list of proofs that Communism does not work. They cite lower Soviet industrial output per man-hour due to the lack of incentives, lower grain production such that the USSR had to import grain from the US much to their embarassment and the lack of development in Technology, Media and Telecommunications due to again, lack of incentives .

Anarcho-Liberals and Marxists would argue that the US simply harnessed its much greater economic power (often with mentions that this power was gained through worldwide imperialism and forcing states in, say, post war Europe for example, to buy their goods) to simply outspend the USSR in conflicts and military might. They will cite how USSR's GNP rose steadily from the 40's to 80's until declining as more development was being focused in weapons technology and heavy industry; something that a country wrecked by WW2 cannot afford to do so soon after the war (given the scale of destruction the USSR faced, 'soon' is an appropriate term) whereas the US, untouched by carpet bombing and enjoying the post war boom due to lack of competition, can do freely.

There are other interpretations, but I'm not as familiar with them.

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Thanks, I wouldn't be surprised if this question becomes very popular, maybe you should break this out into headings? I wasn't entirely sure what you meant by "2 main streams of argument". Maybe the redneck allusion distracts. But plus 1 for the answer! – Aaron Hall Mar 25 '14 at 16:36
@AaronHall edited out the sentence – Evil Washing Machine Mar 25 '14 at 17:31

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