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 Mikhail Gorbachev, not maintain control?

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

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up vote 4 down vote accepted

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.

  • Your summary should be retitled as a Reaganite interpretation. It falls apart under critical analysis. Melvin Goodman, Head of the Office of Soviet Affairs at the CIA, '76-87, disputed the popular American narrative by saying that the USSR was rotting from the inside, and this was the main reason for its demise. The belief that Reagan and Afghanistan caused it was a politically motivated myth. You say all three were important but essentially describe Reagan/Thatcher being the cause. – inappropriateCode Feb 15 at 11:23
  • @inappropriateCode thank you for only reading the first paragraph of my post. May you try reading the rest of the post before downvoting and commenting on it in the future? – Evil Washing Machine Feb 28 at 15:37
  • I read all of it, all of it wasn't the problem, just which I stated. Which has yet to be corrected. – inappropriateCode Feb 28 at 23:18

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