(I thought that How and Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse? is a good question so would like to rephrase it a bit but the question was too far gone to edit)

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 with many former USSR states breaking away to form their own countries. One major short-term reason for this is the collapse of the Soviet client states in the Warsaw Pact in 1989. However, what are some of the long term reasons argued by historians for the USSR's complete demise?


The opinions amongst historians amateur and professional range from economic and military to accusations of conspiracy.

'Traditional' Capitalist Interpretation

Economic Liberals argue that the fall of the USSR is purely economic and is yet another piece of evidence that Communism does not work as an economic model. They cite the failure of the collectives, pointing out the fact that the USSR had to import grain from the US, much to the motherland's great embarassment that they found ways to import through Canada instead. They also cite that Communism lacks incentives for entrepreneurs and innovators to thrive, identifying the fact that the Soviet TMT (technology, media and telecommunications) industry was light years behind the US due to lack of private incentives for innovators to improve Soviet technology. Lastly, they point that the USSR's industry in fact relied on discounted imports from their clients (note: questionable source I know, but I couldn't find anything else on COMECON). When these discounts dried up due to the collapse of their client states, so did their economy, which led to the implosion.

Anarcho-Marxist Interpretation

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.

The epitome of this is in the 1980's, when Reagan and Thatcher's increased belligerence towards the Soviet Union caused an arms race which the significantly weaker Soviet economy could not keep up with. This then wrecked havoc on the Soviet public as light industries were switched to heavy industries and public spending was tapped off for defence spending. The high number of complaints (for example, Radio Yeveran were very popular in the Soviet states) then led to Gobrachev's policy of Glasnost and Perestroika which precipitated the downfall of the Warsaw Pact.

Nationalist Russian Interpretation

Nationalist Russian historians will have arguments familiar to any nationalist historian: blaming outside factors rather than the Soviet system itself. Their arguments usually pin Gorbachev as a western agent which engineered the downfall of the USSR and label him as a traitor to the motherland. Like all nationalist arguments, they usually ignore the facts and realities on the ground and go by hearsay and rumours.

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

  • 2
    "The consensus ... range" - huh?! how can there be 3 different "consensuses"?! – sds Mar 26 '14 at 19:44
  • changed to 'opinions' – Evil Washing Machine Mar 27 '14 at 9:38
  • Most economic liberals argue that state planning is the only solution to all problems; the reason the USSR fell is because the wrong liberals we're in charge of the planning. Modern economic liberals despise capitalism. – Mark C. Wallace Mar 8 '18 at 15:16
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    @MarkC.Wallace: The word "liberal" has many meanings. This post is talking about economic liberalism I presume you are denigrating modern American liberalism, but I've never heard of a group advocating a planned economy calling itself liberal. – sondra.kinsey Nov 9 '18 at 18:20

To add an alternative explanation to Evil Washing Machine's excellent list of explanations, I would append:

Abandonment of terror

Coercion, that is, coercion of internal dissent and coercion of subject states, was an inherent and vital part of the Soviet system. Remove the coercion, as occurred in the 1980s, and the system's collapse becomes much more likely if not inevitable.

Removal of coercion as an element of foreign policy

Soviet foreign policy before 1980 was dominated by the so-called Brezhnev doctrine, which essentially said the Soviets would intervene militarily rather than allow a country to fall out of the communist orbit. This doctrine was enforced until the early 1980s, when the Soviet leadership refused to intervene militarily in Poland to ensure the survival of the Polish communist state against domestic unrest. The Polish communist state survived that unrest, but the Brezhnev doctrine was dead, and the Polish crisis then was just a foreshadowing of future unrest in Warsaw pact states to come, when the Soviets under Gorbachev would also refuse to intervene militarily, making the collapse of the Warsaw pact that much more likely.

And the collapse of the Warsaw Pact was disastrous for the survival of the Soviet Union itself for a number of reasons:

  • Nationalist revolutions in the Pact inspired Nationalist revolutions inside the USSR itself (similar to how revolutions in the Arab Spring inspired further revolutions)
  • The Soviet Union depended on these states for imports and exports, as alluded to by Evil Washing Machine in his section on economic decline. The removal of these states from the Soviet orbit threatened the stability of the Soviet economy.

Removal of coercion as an element of domestic policy

Gorbachev, as is well known, was unwilling to leave the hard line attitude towards internal dissent in place. Glasnost and Perestroika made criticism of the regime much more tolerated, and this emboldened people across the various member republics to do exactly that. If know that they are going to be able to push the limits of criticism, they are going to do exactly that. Inspired by thee aforementioned unrest elsewhere, economic hardship, revolutions in the Warsaw Pact, the soviet failure in Afghanistan, etc. elements of Soviet society at the top and at the bottom, in Russia and the other member republics, began agitating for serious change and the entire Union was destabilized.

I would argue this did not necessarily mean the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its noteworthy to point out that many of the Soviet member states actually voted to maintain a reformed version of the Soviet Union but without successful reforms away from a one party dominated dictatorship, the Soviet state was doomed to fail the moment its leaders refused to coerce their own people and their subject states.

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    I would add, as a bit of an argument against the perspectives Evil Washing Machine outlined, that the failure to coerce is better as an explanation for the destruction of the Soviet state, since we have examples of Communist states which suffered many of the same effects that EWM outlined, but did not collapse, perhaps because they didn't abandon terror. North Korea survives because the regime has the will to coerce its people. Cuba survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. The PRC underwent its own period of economic turmoil (albeit due to growth!) but survived internal unrest in the 1980s. – VivaLebowski Mar 7 '18 at 19:04

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