The Soviet Union: How and Why Did it Fall?

The Soviet Union fell apart on December 31st, 1991. But how and why did it fall? Read on to find out the truth.

Dec 15, 2021By Robin Gillham, BA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics
fall of berlin wall soldiers
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989, via NBC News and the Associated Press


The Soviet Union dominated the world stage for almost 70 years. It fought alongside the allies in World War II. Under Stalin, it secured a sphere of political influence that stretched around the globe. The Soviet Union also launched the first man into space and was one of the world’s top superpowers. So how, on December 31st, 1991, did this communist empire come crashing down so unexpectedly? There is not one single reason which caused the Soviet empire to unravel but a myriad of systemic problems and avoidable catastrophes that brought the Soviet Union to an end.


The Soviet Union’s War in Afghanistan 

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A Soviet helicopter in Afghanistan, 1989, via the Atlantic


A crucial influencing factor in the slow collapse of the USSR was the Soviet Union’s long and costly war in Afghanistan. Since 1979, Soviet troops had fought the Afghan mujahideen alongside the Communist Party of Afghanistan to control the Afghan border and secure much-needed oil reserves.


However, what little economic and political gains the Soviet Union hoped to achieve from the conflict were wiped out by the tremendous cost of the war. The Soviet army was trained to fight large-scale land battles involving tank battalions, air support, and tactical nuclear weapons. They were ill-equipped to deal with the Afghan terrain and the guerilla tactics of the mujahideen.


For ten years until 1989, the Soviet Union poured money and troops into the Afghan conflict. As a result, approximately 15 thousand Soviet troops lost their lives, and 50,000 were injured, with an estimated cost to the Soviet economy of $50 billion. At a time when the economy was stagnating, and public opinion in the communist system was waning fast. Ultimately, the Afghan conflict was one of many drains of the Soviet financial system and society that could not be accounted for.


The Failing Soviet Economy

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A Soviet grocery store short of basic goods, 1990, via the Atlantic

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The Soviet economy was devised to prevent the cycle of boom and bust that affected the economies of capitalist countries. As a result, the Soviet Union maintained an impressive and mostly positive growth rate from 1928–1989, apart from times of conflict.


However, the trend did not always continue and was achieved at the cost of consumer goods and living standards. Signs of an economic slowdown were evident by the Brezhnev era of the 1970s, which was characterized by the term “stagnation.”


One of the reasons behind the downward trend were the results of inefficient planning decisions — in particular, the decision made in 1976 to switch from an “extensive” policy which involved expanding production through significant increases in labor and capital to an “intensive” policy of growth marked by using resources more efficiently. As a result, there was an increase in shortages of essential consumer products and increasing corruption — two factors that created a vibrant “second economy,” or black market, within the USSR.


Shortage of consumer products and essential items such as bread, milk, and meat was so widespread that people would commute from across the country to Moscow to shop at specially stocked supermarkets meant for the Communist Party elite. These so-called “sausage trains” were a feature of daily Soviet life in the 1980s. As a result, for many in the Soviet Union, the benefits of communism were invisible compared to the bounties of capitalism.


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Soviet Citizens queueing for food cards in Chelyabinsk, 1980s, via the State Historical Museum of the South Urals, Chelyabinsk


Labor productivity also decreased due to over-employment: unlike in a capitalist system, there was no fear of losing your job and critical social benefits if you didn’t work hard enough. There were more jobs than people to carry them out. Consequently, workers were unlikely to be fired, but if they were, they could easily find a job as work was constitutionally guaranteed. Managers occasionally overpaid their workers to prevent them from leaving.


In addition, the Soviet Union, while rich in resources such as natural gas and oil, was also dependent on the market price for these exports. And, when the prices of gas and petroleum took a downward turn during the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s economic growth was severely limited, which was worsened by the financial cost of maintaining influence in Eastern Europe, Cuba, the war in Afghanistan, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.


The Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

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Chernobyl Reactor Number 4 under the new safe confinement system, 2021, photo by the author


In his memoirs published in 1996, Mikhail Gorbachev wrote that the real reason the Soviet Union collapsed was the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. On April 26th, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant suffered a catastrophic failure during a safety test, and an explosion tore the roof of the reactor building. As a result, highly radioactive dust and debris were spread across a wide area, and soon, Western nations were warning that a nuclear accident of a scale never before seen had taken place somewhere in the world.


Meanwhile, the thousands of inhabitants of the nearby town of Pripyat and the Soviet Union were unaware that anything had occurred. So the reactor kept burning, spewing radioactive chemicals into the air while the citizens of Kyiv, a city of millions of people, paraded to celebrate the Soviet holiday of May 1.


Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, under immense international pressure, were forced to admit that a nuclear accident had occurred. As a result, the people of the Soviet Union were called up to help clean up the radioactive debris, put out the fire, and seal off the reactor. In total, some eight hundred thousand Soviet reservists were called up for the cleanup process, which cost an estimated $235 billion. However, the real cost of Chernobyl and perhaps the reason why Gorbachev and Soviet historians consider it to be the real cause of the Soviet collapse is the cost in human lives and loss of faith in the communist system.


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Hotel Polis in the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2021, photo by the author


Thousands were evacuated from a 30km exclusion zone around the reactor, never returning to their homes again. Dogs and cats were left to scavenge for food, and family photos were still left hanging on the walls. And, under Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, or “openness,” the truth started to come out.


The truth was that the design of the Chernobyl reactor, the same as dozens in operation across the Soviet Union, was known to be flawed and had, in fact, been the cause of small-scale incidents across the USSR and even at reactor number 4 itself before 1986. This economic cost and loss of faith in the Soviet system was the last nail in the coffin of Soviet Communism.


Mikhail Gorbachev’s Policies of Perestroika and Glasnost 

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Mikhail Gorbachev in Lithuania, 1990, via the Atlantic


Mikhail Gorbachev was elected as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985 after the death of his predecessor. He was chosen because of his young, fresh, invigorating presence and, supposedly, his orthodoxy of Soviet communism. He denounced corruption, spoke of policies such as peaceful coexistence based on equality, national liberation and self-determination, and an end to the arms race.


In a party meeting in February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev discussed the need for Perestroika, or “restructuring” of the economy. His definition of Perestroika went like this:


  1. In the socio-economic sphere: modernize the machine-building complex and, on this basis, bring about the planned reconstruction of the nation’s economy and its social reorientation; link planning extensively with the development of money exchange relationships; create the necessary economic conditions for the financial self-sufficiency and self-financing of enterprises without state subsidies, and create major scientific and technical complexes.
  2. In the political sphere: democratize the soviets, or councils, at all levels; and expand the rights and authorities of the regions, territories, and republics.
  3. In foreign policy: prevent nuclear war; make the transition from confrontation to real disarmament; and strengthen socialist concord.


In other words: improve economic infrastructure, continue investing heavily in technological fields, and increase participation in the pre-existing political systems.


Mikhail Gorbachev’s interpretation of Perestroika varied throughout the months and allowed various perceptions of that goal to be established. For some, the goal was to reform some aspects of socialism. Still, for others, this new policy meant a drive towards completely different systems like social democracy, market socialism, and full-on capitalism. For others, it was solely a source of personal enrichment.


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Gorbachev giving a speech to the Communist Party, via Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow / Moscow House of Photography


But in the end, it was gradual disbandment of the planned system. This “restructuring” of the economy actually resulted in dangerous consequences. Managers did not produce what the economy actually needed and only products necessary for their sector. This led to an abundance of unnecessary products and a shortage of products that were actually needed for certain areas, which provoked outrage. For example, there was a large workers’ strike in Donbas in 1989, initiated by coal miners who had no soap to wash themselves off with after a long day of hard work because of the shortages. Intellectuals joined the demonstration as well. There were also more commodities being rationed, and longer and longer lines for products outside stores.


There was also the 1988 law on cooperatives. Members of a cooperative could employ non-members, therefore, could establish a sort of exploitative worker-versus-boss relationship similar to that in capitalist systems. Initially, the cooperatives were small-scale firms such as restaurants and shops, but eventually, they began to develop into a sort of pocket bank system that made large profits for a small group of people within the firm. Many of the “New Russians” who became fabulously rich oligarchs/gang leaders during the 1990s got their start in cooperative banks. There was also an anti-alcohol campaign to increase public health and labor productivity, but it failed for the most part. People either drank more alcohol or made themselves rich by producing it illegally.


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Soviet workers at a bottling plant, Moscow 1991, via Russia Beyond


Alongside Perestroika, the policy of Glasnost, or openness, was carried out. It initially served, as the word suggests, to bring more transparency and publicity to what exactly was going on in terms of internal and external events and what the Party’s policies were. However, this also exposed inefficiency, Soviet failings, and corruption. This policy made the Chernobyl disaster an even greater disaster for Soviet communism.


Censorship was relaxed, and there was more criticism of the Communist Party’s policies showcased in the media. The overall influence the Party had on the media decreased. The United States and other Western countries, for example, were presented in a friendlier way than they had previously been, one of the reasons being because of a thawing of relations near the end of the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war had died down.


That also greatly influenced the public opinion towards whether to achieve the communist ideal or not. It caused disillusionment. It led more people to believe that for 70 years, they had been advancing towards a pointless goal, and if they simply switched to a free market system, they would all be living in luxury.


The Collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the End of the Cold War

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The fall of the Berlin wall, 1989, via the Imperial War Museums


In the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms and softer approach to dissent and free speech, a wave of independence movements erupted across the Eastern Bloc countries.


Above all, there was a general opposition among the people of Eastern Europe to the idea of Soviet interference in government affairs and to the huge military presence of the Red Army on their territory.


In the early 1980s, Poland, whose communist government had been a strong ally of the Soviet Union, experienced a wave of unrest. A number of protests were held over the shortage of consumer goods, food, and other necessary things. As a result, the trade union Solidarity was established which called for greater Polish control over Polish affairs. By 1989, after years of struggle, Solidarity was elected to the Polish government and vowed to free Poland from Soviet rule.


The other Eastern bloc nations of Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia also saw their own anti-Soviet revolutionary movements. Finally, on the night of November 8th, 1989, the border between East and West Germany was opened and the Berlin Wall, the division between communism and capitalism, was brought down. The fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the effective end of the Cold War and Soviet influence in the East.


Rise of Separatism in the Soviet Union and the 1991 Referendum 

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Soviet tanks on Red Square during the August coup, 1991, via Niemanreports


The Soviet Union, a nation made of 15 republics–Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia–now faced its own growing independence movement. In 1989, as the Eastern Bloc crumbled and the Berlin Wall fell down, the Baltic states declared their own intention to break away from the Soviet Union. Shortly afterward, Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia joined the independence movement. In a stunning move, Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian Soviet Republic, voted to leave the Communist Party and declare Russian sovereignty officially.


In August 1991, in an effort to hang on to power, the remaining faithful of the Communist Party leadership launched a coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, whom they saw as weak and powerless to stop the collapse of the Soviet Union. The coup was a complete failure and only served to drive more support towards Yeltsin and his push for total independence. On December 8th, 1991, the leaders of the three largest and most powerful Soviet republics, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, signed the Belovezha Accords, a treaty that nullified the Soviet Union and wrote it out of existence. Yeltsin completely eliminated the CPSU and officially dissolved the Soviet Union on December 31, 1991.

Author Image

By Robin GillhamBA History, MA Russian & Post-Soviet Politics Robin is a keen collector of Soviet artifacts and documents that he has found during his travels across the former Soviet Union especially. He has written two dissertations on the social impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and traveled to the abandoned nuclear town of Pripyat. He also has a passion for Ancient History and the origins of modern consciousness among early civilizations. He holds a BA in History from Bangor University and an MA in Russian and Post-Soviet politics from UCL. In his spare time, he explores abandoned military facilities.