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The Soviet Union's collapse into independent nations began early in 1985. After years of Soviet military buildup at the expense of domestic development, economic growth was at a standstill. Failed attempts at reform, a stagnant economy, and war in Afghanistan led to a general feeling of discontent, especially in the Baltic republics and Eastern Europe. Greater political and social freedoms, instituted by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, created an atmosphere of open criticism of the Moscow regime. The dramatic drop of the price of oil in 1985 and 1986, and consequent lack of foreign exchange reserves in following years to purchase grain profoundly influenced actions of the Soviet leadership.[1]

Several Soviet Socialist Republics began resisting central control, and increasing democratization led to a weakening of the central government. The USSR's trade gap progressively emptied the coffers of the union, leading to eventual bankruptcy. The Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991 when Boris Yeltsin seized power in the aftermath of a failed coup that had attempted to topple reform-minded Gorbachev.


The rise of Gorbachev

Photo of Afghan mujahideen fighters taken during the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Although reform in the Soviet Union became more and more powerful between 1969 and 1987, a generational shift gave new momentum for reform. The war in Afghanistan, often referred to as the Soviet Union's "Vietnam War," led to increased public dissatisfaction with the Moscow regime. Also, the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 added impetus to Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms, which eventually spiraled out of control and caused the Soviet system to collapse.

After years of stagnation, the "new thinking" of younger Communist apparatchiks began to emerge. Following the death of terminally ill Konstantin Chernenko, the Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev to the position of General Secretary of the Soviet Union in March 1985, marking the rise of a new generation of leadership. Under Gorbachev, relatively young, reform-oriented technocrats, who had begun their careers in the heyday of "de−Stalinization" under Nikita Khrushchev (1958-1964), rapidly consolidated power within the CPSU, providing new momentum for political and economic liberalization, and the impetus for cultivating warmer relations and trade with the West.

Jimmy Carter had officially ended the policy of Détente, by militarily aiding President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who in turn funded the anti−Soviet Mujahideen movement in neighboring Afghanistan, which served as a pretext for the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan six months later, with the aims of supporting the Afghan government, controlled by the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Tensions between the superpowers increased during this time, when Carter placed trade embargoes on the Soviet Union and stated that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was "the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War."

East-West tensions increased during the first term of U.S. President Ronald Reagan (1981-1985), reaching levels not seen since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as Reagan increased US military spending to 7% of the GDP. To match the USA's military buildup, the Soviet Union increased its own military spending to 27% of its GDP and froze production of civilian goods at 1980 levels. Reagan furthermore supplied Afghan warriors with Stinger missiles which cost the US only $1 billion annually, but which cost the Soviet Union as much as $8 billion annually in military losses. Finally, Reagan also actively hindered the Soviet Union's ability to sell natural gas to Europe whilst simultaneously actively working to keep gas prices low which served to keep the price of Soviet oil low and further starved the Soviet Union of foreign capital. This "long-term strategic offensive" which "contrasts with the essentially reactive and defensive strategy of containment" accelerated the fall of the Soviet Union by encouraging it to overextend its economic base.[2]

By the time Gorbachev ushered in the process that would lead to the dismantling of the Soviet administrative command economy through his programs of glasnost (political openness), uskoreniye (speed-up of economic development) and perestroika (political and economic restructuring) announced in 1986, the Soviet economy suffered from both hidden inflation and pervasive supply shortages aggravated by an increasingly open black market that undermined the official economy. Additionally, the costs of superpower status—the military, space program, subsidies to client states—were out of proportion to the Soviet economy. The new wave of industrialization based upon information technology had left the Soviet Union desperate for Western technology and credits in order to counter its increasing backwardness.



Soviet Union administrative divisions, 1989

The Law on Cooperatives enacted in May 1988 was perhaps the most radical of the economic reforms during the early part of the Gorbachev era. For the first time since Vladimir Lenin's New Economic Policy, the law permitted private ownership of businesses in the services, manufacturing, and foreign-trade sectors. Under this provision, cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers became part of the Soviet scene.

Glasnost resulted in greater freedom of speech and the press becoming far less controlled. It is likely that Gorbachev's primary goal in undertaking glasnost was to pressure conservatives who opposed his policies of economic restructuring, although he also hoped that through different ranges of openness, debate and participation, the Soviet people as a whole would support his reform initiatives.

Thousands of political prisoners and many dissidents were also released. Soviet social science became free to explore and publish on many subjects that had previously been off limits, including conducting public opinion polls. The All−Union Center for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM) — the most prominent of several polling organizations that were started then — was opened. State archives became more accessible, and some social statistics that had been kept secret became open for research and publication on sensitive subjects such as income disparities, crime, suicide, abortion, and infant mortality. The first center for gender studies was opened within a newly formed Institute for the Socio−Economic Study of Human Population.

In January 1987, Gorbachev called for democratization: the infusion of democratic elements such as multi−candidate elections into the Soviet political process. A 1987 conference convened by Soviet economist and Gorbachev adviser Leonid Abalkin, concluded: "Deep transformations in the management of the economy cannot be realised without corresponding changes in the political system."[3]

In June 1988, at the CPSU's Nineteenth Party Conference, Gorbachev launched radical reforms meant to reduce party control of the government apparatus. In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, which constitutional amendments had established as the Soviet Union's new legislative body.

Elections to the new Congress of People's Deputies were held throughout the USSR in March and April 1989. Gorbachev, as General Secretary of the Communist Party, could be forced to resign at any moment if the communist elite became dissatisfied with him. In order to proceed with reforms opposed by the majority of the communist party, Gorbachev aimed to consolidate power in a new position, President of the Soviet Union, which was independent from the CPSU and the soviets (councils) and whose holder could be impeached only in case of direct violation of the law[4]. On March 15, 1990, Gorbachev was elected as the first executive president. At the same time, the constitution was changed to deprive the CPSU of political power.

Unintended consequences

Gorbachev's efforts to streamline the Communist system offered promise, but ultimately proved uncontrollable and resulted in a cascade of events that eventually concluded with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Initially intended as tools to bolster the Soviet economy, the policies of perestroika and glasnost soon led to unintended consequences.

Relaxation under glasnost resulted in the Communist Party losing its absolute grip on the media. Before long, and much to the embarrassment of the authorities, the media began to expose severe social and economic problems the Soviet government had long denied and actively concealed. Problems receiving increased attention included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, outdated Stalin-era factories, and petty to large−scale corruption, all of which the official media had ignored. Media reports also exposed crimes committed by Stalin and the Soviet regime, such as the gulags, his treaty with Adolf Hitler, and the Great Purges, which had been ignored by the official media. Moreover, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the mishandling of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, which Gorbachev tried to cover up, further damaged the credibility of the Soviet government at a time when dissatisfaction was increasing.

In all, the very positive view of Soviet life which had long been presented to the public by the official media was being rapidly dismantled, and the negative aspects of life in the Soviet Union were brought into the spotlight[5 ]. This undermined the faith of the public in the Soviet system and eroded the Communist Party's social power base, threatening the identity and integrity of the Soviet Union itself.

Fraying amongst the members of the Warsaw Pact nations and instability of its western allies, first indicated by Lech Wałęsa's 1980 rise to leadership of the trade union Solidarity, accelerated, leaving the Soviet Union unable to depend upon its Eastern European satellite states for protection as a buffer zone. By 1989, Moscow had repudiated the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non−intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies. Gradually, each of the Warsaw Pact nations saw their communist governments fall to popular elections and, in the case of Romania, a violent uprising. By 1991 the communist governments of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania, all of which had been imposed after World War II, were brought down as revolution swept Eastern Europe.

The Soviet Union also began experiencing upheaval as the political consequences of glasnost reverberated throughout the country. Despite efforts at containment, the upheaval in Eastern Europe inevitably spread to nationalities within the USSR. In elections to the regional assemblies of the Soviet Union's constituent republics, nationalists as well as radical reformers swept the board. As Gorbachev had weakened the system of internal political repression, the ability of the USSR's central Moscow government to impose its will on the USSR's constituent republics had been largely undermined. Massive peaceful protests in the Baltic Republics such as The Baltic Way and the Singing Revolution drew international attention and bolstered independence movements in various other regions.

The rise of nationalism under freedom of speech soon reawakened simmering ethnic tensions in various Soviet republics, further discrediting the ideal of a unified Soviet people. One instance occurred in February 1988, when the government in Nagorno-Karabakh, a predominantly ethnic Armenian region in the Azerbaijan SSR, passed a resolution calling for unification with the Armenian SSR. Violence against local Azerbaijanis was reported on Soviet television, provoking massacres of Armenians in the Azerbaijani city of Sumgait.

Emboldened by the liberalized atmosphere of glasnost, public dissatisfaction with economic conditions was much more overt than ever before in the Soviet period. Although perestroika was considered bold in the context of Soviet history, Gorbachev's attempts at economic reform were not radical enough to restart the country's chronically sluggish economy in the late 1980s. The reforms made some inroads in decentralization, but Gorbachev and his team left intact most of the fundamental elements of the Stalinist system, including price controls, inconvertibility of the ruble, exclusion of private property ownership, and the government monopoly over most means of production.

By 1990 the Soviet government had lost control over economic conditions. Government spending increased sharply as an increasing number of unprofitable enterprises required state support and consumer price subsidies to continue. Tax revenues declined as republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy. The anti−alcohol campaign reduced tax revenues as well, which in 1982 accounted for about 12 percent of all state revenue. The elimination of central control over production decisions, especially in the consumer goods sector, led to the breakdown in traditional supplier−producer relationships without contributing to the formation of new ones. Thus, instead of streamlining the system, Gorbachev's decentralization caused new production bottlenecks.

Dissolution of the USSR

Post-Soviet states in alphabetical order:
1. Armenia, 2. Azerbaijan, 3. Belarus, 4. Estonia,
5. Georgia, 6. Kazakhstan, 7. Kyrgyzstan, 8. Latvia,
9. Lithuania, 10. Moldova, 11. Russia, 12. Tajikistan,
13. Turkmenistan, 14. Ukraine, 15. Uzbekistan

In February, 1990, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union agreed to give up its monopoly of power. Over the next several weeks, the 15 constituent republics of the USSR held their first competitive elections. Reformers and ethnic nationalists won many of the seats.

The constituent republics began to assert their national sovereignty over Moscow and started a "war of laws" with the central government, wherein the governments of the constituent republics repudiated union-wide legislation where it conflicted with local laws, asserting control over their local economies and refusing to pay tax revenue to the central Moscow government. This strife caused economic dislocation as supply lines in the economy were severed, and caused the Soviet economy to decline further.[5 ]

The pro-independence movement in the Lithuanian SSR, Sąjūdis, established on June 3, 1988, caused a visit by Gorbachev in January 1990 to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, which provoked a pro-independence rally of around 250,000 people.

On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian SSR, led by Chairman of the Supreme Council Vytautas Landsbergis, declared restoration of independence. However, the Soviet Army attempted to suppress the movement. The Soviet Union initiated an economic blockade of Lithuania and kept troops there "to secure the rights of ethnic Russians."[6]

On March 30, 1990, the Estonian Supreme Council declared Soviet power in Estonian SSR since 1940 to have been illegal, and started a process to reestablish Estonia as an independent state. The process of restoration of independence of the Latvian SSR began on May 4, 1990, with a Latvian Supreme Council vote stipulating a transitional period to complete independence.

Barricade in Riga to prevent the Soviet Army from reaching Latvian Parliament, July 1991

On January 13, 1991, Soviet troops, along with KGB Spetsnaz Alpha Group, stormed the Vilnius TV Tower in Vilnius, Lithuania to suppress the nationalist media. This ended with 14 unarmed civilians dead and hundreds more injured. Later that month in Georgian SSR, anti-Soviet protesters at Tbilisi demonstrated support for Lithuanian independence.[7]

On March 17, 1991, in a Union-wide referendum 76.4% of all voters voted for the retention of the Soviet Union in a reformed form.[8] The Baltics, Armenia, Georgia and Moldova boycotted the referendum. In each of the other nine republics, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the renewed Soviet Union. Following the results, Armenia indicated it wanted to rejoin in Union discussion.

On June 12, 1991, Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in the democratic elections for the post of president of the Russian SFSR, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov, who won 16% of the vote. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the "dictatorship of the centre", but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the railtrack in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10.

On the night of July 31, 1991, Russian OMON from Riga, the Soviet military headquarters in the Baltics, assaulted the Lithuanian border post in Medininkai and killed seven Lithuanian servicemen. This further weakened the Soviet Union's position, internationally and domestically.

The August Coup

Tanks in the Red Square during the 1991 coup attempt
Mass demonstration in Moscow against the 1991 coup attempt

Faced with growing republic separatism, Gorbachev attempted to restructure the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. On August 20, 1991, the Russian SFSR was scheduled to sign the New Union Treaty, which was to convert the Soviet Union into a federation of independent republics with a common president, foreign policy and military. The new treaty was strongly supported by the Central Asian republics, which needed the economic power and common markets of the other Soviet republics to prosper. However, this meant the preservation of the Communist Party's control over economic and social life. The more radical reformists were increasingly convinced that a rapid transition to a market economy was required, even if the eventual outcome included the disintegration of the Soviet Union into several independent nation-states. Disintegration of the USSR also accorded with the desires of Yeltsin's presidency of the Russian Federation as well as regional and local authorities, to establish full power over their territories and get rid of pervasive Moscow ideological control. In contrast to the reformers' lukewarm approach to the new treaty, the conservatives and remaining 'patriots' and Russian nationalists of the USSR, still strong within the CPSU and military establishment, were completely opposed to anything which might contribute to the weakening of the Soviet state and its centralized power base.

On August 19, 1991, Gorbachev's vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other senior officials acted to prevent the signing of the union treaty by forming the "General Committee on the State Emergency." The "Committee" put Gorbachev (vacationing in Foros, Crimea) under house arrest, reintroduced political censorship, and attempted to stop the perestroika. The coup leaders quickly issued an emergency decree suspending political activity and banning most newspapers.

While coup organizers expected some popular support for their actions, the public sympathy in large cities and in republics was largely against them. Russian SFSR President Boris Yeltsin was quick to condemn the coup and grab popular support for himself.

Thousands of people in Moscow came out to defend the "White House" (the Russian Federation's parliament and Yeltsin's office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers tried but ultimately failed to arrest Yeltsin, who rallied mass opposition to the coup. The special forces dispatched by the coup leaders took up positions near the White House, but would not storm the barricaded building.

After three days, on August 21, the coup collapsed, the organizers were detained, and Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev's powers were now fatally compromised, as neither the Union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands.

Aftermath of the failed coup

Through the autumn of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former apparatchiks abandoned the Communist Party in favor of positions in new government structures.

After the coup, the Soviet republics accelerated their process towards independence, declaring their sovereignty one by one. Their local authorities started to seize property located on their territory. On September 6, 1991, the Soviet government recognized the independence of the three Baltic states, which the western powers had always held to be sovereign. Yet, in the battle of power, on October 18 Gorbachev and communist representatives of 8 republics (excluding Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and the Baltic States) signed an agreement on forming a new economic community.

Meanwhile, the Soviet economic situation continued to deteriorate. By December 1991, food shortages in central Russia had prompted food rationing in the Moscow area for the first time since World War II. Amid steady collapse, Soviet President Gorbachev and his government continued to oppose rapid market reforms like Yavlinsky's "500 Days" program. To break Gorbachev's opposition, Yeltsin decided to disband the USSR in accordance with the Treaty of the Union of 1922 and thereby remove Gorbachev and the Soviet government from power. The step was also enthusiastically supported by the governments of Ukraine and Belarus, which were parties of the Treaty of 1922 along with Russia.

Formation of the CIS and official end of the USSR

Map of the CIS

The final round of the Soviet Union collapse took place following the Ukrainian popular referendum on December 1, 1991, wherein 90% of voters opted for independence. The leaders of Slavic republics agreed to meet for a discussion of possible forms of relationship, alternative to Gorbachev's struggle for a union.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian republics met in Belavezhskaya Pushcha and signed the Belavezha Accords declaring the Soviet Union dissolved and replacing it with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Gorbachev described this as an unconstitutional coup, but it soon became clear that the development could not be halted.

On December 12, 1991, Russia's secession from the Union was sealed, with the Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian SFSR formally ratifying the Belavezha Accords and denouncing the 1922 Treaty on the creation of the Soviet Union.

On December 17, 1991, alongside 28 European countries, the European Community, and four non-European countries, twelve of the fifteen soviet republics signed the European Energy Charter in the Hague as sovereign states.[9]

Doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to affect the dissolution of the Soviet Union, since they were signed by only five of the Soviet Republics. However, on December 21, 1991, representatives of all member republics except Georgia signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, in which they confirmed the dissolution of the Union. That same day, all former-Soviet republics agreed to join the CIS, with the exception of the three Baltic States. The documents signed at Alma-Ata also addressed several issues raised by the Union's extinction. Notably, Russia was authorized to assume the role of the USSR in the United Nations, which meant inheriting its permanent membership on the Security Council. On December 24, 1991, the Soviet Ambassador to the UN delivered to the Secretary General a letter by Russia's president, Boris Yeltsin, informing him that, in virtue of that agreement, Russia was the successor state to the USSR for the purposes of UN membership. After being circulated among the other UN member states with no objection raised, the statement was declared accepted on December 31.

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct and ceding all the powers still vested in it to the president of Russia: Yeltsin. On the night of that same day, the Soviet flag was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin. Finally, a day later on December 26, 1991, the Council of Republics (a chamber) of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR recognized the dissolution of the Soviet Union and dissolved itself (another chamber of the Supreme Soviet had been unable to work during some months before this, due to absence of a quorum). By December 31, 1991, all official Soviet institutions had ceased operations as individual republics assumed the central government's role.


The four principal elements of the old Soviet system were the hierarchy of soviets, ethnic federalism, state socialism, and Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev's programs of perestroika and glasnost produced radical unforeseen effects that brought that system down. As a means of reviving the Soviet state, Gorbachev repeatedly attempted to build a coalition of political leaders supportive of reform and created new arenas and bases of power. He implemented these measures because he wanted to resolve serious economic problems and political inertia that clearly threatened to put the Soviet Union into a state of long−term stagnation.

But by using structural reforms to widen opportunities for leaders and popular movements in the union republics to gain influence, Gorbachev also made it possible for nationalist, orthodox communist, and populist forces to oppose his attempts to liberalize and revitalize Soviet communism. Although some of the new movements aspired to replace the Soviet system altogether with a liberal democratic one, others demanded independence for the national republics. Still others insisted on the restoration of the old Soviet ways. Ultimately, Gorbachev could not forge a compromise among these forces and the consequence was the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Post−Soviet restructuring

In order to restructure the Soviet administrative command system and implement transition to a market-based economy, Yeltsin's shock program was employed within days of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The subsidies to money-losing farms and industries were cut, price controls abolished, and the ruble moved toward convertibility. New opportunities for Yeltsin's circle and other entrepreneurs to seize the former state property were created thus restructuring old state-owned economy within a few months. After obtaining power, the vast majority of "idealistic" reformers gained huge possessions of state property using their positions in the government and became business oligarchs in a manner that appeared antithetical to an emerging democracy. Existing institutions were conspicuously abandoned prior to the establishment of new legal structures of the market economy such as those governing private property, overseeing financial markets, and enforcing taxation.

Market economists believed that the dismantling of the administrative command system in Russia would raise GDP and living standards by allocating resources more efficiently. They also thought the collapse would create new production possibilities by eliminating central planning, substituting a decentralized market system, eliminating huge macroeconomic and structural distortions through liberalization, and providing incentives through privatization.

Since the USSR's collapse, Russia faced many problems that free market proponents in 1992 did not expect. Among other things, 25% of the population lived below the poverty line, life expectancy had fallen, birthrates were low, and the GDP was halved. These problems led to a series of crises in the 1990s, which nearly led to election of Yeltsin's Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, in the 1996 presidential election. In the recent years, the economy of Russia has begun to improve greatly, due to major investments and business development and also due to high prices of natural resources.

See also

Further reading


  1. ^ Gaidar, Yegor (2007-04-19). "The Soviet Collapse: Grain and Oil". On the Issues: AEI online. American Enterprise Institute. Retrieved 2009-07-09.   (Edited version of a speech given November 13, 2006 at the American Enterprise Institute.)
  2. ^
  3. ^ Voprosy Ekonomiki (Moscow), no. 2 (1988), p. 79.
  4. ^ Российская история | Персонажи | Горбачев Михаил Сергеевич
  5. ^ a b Acton, Edward,, (1995) Russia, The Tsarist and Soviet Legacy, Longmann Group Ltd (1995) ISBN 0-582-08922-0
  6. ^ From Communists to Foreign Capitalists: The Social Foundations of Foreign Direct Investment in Postsocialist Europe by Nina Bandelj, Princeton University Press, 2008, ISBN-10: 0691129126/ISBN-13: 978-0691129129, page 41
  7. ^ Hastening The End of the Empire, TIME Magazine, January 28, 1991
  8. ^ 1991: March Referendum
  9. ^ Concluding document of The Hague Conference on the European Energy Charter

External links

Simple English

Dissolution of the Soviet Union is a term of history. The period of History of the Soviet Union from 1985 to 1991 covers the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In plain words, dissolution may mean ending or closure of anything. The term dissolution of the Soviet Union describes dissolution of the Soviet Union as a separate country. The Soviet Union had many ethnic regions called "republics". All these "republics" were part of the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was one country. After its dissolution, different "republics" of the Soviet Union became independent countries. The names of these countries are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The Soviet Union ended or its dissolution happened upon the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States. At the time of dissolution of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev was the president of the Soviet Union. He was in this position since March 1985. On 25 December 1991, he quit the post of the president of the USSR. By 31 December 1991, all organizations and departments of the Soviet Union stopped working. On that date, the Soviet flag flew for the last time on the Kremlin.



During 1969 and 1982, very few changes took place in the politics and economy of the Soviet Union. With the beginning of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, its relationship with the United States also deteriorated. At that time Jimmy Carter, followed by Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States. Jimmy Carter ended the policy of Détente - ending of unfriendly relationship. Some historians believe that this may be one of the reasons for the Soviet Union to change its political and economic policies.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the CPSU. Under him, a new group of officials and leaders started a process of changes in the politics and economy of the Soviet Union. They also tried to improve relationship with the countries of the Western countries like the USA.

At that time, the Soviet economy was facing many problems, including inflation and black marketing. Also, the cost of maintaining the Soviet Union, as a superpower was huge. These costs included running a large military; running the KGB networks; and giving money to to countries close to the Soviet Union. At the same time, the Soviet Union’s technological development had fallen behind. For example: many of its factories used out-of-date technologies and it had fallen behind in the use of information technology.

In view of these and other reasons, Gorbachev and his team started three important policies:

  • Glasnost – meaning political openness.
  • Perestroika – meaning economic changes and restructuring.
  • Uskoreniye – meaning speeding up of the economic development.


Some of the economic changes (called economic reforms) in the Soviet Union are as follows:

Since the time of Vladimir Lenin in 1920s, the people of the Soviet Union did not have any right to own personal property and business. The government owned almost everything. In 1988, the government permitted the people to own some types of businesses in the service sector, manufacturing, and foreign trade. A system of cooperative restaurants, shops, and manufacturers came into existence.

Glasnost gave a greater freedom of speech to the citizens. The government reduced censorship and control on publication. The government set free many political prisoners. In January 1987, Gorbachev started a process of democratization of Soviet politics. In June 1988, Gorbachev started a process to reduce the control of the CPSU on the different parts of the government.

In December 1988, the Supreme Soviet had approved the establishment of a Congress of People's Deputies, the Soviet Union's new legislative body. In March and April 1989, elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies took place. The members on 15th March 1990 elected Gorbachev as the first executive President of the Soviet Union.

The outcome

Many steps taken by Gorbachev gave results different than the intended results. Thus the perestroika and glasnost intended to make the Soviet economy stronger resulted into something very different. Many factors and events combined and finally they resulted into the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Under the policy of glasnost (political openness), the Soviet government and the Communist Party lost control over the media. A free media brought to notice of the public many bad aspects of the society and the economy of the Soviet Union. These bad aspects included poor housing, alcoholism, drug abuse, pollution, out-of-date technologies in many factories, and corruption. People also learnt of many crimes committed by Stalin. For example, they learnt about prisoners at Gulags, agreement with Adolf Hitler, and large numbers of killings of persons opposed to Stalin. Further, people also learnt details about such events as the ongoing Soviet war in Afghanistan and bad management of nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl. In short, people learnt about the negative aspects of the Soviet life. All these reduced the trust of the people in the government of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party.

By 1989, the Soviet Union changed a policy: it declared that it would not interfere in internal affairs of many of its neighboring countries. After the end of the Second World War, with the support of the Soviet Union, communist governments were ruling all these countries. The change in the policy of the Soviet Union resulted into fall of the communist governments in many such countries by 1991: in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

Seeing all these developments, many "republics" of the Soviet Union wanted to become independent. At the same time, ethnic tensions increased in many Soviet "republics" and ethically Russian regions. People started disliking the ideal of a unified Soviet state.

The leaders had thought that the policy of perestroika was a bold step to improve the economy. But, the steps were not very strong to improve the bad economic conditions of 1980s. Despite many changes, Gorbachev and his team had left many aspects of the Soviet economy unchanged. For example, price control, inconvertibility of the ruble, and government control over most means of production continued. By 1990 the economic situation had become worse. The examples include:

  • Government expenditure had increased.
  • Tax revenues had come down as the republics had stopped paying taxes.
  • Income from sale of vodka came down as many people had stopped drinking.
  • The government had to give money to support unprofitable farms and industries.
  • The government had removed many controls but did not bring forth other changes for smooth transition from state control to a free economy. This resulted into many problems including low production.

The dissolution

On 7th February 1990, the Central Committee of the CPSU decided to loosen its control over power. At around the same time, different "republics" of the Soviet Union started to claim their right to become independent. They stopped following the laws of the central government of the Soviet Union. They also stopped paying taxes to the central authorities (of Moscow) of the Soviet Union. These weakened the Soviet authority and economy.

During a 1990 visit of Gorbachev to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania, about 250,000 persons protested in a public meeting. On 11th March 1990, leaders of Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Army continued to keep many troops in Lithuania. The Soviet Union also did economic blockade of Lithuania. Estonia was a part of Soviet Union from 1940. On 30th March 1990, the leaders of Estonia declared that the control of their country by the Soviet Union from 1940 was illegal. They also declared independence. The leaders of Latvia also started process of independence on 4th May 1990.

On 17th March 1991, people of the Soviet Union voted for retention of the existing Soviet Union in a slightly changed form. The Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), Armenia, Georgia and Moldova boycotted the voting. In each of the other nine "republics" of the Soviet Union, a majority of the voters supported the retention of the Soviet Union. In June 1991 an election took place in the Soviet Union. Boris Yeltsin got 57 % of the vote. He was a critic of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s preferred candidate, former Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov, got only 16 % of the vote.

The Coup

The "republics" of the Soviet Union had agreed to sign on 20th August 1991, an agreement making them almost independent republics but part of a federation, with a common president, foreign policy and military. However, many persons disagreed, and they wanted a fast transition to market economy even if it meant dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were many others in the CPSU and the military of the Soviet Union who supported continuation of the Soviet Union.

On 19th August 1991, some senior leaders of the Soviet Union formed a "State Committee on the State Emergency." They prevented signing of the above mentioned agreement on 20th August 1991. These leaders included Gorbachev’s vice president Gennadi Yanayev, prime minister Valentin Pavlov, defense minister Dmitriy Yazov, KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, and many other senior officials. At that time Gorbachev was holidaying in Crimea). These officials put him under house arrest. They also issued orders banning all political activities and banned most newspapers.

This was like a coup. The organizers had expected popular support for their action. But, the people did not support them. Instead, they supported "White House" (Yeltsin's office), then the symbolic seat of Russian sovereignty. The organizers of the coup tried but failed to arrest Boris Yeltsin. After three days, on August 21, the coup failed. The authorities detained the organizers. Gorbachev returned as president of the Soviet Union. However, Gorbachev's real powers had reduced.

Through the autumn of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry. In November 1991, Yeltsin issued an order banning the CPSU throughout the Russian republic. As a result, many former CPSU personnel left CPSU to join the new positions in the new Russian government.

After the failure of the coup, the republics of the Soviet Union increased their efforts to become independent. On 6th September 1991, the Soviet Union recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. On 1st December 1991, Ukraine declared its independence, after 90 % of the voters opted for an independent Ukraine. One by one, the remaining eleven "republics" of the Soviet Union also declared themselves as sovereign and independent states.


As noted above, on 6th September 1991, the Soviet Union had recognized the independence of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It may be note that twelve out of the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union had signed an international agreement (European Energy Charter) in the Hague on 17th December 1991. The signing had indicated that these republics had practically become independent and sovereign countries.

Leaving apart already independent Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the remaining 12 republics, all (except Georgia) joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In December 1993, Georgia also joined the CIS. On 26th August 2006 Turkmenistan left the permanent membership, and became an associate member.

Many persons believed that with the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Soviet Union ceased to exist. They believed that it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many others think that with CIS, the Russia continues to have some control over the former republics of the Soviet Union.

On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR. By December 31, 1991 all official Soviet institutions had stopped to function in different "republics" of the Soviet Union. The individual governments of these republics started functioning. The Soviet flag flew last time over the Kremlin.


The four principles had governed the Soviet Union: a chain of soviets; ethnic federation; state socialism; and supremacy of the Communist party. Gorbachev's policies of perestroika and glasnost created a situation which weakened all the above four principles. He repeatedly tried to form a circle of leaders to support his policies. He tried to do all these as he and his team saw that the Soviet Union was moving toward a long-term stagnation.

Gorbachev’s policies made it possible for leaders of various Soviet republics to gain confidence and influence. At the same time, he faced opposition from many including the nationalist forces and the traditional communists. Some people accepted the reforms; some wanted the old system to continue; and some desired complete independence from the Soviet Union and central control. In the end, Gorbachev was unable to ensure any common view among these forces. Ultimately, this led to the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the dissolution

Immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin’s took many steps to change the economy of the Soviet Union from a socialist economy to a capitalist economy. For example: he cut the payment of grants to money loosing farms and industries; he also removed control over prices; he took steps for convertibility of the Russian ruble. He also allowed many persons close to his circle and other business people to take possession of the businesses and industries earlier owned by the government, and to run them as private enterprises. The planners and economists had thought that these changes would lead to a faster economic development. However, nothing of this sort happened.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia is facing many problems, including the following:

  • About 25 % of the population of Russia is now very poor and live below the poverty line.
  • The life expectancy had come down. This means people die at an early age.
  • The Gross Domestic Product had become about 50 % of the earlier times.

Many Russians of older generation believe that the earlier system was better. During 1990s, Russia faced many crises in political, social and economic matters. Many persons still believe that the situation still continues to be worse compared to earlier times.

Other pages

Other websites

Further reading

  • Helene Carrere D'Encausse, The End of the Soviet Empire: The Triumph of the Nations, Basic Books, 1992, ISBN 0465098185
  • Ronald Grigor Suny, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Stanford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0804722471


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