The Soviet Union, once comprising of fifteen states and an army of 5 million soldiers, collapsed in 1991 (Barany, 2007). Under the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev who came to power in 1985 and resigned only six years later, the once-dominant rival of the United States fell into a downward spiral. Several factors can be attributed to the collapse, of which internal and external factors are involved. The internal factors include economic crisis, nationalism in Soviet republics and corruption. While the external factors consider the arms race with America, the war in Afghanistan 1979 and the drastic fall in oil prices in the 1980s. Considerations of how the two reformist policies were applied to a number of events that took place while Gorbachev was in power will shed light on the broader context and remit of said policies. This essay will analyse the role Gorbachev’s policies played and also consider the significance of other factors to ascertain how far either element can be said to be responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In March 1985, a newer and younger leader was brought into power as the eighth and final president of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The new president inherited two decades of economic stagnation, a government run by wealthy and ageing elites and growing dissent in the satellite states. In an attempt to rectify these and in an unprecedented effort at rejuvenating the system, Gorbachev introduced two policies that he believed would restore and renew the Soviet Union into a stronger and healthier superpower. For Gorbachev, it was more of a moral crusade than it was a political or economic one. On January 1987, Gorbachev told the Central Committee at a meeting, “A new moral atmosphere is taking shape in the country,” where he also declared glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) of the Soviet society (Singh, 1991). Under Gorbachev’s plan for perestroika, the Soviet Union would maintain a Communist with some capitalist touches whereby the Politburo and the Central Planning Committee would still exert influence over the direction of the economy; however, the government would allow market forces to dictate some production and development decisions (Gustafson, 2001). In addition to the changes to the economy, there was also a reorganisation of the Communist Party elite which meant that younger voices would also be heard. The second part of Gorbachev’s plan, glasnost, was directed at the personal restrictions of the Soviet people. For decades, citizens lived without freedom of speech, the press or religion, and the State arrested millions of potential dissidents (Roberts, 1989). Gorbachev’s glasnost plan gave the Soviet people a voice they were free to express. Gorbachev’s glasnost plan called for political openness and transparency. Glasnost eliminated remaining traces of Stalinist repression, such as the banning of books and the much-loathed secret police. Newspapers could criticise the government, and multi-party and multi-candidate elections took place (Roberts, 1989). The idea of openness and transparency would later backfire on its creator and do more harm than good.
Even before Gorbachev’s presidency, the command economy did not generate sufficient growth over more extended periods. The command economy is a fundamental economic policy of the communist ideology. This form of economy means that the government dictates how much is produced, invested, the prices of goods, and incomes. The opposite of this is the free market which is determined by the supply and demand of products and services. One of the features of perestroika was aimed at introducing some free-market policies into the Soviet command economy. Under perestroika, the government would still maintain control over the economy, but it would have some capitalist characteristics. For example, Gorbachev encouraged foreign capital investment and allowed weak industries to fail. These reforms only further destabilised the economy and threw the whole system into chaos. Industries did collapse indeed, and the economy crumbled. The Soviet Union was forced to introduce food rationing as the situation worsened (Miller, 2016). When Gorbachev came along he opened the floodgates without having a solid rescue plan in place, and so accompanied by a severe economic crisis, the system drowned.
In addition to this, another major internal factor was the fact that the Soviet economy failed to evolve from a heavy manufacturer to a modern economy. Heavy manufacturing involves oil, mining, shipbuilding, steel, chemicals and manufacture of machinery. They are very capital-intensive, so a lot of machinery and equipment is required. Light industry, on the other hand, comprises of small items like household goods and clothing. This sector is usually less capital-intensive than heavy manufacturing and is more consumer-oriented (Types of Industries, 2017). The problem with the Soviet economy was that it revolved around heavy industry, with little regard to consumer goods. This disproportionate distribution of funding was a result of the arms race that the Soviet state had with the United States for years. Most of the government expenditure went towards defence funding and consequently reducing the living standards for its citizens (Marples, 2015). The Soviet Union needed to industrialise to compete with the rest of the world, and the best way was to dedicate all available resources into this sector. Unfortunately, the Politburo did not welcome this idea, and so in the 1970s and 1980s, breadlines became common, and Soviet people did not have access to essential clothing or shoes (Hanson, 2016). During the 1960s and 1970s, the elite rapidly increased their wealth and power while millions of the Soviet people were faced with starvation (Hanson, 2016). The significant gap between the extreme wealth of the Politburo and the poverty of Soviet families created anger and frustration amongst the Soviet youth against the Communist system. Economic shortages undermined the argument for the superiority of the Soviet system, and the people cried out for a revolution (Soviet Union, 2017).
Another external pressure the Soviet Union had to deal with was its engagements with the West, especially the United States, Initially, Jimmy Carter increased Cold War tensions to their highest levels in 1979. Following this, Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981 and declared the Soviet state as the “evil empire”, and making his intentions towards the Soviet Union clear (Sell, 2016). Reagan’s leadership resulted in a massive increase in American defence spending, as well as research into new and better weapons. Reagan was a staunch supporter of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which made a nuclear war possibly winnable for the United States (Marples, 2015). The USSR also faced American attacks on the Soviet economy. In the 1980s, the United States under President Ronald Reagan used an isolationist approach to outlaw the Soviet economy from the international arena and drive oil prices to their lowest levels in decades. When the Soviet Union’s oil and gas revenue dropped dramatically, the USSR began to lose its hold on Eastern Europe. Kenneth S. Deffeyes argued in his book Beyond Oil (Deffeyes, 2006) that the Reagan administration used its influence over Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil so that the Soviets could no longer make a profit from selling their oil. For example, the sharp drop in oil prices, from $66 a barrel in 1980 to $20 a barrel in 1986 was a massive blow to the Soviet finances (Gaidar, 2007). The food shortages, lack of good quality consumer goods and an oil price crisis all contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.
Along with his External Affairs Minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, Gorbachev managed to revolutionise the Soviet foreign policy, earning respect from his international peers. He introduced a new political thinking whereby military power did not automatically guarantee national security and states could benefit from mutual protection. To demonstrate his peacekeeping skills, Gorbachev signed an agreement with China on the issue of the oriental borderline (Pei, 1998) and promised to pull out troops from Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan was lengthy and costly. In May 1988, the Soviet authorities revealed that some 13, 000 soldiers died in the conflict with nearly 35, 000 wounded, excluding the local losses of the Afghan population (Marples, 2015). In his book, The Triumph of Improvisation, James Wilson, stated that Gorbachev’s significant reforms allowed the problems of the Soviet Union to be revealed and become known to the public (Wilson, 2014). The Soviet Union was a nation made up of 15 different republics. Throughout the country, there were dozens of ethnicities, languages, and cultures, many of which were incompatible with each other. Intimidation of ethnic minorities by the Russian majority created tensions along the outlying provinces, especially those in continental Europe (Paletz, 1995). Meanwhile, Gorbachev’s reforms were slow to bear fruit and did more harm to the Soviet Union good. In 1989, nationalist movements in Eastern Europe brought regime change in Poland, and the movement soon spread to Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe. Many of these former Soviet allies began to split along ethnic lines, which only fuelled separatist movements in Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States (Wilson, 2014). The Berlin wall fell in November 1989, after Gorbachev refused to sanction force (Buckley, 2009). As these Soviet republics united in their efforts to gain independence from the Soviet Union, the power of the central government was fatally reduced, and by 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved.
Gorbachev came to power with a concrete idea of a new and forward thinking, with a plan to modernise the vast empire in an age which was too far behind to catch up. By the time, Gorbachev made meaningful reforms to the system, it was far too late and as a result, led to destruction rather than reformation. The Soviet Union was already on its way out due to its crippling economic policies, outdated and corrupt leaders in the Communist Party and a drawn-out war in Afghanistan. However, Gorbachev’s attempts at applying capitalist systems to the command economy backfired and led to a recession which only made matters worse. Coupled with his idea of openness and transparency, the Soviet people used their newly founded rights to express their anger and dissent. Furthermore, glasnost exposed to the world the hideous flaws of the Soviet Union and made it even more susceptible to scrutiny, criticism and attack. In the case of internal pressure vs external pressure, the Soviet Union appeared to succumb to the latter the most. The Soviet state was always in competition with the United States and most of the governance revolved around winning the so-called contest against the US. When President Reagan increased his defence spending, the USSR followed suit. This meant that the Soviet leaders could not possibly feed its population if a significant portion of the funding was going towards the manufacture of arms. The losses in Afghanistan only added to this and caused further anger amongst the Soviet people. In hindsight, if there were no involvement in Afghanistan and less competition with the US, maybe the Soviet Union would’ve lasted a decade or two longer? Or perhaps, the internal factors: the ageing politburo and command economy would’ve ended the Soviet state but just in a different fashion. Bearing in mind these considerations, one could say that Gorbachev and his reforms were indeed responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union but only in the sense that Gorbachev catalysed a reaction that was bound to happen at some point. In the simplest terms, Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost were the two and final nails in the coffin and Gorbachev himself the catalyst.