Fall of the Soviet Union: Internal Causes Were to Blame, Not External
In December of 1991, as the world watched in sheer perplexity and wonder, the mighty Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen separate smaller countries. Its collapse was hailed by the west as a convincing victory for freedom, a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, and evidence of the final proof of superiority of capitalism over socialism. The United States rejoiced as its sworn enemy was brought to its knees, thereby ending the unprecedented Cold War which had hovered over these two superpowers like a thunderhead since the end of World War II. In fact, the end of the Soviet Union transformed the entire world political situation, leading to a complete reformulation of political, economic and military alliances all over the globe, not to mention spurred a whole new set of political-economic theories.
What were the causes of this monumental historical event? The answer is a very complex one, of course, and can only be arrived at with an understanding of the peculiar composition and history of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union as we knew it was constructed on approximately the same territory as the Russian Empire which it succeeded. After the historic Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the newly-formed government developed a philosophy of socialism with the eventual and gradual transition to hard-line Communism.
The state which the Bolsheviks created was intended to overcome national differences, and rather to create one monolithic state based on a centralized economical and political system. This state, which was built on a Communist ideology, was eventually transformed into a totalitarian state, in which the Communist leadership had complete and authoritarian control over the entire country, including those areas that were not as culturally or historically linked to Moscow.
However, this project of creating a unified, centralized socialist state proved problematic for several critical reasons. First, the Soviets underestimated the degree to which the non-Russian ethnic groups in the country (which comprised more than fifty percent of the total population of the Soviet Union) would resist forced and assumed assimilation into a Russianized State.
Second, their economic planning failed to meet the needs of the State, which was caught up in a vicious and unprecedented arms race with the United States. This led to gradual economic decline, eventually necessitating the need for serious reform.
Finally, the ideology of Communism, which the Soviet Government worked to instill in the hearts and minds of its population, never took firm root, especially in the outlying states, and eventually lost whatever influence it had originally carried.
By the time of the 1985 rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Unions last leader, the country was in a situation of severe stagnation in every way, with deep economic and political problems which sorely needed to be addressed and overcome. Recognizing this, Gorbachev introduced a two-tiered policy of policy reform.
On one much publicized level, Gorbachev initiated a policy of glasnost, or freedom of speech. On the other level, he began a program of severe economic reform known as perestroika, or rebuilding. What Gorbachev did not realize was that by giving people complete freedom of expression, he was unwittingly unleashing emotions and political feelings that had been pent up for several decades, and which proved to be extremely powerful when brought out into open debate in the Kremlin and outside of it.
Moreover, Gorbachevs policy of economic reform did not have close to the immediate results he had hoped for and had publicly predicted. The Soviet people consequently used their newly allotted freedom of speech to criticize Gorbachev heavily and consistently for his failure to improve the economy.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union began on the peripheries, in the non-Russian areas, as intimated above. As we have discussed, these were the states that were least tied to Moscow in a cultural or historical manner. The first region to produce mass, organized dissent was the Baltic region, where, in 1987, the government of Estonia demanded absolute autonomy from the Soviet Union.
Estonias move was later followed by similar moves in Lithuania and Latvia, the other two Baltic republics. The nationalist movements in the Baltics constituted a strong challenge to Gorbachevs policy of glasnost. He did not want to crack down too severely on the participants in these movements, yet at the same time, it became increasingly evident that allowing them to run their course would spell eventually disaster for the Soviet Union, which would completely collapse if all of the periphery republics were to demand independence.
After the initiative from Estonia, similar movements sprang up all over the former Soviet Union. In the Transcaucasus region (in the South of the Soviet Union), a movement developed inside the heavily Armenian-populated autonomous region of Nagorno-Karabagh, in the Republic of Azerbaijan. The Armenian population of this region demanded that they be granted the right to secede and join the Republic of Armenia, with whose population they were ethnically linked, unlike with the Soviet Union.
Massive demonstrations were held in Armenia in solidarity with the secessionists in Nagorno-Karabagh as well. The Gorbachev government refused to permit the population of Nagorno-Karabagh to secede, and the situation developed into a violent territorial dispute, eventually degenerating into an all-out war which continues unabated until the present day.
Once this “Pandoras box” had been opened, nationalist movements emerged in Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Byelorussia, and the Central Asian republics as well. The power of the Central Government was considerably weakened by these movements; Gorbachev could no longer rely on the cooperation of Government figures in the republics.
Finally, the tenuous situation came to a head in August of 1991. In a last-ditch effort to save the Soviet Union, which was floundering under the impact of the political movements which had emerged since the implementation of Gorbachevs glasnost, a group of “hard-line” Communists organized a storybook coup detat.
The hard-liners kidnapped Gorbachev, and then, on August 19 of 1991, they announced on state television that Gorbachev was very ill and would no longer be able to govern. The country went into an absolute uproar. Massive protests were staged in Moscow, Leningrad, and many of the other major cities of the Soviet Union, and in the soon-to-be breakaway republics. When the coup organizers tried to bring in their military to quell the protestors, the soldiers themselves rebelled, saying that they could not fire on their fellow countrymen. After three days of massive protest, the coup organizers surrendered, realizing that without the cooperation of the military, they did not of course have the power to overcome the power of the entire population of the country.
After the failed coup attempt, it was only a few months until the Soviet Union completely and utterly collapsed. Both the government and the people realized that there was no way to turn back the clock; the massive demonstrations of the “August days” had demonstrated that the population would accept nothing less than the freedom democracy. Gorbachev conceded power, realizing that he could no longer contain the power or will of the population. On December 25, 1991, Gorbachev resigned.
By January of 1992, by popular demand, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In its place, a completely new entity was formed. It was called the “Commonwealth of Independent Republics,” and was composed of most of the independent countries of the former Soviet Union. While the member countries had complete political independence, they were linked to other Commonwealth countries by economic, and, in some cases, military ties as well.
Now that the Soviet Union, with its centralized political and economic system, as we knew it has ceased to exist, the fifteen newly formed independent countries which emerged in its aftermath are faced with an overwhelming task on every level. They must develop their frail economies, reorganize their political systems, and, in many cases, settle bitter territorial disputes. A number of dire wars have developed on the peripheries of the former Soviet Union. Additionally, the entire region is suffering a period of severe economic depression. However, despite the many hardships facing the region, bold steps are being taken toward democratization, reorganization, and rebuilding in most of the breakaway republics of the former Soviet Union.
The Root Cause
Contrary to popular belief, the cause of the Soviet Unions breakup and collapse was actually its own construction.
The Soviet Union was, in all practical terms, an ethnofederation. This means that it was made up of extremely fractious (both geographically and ethnically) states that really had very little in common with one another.
Ethnofederations endure, political scientists tell us, in at least one of two ways. First, and most obviously, leaders can hold ethnofederations together by sheer force. However, there is another way. Some ethnofederations contain a virtual harmony of interests that requires little if any coercion at all. Such harmonies of interest are not always obvious to the actual states or republics involved, of course, so in order to base a union primarily on consent rather than coercion, leaders must often.