Causes and Effects of the Soviet


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Causes and Effects of the Soviet Union


By January 1991, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest country occupying approximately one-sixth of earth’s land covering 8, 650,000 square miles. It had a population of 100 nationalities with its population amounting to 290 million. Further, it boasted tens of thousands of nuclear miles and its sphere of influence was exerted using measures such as Warsaw Pact that extended across Europe. Within one year, the Soviet Union had collapsed and ceased to exist. The dissolution of the Union had begun in the 1980s but it was only completed in December 1991 when only 15 independent countries had remained (Dabrowski, 302). While it is practically impossible to point out a single factor as a cause of an event as far-reaching and complex as the dissolution of a worldwide superpower, several external and internal factors had a hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The purpose of this essay is to break down the events and uprisings that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the effects of the collapse as well as what the collapse meant to the United States.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was used to signify the end of the cold war that had existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. The cold war was a period characterized by constrained rivalry taking place towards the end of World War II. This rivalry took place along economic, political, and propaganda lines with the limited use of weapons. It did not involve large-scale fighting it was a result of the ideological and geopolitical struggle of worldwide supremacy after victory stemming from an alliance formed temporarily in 1945 against Nazi Germany. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to claim their freedom. Soon the movement spread to other states including Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia who also demanded their freedoms which put more pressure on the government. What followed is that Soviet Union took back control of the government and kidnapped Gorbachev and reported to the world that he was not in a position to rule. They intended to take over the government during the protest. They tried to use the military to shut down protests but the military declined shooting at its people. This takeover could not materialize without the proper backing of the government. The Soviet Union officially broke when Gorbachev make a public announcement about his resignation on 25th December 1991. Following the dissolution, the former global superpower was replaced by 15 independent countries namely Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Estonia, Russia, Moldova, Lithuania, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Latvia.

External and Internal Factors Leading to the Collapse

The Political Factor

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the secretary-general of the Soviet Union in 1985, he found the economy in total disaster. His only domestic goal was to streamline the cumbersome bureaucracy that existed in government. His initial attempts with the reforms did not yield significant results leading to the institutions of policies named glasnost which means openness and perestroika which means restructuring. Glasnost was to be used to foster dialogue while perestroika was to allow private ownership following the introduction of quasi-free-market policies in the running of government policies (Gutman and Volker 96). Worth noting, igniting a renaissance within communist thoughts, glasnost opened doors to criticisms in the entire Soviet Union apparatus. Further, the State lost control of the public sphere as well as media and as a result, the democratic movement reforms throughout the Soviet bloc were in steam. Perestroika displayed the worst communist and capitalist systems. This is because the price controls were removed within some markets but the bureaucratic structures that existed were left in place and as such, communist officials pushed back against the policies that failed to benefit them on an individual level. What happened, in the end, was that Gorbachev’s abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine and his reforms facilitated the demise of the Soviet Union empire. By 1989, Hungary resulted in dismantling its border fence with Austria. Additionally, in Poland, Solidarity had swept into power, the Baltic States had already taken steps towards independence, and the wall at Berlin was already toppled. By this time, the Iron Curtain had already fallen and it was clear that the Soviet Union could not last long.

The Economic Factor

In 1990, the Soviet Union had the largest economy in the world. Despite this, the Union experienced consumer goods shortages as hoarding had become commonplace. The black market economy of the Soviet Union was estimated to be the equivalent of about 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. There was economic stagnation which continued hobbling the country for years and the perestroika policies only exacerbated the problem rather than resolving it. Notably, hikes in wages were supported by printed money and this only fueled an inflammatory spiral. The fiscal policy was mismanaged which made the country more vulnerable to external factors. The sharp decline in oil prices sent the Soviet Union’s economy to a tailspin. Between the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union was named as the top producer of energy in the world in the production of resources including natural gas and oil. The export of these commodities played a significant role in shoring up the biggest command economy in the world. Oil prices declined significantly from 120 dollars per barrel in 1980 to 24 dollars per barrel in 1986 leading to the dry-up of external capital of the important lifeline. Worth noting, oil prices spiked temporarily as a result of Kuwait’s invasion by Iraq in 1990 but by then the dissolution of the Union were well in progress.

The Military as a Contribution Factor to the Soviet Union’s Collapse

It has been widely held that the spending of the Soviet Union dramatically accelerated as a response to Ronald Reagan’s presidency and proposals including the Strategic Defense Initiative. Since the early 1970s, the Soviet Union military budges had been on an upward trend, however, analysts from the west were only left with guesses regarding hard numbers ( Hofman, Oane & Artemy, 193). The estimates of the Union’s military spending ranged from 10 to 20 percent of the Union’s gross domestic product. It was hard to come up with an exact accounting within the Soviet Union because the budget military involved various government ministries with each having its competing interests. It is said that the spending of the military was consistently agnostic of the general economic trends. Even when there was lagging on the part of the Soviet Union economy, the military continued being well funded. The military was given priority when it came to matters of developing talent and research. As a result, the would-be entrepreneurs and technological innovators that could have provided support for Gorbachev’s partial transition to become a functional market economy were instead channeled towards defending industries.

The Soviet Union Involvement with Afghanistan

In addition to budgetary concerns, the Soviet Union’s dealings with Afghanistan that took place between 1979 and 1989 were a major contributor to the break of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union army had a lion role in the Second World War and it was a significant tool in the repression of the Prague Spring and Hungarian Revolution. The army had waded into a quagmire within regions known as the Graveyard of Empire. Many troops that participated in the 10-year occupations died; about 15,000 troops were killed in the process and thousands more wounded. Furthermore, about a million Afghans who were mostly civilians were killed and at least 4 million externally displaced as a result of the fighting. The army which bested Hitler and destroyed dissent in the cold war was frustrated with mujahideen equipped with surface-to-air-miles from America. Dissent regarding the Afghanistan war remained muted as long as the government remained in control of the press. However, glasnost policies opened doors for vocalized widespread war-weariness. The army turned out to be the most powerful opponent of Gorbachev’s policies reform efforts. The army was back-footed by the stalemate in Afghanistan and as a result, it lost the little leverage it has on checking the advancement of perestroika policy reform. Within the Soviet’ republic, the Afghans expressed agitation of what they thought to be Moscow’s war. Soldiers from the Central Asian republics felt connected to religious and ethnic ties to Afghans than with Russians. Within European republics, the cleavage with Moscow turned out more dramatic. In Ukraine, antiwar demonstrations emerged and opposition forces within Baltic republics only viewed the Afghanistan war through the lens of Russian occupation in their countries. This accelerated the secessionist movement which proceeded and the consequent declarations of independence by all Baltic States in 1990.

Nuclear-related Cause.

When the cold war was taking place, the United States and the Soviet Union were on the edge of nuclear destruction. They had not considered the fact that the Soviet Union would be brought to its knees by an incident that involved civilian nuclear plants. In 1986, there was an explosion at the Chernobyl power station and this happened after only a year of Gorbachev being in power. The explosion and fires that followed released radioactive fallout that was 400 times more than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The officials of communist parties acted quickly to suppress information regarding the severity of the explosion. They went as far as directing May Day celebrations and parades to continue in affected regions despite the imminent exposure to radiation. Reports in the western region about the dangers of the high level of wind radioactivity were branded as gossip and apparatchiks quickly gathered Geiger counters from the classrooms. On 4th May, the workers managed to bring the radiation under control but Gorbachev never issued any official statement until 18 days after the disaster occurred. Gorbachev referred to the Chernobyl incident as a misfortune and he painted western media s malicious lies and a highly immoral campaign. As time went by, the propaganda of the communist party grew at odds with the experiences of the people that had been in the contamination zone that were attending to the physical effects of the radiation poisoning. The trust that had been remained in the Soviet Union became completely shattered. Decades later Gorbachev marked the disaster’s anniversary by noting that ‘even more than my launch of perestroika, Chernobyl was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

Ethnic Tensions

In the 1980s when Perestroika took effect, there was an ever-rising level of violence that was caused by the competition among the ethnic nationalisms that were in the republics of the Soviet Union. An example is the ethnic violence happening in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s capital towards the end of 1986 when frustrated Kazakh youth became frustrated with the selection of an ethnic Russian as the head of the republic. The frustration led to riots and eventually, troops had to be employed to quell the unrest. Worth noting in Sumgait, a city in Azerbaijani, there was pogrom and violent events took place in Baku, Tbilisi, and other places. The most deadly conflict happened in Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This is sometimes referred to as the main political trigger which led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, ethnic conflicts took a dangerous turn leading to the loss of lives of hundreds of people in the war (Li 163). However, even in 1990, many of the republics of the Soviet Union still did not want to leave the USSR. Russian historian Alexander Shubin describes the incidence as relatively calm with only Georgia and the Baltic States firmly set on a path to separation.

Guns and Butter

Every economy has limitations when it comes to the number of resources it can employ to make strategic goods (guns) or consumer goods (butter) for the nation. If a country happens to give more focus on guns people will be left without access to consumable goods and if the country pays more attention to the production of butter, the country is left without enough resources need to grow and protect the economic capacity of the nation. Stalin had “five-year plans” which were almost completely driven by the growing need to increase capital goods production for the entire nation. The Soviet Union had to become industrialized to compete with other nations in the world and they resulted in channeling all available resources towards this goal (Kenez, 77). Politburo did not change direction to improve the availability of consumer goods. Shortages encountered in the economy undermined the need for the superiority of the system used by the Soviet Union, and people cried out in revolution.

Effects of the Collapse of the Soviet Union

End of the Cold War

The dissolution of the Soviet Union marked the end of the cold war. The cold war virtually ended after the democratization and liberalization of Eastern European countries happened. Other events that marked the end of the cold war were the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the liquidation of the Warsaw Pact, and the peaceful co-existence and cooperation of the erstwhile adversaries. The presence of the socialist Soviet Union kept the chances of re-emergence of the cold war alive. It was only until the USSR was disintegrated and Russia was unable to oppose the west that the chances of a re-emergence of the cold war finally come to an end. As such, it is only right to associate the final cremation of the cold war with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Uni-polarity in International Relations

In the 1950s, there was bi-polarity which was eventually replaced by poly-centrism in the 1960s. In the 1990s, bi-polarity was eventually replaced by a unipolarity approach to international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the disintegration of the socialist bloc, and the Warsaw Pact termination led to unipolarity in the diplomatic relations within the United States (Miller, 79). This led to the U.S being the sole-surviving superpower across the world. This unipolarity in the relations reflected in the presence of NATO and the United States’ dominant position in the world. It also showed in the United Nations unwillingness on their part to challenge the power of the United States in the world.

Fundamentalism in Central Asian Countries

As a result of the dissolution of the USSR, six of the republics that became sovereign states and were found in the Central Asian regions opted to become Islamic republics. They joined the nine Islamic states to collectively form the Economic Co-operation Organization (ECO) found in Central Asia. This rise of fundamentalism in the Islamic region gave strength to similar forces that were in various parts of the world. It compelled other countries to better realize the dangers posed by the increasing power of the factor in Islamic politics within the world of politics. It further compelled a change in the U.S policy towards West Asia, India, China, and Central Asia. Additionally, the Central Asian Crude also became an emerging factor of interest in the regions across the world.

Rise of Economic Blocs

Following the collapse of the USSR and the socialist bloc, the international economic systems also began experiencing changes. Politics of economic relations started being dominant dimensions of relations to the nations. Several economic factors began appearing on the scene and being more active after 1990. Various organizations including NAFTA, APEC, AFTA, PIF ASEAN SAARC, and OPEC became actively engaged in cooperation and economic diplomacy. As a result, the dissolution of the USSR, the collapse of the socialist bloc coupled with the end of the cold war, and the liberalization of Eastern Europe served as a source of big and profound changes in international relations between republics particularly towards the end of the 20th century.

Changes in Asian Politics

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought changes to the politics of Asia. India in particular ended up losing one of its dependable and time-tested friends. India’s foreign policy had to adjust with Russia and other republics of the USSR. It took the country one year to adjust her relations and provide proper direction for economic, social, and cultural cooperation with Russia and other CIS members. Additionally, India found it helpful to work on improving its reactions with the United States. The economic changes and necessities in India’s economic policies with the public sector came up with policies to privatize policies which also further led to improved relations with the United States. Pointers to improved relations were the holding joint Naval exercises where the Indian voted the United Nations in factor of the resolution that maintained that Zionism was not apartheid (Scarborough, 106). Further, the Indian vote favored various decisions by the United States to respect the Gulf War and Crisis. After the USSR collapsed, China was left an isolated communist state. China was compelled to adopt rapid economic liberalization and mend fences with Vietnam, Japan, and other Asian countries. Further, China found it hard to attempt to restrain the domination of the UN Secretary Council by the United States. Vietnam also resulted in leaving Cambodia, mend fences with their neighbor China and develop cooperation that was friendly with other Asian countries. Similarly, Japan found it important to redefine and reassess its role within Asia and the world in general. Japan opted to develop its own military power within the new environment and it developed trade relations with Asian countries including China, India, and ASEAN countries. Pakistan opted to orient its policies in consolidating unity among the Islamic states of Central Asia. The necessity of relations with Asian countries was achieved by western powers. Within nine months of being a sovereign state, Russia also gave up giving priority to the development of relations in Asian countries particularly in China, India, Vietnam, Japan, and other ASEA countries


The dissolution of the Soviet Union took place in December 1991 remaining with only 15 independent countries namely Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Belarus, Estonia, Russia, Moldova, Lithuania, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Latvia. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were the first to claim their freedom. Soon the movement spread to other states including Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia who also demanded their freedoms which put more pressure on the government. Some of the factors associated with the collapse of the USSR have to do with politics, the economy, and the military as contributing factors. Further, the Soviet Union Involvement with Afghanistan, guns and butter, ethnic-related, nuclear-related causes are linked with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought changes to the politic of Asia, led to the end of the cold war, a rise in economic blocks, and Fundamentalism in Central Asian Countries. The dissolution of the Union had begun in the 1980s but it was only completed in December 1991. While it is practically impossible to point out a single factor as a cause of an event as far-reaching and complex as the dissolution of a worldwide superpower, several external and internal factors had a hand in the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Works Cited

Dabrowski, Marek. “Currency crises in post-Soviet economies—a never-ending story?.” Russian Journal of Economics 2.3 (2016): 302-326.

Gutman, Garik, and Volker Radeloff, eds. Land-cover and land-use changes in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Springer, 2016.

Hofman, Irna, Oane Visser, and Artemy Kalinovsky. “Introduction: Encounters After the Soviet Collapse: The Contemporary Chinese Presence in the Former Soviet Union Border Zone.” Problems of Post-Communism 67.3 (2020): 193-203.

Kenez, Peter. A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Li, Jie. “The 1990s Chinese Debates Concerning the Causes for the Collapse of the Soviet Union among PRC Soviet-watchers: The Cases of Brezhnev and Stalin.” International Journal of China Studies 9.2 (2018): 163-199.

Miller, Chris. The struggle to save the Soviet economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapse of the USSR. UNC Press Books, 2016.

Scarborough, Isaac. The extremes it takes to survive: Tajikistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union, 1985-1992. Diss. The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), 2018.

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