Christmas Day 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced “We are living in a new world.” And with these 7 words, the Soviet Union was dissolved and Gorbachev stepped down from his post. After 40 years of The Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust, the world’s largest communist state broke up into 15 independent republics, meaning the USA was now handed the accolade of new world superpower.
At its strongest, the Soviet Union had over 5 million soldiers stationed around the world and they all stepped down without a shot being fired, under the new regime. Today, we will explore exactly what came to pass, in this episode of the Infographics Show – How and why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?
In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union appeared to be somewhat of a powerhouse, exhibiting a rigid recovery from the invasion of Afghanistan and with an economy that appeared to be performing well. The union appeared from the surface as powerful as it was back in the 1950s. But looks can be deceiving. Beneath the façade, the Soviet Union was splitting apart, and it had been happening for decades. Although there were many factors at play, some reasons were as follows:
Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in 1985 with plans to reform the nation with a hybrid communist-capitalist system similar to modern-day China. He also planned to ease restrictions on freedom of speech and religion. Before this, millions of Soviets were arrested for speaking out against the state. However, his plan backfired, as he discovered that the loosening of control over the people and reforming political restrictions meant the people used their new found powers to critique the government, until they eventually succeeded in pushing for reform. This brand of communism had operated historically on tight central control. The loosening of control led to the abandonment of the entire construct.
Back in the days of Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviets were led with strong ideological beliefs tied to Marxism. By the 1960s, the radical policies of the past leaders were abandoned in favor of a more conservative approach. By the 1970s, the Soviet people noticed the rise of the political elite who lived in posh homes, ate in fancy restaurants, and spent their vacations at luxury ski resorts while millions of average Joes died from starvation. Younger generations were less keen to toe the line as their parents had, and were willing to step forward and protest for change. These newer generations were more in tune with world events and slowly but surely began to pull at the strands of the political regime.
Cold War tensions with the United States rose in the 70s and 80s, and with Ronald Reagan’s leadership and the resulting increase in military spending, it seemed that the US had won the nuclear stand-off. The Strategic Defense Initiative (or SDI) claimed to be able to blast Russian missiles as they fell, meaning, in theory, the US could win the long running battle of wits. Reagan also managed to isolate the Soviets from the rest of the world economy, and without export sales in oil, the Soviet economy was severely weakened and limited. The Soviets were unable to turn a corner, and in the 1980s, breadlines were commonplace as poverty soared. Many people didn’t have basic clothing or shoes, and under these conditions, it is only a matter of time before the people call out for regime change.
And then there is the nation’s structure itself. When you have 15 radically different republics under one flag with different ethnicities, cultures, and languages, there are bound to be inherent tensions. 1989 nationalist movements brought about regime change in Poland and Czechoslovakia, as the Soviet satellite nations began to split away. As these nations began to pull away, the central apparatus was weakened until finally it collapsed.
Due to all these factors, by 1991 the Soviet Union was unable to maintain a normal functioning economy and run a huge military simultaneously. Gorbachev, unwilling to go to war like his predecessors (Lenin and Stalin) might have done, instead pulled the plug on the military, and the fifteen republics went their separate ways. Although a devoted Marxist, Gorbachev was an independent thinker who respected the need for reform, and planned a restructuring of the economy. This, along with his vision to lessen the control held by central government and a move towards uncensored media, laid the path for total reform. The seeds were planted and the Soviet Union was no more. .
So, what do you think? Can communism work as a political model? For the countries that still operate under this system, what does the future hold for them? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to watch our other video called – Most Common Ways People Died in the Middle Ages. Thanks for watching, and as always, don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. See you next time!