I am from a millennial generation, born the year after the Soviet Union got dissolved. So, I was not aware of a country called Soviet Union until I read about it in school history books. It was a past thing for the world, and no one talked about it. It was replaced by Russian Federation, or simply Russia, that is the historic name it had before the Soviet Union was formed in 1922. Due to my interest in history and wars, I have always been wondering why would a former superpower like Soviet Union disintegrate suddenly, without any war or conflict. This was a surprise(shock) for the world then, and has been a topic of debate for the past many years. I would like to elaborate few reasons and try to explain why it must have happened.
To begin with, Soviet Union at its peak was the largest country in the world, occupying a sixth of the planet landmass. It consisted on present day Russia, and 14 other neighboring countries in East Europe and Southern Russia. Its indeed surprising to dig into history as to why such a sudden collapse of a huge nation did happen. In the words of Vladimir Putin, who at that time served in KGB, said the Soviet fall was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe”.
The story of Soviet Union begins with the red communist revolution in 1917, during the World War 1 times. The Czars were abducted, and the Bolsheviks fought with the white external forces to form the Soviet. Finally, after a brutal war, the Soviet Union was formed in 1922 by Lenin, along with six others, one of them was Joseph Stalin. Soon Lenin died and after a brief internal power struggle with Trotsky, and few members of the communist party, Stalin took over the leadership and Soviet Union became a dictatorship state. Millions died under his brutal rule, but the nation also rigorously implemented state socialism plans with emphasis on land reforms, state ownership of factories, and strong military. This paved off and Soviet Union could face Nazi Germany ( though it did suffer huge losses, both human and material). By 1945, it had successfully defeated Nazi Germany ( with USA and allied forces), and came to be recognized as a power in East Europe.
During the World War 2, United States(USA) had been an ally with Soviet Union, for the sole purpose to defeat Nazi Germany. But as soon as the war was over in 1945, the mutual partnership turned into a competition. During the war, USA had come out of depression and became the largest economy in the world. It had the strongest military, and became a natural self-proclaimed leader of democracy, capitalism and free world. The rest of the western nations such as England and France had suffered huge losses during the war, and were not in a position to lead the world was they did before. Hence, the only nation which could compete with USA was Soviet Union. But the cold war did not start immediately in 1945. At that time, Soviet Union, though having won the war, had suffered tremendous loss and wanted to rebuild the nation. Soon, with their 5 year plans, Soviet factories, farms and industries started booming the economy. One thing to note is unlike pre-WW2 colonial empires like England, France and Japan, USA and Soviet Union both were self-reliant, with enormous material resources rich in coal, oil, gas and minerals, fertile land for agriculture, huge population, strong military and established industries. Hence, both of these countries were not dependent on each other for any goods or resources. Also, having captured Nazi Germany from opposite sides, both of them occupied half-Germany, and hence the German scientists, engineers and intellectuals were captured by both and taken away to their respective countries. This would help both of them in near future to use their talents for new discoveries.
Then, in 1947, Soviet Union developed AK-47, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov. The Soviet Army accepted it in 1949 and soon it became the world’s most famous assault rifle. Then, during the same year, Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear test, and this officially started the cold war between USA and Soviet Union. The 1950’s decade saw the cold war between both the countries, especially in the nuclear bomb development. Both the countries conducted several tests, started building up nuclear stockpiles and this led to a possibility of nuclear holocaust.
Then, in 1957, Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first satellite. In the same year, it also tested the world’s first Inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM). This started a space race between USA and Soviet Union, with the latter having taken the lead. The next few years were the most glorifying years for Soviet Union, with many first in its name. The world’s first human in space (Yuri Gagarin), first female in space ( Valentina Tereshkova) were sent successfully in 1961 and 1963. Sergei Korolev was the leading Soviet rocket engineer who lead this victory for Soviet Union.
But USA, on the other side, was not successful in any of these developments. It had fallen back in the space race as well as missile development. So, NASA was formed in 1958 and later JFK initiated the mission to make USA the first country to reach moon. Though the subsequent moon landing in 1969 is been considered a hoax by some experts, though both views exist. However, worth noting is that Soviet Union did not try for moon landing. A nation who had started the space revolution would not go for moon is strange.
Anyways, so 1960’s saw Soviet Union as a established nation on all the fronts. As mentioned before, it had all the resources for agriculture, industries etc and hence was self-reliant. It did not use US dollar as a currency for international transactions, just like the whole world does today. Such was its economic clout that it had given economic aid to multiple countries in eastern Europe ( under the Warsaw pact). It had also provided assistance to third world countries like India, China and Vietnam. Besides, the economic aid, now it had become a leading power in nuclear arms, rifle weapons, ICBM’s and satellite’s. No country had done this before in a such a small period of time ( after 1917), and with its umbrella communism and socialistic economic model, it had showed the world that by following their political and economic model, any country can become developed and self-reliant. Soviet Union stood as a fine example of separation of religion and the state. Atheism was the official policy and Soviets were united as a group of diverse religious and ethnic people. This was contrary to the homogeneous western society in countries like England and USA. Though they were democracies, but minorities did not possess any rights, and even though church and state were separate by law, but in reality, Christianity was the unofficial religion and most of the western countries had been quite active to proselytize the third world countries. Hence, the Soviet Union’s model appealed to many countries all over the world during 1960’s decade.
Just as 1960’s were some of the finest years for Soviet Union, they were one of the worst years for USA. The decade saw so many ups and downs in western countries, that it later came to be known as “swinging sixties”. With the victory of JFK as a President of United States, and being a first catholic president, a new era dawned in USA politics. As mentioned, JFK envisioned an American moon landing, and urged fellow Americans to ask what they can do for the country. Patriotism ran rampant, the country was seeing some of the most prosperous years after world war 2. The middle class was happy as their American dream had come true. The country had been producing some of the finest products including cars by Ford, GM and Chrysler. But the ongoing race with Soviet Union had become an obsession for politicians. Communists were hunted down in 1950’s under the notorious McCarthy’s witch hunt, and soon the missiles were installed in Turkey as a defense against Soviet Union. In response to this, Soviets installed their nuclear missiles in Cuba, right under United States nose. This lead to Bay of Pigs fiasco, which led to the disappointment of the military industrial complex as well as mafia lobby. For more info, I would recommend to watch the movie “The Irishman”, which beautifully displays the subsequent events happened which lead to the death of their beloved JFK. Before that, to add insult to injury, USA had also failed in the diplomacy over Berlin, and Soviets started building the infamous “Berlin Wall”, which would become the symbol of cold war and divide between the so called free and communist world.
In addition to all such events, USA was being dragged in the Vietnam war just like they did in Korea back in 1950. Due to over-confidence on their ability to win wars, USA under estimated the weak Vietnamese forces (though they were clandestinely assisted by Soviets and Chinese). So, USA kept on getting dragged deeper and deeper in the Vietnam war, and lost many innocent American lives. On the domestic front, a new generation had grown up ( later to be known as baby boomers), who had born past world war 2, and not having seen any war or depression effects. They became disenchanted by the crimes committed by their military in Vietnam. Also, black rights, minority rights, sexual freedom were supported by this new generation and this started a new counter culture revolution. This so called hippies turned on to make love and take in psychedelic drugs, tuned in for rock & roll, and dropped out of college and family life in persuit of sexual freedom, liberation and utopian world. The Beatles rocked the world and their cult was revered by the young generation. This was a time when many young dropouts started traveling around the world to places like India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Indonesia for peace and spiritual curiosity. One of them is famous Steve Jobs, whose later achievements romanticized their generation. But not all of them became like Steve Jobs. Many followed the “Hare Krishna” movement in search of God, while rest got stoned in Afghanistan. It was indeed a swinging decade.
Though the hippie revolution changed the American and Western society, with civil rights to be granted to African-Americans later, but as a nation, it did shatter the American way of living. The events were seen by the rest of the world, and the image of so called democracy and free world leader portrayed by USA shattered. Family values changed, Vietnam war was lost, returning veterans were insulted and shunned by the American society. The decades old traditional and conservative american society started becoming more liberal and open. The people no longer saw the Soviets to be a threat, as domestic-social issues were more appealing. Hence, for military industrial complex and political establishment, this was a serious threat. The return of the American soldiers from Vietnam, Indian victory in the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971 (India was supported by Soviet Union), then the leak of Pentagon papers by Daniel Ellsberg, Watergate scandal, and subsequent impeachment of crooked Nixon all made the problems more worse for the military and government. The Soviets had once again won the cold war in 1960’s and early 1970’s.
The 1960’s and 70’s era made James Bond famous globally. Similar to movies, there was a spy war between Soviets and USA. And even in this field of expertise, Soviets were far far ahead than the Americans. Already the Soviets had used the Manhattan Project spy ring ( Rosenberg & Fuchs) to spy over the atomic bomb project details, which led to Soviets building the bomb. Later the ideological Cambridge Five were exposed in England, and many more moles would work for Soviets in the American military and government.
Besides, even in the sports arena, Soviets had not only challenged but also defeated the Americans in Chess and Olympics games. From 1948 to 1993, with the sole exception of Bobby Fischer in 1972, Soviets had won all the World Chess Championships. Mikhail Botvinnik, Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov all became world famous. Even the women’s World Chess was dominated by Soviet women. Except the Olympics of 1980 and 1984, Soviets and USA fought in the Olympics games, and in terms of medal tally, Soviets(USSR) emerged victorious. Though every team had its own speciality, just as USA dominated the swimming and athletics, similarly Soviets dominated weight-lifting and gymnastics.
So, by mid 1970’s, USA had accepted the Soviet superiority in many fields, and this even leads to complete exit of Americans forces from Vietnam in 1975. The next years saw a recession in the American economy, with the Carter Presidency in rule, it was considered to be a weaker administration. Since FDR’s 1933 New Deal until Carter’s end of 1970’s decade, USA had been following a controlled form of capitalism, with adequate fiscal and monetary control with the government. But with the far right policies promoted by Milton Friedman and with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, a new “Reaganomics” trend emerged and with it, began the policies such as reduced government regulation, globalization, strong military funding and far right religious conservatism.
Before Reagan got elected in 1980, the Iran fiasco had tanked the support of the American people for Carter’s re-election. At that same time, an event happened which would change the geopolitical scenario of the world in coming years. That was the entry of Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1979 to support the communist government from the Islamic revolution which had happened in Iran. The then national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, elated after this incident and considered this to be Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Soon, he signed a deal with the Pakistani General Zia-ul-Haq to raise up Taliban & Afghan Mujhahideen to counter the Soviets in an insurgency and guerilla warfare. As it is said about Afghanistan, that no external force has been able to control or rule Afghanistan. Just as the saying went, in few years, Soviets realized they were being trapped by the never ending war in Afghanistan, allegedly assisted by Americans on the backstage.
The 1980’s was a plummeting decade for the USSR. Not only was the war lost in Afghanistan, but USA had challenged the Soviets for developing a star war based weapons to counter the future space war in 1983. This was classic Reagan ( after all he was an actor in Hollywood), and several Hollywood movies such as Star wars, ET, Terminator and Indiana Jones made the decade a sci-fi fantasy. The Americans after decades of internal conflict, vietnam war and recession started seeing hope and bright future during Reagan’s Presidency, just as Indians are seeing this in Narendra Modi government today. So, all this sci-fi movies and fantasy, convinced the Soviets that Americans were indeed working on developing such technology. This required enormous money and this was the real catch. Reagan knew that the Soviets cannot be defeated militarily, but only economically. Hence, by making USSR invest their already dwindling pockets, would entail the eventual collapse of the Soviet Empire. Maybe Reagan did not realize this would happen in a mere span of 8 years!
Besides, the Afghanistan and Star Wars trap, Soviet Union lost its leadership one by one in 1980’s decade. Many old timers and top leaders died, and the politburo in Kremlin suffered from lack of effective leadership. Actually, Soviet Union was known as the “Iron curtain” of the world. But inside this iron curtain, apart from marvelous achievements by the people, the leadership had been led by the old communistic ideals, with dictatorship by a single ruler like Stalin. But after Stalin, none of the leaders showed the strong control over the politburo, and due to this developments in economy were not enacted. The world had been changed a lot since 1950’s, but the leadership remained in the old glory of the Soviet economic progress of 1950’s. On the other side, though USA had followed a state controlled capitalism until mid 1970’s, but the entrepreneurial spirit of the Americans did not die. New companies were formed by college dropouts like Gates and Jobs, and soon these techie wizards became the new giants in the technological revolution. Parallelly, the research institutions such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford had developed the computer, wireless communications, lasers and semiconductors. They started the third industrial revolution with developments in these fields. Just as the Soviets had been the pioneers in the space and missiles technology in 1950’s and 60’s, so as this new generation of Americans became the pioneers in computer and telecom revolution in 1970’s and 80’s. This later turned to be a game changer as Soviets did not invest much in these technologies. One of the reasons could be that they were known for their exceptional spying ability, and had been quite successful in the past during the atomic bomb developments. So, they must have relied on the Americans to develop, and later seize the technology for them to be copied. Also, as the USSR had state sponsored industries, unlike the private-venture capitalist funded companies in USA, the amount of funding provided for conducting the research & development was often decided by the politburo council. As they were old timers since Stalin’s era, they must not have appreciated this new computer/semiconductor driven technology. Also, USSR’s involvement in the foreign wars such as Afghanistan, the economic aid given by USSR to the third world countries such as Cuba, N.Korea, and to the Warsaw pact nations often limited the funding to the R&D. This was even more reduced as the cash inflow reduced due to over reliance on the agro, manufacturing and oil & gas industries. There had been many competitors in agro and oil-gas trade by then, and the dependence on USSR did evaporate some of the cash inflow from Soviet’s treasury.
Also, it is worth noting that the entrepreneurship and free market driven policies in USA did generate a lot of jobs for the American people. The system allowed anyone with their skills and talent to start a company and become rich. This freedom was not present in the Soviet economic model. The common people continued to live under the American threat ( as conveyed to them by the government). But at the times, when ordinary Americans could work in blue collar or white collar jobs with decent pay, dine in McDonalds, shop anything, anytime in Walmart, buy Ford Mastang, go on vacation to Disneyland, FL and buy their dream home in suburban US, with a fence, garden at the front fulfilling the American dream, on the other side, people in Soviet Union were being restricted to state controlled jobs, had to wait outside ration shops to purchase the state allotted food quota, could not save extra money in banks for future investment, and were not even allowed to leave the country, if done so would be indicted on account of spying or high treason. The world was following globalization, with internet, networking and wireless communications being launched in western countries. While the Soviet union was enclosed in its iron curtain, which the people eventually started resenting.
Perhaps, another major cause of concern for the people of Soviet Union was the Chernobyl incident in 1986. Many experts claim that this failure did significant harm to the image of Soviet Union as a powerful nation. The Soviets had the largest stockpile of nuclear warheads ( around 10000), more than USA and any other country on the planet. With the Chernobyl fiasco, grave concerns were raised regarding the safety of the those nuclear warheads. Due to the government’s strict policies on not conveying the information to outside world, fear and uncertainity became paramount.
Considering the partnerships Soviet Union had with many other nations in the world, it could be seen that during 1950’s-60’s, the partnerships strengthened due to dependence on Soviet Union for the economic and military aid. But during 1970’s and 80’s, the relation between Soviet Union and its friendly nations started dwindling. First was China in 1972, who welcomed Nixon to visit China along with his clever national security advisor “Henry Kissinger”. Both had come up with this intricate plan to create a wedge between Soviet Union and China ( Americans have always been good at this, and this policy to create a wedge continues as of date). Even before that, the relations between China and Soviet Union had started deteriorating as Mao influenced China felt that Soviet Union was not doing enough to spread communism. Perhaps, USSR’s support for India in the Bangladesh Liberation war had raised eyebrows in Beijing, and this might have concerned the Chinese. China and India had fought in 1962, and even though China had won, India continued to support Tibet, sheltered Dalai Lama and emerged a game changer after the 1971 war. Another reason was the emergence of Japan after WW2. Japan had bounced back with its capitalistic-industrial approach(with USA assistance), and considering the enmity between them during WW2, China feared the revival of history again with the exploitation and torture the Japanese had done on them. Also, the long march and cultural revolution of Mao had failed miserably ( hidden inside the bamboo curtain). The Chinese had the largest population and poverty had become a systemic problem. After years of experimenting with socialist policies, they realized it was time to adopt the capitalist economic policy to drive out the poor Chinese out of poverty, After the split up with China, USSR’s influence in East Asia degraded a lot.
Similarly, the Eastern Europe bloc and East Germany also got more concerned with the Soviet policies. The common people wanted more freedom and prosperity. They observed how West Germany and other Western countries had prospered after WW2, with their free market policies and individual freedom. All this created a simmering unrest amongst the people in USSR’s satellite countries.
To address all these problems, Soviet Union appointed Mikhail Gorbachev as a young leader who would overcome this concern among the people and keep Soviet Union a strong communist nation. But to the surprise of many, he advocated reformation within the communist party and promised to bring in openness and transparency. Known as Perestroika and Glasnost, soon, this created a series of events which would end with the single greatest event ever happened in the world history.
As mentioned, Soviet Union and its people were going through several problems on the economic, military, scientific, leadership front, and after bringing in these two policies, the people saw a leader first time in the history of Soviet Union, who advocated openness and transparency. The world until then had seen USSR as being a Iron curtain and dictatorship driven communist country. So, as soon as this new wave of policies swept in, people demanded freedom to separate from Soviet Union. Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and in 1991, all the satellite countries in the Warsaw pact separated from Soviet Union one after another. To the world’s surprise, all this happened without any major conflict or war. This was indeed the beginning of a new world order as said by George H. W Bush.
Hence, several difficulties faced by Soviet Union which led to this demise are loss of influence in other parts of the world, loss of faith in communist-socialist policies, degrading leadership in Kremlin, unable to keep pace with United States in field of computers, robotics and telecom, Star wars, cash crunch and unable to help other communist countries, unending war in Afghanistan with the loss of soldiers, Globalization and Liberalization wave throughout the world, Chernobyl fiasco, having 10000 nukes and no money, breakup with China and unable to convince the people in Eastern Europe for future prosperity and bright future. Besides, it could be said that United States must have influenced Gorbachev to adopt these policies, and having not realized this trap, Gorbachev did just what the Americans wanted.
Finally, the world not only lost a superpower who had challenged United States in every domain from nuclear technology to space, from weapons to sports, from political ideology to economic model, but also lost a nation who proved to the world that it is possible to become a superpower without following the western capitalism. USSR’s story is truely a rags to riches story. Coming humiliated out of war in 1917, and ascending to become the world’s superpower by 1957, in a mere span of 40 years is astonishing achievement. The world forgets that it took USA more than 100 years to become a developed nation.
To think what should they have done to prevent this is quite debatable. Some experts say this was a systemic problem with communism-socialism. UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said that “The trouble with Socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”. It is even said that Soviet Union was never a ideal communist nation as per Marx’s or Trotsky’s theories. But it was rather more of a former Czar empire except the new Czar was the communist party, and not the Romanov royal family. Stalin had become the new Czar and today, as we see, Putin is following the same footsteps. Russia had always been governed by their own unique policies, unlike the Western Europe. So, it is hard to comprehend what they might have done to avoid a breakup of the empire. Perhaps, too much isolation in terms of strict policies, lack of economic freedom, lack of individual liberty given to persue his/her own life to their fellow people all brought in troubles for them. Also, to much investment in nuclear weapons and not investing the money in constructive activities like industry, research in new technologies like computer and internet hampered their progress in science and technology. As USA welcomed more and more talented people from all parts of the world, Russia did not do so. Also, their model lost the following it had once. As the world was embracing more and more of western led economic model, had the USSR also changed its economic policy to give more economic freedom to people to persue jobs, start companies, save, invest etc might have been helpful.
But the good thing is they had developed a system which did not go after money( to certain extent). Though individual opinion did not matter or freedom was curtailed, people worked for the ideology, for the love of their motherland, against imperialism, against mercantalism, against colonialism. Education and health was one of the best in Soviet Union, and as state took care of all the financial needs, people could divert their energy and hard work to the field of science, technology, sports and music. Even though the country faced dire economic problems during late 1980’s, still in 1988 Seoul Olympics, Soviet Union was the top performer with the highest medal tally. The strong sports psychology coupled with love for country brought them to the pinnacle of success.
For India, we lost a very good friend. Soviet Union had been our supporters even before India was independent. They had recommended us for the permanent seat to the United Nations Security Council, which our PM Nehru had foolishly rejected. They assisted with our 5 year plans, provided economic aid to build dams, factories and agriculture equipments. They made us strong by giving weapons, aircrafts ( Sukhoi Su30-MKi, Mig-21) and even nuclear technology. During the 1965 and 1971 war, they had made sure USA did not attack India, and had played a major role to make India win the Bangladesh Liberation War. Even our ISRO was heavily assisted by the Soviets, and till today, the only Indian to be in space, Rakesh Sharma, had been a part of Soviet Interkosmos programme. All this speaks highly of the deep friendship we had with the former Soviet Union.
Coming to conclusion, now its a thing of the past, and the current world events have drive far far away from those old days. It will remain a topic of debate and research for my generation and coming generations to come.