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Collapse of the Soviet Union

1. Introduction

The period of 1989-90 was marked by the collapse of the USSR and the end of the cold war. The events occurred due to a series of underlying political and economic weaknesses of the Soviet Union and also due to its inability to reform itself.

The causes of the Collapse of the USSR are divided into three major categories:

2. The Nature of the Soviet Union

In order to survive both in the domestic as well as international conditions, the Soviet Union had to expand and during the phase of the cold war, it did this by financing the authoritarian regimes.

For instance, the Brezhnev Doctrine postulated that the Soviet Union professed the economic or military assistance or both to support other communist states in the region or elsewhere. As a result, it was argued that the political and foreign policy commitments of the Soviet Union were significant and exerted a huge economic strain upon it. The country spent roughly 15% of its GDP fulfilling these commitments whereas US expenditure was merely 3% of its GDP on such matters.

Further, the geopolitical compulsions ensured that the Soviet Union had to go for a centralized economy. A centralized economy is always a supply-side economy, which can never be as efficient as a demand-side economy.  Besides, there was huge corruption in the nation which further increased the crisis. The USSR also focused on producing the defence goods and overlooked consumer items, and there emerged an acute shortage of even the basic goods. Consequently, although the Soviet Union provided necessities like universal education and healthcare for all, the standard of living judged in terms of material goods was better in western capitalist economies.

The western capital states argued that in contrast to the Soviet Union, where there was little freedom of speech and expression and little or no choice to elect the political leadership, the Western society provided much more political freedom of speech and expression.

During the period, USSR also suffered from several natural calamities which aggravated the crisis. It suffered from famine, a massive earthquake and also a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. 

Thus, the combination of tragedies, corruption in the administration, and lack of sufficient resources resulted in a situation that created huge resentment among the people.

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World History Book for UPSC Mains

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
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  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

3. The Gorbachev Factor

Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev came to power in 1985, following which he pressed upon the need to introduce wider political and economic reforms within the Soviet Union, most important amongst them – ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ reforms.

The Glasnost reform – Soviet Union would adopt the policy of openness under which the Soviet Union would allow more freedom of speech and expression, especially to the press and the right to assemble peacefully among the citizens.

The Perestroika reform, on the other hand, referred to the policy of restructuring the Soviet Union politically and economically.

“If not me, who? And if not now, when?”


Gorbachev also proposed the introduction of free and fair elections at the local administration level within the Communist party directly. The Law on state enterprises was also introduced in 1987, under which the state-owned companies were to be granted autonomy in deciding upon their economic production activities according to the market demands and too  without any state interference.

However, the introduction of reforms proved counterproductive, perhaps, Gorbachev ignored the advice of the famous political scholar Alex de Tocqueville, who held that tyrannies collapse not when they are at their worst but when they tend to reform themselves. Gorbachev’s economic restructuring / Perestroika failed to increase the economic productivity within the Soviet Union and thus, resolve its underlying economic crisis. Moreover, their policy of political openness allowed wider public demonstrations against the State which were witnessed on a large scale in the Eastern European countries like Poland and Romania. Gorbachev replaced the Brezhnev Doctrine with the Sinatra Doctrine, based on the song ‘My way’by the famous singer Frank Sinatra. It allowed certain freedoms to the peripheries to conduct their own foreign policy. Consequently, the Eastern European countries declared their independence from the Soviet Union and adopted a multiparty democratic structure.

4. Role of Ronald Reagan

The American president, at the same time, followed the ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy. This he achieved with the three-pronged approach of depressed oil prices, an arms race and starting a proxy war in Afghanistan. These factors weakened the Soviet economy and made its collapse imminent. 

It should also be understood here that an event of such a magnitude as the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be associated with a single cause. Multiple factors in combination can be held responsible for the dissolution of the USSR.

 It is said that the destiny of Russia is tied to its geography. To survive it has to expand, and when it expands – it collapses.

5. Summary

The collapse of Society union was marked by the introduction of several policies that has been adopted domestically to fuel the raged population in the course of world war, but unfortunately these policies became the grave yard for the very existence of USSR. Furthermore, the wholly integrated union was broken up into pieces as the demand for liberation and form separate territories were raised by the territorial groups. Consequently, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989-1990, leaving the world with a unipolar state of existence i.e. the USA.

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

6. Multiple Choice Question

1] What do you mean by Brezhnev Doctrine?
a) Postulates that Soviet Union professed the economic or military assistance or both t to other countries
b) Provides for a strong state.
c) Establishes a strong military regime in Russia
d) None of the above.

Show Answer

Ans: a) Postulates that Soviet Union professed the economic or military assistance or both t to other countries

2] What do you mean by a centralised economy?
a) A supply side state controlled economy
b) A demand side economy
c) Market controlled
d) Both controlled by state and the market

Show Answer

Ans: a) A supply side state controlled economy

3] Which policy provided for openness in the Soviet Union?
a) Perestroika
b) Glasnost
c) Munroe doctrine
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: b) Glasnost

4] The beggar thy neighbour policy was introduced by whom?
a) Thatcher
b) Gorbachev
c) Roosevelt
d) Ronald Reagan

Show Answer

Ans: d) Ronald Reagan

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