History Stories

Some blame Mikhail Gorbachev for the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the economy and political structure were already in deep decay.

“We’re now living in a new world.”

On Christmas Day 1991, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev shocked the world with these words, announcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union and his resignation from its top post. After more than 40 years of the world seeming to teeter on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States had ended.

What had been the world’s largest communist state—and the counterweight to the United States—broke into 15 independent republics, making America the sole global superpower. And although at its peak the Soviet Union had more than 5 million soldiers stationed internationally and enough nuclear power to destroy the human race, members of the Soviet high command abdicated power without a shot being fired.

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on the second day of the extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow on August 27, 1991. He threatened to resign if the republics refused to sign a Union Treaty to hold the Soviet Union together. (Credit: Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images)

Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev on the second day of the extraordinary session of the Supreme Soviet in Moscow on August 27, 1991. He threatened to resign if the republics refused to sign a Union Treaty to hold the Soviet Union together. (Credit: Vitaly Armand/AFP/Getty Images)

Was Gorbachev a weak leader?

The Russian public has largely interpreted Gorbachev’s ending of the Soviet Union as a disaster bordering on treason. In a 2017 poll of Russians, his approval rating stood well below that of wartime dictator Joseph Stalin.

When he became president of the Soviet Union in 1985, Gorbachev inherited both a moribund economy and a crumbling political system. Many historians believe that the two policies he put in place to address the nation’s challenges, glasnost (“openness”) and perestroika (“restructuring”), hastened the dissolution of the Soviet system, which was already in decline.

Glasnost, begun in the late ’80s, was a push for transparency in governance. It curbed state censorship, allowing Soviet media to report painful, long-covered-up truths—such as the fact that alcoholism and infant mortality were rising, life expectancy at birth was declining and standards of living in the West were outpacing those in the USSR. It also allowed non-Communist parties to take part in elections.

Perestroika, undertaken at the same time, was an economic-reform process aimed at reviving a long-suffering economy. It moved the USSR away from a central-command model, in which business was owned and administered by the government, toward a hybrid communism-capitalism model incorporating free-market reform. Citizens were allowed to begin opening private businesses, and foreigners were allowed into the country to take part in joint ventures.

The measures were met first with enthusiasm: When a McDonalds restaurant opened in the nation’s capital in January 1990, Muscovites marveled at “three-story sandwiches” and smiling fast-food cashiers. But when the growing pains of perestroika led to a new wave of shortages and economic hardship, newly empowered regional leaders of the non-Russian Union Republics, such as Lithuania and Ukraine, used their freshly opened political process to demand autonomy from the Kremlin, ultimately leading to the USSR’s demise.

As Gorbachev later lamented, “Our Russian mentality required that the new life be served up on a silver platter immediately, then and there, without reforming society.”

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What other factors led to the Soviet demise?

It’s unfair to lay the blame of the USSR’s demise solely on Gorbachev’s shoulders. His predecessor, Leonid Brezhnev, squandered the profits from a two-decade oil boom on an arms race with the United States, neglecting a golden opportunity to raise standards of living before Gorbachev had arrived.

Meanwhile, changes were rumbling across Eastern Europe. Within a year of Gorbachev’s December 1988 United Nations announcement that the USSR would loosen military control on neighboring Warsaw Pact countries, those nations pushed immediately for more autonomy. Communist regimes toppled in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The Berlin Wall fell and the move toward German reunification began. By the time Gorbachev tried to dial back his reforms, it was too late. Broader social forces had been unleashed.

While it could be argued that Gorbachev was “weak” in that he was unaware of the implications of attempting drastic economic and political reform simultaneously, he was also undeniably strong in the context of party politics. In particular, he succeeded in weakening a totalitarian regime in favor of individual rights, despite resistance from within the governmental party-state. For that and his de-escalation of Cold War tensions, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Presidents Bush and Gorbachev shaking hands at the end of a press conference about the peace summit in Moscow. (Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Presidents Bush and Gorbachev shaking hands at the end of a press conference about the peace summit in Moscow. (Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Did the Soviet collapse mean the U.S. ‘won’ the Cold War?

The day the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H.W. Bush declared “victory” in the Cold War. But that declaration was misleading, says Serhii Plokhy, a history professor at Harvard University and the author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.

“The United States was trying to do everything in its power to stop the dissolution of the Soviet Union,” says Plokhy. “It’s as simple as that.” The real end of the Cold War came about, he adds, at the Malta Summit in 1989, where Gorbachev and Bush met and agreed to a peace that was built “on U.S. conditions.”

After that, Plokhy says, the United States government actively sought to keep the Soviet Union together, seeing it as a favorable alternative to a nuclear power dissolving into more than a dozen nation-states. Bush even traveled to Ukraine in August 1991 to deliver what was later referred to as the “Chicken Kiev” speech; in it, he urged Ukrainians to vote “no” on a vote to secede from the Union, calling it “suicidal nationalism” and cautioning Ukrainians that “freedom is not the same as independence.”

The United States only switched positions on the dissolution of the USSR in late November—when polling on Ukraine showed the inevitability of its independence vote passing, putting the entire Soviet republic at the brink of collapse.

What countries formed after the fall?

Fifteen nations arose from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

The Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) were the first to achieve autonomy. Lithuania declared independence in March 1990, triggering other such declarations across the USSR. Following springtime popular-vote referendums, Gorbachev acknowledged the three states’ separations in August and September 1991, several months prior to the Soviet Union’s Christmas Day demise.

Globe showing Russia and countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Credit: Samxmeg/Getty Images)

Globe showing Russia and countries formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Credit: Samxmeg/Getty Images)

It was fitting that these three were the first to leave the Soviet Union, since they were the last to enter. Unlike many of the other post-Soviet countries that would form after Gorbachev’s resignation, the Baltic states had already been sovereign nations. They’d only fallen under Soviet control after Stalin’s Red Army conquered Nazi troops in the Baltic region in 1944.

Ukraine was the next to leave, with an overwhelming majority voting for independence by popular referendum on December 1, 1991, dealing what was essentially the death blow to the USSR. Gorbachev’s resignation and the dissolution of the Soviet Union came soon thereafter, granting new autonomy to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Did the Communist system completely disappear?

As of 2018, there were four nations that self-identified as communist party-states: China, Cuba, Vietnam and Laos.

Although China continues to be ruled by the Communist Party of China, it began to undertake economic reforms towards a free-market economy shortly after the death of Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father. Similarly, Vietnam and Laos are under single-party “Communist” rule by name, but have opened their markets to the global economy.

For Cuba, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was devastating in that it spelled the end of Soviet aid. This, in turn, plunged the island nation into a financial crisis, referred to as the “período especial” (Special Period), in which famine became widespread. The nation has since moved towards a more “mixed-market” economy, in which some professions are open to private enterprise, although most of the job market remain under centrally planned governmental control.

Like the Soviet Union before it, North Korea has a centrally planned economy and a single party-state, although the government increasingly shirks from the “communist” label. In 2009, it removed all references to the ideology from its constitution.

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