On 26 December 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The communist utopian dream had come painfully crashing down, freeing the world from the shackles of the Cold War and leading to the emergence of 11 new independent Eastern European nation-states. The grip of communist fear that had consumed the West for so many decades was finally loosened and the world could at long last close the chapter on decades of archaic, rigid and ideologically backwards foreign policy tactics. The fall of the USSR would mark the start of a new era of humanitarianism and globalization in a global economy and political sphere unshackled from the old ideological imperatives and fear that had hindered human development for decades.
The question as to what led to the collapse and dissolution of a political system that had repressively governed vast swathes of Eastern Europe for so long is still a matter of contention nowadays. Debates still rage as to whether the key reasons were political, economic, social, or whether it was simply part of an inevitable political regeneration process. However, it is fair to say that a combination of all these factors severely affected a state already reeling from years of costly armament, international isolation and tensions with the other great powers.
For the entirety of the USSR’s existence, it was plagued by economic problems derived from its system of rule. With a communist ideology at the centre of its economic theory, the Soviet Union insisted on the primacy of state planning when it came to its economy, rejecting capitalist ideas of the free market. However, once the economy had grown to become a colossal enterprise, it became too cumbersome to continue state planning as it was simply too large to be regulated by planners who refused to enable more autonomy at mid-managerial level. This insistence on state planning and state regulation meant that the economy was left stagnating and deteriorating as it was unable to innovate or develop itself in the same way its Cold War rivals, who were enjoying the rewards of free markets. The power and efficiency of this already foundering economy was hindered ever further by the catastrophic invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Threatened by anti-communist insurgents, the mujahedeen, the pro-soviet Afghan government begged the Soviet Union for support. It complied firstly by sending over weapons and equipment but this quickly developed into a full scale military commitment in the country which bogged its army down in a guerrilla war against increasingly zealous and fanatical opposition. By the time it withdrew in 1988, the Soviet Union had accomplished barely anything, and it was left economically damaged and politically humiliated on the international scale.
In the face of these crippling economic problems the newly appointed President Mikhail Gorbachev decided to embark on a new and radical economic policy route: perestroika. These revolutionary reforms caused a huge stir in the Soviet Union as they incorporated some capitalist elements of free market in the staunchly proud communist regime. These reforms were mirrored by a new approach to the people of the Soviet Union which was referred to as glasnost, or openness and transparency. With the public becoming increasingly disillusioned at their secretive and repressive government, Gorbachev attempted to compensate with a new liberal approach to the media. This further eroded support for the regime as the people finally became aware of the cover ups of past atrocities, missteps of leadership, social and health failures and the dire situation the economy found itself in. Gorbachev and his policies, then, appear as key factors behind the dissolution of the Soviet Union as they led to the opening up of the regime and the realisation that it could no longer sustain itself in the face of growing Western power.
The regime had always relied on a strong power centre in Moscow to ensure that its satellites states under its control toed the party line. However, with these new policies as well as faltering economic power, local nationalists saw the chance for national freedom that they had so long hoped for. Countries such as the Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania saw the emergence of strong nationalist movements demanding a cessation from the Union and the right to self-determination. The cracks that had started to appear were, therefore, further widened by a wave of nationalism which saw to capitulate on the regime’s weakness and unusual instability.
The fall of the USSR was the result of a number of factors that had been brewing for years within the system but due to its rigidity and closed nature had never had the chance to develop. However, Gorbachev’s new policies of openness created the environment in which these factors exploded onto the scene and made the USSR’s position untenable.