The Collapse of the Soviet Union

The overspending on the Cold War and the inefficiency of the centrally planned economy for consumer goods had become insurmountable problems when the final General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985. Gorbachev attempted to reform the ailing system through perestroika, the restructuring of the system, and glasnost, meaning transparency.

He responded to the systemic crisis by aiming reforms at opening up the Soviet system, to ease control and to provide a wider scope for individual action and responsibility. The transparency created under glasnost, allowed for new interest groups to flourish, political criticisms to be vocalized, and the media was able to freely report for the first time in many years. Gorbachev tried to implement economic reforms, like privatization, into the rigid Soviet system. While he was aiming at liberalizing the system, the rapid rate of political change not accompanied by strong economic reform caused the central economy to break down. Also the lack of planning and follow through on his policies continued to contribute to the swift breakdown of the Soviet Union.

The attempts made by Gorbachev to fix the economy started with a plan created by western economists that aimed at liberalizing the system and privatizing state-owned assets. However, hesitation and anxiety among the Soviet people led Gorbachev to adopt a weaker version of the 500 days plan. The lukewarm attempts to decentralize the economy, in conjunction with the political reforms, caused the collapse of the Soviet system. Economic reforms needed to be stronger to match the political and social reforms occurring in the Soviet Union.

The political liberalization under Gorbachev led to the swift collapse of the one-party system and the communist experiment in the Soviet Union. The newly found freedom of expression and ability to criticize the regime led to the Party’s inability to control the truth. The Communist Party started to deteriorate as quickly as the economy did. The complete fracturing of the Soviet Union, “was not simply that what had appeared to be a stable, authoritarian regime in an increasingly conservative society found itself forced to adapt to unexpected pressures for change, but that the political system fell apart, the empire disintegrated, and the economy collapsed.” (McCauley qtd. in Ostrow, 12)

The Soviet Union formally collapsed on January 1st, 1992; thus dissolving arguably one of the strongest, most powerful empires in recent history and became “relegated to the dustbin of history” (Ostrow, 65). Many things factored into the collapse of the Soviet Union, from an unstable economic and political system to the failure of reforms under Gorbachev but I think the liberalization of the communist system without strong economic reforms was what finally caused the Soviet Union to collapse.




Ostrow, Joel M. Politics in Russia: A Reader. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2013. Print.

“Stanislav Shatalin, Man, Freedom, and the Market. October 31, 1990.”Seventeen Moments. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. <>.

Von Geldern, James. “1991: 500 Days” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. < >.
“WHY THE ‘500 DAYS’ PROGRAM IS INFEASIBLE TODAY.” The Current Digest of the Russian Press 45.42 (1990): 1-4. Eastview Information Services. Web. 7 Dec. 2014. <>.

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5 Responses to The Collapse of the Soviet Union

  1. cpurvis2 says:

    So many things contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union and you did a great job outlining many of them. The sources and links you included are great, your analysis on Gorbachev is well done!

  2. A. Nelson says:

    I like the tension you highlight in the two articles you link to from the Current Digest. Nicely done!

  3. Alex Apollonio says:

    Hindsight is 20/20, but I really don’t see how Gorbachev thought the one-party Soviet state would last after his economic liberalization and opening up of the government. Maybe he thought people would be patriotic enough that they’d want to reform the old system instead of scrapping it altogether, but it seems to me like the governmental institutions of the USSR lost most public support years before any reforms. It was too little, too late.

  4. mikegancio says:

    Good take on the demise of the Soviet Union. My post was pretty similar and I agree with you that it was really a combination of things that led to the collapse, notably glasnost and perestroika. These policies created kind of the perfect storm for a public outcry from the Soviet citizens themselves.

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