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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The Black Market and Institutionalized Corruption

Russia 8

A friend of mine at Virginia Tech was born in Moldova in 1992 and the remnants of an underground economy still existed. He was telling me about how if you gave the men who worked in the passport office good bottles of liquor they would rush your passport and travel documents through quicker. This is what his mom did for the two of them when they were coming to the US in the late 1990s, which was years after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, traces of the black market economy still pervade the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union. The high levels of institutionalized corruption, including the black market economy, that developed in the Soviet Union carried forward into the post-Soviet period.

The stagnation of the Soviet economy during the Brezhnev years comes in part from the command economy and an inefficient labor force. However, the black market significantly influenced the stagnation felt during this period. The necessity for basic goods for Soviet people made the black market so vital for survival. One estimate states “some twenty million people worked on the black market to supply the demand for 83 percent of the populations” (Freeze,443). The fact that upwards of 80 percent of people needed goods from the black market illustrates how integral and built into the system it was.

During the Soviet period, “everything without exception—was nothing more than an enormous black market” (Handleman qtd in Ostrow, 217), due to the scarcity of resources in the Soviet economy. The conditions that created the black market included:

“an economy of shortages with state-controlled prices way below demand, and the                  gap between artificial domestic and free-market world prices. Malleable property                  rights and unaccounted state assets coupled with low administrative salaries gave                  birth to bribery and corruption.” (Geldern)

One during this period could not escape the black market because it was necessary to achieve a certain quality of life. However, one was subject to serious criminal charges but were not rarely followed through correctly.

The CPSU Central Committee adopted policies to try and improve the system of law and order by improving law-enforcement agencies and get the public involved in promoting law and order. They aimed to eradicate crime in conjunction with the black market economy. Additional tasks taken on to lower crime included improving education, working against alcohol and drunkenness, and the promotion of public order by police. However, “because of rampant corruption, repression of the black market became increasingly symbolic and inconsequential” (Freeze, 443). It did not matter the steps or reforms taken by the government, the black market was so integral and institutionalized corruption allowed it to continue.



“In the CPSU Central Committee: On Improving Work to Safeguard Law and Order and Intensifying the Struggle against Law Violations.”Pravada. Seventeen Moments, 11 Sept. 1979. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <>.

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

Von Geldern, James “1980: The Underground Economy” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 15 Nov 2014.


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The First Cracks in the System

After forcing out Nikita Khrushchev in 1965, Leonid Brezhnev became First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Some consider the regime under Brezhnev, as the ‘golden era of USSR’. Brezhnev managed to improve the quality of life, stabilize social life, virtually eliminate unemployment, and expand educational opportunities. However during the Brezhnev era, “something else was becoming evident: what had been aptly described as a ‘mono-organization system was showing cracks” (Dallin qtd. in Ostrow, 119) and a second illegal economy was pervading the Soviet Union. Even though quality of life had improved the economy had started to stagnate and signs of corruption were starting to proliferate the Union.

Brezhnev invested heavily in the War effort, which led to lack of consumer goods for the people. Socialist economies are “called economies of shortages” (Verdery qtd. in Ostrow, 71). The unsustainability of socialist economies is exemplified by the shortage of consumer goods and inability to produce consumer goods in the Soviet Union. The lack of consumer goods inevitably led to a black market and the failure of reforms to stimulate the economy were signs that the Soviet system was unsustainable in the long term. The black market economy forced “most citizens were forced to engage in activities undermining the Soviet system, which fed a cynicism that eventually destroyed popular trust in authority” (The Responsive Economy).However, the improvement of the quality of life under the Brezhnev era and the achievement of equality (albeit low-level) added to the legitimacy of the Union. Whereas the cracks in the Soviet system that started appearing under Brezhnev contributed to the inevitable collapse of the Soviet system.

History helped play a role in maintaining control with fear but also with keeping expectations at a relatively low level. Citizens of the Soviet Union never knew a luxurious lifestyle and with nothing to compare their lifestyle to except the past, expectations stayed modest. Any “comparison with the past can only heighten approval of ongoing improvements and temper expectations” (Bialer qtd. in Ostrow, 57). Which is why, Brezhnev talked about in a speech that the Soviet economy was growing and production had increased. However, while there was growth it was not significant enough to stop the inevitable cracks in the Soviet Union. The socialist system that was refined under Brezhnev added to the legitimacy of the Soviet regime because “as long as economic conditions permitted their partial fulfillment, certain socialist regimes gained legitimacy as a result” (Verdery qtd. in Ostrow, 74). As long as a decent amount of consumer goods could be provided, the socialist system attained legitimacy.





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

“Speech by Comrade L I Brezhnev” The Current Digest of the Russian Press,  No. 25,  Vol.22, July  21, 1970, page(s): 8-16. <>

Von Geldern, James “1968: The Responsive Economy” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 2 Nov 2014. <>

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Krushchev’s Condemnation of Stalin

After Stalin’s death on March 5th, 1953, a brief period of uncertainty spread across the Soviet Union. His rule was personalized which left his successors to deal with serious questions and issues with the state apparatus (Freeze, 408). When, Nikita Khrushchev gained power after Stalin’s death, he openly condemned Stalin’s use of terror and implemented policies to liberalize the Soviet Union and ease governmental control. During, the secret speech at the twentieth communist party Congress, Khrushchev condemned many of Stalin’s actions and aimed to break down the cult of personality. Another example of the condemnation of Stalin by Krushchev, in the an interview with an American writer,   “Stalin really did commit unpardonable abuses of power. And it is for this that we have condemned him.”

As Khrushchev abandoned the mass political terror used under Stalin, during the period of de-Stalinization, he helped provide “the conditions for reducing the scope of controls” (Dallin qtd. in Ostrow, 118). While the loosening of control helps provide a precondition for the inevitable fracturing of the Soviet Union, the Khrushchev years provided “a period of stability under the administrative-command system of the Soviet socialist state” (Dallin qtd. in Ostrow, 118). The stability provided under the Khrushchev rule contributed to the legitimacy of the Soviet system.  Khrushchev was able to maintain legitimacy while easing up on mass political terror because,  “the memories and fears act to dampen rising expectations and to keep them from escaping control”(Bialer qtd. in Ostrow, 56). Many people remembered and were still afraid of the terror used during the Stalin era. History helped play a role in maintaining control with fear but also with keeping expectations at a relatively low level. Citizens of the Soviet Union never knew a luxurious lifestyle and with nothing to compare their lifestyle to except the past, expectations stayed modest. Any “comparison with the past can only heighten approval of ongoing improvements and temper expectations” (Bialer qtd. in Ostrow, 57).

Additionally, during this period of de-Stalinization, Khrushchev was able to beat out and solidify rule after Stalin and contribute to the legitimacy of the Soviet Union, “by reviving the party apparatus and reasserting its control over the state ministries, the military, and the new Committee for State Security” (Seventeen Moments). During, de-Stalinization, Khrushchev and the party aimed to move away from the cult of personality surrounding Stalin, strengthen government agencies, and end the use of terror.



Works Cited:

“N. S. KHRUSHCHEV’S TALK WITH THE AMERICAN PUBLISHER G. COWLES.”The Current Digest of the Russian Press 14.17 (1962): 18-25. East View Information Services. Web. 26 Oct. 2014. <>.

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

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “1954: Succession to Stalin” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 26 Oct 2014. <>

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “1956: Krushchev’s Secret Speech” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 26 Oct 2014. <>

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Promoting Patriotism

The role of nationalism during World War 2 was vital to the success of the Soviet Union. Due to the fact that war was seen as a national struggle and the protection of Russia was everyone’s goal the war effort was taken on by all citizens. The utilization of nationalism and pushing the population to support the total war effort pushed the Soviet Union to victory during the war despite early struggles and severe deficits in the domestic realm. Most men served during the war; women, children, and the elderly took on industrial and labor force roles. Through the mass participation of the population to serve either in the army or promoting the war at home, Russia was able to conduct total war. Freeze claims, “the greatest credit for victory belongs to the Soviet population itself” (390). Everyone was involved in the war effort and sacrificed a great deal to win the war and support the survival of Russia and communism.

Additionally, the Soviet leaders used propaganda and media censorship to get citizens involved and boost morale after the struggles during the early years of the war. Citizens and those involved called the war, the Great Patriotic War. One example of the promotion of nationalism during the war was the adoption of a new national anthem. The new national anthem, composed by General Aleksandr Vasilievich Aleksandrov, Sergei Mikhalkov, Garold El-Registan and adopted in 1944, promoted the nationalism in Russia during the war.

The anthem makes reference to Stalin, “and Stalin our leader with faith in the people”, who was seen as a symbol of national unity during the war time years; despite mistakes made by Stalin during the war. Stalin was seen as “the embodiment of the resistance” (Freeze, 388). Furthermore the national anthem makes reference to the motherland, destroying the invaders, and cherishing victories over other nations. All of this seems to promote winning the war and a strong sense of support for the nation. The national anthem adopted during the war reflects the idea of protecting the survival of Russia and the boost in morale during the later years of World War 2.




Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Von Geldern, James. “1943: New National Anthem” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 19 Oct 2014. <>

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The Role of Religion


The Bolshevik revolution aimed to create a new social ethos that redefined the political, social, and economic systems in Soviet Russia. In order to alter the popular consciousness the regime needed to transform the values and norms of people in society. Indoctrination through education and redefining families were important parts in changing popular consciousness. However, the changing role of religion in the new Soviet State was vital to creating a new social ethos. The period from 1918 to 1921 heavily regulated religion in order to change the popular consciousness of the state. After 1921, the government relaxed the anti-religious movement just slightly in order to deal with some of the hostility from the peasants.

According to Marxist principles “knowledge is derived from observed reality, without the intercession of any external force or move” (Freeze, 335). In order for the citizens to accept the new system, they needed to be divorced from religion. Once the Bolsheviks started to take over they aimed “to emancipate Soviet Citizens from the scourge (or as Karl Marx put it, the “opiate”) of religion” (Geldern). They needed to separate religion from people’s lives and forced the clergy’s of any religion into second-class citizenship.

Through anti-religious propaganda and the passing of laws and decrees the state was able to take control of religion and separate it from the lives of citizens. The above photo depicts some of the anti-religious propaganda spread while building the Soviet State. An example of anti-relgious decree is the government passed a law forcing all religious groups with more than fifty members to register which, “deprived of the right to congregate without registration, which could be denied at the discretion of the authorities, the church was placed fully under the power of the state.” (Geldern). Additionally, the government nationalized church property without compensation and militants killed many members of the clergy.

Controlling religion and separating it from the lives of citizens made it easier for the state to force people into a different mindset. They needed to focus on creating a progressive, scientific state and religion got in the way of that. The role that religion played in the new regime was one of superstition, which needed to be done away with.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Von Geldern, James. “1924: Antireligious Propaganda.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014. <>.

Von Geldern, James. “1924: Living Church.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2014. <>.

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New Economic Policy

On November 7th, 1917, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik party takeover in Russia, thus starting the creation of the socialist state. Vladimir Lenin aimed at creating a Marxist communist utopia. Lenin promised liberation of oppressed workers and peasants, equality, advancement, peace and social justice. Even though Lenin was trying to create a communist state, he implemented an economic policy that sought a return to capitalist ideals, which created a mixed economy, with some private individuals allowed to own small enterprise. His economic policy matched the New Economic Policy, created in 1921, which was a set of pragmatic policies designed to restore stability and growth. It only lasted a short period of time under Lenin. The move away from the New Economic policy and towards the nationalization of the economy begins with the nationalization of industries and foreign trade.

Lenin foresaw that destroying the large economy right away was not practical. He came up with the  transational stage where he “advocated features of a large-scale capitalist economy such as individual managerial control, wage and piecework incentives, even the employment of bourgeois technical experts and managers.” (Siegelbaum) that led to the creation of the New Economic Policy in 1921. The New Economic Policy was a “gradualist plan of socialist development” (Freeze, 301). The focus on market forces during this transitional period “led to the denationalization of small-scale industry and services; the establishment of trusts for supplying, financing, and marketing the products of large-scale industry; the stabilization of the currency; and other measures.” (Siegelbaum). The photo above shows a local market place where private trading took place, which represents the denationalization and brief privatization of the economy in Soviet Russia. The capitalist ideals helped strengthen the new Soviet states economy but led to economic uncertainity and anxiety among some citizens.

The transitional period of capitalism was short lived. In a draft of his economic policy written in December 1917, he decrees the nationalization of stock companies, he places restrictions on the wealthy class, he forces everyone to keep their money in the State Bank, and he focuses on the creation of trade unions to enforce his decrees. During the following year Lenin’s comrades pushed towards a nationalized state by taking private citizens capitalism by “nationalizing foreign trade and abolishing private inheritance” (Siegelbaum). The next steps in transitioning away from the market forces towards a socialist economy included abolishing private real estate and trade and nationalizing industry.The transitional period of capitalism sheds light on the pragmatic side of Lenin. Additionally, while the New Economic Policy only lasted a short period of time under Lenin, it created an ideological basis for reform that would resurface during the Gorbachev era and laid the foundations for the Soviet state.




Bunyan, Jame and H.H. Fisher, ed., Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918; Documents and Materials (Stanford: Stanford University Press; H. Milford, Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 316-317.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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

Proekt dekreta o sotsializatsii narodnogo khoziaistva, Narodnoe khoziaistvo, No. 11 (1918), p. 15.

Remington, Thomas F. Politics in Russia. 7th ed. New York [u.a.: Pearson Longman, 2011. Print.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “1917: Economic Apparatus.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. Macalester College, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2014. <>.

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Consciousness or Spontaneity

In “What Is To Be Done?” Lenin critiqued the Economist view of spontaneity and argued for a conscious revolution. He criticized the Economist view of spontaneity due to its disorganization and inability to learn from the past. Lenin believed that one could not learn from previous unsuccessful revolutions in Russia if one does not use conscious thought. He believed that they way to create a successful society that one would want to live in is through a conscious proletariat revolution. He argued against “the spontaneous development of the working class-movement” because it “leads to the subordination to bourgeois ideology.” This reflected Karl Marx’s criticism that ideologies are designed to gain the interest of those that they hurt and create a false-consciousness.

Karl Marx believed that in order for the proletariats to rise up against the bourgeois they need to create a self-conscious movement which is what Lenin developed his idea of what is to be done in Russia. In the book Selected Writings of Karl Marx, he wrote about when the proletariat is at the brink of revolution they

“cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation…All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata being sprung into the air…Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society” (168-169)

The proletariat revolution needed the help of those in the class above the working class, because Lenin believed the“the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness” instead of a conscious life. The working-class with the help of the intelligentsia can develop consciousness. This is similar to Marx in the sense that he believed that the bourgeoisie would be their own-grave diggers. If the working-class developed consciousness the “revolutionary experience and organizational skill are things that can be acquired, provided the desire is there to acquire them, provided the shortcomings are recognized, which in revolutionary activity is more than half-way towards their removal.” The recognition of the short-comings stemmed from consciousness. Overall, Lenin believed consciousness was necessary for a successful proletariat revolution and criticized focusing solely on spontaneity.

Works Cited

Lenin, Vladimir. “Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?: The Spontaneity of the Masses and the Consciousness of the Social-Democrats.” N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2014.


Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Comp. Lawrence Hugh Simon. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994. Print.

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Transportation and Industrialization

Russia post

The photo captioned, “Trans-Siberian Railway metal truss bridge on stone piers, over the Kama River near Perm, Ural Mountains Region” included in the Prokudin-Gorskiĭ collection, gives a look into the longest rail line in the world. The picture depicts some of the challenges faced while building the Trans-Siberian railway, like rough terrain and a harsh climate. The expansion of a national transportation system allowed for an expansion of power, a greater ability to trade and move goods, and spread ideas. The development of a national railway system allowed for goods to move more efficiently. Overall, the development of a national railway system was important for Russia to industrialize. Prior to the development of the Trans-Siberian railway and the reforms undertaken by Sergei Witte, Russia suffered from a backwards economy, focused mainly on agriculture (Llewellyn).

The need for a major rail line in late Imperial Russia was great. The Crimean War conveyed the need for industrialization and for the expansion of modern transportation. Russia had a late start to the development of the railway system; “it is enough to observe that on the eve of the Crimean War, when railways had already spread their tentacles through much of Western Europe, Russia was just completing its first major line between Moscow and St. Petersburg” (Freeze, 196). Without a strong national transportation system, Russia struggled to get supplies to soldiers in an efficient manor.

Additionally, the lack of railways “meant that key resources (such as iron ore and coal) and markets could not be reached” (Freeze, 216). The lack of transportation is credited as one of the major reasons for the overwhelming military defeat in the Crimean War. In the history of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the author notes “as soon as the Trans-Siberian was built, it began to have a significant impact on economic development, and contributed to the acceleration and growth of the circulation of goods,” but the development of the Trans-Siberian railway was slow, as the Russo-Japanese war in 1905-1906 shed light on the deficiencies of the railway. Overall, the development of the Trans-Siberian railway and the creation of a national system of transportation allowed for economic development and a move towards industrialization in Russia in the late 19th century.



Works Cited:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Llewellyn, J. “The Russian Revolution.” Russian Revolution. Alpha History, n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2014. <>.

“The Russian Train Experience.” Trans-Siberian Express. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2014. <>.

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