Several factors contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union. To get the right perspective of what led to the break-up of the Soviet Union, we need a quick look at the history to put the events into context.
1917 – The Russian Revolution
World War I (July 1914 – November 1918) caused substantial economic hardships across Tsarist Russia. The people and the army were angry with Tsar Nicholas II and revolted against his rule in February 1917. He abdicated the throne in favor of a provisional government instated at St. Petersburg, primarily made up of the capitalists and aristocrats.
The Soviets, socialists with significant support of the soldiers, was a left-leaning with the middle class and industrial workers that controlled a network of local administrations. The dual power across the country was not sustainable. In October of 1917, Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks, the dominant socialist political party, to overthrow the provisional government and seize power in Russia in what came to be known as the October Revolution of 1917.
Shortly afterwards in 1918, the Russian Civil War broke out between the Red Army fighting for the Bolsheviks, left-supporting soldiers, and the White Army, comprising of Cossacks and Army officers and soldiers who were Right-leaning. The White Army had the support of the USA, Great Britain, France, and Japan.
The Red Army defeated the White Army and this led to the rise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
1938 – Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Nazi-Soviet Pact
In 1938, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had expansionist plans in Europe and viewed each other with suspicion. Keeping the Soviet Union neutral was essential to Nazi Germany’s plans of invading Poland and other parts of Europe. Adolf Hitler authorized Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to negotiate a non-aggression treaty with the Soviets.
A meeting between Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty of 1939. The pact was an agreement of non-aggression and non-alignment with enemies of either country. The pact also had secret clauses that essentially divided territories of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, and Romania, between the two countries as their respective spheres of influence.
With the pact signed on August 23, 1939, Germany invaded Poland on September 1, that same year. The Stalin-led Soviet Union waited to watch if the Germans would stay within their agreed areas and ordered his Red Army to invade Poland on September 17, 1939, to take control over regions as agreed in the pact. The campaign ended on October 6, 1939, with Poland divided between the two countries.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, launching Operation Barbarossa. It would impact the outcome of World War II and later spur the rise of the Soviet Union as a military power.
1944 – the forced inclusion of the Baltic States; clash of ideologies
With the end of World War II, differences between Communist Soviet Union and Capitalist USA grew more intense. The USSR began to expand communist influence and control in eastern Europe; Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Albania, and Yugoslavia became satellite states of the USSR. Germany split into east and west, with East Germany controlled by the Red Army and West Germany, controlled by the US and UK.
Both the United States and USSR began hardening their respective positions in limiting the other’s influence, and this was to lead to the Cold War.
People living in countries that were forced to become satellite states of the USSR were deeply resentful of the Soviet presence, control, and influence. Any resistance to communist control was brutally crushed. The widespread resentment in the satellite states and the Caucasus was to contribute to the break-up of the Soviet Union.
1962-1979 – The Cold War and the Race for military domination
Central planning and control over Communist USSR did not allow individual enterprises and ultimately led to shortages in almost all aspects of the economy. The economic strain was fueled by excessive spending on defense equipment and forces in a constant attempt to maintain military parity with a rapidly modernizing West led by the United States.
The Cold War which began in the 1950s nearly came to confrontation in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, where a nuclear exchange between the USA and the USSR almost took place. The Cold War ended up damaging the Soviet economy, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and rebellion for independence among Soviet states, by the latter half of the 80s.
1985-1991– Rise and Fall of Gorbachev
The death of Leonid Brezhnev, the hardline Soviet leader, in 1982, saw Yuri Andropov (1982-1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985) briefly take over as the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Presidium. But it was the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev that would pave the way for the Soviet Union to ultimately break-up.
Gorbachev was a law graduate and quickly rose to the ranks within the Communist Party. He held liberal views on reform and took over as General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1985. Gorbachev began to introduce concepts of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) in an attempt at reforming the restrictive and often stifling, central control over the country. He brought in younger leaders with liberal views of communism, and this caused resentment among the older hardliners who were increasingly being sidelined by Gorbachev.
But it was the introduction of Boris Yeltsin that would prove to be significant in the course of Russian history.
Gorbachev initiated the process of political reform by encouraging open discussions critical of the Communist Party. Boris Yeltsin took advantage and began pushing for faster reforms, began to grow in popularity among the masses. Gorbachev failed to control the economy from spiralling. By 1987, the Baltic states started raising their voice against Moscow and soon began calling for independence.
In 1989, Gorbachev allowed limited democracy, and for the first time since 1917, elections were permitted to the Congress of People’s Deputies. Free television coverage was another first. Soon, Poland followed the example, and elections there saw the ruling Communist Party toppled. It had a cataclysmic effect on other satellite states in Eastern Europe, and the process towards independence had picked up momentum.
By 1990, the Communist Party had lost elections in Lithuania, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, and Georgia. The process for the break-up of the Soviet Union had begun.
On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev stepped down as the President of the Soviet Union, and on that day, the USSR formally ceased to exist. The tricolour flag of the new Russian Federation replaced the Hammer and Sickle Red Flag of the former USSR.
Baltic States Rebellion
The year 1987 saw people come on to the streets in large numbers in protest against the central leadership. Widespread protests became frequent in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Gorbachev tried to address their demands promising faster reforms and greater autonomy, but soon the call for complete independence became dominant.
During the same period, frequent protests and clashes began breaking out in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The civil war situation increased the economic hardship on the people, and this catalyzed the resentment against Moscow. Voices, suppressed since Stalin’s brutal takeover, now came out in the open, calling for independence.
Western Republics Rebellion
By 1988, Moldova and Ukraine too entered a similar phase of near civil war and economic crisis. Protest against Moscow were frequent and violent. Moscow was increasingly beginning to lose control over its states and did not have the financial means to calm the economy or pacify opposition. It was now a matter of time.
Central Republics Rebellion
Severe food and medicine led to armed riots breaking out across the Central Republics. Worst hit was Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan. Moscow responded by sending in Soviet Troops, and that led to further clashes and deaths.
President Gorbachev tried to get the situation under control by removing Rafiq Nishonov who was the First Secretary of the Communist Party in Uzbekistan, and Gennady Kolbin, an ethnic Russian whose appointment as First Secretary of the Communist Party in Kazakhstan in December 1986 triggered the crisis. Both measures did not help control the situation, and Moscow’s control over the region continued to loosen.
Large-scale refugees influx from neighboring Armenia into Tajikistan triggered massive riots. Clashes broke out in Dushanbe, the capital city of Tajikistan leading to several deaths. Fears over Armenian refugee settlement added to people’s overall discontent with severe shortages and led to similar riots in Turkmenistan.
The rise of Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin was brought in to the Communist Party inner circle by Gorbachev. After initially supporting Gorbachev’s Perestroika, he opposed him and became a vocal critic. In 1987, Yeltsin resigned from the Politburo and emerged popular among the masses who viewed him as a rebel and a reformist.
In the 1991 coup, led by Communist hardliners against Gorbachev, Yeltsin made the bold move against the coup. On August 19, his defiance against the coup by mounting on a tank and addressing his supporters to stand firm became the defining moment for Yeltsin and the USSR. The coup failed, and with the resignation of Mikhail Gorbachev as the last President of USSR, Boris Yeltsin took over as the first President of the new Russian Federation.
Fall of the Berlin Wall
For 28 years, the Berlin Wall stood as the face of the rivalry between two great military powers and their respective political ideologies. It divided the people of one nation, and as the Soviet Union began to collapse, the German people on both sides of the wall rose to break it down on November 9, 1989. The act would hasten the process of independence in other satellite states under Soviet influence.
Economic and Political Crisis
As Mikhail Gorbachev began the process of Glasnost and Perestroika, the impact of the resulting economic chaos between 1985 and 1991 was too severe. Hunger and starvation were frequent; people began scrounging for basic daily amenities, including much-needed medicine. Chronic shortages added to people’s frustration with the Communist regime and voices of dissent, long suppressed, became vocal by the day, finally leading to the collapse of the USSR.