A Study of the Breakup of the Soviet Union
By John White, written March 27, 1997.
The breakup of the Soviet Union is surely one of the most important events in recent history. The seemingly sudden shift from one totalitarian communist state into 15 states with democratic governments caught much of the world by surprise. The reasons behind this change have been debated by many, and it is the purpose of this paper to discuss the various reasons behind the breakup, including sociological, political, and economic factors.
This paper is divided up into sections discussing each of the relevant issues. These issues are: economic factors, general political factors, the effects of glasnost and freedom of information, nationalism, other sociological factors, and the specific effects of the coup of August, 1991. After each of these factors have been individually discussed, the final section constructs a conclusion weaving these factors together.
II. Economic Factors
A. Before Gorbachev
Before Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet Union's economy had already developed serious problems. These problems are perhaps best summed up by the following quote:
Paradoxes of Soviet Life:
(1) There's no unemployment, but no one works; (2) no one works but productivity goes up; (3) productivity goes up, but there's nothing in the stores; (4) there's nothing in the stores, but at home there's everything; (5) at home there's everything, but no one is satisfied; (6) no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.
-Soviet Underground Humor
There are two main reasons for these problems. First, the Soviet Union's centralized planning was very inefficient. Francis Fukuyama, a consultant for the Rand Corporation, said that the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial one requires allowing some degree of freedom, since decisions can no longer be effectively or efficiently made through a centralized system. Secondly, various socialist guarantees eliminated the motivation of individuals to be efficient. John P. Maynard, an anonymous congressional staff member, said that guaranteed employment and medical care and free schools led to the deterioration of productive forces in the Soviet Union. Associated Press Moscow correspondent Ann Imse pointed out that farmers shipped potatoes rotting in mud because they were paid by the kilogram regardless of quality. No one owned buildings, so no one took care of them. No one was ever fired, so few worked very hard. Thus, even though the Soviet Union had enormous amounts of natural resources, intellect, and talent, they were unable to keep up with the West.
The arms race also probably had some effect on the Soviet Union's deteriorating economy. Ronald Reagan frequently asked at cabinet meetings, "How long can the Russians keep on being so belligerent and spending so much on the arms race when they can't even feed their own people?" George Urban, the former director of Radio Free Europe, thus maintained that Reagan's arms race policies helped spend the USSR into bankruptcy. Gorbachev later acknowledged this effect of the arms race as well. There are some who would not give any credence to this factor, although there does appear to be good evidence for it playing some role.
Ann Imse also pointed out the importance of Siberian oil to the USSR's economy. She argued that the economy would have been in even worse shape if not for the fact that they were able to survive by selling Siberian oil, which increased in price from $3 to $11 per barrel in 1973 and continued to rise to $35 per barrel in the early 1980's. Thus, the income from oil allowed the Soviet Union to import food and supplies to keep the people fed and the factories running. However, just as Gorbachev came to power, the price of oil halved, thus bringing a huge crisis to the new leader.
Finally, it is important to note that many in the Soviet Union had come to realize these economic problems before Gorbachev came to power. In 1984, when 12 Soviet officials and journalists were asked what the most important question facing the Soviet Union was, nearly all of them said the "internal management or economy of the USSR." Soviet economists and sociologists had also come to realize that the standard economic reforms of the past were not good enough. They suggested the need to promote greater personal involvement in work. Thus, the stage was set for Gorbachev. The economy was clearly already a problem.
When Gorbachev did come to power in 1985, the Soviet elite believed that their main task was to get the Soviet Union out of economic stagnation. On the negative side, they had seen what had happened in Poland in 1980 and 1981 when the workers revolted due to the lack of improvement in the standard of living. On the positive side, they had seen the surge of growth brought about by Deng Xiaoping's market reforms in China. Thus, the need to change was clear.
Gorbachev's policies were largely unsuccessful. Regarding the arms race, Gorbachev sought many negotiations with the United States, and eventually cutback the military by 500,000 troops in 1988, essentially giving up the race. He poured more and more money into investment to try to buy public support with generous wage increases. At the same time, income was decreasing as republican governments and enterprises with increased power refused to send their revenues to Moscow. In response, Gorbachev proceeded to print more and more rubles, which led to a reeling economy by August 1991 when the coup occurred. Gorbachev in fact admitted that "the old system fell apart even before the new system began to work." Thus, the people had grown to hate Gorbachev for the plummeting economy. Gorbachev had given them a taste of change, but he was unable to gauge the incredible desire for further change that this helped bring.
III. General Political Factors
As early as 1970, Andrei Sakharov, Roy Medvedev, and Valery Turchin wrote General Secretary Brezhnev to warn him that without economic and political reforms such as democratization, amnesty of political prisoners, an end to the jamming or foreign radio broadcasts, and open discussion of issues, the USSR would become a "second rate provincial power." Although not fully heeded, there was some diffusion of power in the early 1970's to regional governments and local parties. Thus, the leverage of these lower bodies of authority were able to slowly increase. Also, Brezhnev allowed the intelligentsia to have access to Western ideas about economics, etc. This included setting up industrial associations to speed up research and the development of computers.
Also, in order to improve into an industrial society, the managerial class of workers was necessarily strengthened. This was needed in order to handle the complexities of new technology. Thus, as the managers received more education, they also desired more recognition, as well as increased individual rights and political participation. Therefore, taking this managerial class together with the intelligentsia's contact with the West mentioned above, more and more people were growing against the political controls of the Communist system. Tatyana Zaslavskaya, sociologist and advisor to Gorbachev, said that command might was successful in the 1930's with "a work force that was obedient, passive, and poorly educated, but it no longer fit Soviet workers in the 1980's, who were more skilled, educated, mobile, and conscious of their interests and rights."
IV. Glasnost and Freedom of Information
Glasnost and democratization were originally means to the ends of improving economic performance. However, when glasnost brought an end to the jamming of radio transmissions, increased economic links, and allowed more cross-cultural interaction and international travel, the Soviet Union lost its isolation. Thus, when exposed to the rich and free capitalist countries all around, the people's thirst for freedom grew. This freedom gave people both the option of improving the Soviet system as well as the option of abandoning it. Interestingly, a communist party member in the late 1970's predicted what would then happen, "if we gave people a choice, they would want to return to capitalism." This freedom of choice was surely one of the main reasons the Soviet Union broke up.
The freedoms glasnost brought were embraced in several different ways. The intelligentsia pushed the boundaries in journalism and the arts. The voters elected democrats over the communists. The elites organized into nationalist groups. And perhaps most importantly, the "old guard" did not act decisively. Perhaps this was because with glasnost, the "terror" in the totalitarian state was gone, and without this, no totalitarian state can survive in a pure form.
A couple of major events also helped fuel the progress of glasnost. First, the embarrassment of the Chernobyl disaster helped speed up glasnost in 1986. Secondly, when the earthquake in Armenia occurred killing more than 25,000 people, Gorbachev allowed both international relief workers and millions of dollars to come in, destroying the "propaganda-fed image of a West poised to blast the USSR off the face of the earth." So, both of these disasters helped to increase the people of the Soviet Union's exposure to freedom and the Western world.
The freedom that the media gained through glasnost also helped develop a greater desire for freedom. Before, the USSR was spending more than one billion dollars per year on jamming foreign radio communications. In contrast, under glasnost the Russians were able to watch live broadcasts and hear legislators detail the country's "terrible past and disastrous present" in 1989. They were also able to watch (repeatedly) the execution of Nicolai Ceaucescu. Television revealed all of the weaknesses of the system, often criticizing Gorbachev. The new idea of speaking out against Communism spread quickly. People were hungry for news as newspapers and magazines were freed in 1987 and banned books and movies were re-released. One employee of the State Publishing Committee said, "It's more exciting right now to read than to live!"
It is interesting to consider, too, the "evilness" of the system as exposed by the new freedom of information. Of course, Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union the "Evil Empire," and this the Soviet citizens now knew to be true. The people had known nothing but a distorted history, denial of the right to meet, discuss, and worship in freedom, and denial of alternative ways of thinking and being. Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin pointed out these evils in the system. Thus, this moral judgment also helped motivate Soviets to abandon the Communist system.
Soviets were finally able to leave the Communist party as well. In 1989, 136,000 people left the Communist party. In the first six months of 1990, 600,000 more left the party.
Glasnost, though meant to save the Soviet Union, surely helped destroy it. Communism had promised so much to the people for so long with so few results, that once it was exposed, it had to come to an end. "Once the despot shows the slightest vulnerability, all is lost."
The Soviet Union was one of the most diverse, pluralistic countries in the world. There were 120 ethnolinguistic groups, including 18 with more than 1 million speakers of the language. Only half of the population was ethnically Russian. Therefore, the Soviet Union had a large potential for nationalism.
Even before glasnost, the "educational progress in the republics (was already) sharpening national sentiment." Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn agreed to this as well. He said that "it is plain to all that we cannot live together." The freedom allowed by glasnost and democratization therefore led to nationalism, which tended to be deeply anti-Soviet. Ethnic minorities were able to speak out against decades of discrimination and horror. For example, Stalin had deported entire nationalities. And thus, this anger began to lead to violence. Kent Hill concluded that there is no more explosive issue for the Soviets than nationalism.
VI. Other Sociological Factors
As mentioned previously, education was also an important factor in molding how people thought. Of course, the Soviet school system was meant to be a means of indoctrination to patriotism and the best traditions of the past. However, increased education also led to greater capabilities and often greater desires for the freedom to be responsible. Both the increasingly capable manager class and the increasingly aware of the West intelligentsia desired greater freedom and power due to their education.
B. Soviet Psychology
Psychologists suggest that the Soviet Union was filled with hard to motivate "type B" personalities, in contrast with America's many "type A" personalities. Thus, the masses expected change to come from the top, and they tended to resist the idea of changing themselves. "Statism" had eaten away at the foundations of individual self-esteem and initiative, according to sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya. This was more true for the older Soviets who simply wanted to stay within the bounds of Communist ideology. In contrast, the "postmodern" younger Soviets strove to achieve democracy and a free market economy. Therefore, most Soviets simply stood back and allowed the leadership to make decisions, while some younger Soviets did try to participate more in the process of change.
VII. The August 1991 Coup
In many ways, the August Coup was an enactment of many of the factors previously discussed. The hard-line Communists were reacting to the plummeting economy. They sought to return to the old ways in order to solve the problem. On the other hand, the democrats were reacting more to the possibility of a loss of their new-found freedom. Both sides were energized into action by Gorbachev's constant swinging back and forth between the sides.
It is interesting to note that not that many people actually supported the democrats. Only 150,000 people stood in front of the White House to protect Yeltsin at its peak (from a city of nine million people), and in fact only 30,000 people stood there the night of August 20 when an assault was most likely to take place. The core protesters were sons and daughters of the elite, young Russian Orthodox priests, and private entrepreneurs. Most of these were too young to remember the past repressions. It is true that there were actually more supporters in Leningrad (200,000). But even the general strike that Yeltsin called for led to very few actually striking, despite the fact that the message to strike was spread.
Really, the outcome was determined more by the government and the army than the general populace. One-third of the provincial governments (53) supported Yeltsin, while only four stood behind the coup plotters. Many forces were unwilling to go against Yeltsin, including the KGB team assigned to capture him, many of the troops assigned to threaten the citizens of Moscow, and several high up officials, including the commander of the air force, who pledged to protect him from any attack. Thus, the general Soviet "psychology" held true as most of the people simply waited for change to come from above, which it soon did.
One other factor to consider is the large part media played in the coup. It was used to spread the message of rebellion against the hard-liners through television, radio, short-wave radio, faxes, underground newspapers, and video tapes transported by pilots. In this conflict, unlike previous ones, a television report of what had happened was allowed to be shown to the entire country (again, due to a general siding with Yeltsin). Thus, glasnost was too pervasive to be overcome by the hard-liners.
In considering all of this evidence, it is very interesting to note all of the factors that had been building against Communism before Gorbachev's rise to power. The economy had been steadily getting worse. As the Soviet Union was industrialized and educated, people became more prone to desire individual rights and responsibilities. Nationalism also increased from these things. And from the early 1970's on, some of the government was decentralized and the intelligentsia was increasingly exposed to Western thought. The tide was beginning to turn.
However, what appeared to really bring the beginning of the end were the policies that Gorbachev undertook in order to try to save the economy. He was surely motivated by pressures from loss of income of oil and from overspending on the military. Perestroika for the most part was a failure because it brought very little real improvement to the economy, but it did give the Soviets a taste of a free economy and made them desire it all the more.
Glasnost, which Gorbachev began in order to help reform and preserve socialism was really the final straw, bringing the socialist system to an end. Once freedom of information, thought, and action were allowed, the people would not give it up. Glasnost also allowed the feelings of nationalism to take control, which was a powerful force toward the breaking up of the Soviet Union. It was extremely difficult to reverse the process of glasnost once it was begun, and could probably only have been done with a huge and decisive police action, which the August coup plotters failed to do. The August coup failed and actually hastened the end of the Soviet Union because the people were unwilling to give up their new freedoms.
Finally, it is very interesting to observe how much of the lasting changes were brought about from the top instead of the bottom. This seems to be a pattern for Russia, considering the Bolshevik revolution that was also precipitated by change from the top instead of the masses. The August coup in 1991 perhaps most typified this, as the day was won more by members of the government and the armed forces than by the masses. Most Soviets simply wait and see. This is certainly one unique feature of Soviet society.
So in conclusion, the Soviet Union broke up for a variety of reasons. The process was begun by a faltering economy and ended by freedom of information, which the nation was unwilling to give up again to the Communists. This freedom allowed the spirit of nationalism to grow, and led to the breakup into 15 separate republics. Certainly the August coup accelerated the pace of this change, and showed that those most susceptible to change were the leaders of the society and not the masses. As the leadership of the Soviet Union turned to democracy and freedom, so the nation turned with it.
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Cited by Vadim Medish, The Soviet Union, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991), 329.
Francis Fukuyama, "Political Reforms Alone Did Not Cause The Collapse of the Soviet Union," in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 56.
John P. Maynard, "Soviet Communism Collapsed on Its Own," in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 27.
Ann Imse, "The Perils of Perestroika," in Russia, ed. Anna Benn (Singapore: Hofer Press Pte Ltd, 1994), 55.
Daniel B. Clendenin, From the Coup to The Commonwealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 156.
Edwin Meese III, "Ronald Reagan's Presidency Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union," in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 31.
George Urban, "U.S. Democracy Contributed to the Collapse of Soviet Communism," in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 20.
Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, "Ronald Reagan's Presidency Did Not Cause the Collapse of the Soviet Union" in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 37-43.
Basile Kerblay, Modern Soviet Society, trans. Rupert Swyer (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 200.
Michael Mandelbaum, "Political Reforms Caused the Collapse of the Soviet Union," in The Breakup of the Soviet Union, eds. William Barbour and Carol Wekesser (San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 1994), 47-48.
From the resignation speech of Mikhail S. Gorbachev on December 25, 1991, in From the Coup to the Commonwealth (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 158.
Kent R. Hill, The Soviet Union on the Brink (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1991), 132.
Hedrick Smith, The New Russians (New York: Random House, 1990), 15.
Fukuyama, 52-53, 56.
Stuart H. Loory and Ann Imse, Seven Days That Shook The World (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Inc., 1991), 74-75.
Smith, 100-102, 104-105.
Thomas C. Oden, Two Worlds: Notes on the Death of Modernity in America and Russia (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 137.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Rebuilding Russia, trans. Alexis Klimoff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 22.
Loory and Imse, 61.
Ibid, 37, 41.
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