The Fall of the Soviet Union



Two leaders are associated with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Historian Archie Brown points out what he calls:

the 'Gorbachev factor'


the 'Yeltsin factor'.

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The Gorbachev Factor

he proposed economic and political reforms:

  • to revitilise Soviet Communism and the Soviet Union
  • he failed in both of these ambitions
  • he played an important (early) role in realising reform was necessary
  • by the early 1980's, he realised that reform wasn't enough and that the system had to be transformed
  • his reforms in the transformation of the Soviet Union undermined the system he was trying to save

Gorbachev's reforms, political and economic failures, and failure to predict the outcomes of his policies all played a role in the destruction of the Soviet Union

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"a series of economic and political reforms that led to the transformation of the Soviet Union."

The three phases of perestroika weakened the Soviet Union:


  • led to decline in economic growth making economic conditions worse
  • this undermined faith in the Party


  • Glasnost exposed the crimes of previous Soviet Governments which undermined faith in not only the Communist party, but also the ideology that it was based on
  • Democratisation: allowed other candidates to stand, weaking Gorbachev's control of the Party


  • Gorbachev abandoned the essential features of Soviet Communism
  • his reforms further weakened the Soviet Union and allowed rival powerbases to emerge 
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Gorbachev's reforms = Soviet Union break up

Gorbachev's reforms were an important cause of the break-up of the Soviet Union:

  • in 1985, extensive reform was not necessary. The Soviet Union was experiencing a decline, not a crisis
  • between 1979 and 1982, Andropov had successfully eliminated the dissident movement
  • his reforms created the crisis that led to more reforms and ultimately the break-up of the Soviet Union
  • as time went on, Gorbachev was perpared to embrace more radical reforms
  • by 1990, he was prepared to abandon the essential features of Soviet Communsim - the very features that were holding the Soviet Union together

Gorbachev played an important role in the fall of the Soviet Union because he introduced reform even though he was not under immediate pressure to do so.

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"New Thinking"

one of Gorbachev's crucial achievements that underpined his political reforms was introducing 'new thinking'. This was a new language of politics that helped erode the Soviet Union.

  • Glasnost - literally 'openness'. It became associated with freedom of speech.
  • Perestroika - meaning 'reconstruction'. Initially it meant economic reform, but gained a new meaning and by the end of the 1980's it implied economic and political reform.
  • Uskorenie - 'acceleration'. A slogan and policy aimed at the acceleration of social and economic development of the Soviet Union.
  • Demokratizatsiya - 'democratisation'. changed it's meaning from 1985 to 1991 to indicate that significant aspects of the government should be elected.

Gorbachev's willingness to embrace new ideas allowed radicals in the Party, intellectuals and members of the public to advocate radical alternatives to communism:

  • freedom of speech
  • free market economics
  • democratic elections
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Gorbachev also played and inportant role in reorienting Soviet politics towards more Western values.He wanted the Soviet Union to abandon isolation and re-enter 'our common European home' and he believed that European standards could make the Soviet Union more humane.

  • he embraced the importance of human rights
  • travel restrictions were eased for all Soviet citizens
  • he stopped jamming Western radio transmissions
  • in March 1990, he removed Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution, leaglising other parties (this meant the Communist Party lost its right to a leading role in Soviet society)
  • he renounced violence as a method for holding together the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc

This commitment to Western values played a significant role in the fall of the Soviet Union, it weakened the power of the Party, which held the Union together since its creation.

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Gorbachev's Mistakes

Gorbachev's fundamental miscalculation was to believe that reform could save the Soviet Union:

  • the reforms ultimately created a crisis that the Soviet Union could not recover from

He failed to anticipate the effects of glasnost:

  • the extent to which revelations about the past would undermine the claims of the Communist Party

Gorbachev also made policy mistakes that undermined his position and failed to win over the Communist Party, the only institution that was strong enough to introduce reform.

Gorbachevs mistakes undermined the authority of the Communist Party and his own position, weakening the Soviet Union.

The failure of his political and economic policies led to a rapid decline in his authority, he no longer had the power to hold the Union together.

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Gorbachev's reforms led to economic chaos and a decline in the faith of the Communist Party.

His mistakes and inability to see the consequences of his policies undermined his position.

Perhaps he could have saved the Union if, like Chinese leaders, he had focused on the economy instead of trying to reform:

  • the political system
  • the economy
  • the relationship between republics and foreign relations

all at the same time.

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The Yeltsin Factor

he was consistently more radical than Gorbachev:

  • by 1990 he was more popular
  • and by 1991, he was more powerful
  • he encouraged nationalism, and took steps to strengthen the Nations that made up the Soviet Union, at the expense of the Union

Yeltsin played a key role in defeating the coup with a counter-coup against the Communist Party.

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Popular Radical

Yeltsin played an important role as a popular radical in a period in which Gorbachev was becoming increasingly unpopular and conservative.

  • he called for multi-candidate elections to all posts of the party
  • he publically attacked communists who opposed reforms in 1987
  • by doing this he exposed the factionalism that existed in the Party, damaging the Party's reputation for unity
  • as a result he was sacked as leader of the Moscow Communist Party

Yeltsin's attacks on the leadership made him popular with many Soviet people between 1986 and 1988.

Yeltsin was important because he was the leading opponent of Gorbachev.

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Yeltsin in 1990

Yeltsin was becomming more important throughout 1990.

1990 was a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union. It was the year Gorbachev lost control of the reform agenda and was forced to react to popular protests calling for a radical change.

Yeltsin publically resigned from the Communist Party in July 1990.

  • his resignation was highly dramatic and weakened support for the Party
  • party membership in 1990 dropped from 19.2 million to 16.5 million
  • party popularity also dropped to 18.8 per cent

During 1990, Yeltsin became increasingly popular: Gorbachev's policies seemed unsuccessful and confused.

By June, Yeltsin was more popular than Gorbachev among Russian voters; the Russian people viewed Yeltsin as one of them, whereas Gorbachev was distanat and had no idea of the problems facing the country, or how to solve them.

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Yeltsin and Nationalism

Yeltsin encouraged the establisment of independence from the Soviet Union of non-Russian republics.

  • he embraced nationalism, in a way, to outmanoeuvre Gorbachev; through emphasising Russia's rights he was able to weaken Gorbachev's power base - the Soviet Union.
  • in an attempt to consolidate his own power base, Yeltsin was elected Russian President in June 1991. Significance? He was given the right to speak on behalf of Russia.
  • Gorbachev was forced to accept a secondary role in Russia and renegotiate the realtionship between republics.

Yeltsin also supported the support the growth of nationalism in other Soviet republics. In 1991,he supported the Baltic states' with the declarations of independece from the Soviet Union.

  • Gorbachev criticised Yeltsin for his encouragement that would threaten the survival of the Soviet Union.
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Yeltsin: New Elite

Some Historians argue that the Soviet Union break up was the result of conflicts within the Communist Party and not between the Communist Party and democrats.

Yeltsin was important because (from this perspective) he represented and worked for the interests of the middle-ranking Communist Officials, against high-ranking officials interests.

Gorbachev's Party was never a unified group, according to this interpretation, rather a party with divisions between senior and lower levels.

  • Senior officers : wanted to preserve Soviet Union
  • Lower-ranking officials : viewed G's reforms as an opportunity to improve their positions

From the mid 1980's onwards, Yeltsin had been a champion of lower-ranking Party officials. The reason for him being sacked as Moscow Party Leader (in 1987) was because he wanted to get rid of established party officials and replace them with younger Party members.

Yeltsin could contribute to the fall of the USSR because he had support from a 'counter-elite' - a new elite that had emerged at the expense of the old Soviet elite after Yeltsin's rise to power.

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The Coup and Counter-Coup

Yeltsin's handling of the Coup also played a significant role in the Soviet Union's destruction.

The Coup transformed Yeltsin's strategy:

  • he had originally been trying to gain Russian independence from the Soviet Union(through fighting small battles over the rights of the Union).
  • Yeltsin was prepared for a drawn-out battle with Gorbachev that might have lasted several long years throughout 1991.
  • Where Gorbachev didn't realise the importance of the coup, assuming he could countinue as he was once it had failed, Yeltsin had understood that the coup had resulted in a radical shift in Soviet politics.

His strategy for dealing with the coup was very successful; he publicly denounced it as unconstitutional. Whilst demanding Gorbachev's return as president, he encouraged popular risings agaisnt the Communist Party. His plan, in a sense, was to organise a counter-coup.

Yeltsin moved slowly to consolidate his position, instead choosing to go on holiday after the coup to consider his options than jumping immediately into any actions he might later regret.

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Yeltsin and the Union

Yeltsin was very important in the demise of the Soviet Union because he could have saved it and chose not to. He was more popular than ever, and could have tried to revive the Union but instead, he supported the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)

  • The choice to abandon the Union was a political descision in part, because it was a way to defeat Gorbachev. It was also what Yeltsin believed was best for Russia.

Russia was more developed than a majority of the Union, and through not having to support other republics, economic reconstruction would be easier and accomplished at a faster rate. He chose agaisnt saving the Union and to build Russia instead.

It was only in December 1991 when Yeltsin reached this decision, after Ukraine's vote to leave the Union in a referendum. Yeltsin organised a secret meeting with the leaders of Belorussia and Ukraine after the referendum where they all agreed to put their weight behind CIS, destroying Gorbachev's new Union treaty plans.

After the meeting, he persuaded the leaders of the Soviet military to form the new Russian army and abandon the Soviet Union.

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Between 1985 and 1991, a revolutionary transformation took place.

  • in 1985, the Soviet Union was a mighty superpower, rival to the USA
  • by 1991, freedom of speech had been established and single-party rule abolished, developments of which were unthinkable in 1985

Gorbachev was important because he began the reform which turned into a transformation, and finally the dissolution of the Soviet system.

From 1989, Yeltsin played a significant role stimulating the growth of nationalism in Russia and other republics; attacking the Communist Party; and establishing a rival agreement which would destroy Gorbachev's hopes of being able to create a reformed Union.

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