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The Main Reasons for the Collapse of the USSR in 1991

Updated on July 16, 2018
aaronmitch profile image

Aaron has studied A-level History and has a passion for modern history with regards to Wars, Russia, China, Europe and the USA.

Gorbachev's Actions

Gorbachev became General secretary and leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was seen as a young prospect who could save the USSR's economic and social issues it was suffering from for the last few decades. Contrarily, Gorbachev's decisions were to see a quick and immediate downfall of the USSR.

Glasnost and Perestroika:

Gorbachev initiated two policies which were supposed to transform the USSR into a more open democratic union with a revitalised economy.

Both of these policies had extremely negative effects on the existence of the Soviet Union.

Glasnost which translates to openness meant less censorship and less bureaucracy; this meant that people could openly criticise the government of the USSR and lead to another cause of its collapse which was the uprisings of the soviet republics.

Perestroika which translates to restructuring was implemented in order to restructure the economy which had been stagnant for at least 2 decades previously. Although restructuring did occur, it made the economy worse as the initiatives brought in place were not well thought-out and did not reflect the benefits of having a large population in a communist regime.

The Economy

It is very probable that the economy of the USSR was inevitably going to cause its collapse without any intervention from Gorbachev, however his impact definitely quickened the process.

Long term:

At the founding of the USSR in 1917, there was a rapid growth of its economy as the union was so underdeveloped that it could use advanced Western technology and plans to rapidly industrialise and therefore exponentially expand its economy.

However, once the USSR had caught up with the West, it failed to implement plans to incentivise production and could no longer imitate the economic plans of other countries.

The reasons for the why the economy of the USSR was bound to fail was because it was a command economy which was largely inefficient as it didn't allow regions to adapt nor did it allow other economists to make better suggestions. Furthermore, as the USSR borrowed technology and resources from other countries during its rapid industrialisation stage, this meant that domestic business and technology wasn't allowed to thrive and was still too far behind.


Gorbachev's economic reforms which were part of the policy of perestroika meant the stagnated economy from before carried on and even worsened. Reforms such as the Law on State Enterprises and Law on Cooperatives meant productivity was at an all-time low and the sudden reforms meant private businesses were inexperienced at making their own decisions and became even more inefficient.

By 1990 the government had lost control over the economy. Government spending increased greatly as unprofitable enterprises became more common and required state support and consumer price subsidies continued. Tax revenues declined because revenues from the sales of vodka plummeted during the anti-alcohol campaign (which was meant to decrease alcoholism and increase productivity but just created a black market) and because republic and local governments withheld tax revenues from the central government under the growing spirit of regional autonomy.

Rise of Nationalism

The Soviet Union was made up of 15 separate republics; therefore nationalism was inevitably going to be an issue for the USSR.

Thanks to Gorbachev's reluctance to use military force and his policy of openness, many revolts began to happen in the soviet republics as they wanted to have independence from the union.

By the time Gorbachev used military force it was already too late and many countries such as Latvia and Estonia had already gained too much control and declared independence. Other republics followed suit and this was a significant short-term cause of the collapse of the USSR. As of course without the union of republics, the Soviet Union could no longer exist.

Not only did Nationalism occur in the republic states, but it also occurred in Russia; particularly due to the rising popularity of Yeltsin, who later became the president of Russia.

The two factors that undermined cohesion and unity within the USSR were:

  • The Bolshevik policy of creating and reinforcing ethnic and nationalistic identities, if only inadvertently. This policy undercut official claims about proletarian unity and the irresistible triumph of a supranational Soviet identity.
  • Soviet policies of unequal treatment and repression of various nationalities. These policies contravened the official notion that all nationalities were “equal” and would “blossom” under Communist rule.

© 2018 Aaron


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    • aaronmitch profile imageAUTHOR


      23 months ago from England

      Thanks for the comment and follow! I have a great interest in Russian history so I will be writing more articles on the subject.

    • profile image

      Robert Gove 

      23 months ago

      i would love to see more articles about Russian history and the soviet union


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