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The Collapse of Communism: A Historian‘s Perspective on the Key Causes


The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a watershed moment in modern history. The once-mighty Soviet Union, which had dominated the region for decades and posed a formidable challenge to the capitalist West during the Cold War, disintegrated almost overnight. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union itself marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new, post-communist world order.

As historians, we seek to understand the complex interplay of factors that led to this momentous change. In this article, we will explore the key causes of the collapse of communism, drawing on a range of primary and secondary sources to provide a comprehensive and nuanced analysis.

The Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism

To understand the collapse of communism, we must first consider its rise and consolidation in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, to power, and they soon established the world‘s first socialist state. Under Lenin‘s successor, Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union underwent rapid industrialization and collectivization, transforming from a largely agrarian society into a major industrial power.

However, this transformation came at a tremendous human cost, with millions perishing in famines, purges, and the Gulag labor camps. After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as a superpower, extending its influence over much of Eastern Europe through the establishment of communist satellite states. The Cold War, which pitted the Soviet Union against the United States and its allies, shaped the global political landscape for decades.

The Cracks in the System: Economic Stagnation and Inefficiency

One of the primary factors that contributed to the collapse of communism was the inherent flaws in the Soviet economic system. The centrally-planned economy, in which the state controlled all aspects of production and distribution, proved to be highly inefficient and prone to shortages and waste. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was lagging far behind the West in terms of economic development and living standards.

According to official Soviet statistics, the annual growth rate of the Soviet economy had slowed from an average of 5.7% in the 1960s to just 2.6% in the 1980s (Hanson, 2003, p. 98). The economy was plagued by outdated technology, poor quality control, and a lack of innovation. The prioritization of heavy industry and military spending over consumer goods led to chronic shortages of basic necessities, such as food and housing.

The Soviet Union‘s dependence on oil exports also made it vulnerable to fluctuations in global energy prices. The sharp drop in oil prices in 1986 dealt a severe blow to the Soviet economy, depriving it of much-needed hard currency revenues. As the economist Marshall Goldman noted, "The Soviet Union had become a superpower on the basis of its oil revenues, and when those revenues declined, so did its status as a superpower" (Goldman, 1991, p. 189).

Gorbachev‘s Gamble: Glasnost and Perestroika

When Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, he recognized the need for fundamental reform. He introduced two key policies: glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Glasnost aimed to increase transparency, allowing for greater freedom of speech and press, while perestroika sought to modernize the Soviet economy and introduce elements of a market system.

However, these reforms had unintended consequences that ultimately undermined the Communist system. Glasnost opened the floodgates of criticism, exposing the corruption, inefficiency, and human rights abuses of the Soviet regime. As the historian Archie Brown observed, "Gorbachev‘s glasnost unleashed forces that he could not control and that eventually destroyed the Soviet system" (Brown, 1996, p. 317).

Perestroika, meanwhile, faced resistance from entrenched party bureaucrats who saw their power and privileges threatened by the proposed changes. The partial introduction of market mechanisms, such as cooperatives and self-financing for enterprises, led to confusion and economic disruption, as the old command economy broke down before a new system could take its place.

The Revolutions of 1989: The Failure of Communism in Eastern Europe

The cracks in the Soviet system were not limited to the Soviet Union itself. In the late 1980s, a series of popular revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, toppling one communist government after another. The most dramatic of these was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, which symbolized the end of the Iron Curtain dividing Europe.

The revolutions in Eastern Europe were driven by a combination of economic discontent, nationalist aspirations, and a desire for greater political freedom. In Poland, the Solidarity trade union, led by Lech Wałęsa, had been challenging the communist government since the early 1980s. In August 1989, Solidarity won a landslide victory in partially free elections, becoming the first non-communist government in the Eastern Bloc.

Similar developments followed in Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and other countries. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote, "In 1989, in the space of a few short months, the seemingly impregnable fortress of communism in Eastern Europe collapsed like a house of cards" (Garton Ash, 1990, p. 3).

The Soviet leadership, under Gorbachev, was unable or unwilling to intervene militarily to prop up the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, as it had done in the past. The Brezhnev Doctrine, which had justified Soviet intervention in the name of defending socialism, was effectively abandoned. This marked a significant shift in Soviet foreign policy and a recognition of the limits of Soviet power.

The Afghan Quagmire: The Costs of Empire

The Soviet Union‘s decade-long war in Afghanistan, which began in 1979, also played a crucial role in the collapse of communism. The Soviet invasion, aimed at propping up the communist government in Kabul, quickly turned into a costly and unpopular quagmire, often compared to the United States‘ experience in Vietnam.

The war claimed the lives of an estimated 15,000 Soviet soldiers and left many more wounded or traumatized (Kalinovsky, 2011, p. 1). It also drained the Soviet economy, with the total cost of the war estimated at around $80 billion (Reuveny & Prakash, 1999, p. 694). The war‘s unpopularity, coupled with the new openness under glasnost, led to the growth of anti-war sentiment and public protests.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989, after years of futile fighting, was a humiliating defeat for the Soviet Union and a blow to its prestige as a superpower. It also emboldened nationalist and separatist movements within the Soviet Union itself, particularly in the Baltic states and the Caucasus.

The End of the Cold War: A New Global Landscape

The end of the Cold War, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, fundamentally altered the global balance of power. The United States emerged as the sole superpower, while the Soviet Union, weakened by internal turmoil and economic crisis, began to unravel.

The arms race that had characterized the Cold War era also came to an end, with the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in 1991. These agreements, which eliminated entire classes of nuclear weapons and reduced the overall size of the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, marked a significant de-escalation of tensions between the two superpowers.

The end of the Cold War also had far-reaching implications for the Soviet Union‘s internal politics. The external threat of the capitalist West, which had long been used to justify the Soviet system and its sacrifices, no longer seemed as pressing. This, combined with the centrifugal forces unleashed by glasnost and perestroika, contributed to the growth of nationalist and separatist movements within the Soviet Union.

Chernobyl: A Disaster for the Soviet System

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of April 1986 was another key event that contributed to the collapse of communism. The explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine released a massive amount of radioactive material into the atmosphere, contaminating a vast area and exposing millions of people to dangerous levels of radiation.

The Soviet authorities‘ initial response to the disaster was characterized by secrecy, denial, and a lack of transparency. The government downplayed the severity of the accident and delayed evacuating the local population, leading to unnecessary exposure and long-term health consequences.

The Chernobyl disaster had a profound impact on Soviet society and politics. It shattered the myth of Soviet technological superiority and exposed the flaws and vulnerabilities of the Soviet system. The disaster also galvanized the environmental movement and fueled anti-nuclear sentiment, both within the Soviet Union and internationally.

As the historian Serhii Plokhy noted, "Chernobyl was a disaster not only for the Soviet nuclear industry but also for the Soviet system as a whole. It undermined the legitimacy of the Soviet state, which had always claimed to be based on scientific and technological progress" (Plokhy, 2018, p. 343).

The August Coup: The Last Gasp of the Old Guard

The final nail in the coffin of Soviet communism came in August 1991, when a group of hardline communists launched a coup attempt against Gorbachev. The coup plotters, who included high-ranking officials from the military, the KGB, and the Communist Party, sought to reverse Gorbachev‘s reforms and reassert the dominance of the party.

However, the coup was poorly planned and executed, and it faced widespread opposition from the Soviet public and the international community. Boris Yeltsin, the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), emerged as the leader of the resistance to the coup. Yeltsin famously climbed atop a tank outside the Russian White House and rallied the crowds against the coup plotters.

The coup collapsed within a few days, but it had a profound impact on the future of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, who had been detained by the coup plotters, returned to Moscow but found his authority severely weakened. Yeltsin, meanwhile, emerged as the dominant political figure, and he moved quickly to consolidate his power and push for the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords, which declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union on December 25, and the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time.

Conclusion: Lessons and Legacies

The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a complex and multifaceted process, driven by a combination of economic, political, and social factors. The inherent flaws of the Soviet system, the unintended consequences of Gorbachev‘s reforms, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Afghan war, the end of the Cold War, the Chernobyl disaster, and the August coup all played a role in the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union.

The lessons and legacies of the collapse of communism continue to shape the world we live in today. The transition from communism to capitalism and democracy in the former Soviet bloc countries has been a difficult and uneven process, with many challenges and setbacks along the way. The economic and social dislocations caused by the collapse of the old system, combined with the difficulties of building new institutions and markets, have led to widespread poverty, inequality, and political instability in many countries.

At the same time, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union have opened up new opportunities for international cooperation and the spread of democracy and human rights. The enlargement of the European Union and NATO to include many of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe has been a significant development, as has the growth of civil society and independent media in these countries.

As historians, we have a responsibility to study and learn from the collapse of communism, not only to better understand the past but also to inform our understanding of the present and future. By examining the complex interplay of factors that led to this momentous change, we can gain valuable insights into the nature of political and economic systems, the role of leadership and reform, and the power of popular movements and public opinion.

Ultimately, the collapse of communism reminds us that no political or economic system is eternal or invincible, and that the aspirations and actions of ordinary people can have a profound impact on the course of history. As we navigate the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, we would do well to remember the lessons of this pivotal moment in world history.


Brown, A. (1996). The Gorbachev factor. Oxford University Press.

Garton Ash, T. (1990). The magic lantern: The revolution of ‘89 witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. Random House.

Goldman, M. I. (1991). What went wrong with perestroika. W.W. Norton.

Hanson, P. (2003). The rise and fall of the Soviet economy: An economic history of the USSR from 1945. Longman.

Kalinovsky, A. M. (2011). A long goodbye: The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Harvard University Press.

Plokhy, S. (2018). Chernobyl: The history of a nuclear catastrophe. Basic Books.

Reuveny, R., & Prakash, A. (1999). The Afghanistan war and the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Review of International Studies, 25(4), 693-708.