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READ: Collapse of the Soviet Union

From a literal wall in Berlin to the figurative “iron curtain” its territories created, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union is a dramatic story of the barriers we build and unbuild with ideological tools.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

By Jeff Spoden
From a literal wall in Berlin to the figurative “iron curtain” its territories created, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union is a dramatic story of the barriers we build and unbuild with ideological tools.


The world saw dramatic political changes in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of history’s most iconic images is the 1989 dismantling of the infamous wall that had divided Germany since 1961. East Germany and West Germany reunified as one country. The wall’s destruction came to symbolize the abandonment of communism in East Germany as well as the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself. How did this come about? Was socialism inherently flawed? Had a power-hungry communist bureaucracy disregarded its own people? Were people in eastern Europe fed up with being dominated by the USSR?
All of the above, and more! But this essay will focus on the fall of the Soviet Union as part of the global movement against empire. It was a time when people the world over demanded freedom and an end to domination by outside nations.
On November 9, 1989, East Germany announced that citizens could cross into West Germany. The wall immediately began to be torn down. By Lear 21 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Empire or union?

Did the Soviet Union have an empire? If we accept a basic view of an empire as a group of peoples or countries controlled by a larger, more powerful country, then it certainly was. For centuries, Russia had been gaining control of its surrounding territories. However, in 1922, shortly after the Bolshevik revolution, those territories became part of the Soviet Union. By conquering its neighbors, the Soviet empire was unlike other European empires. The British empire, for example, consisted of countries all over the world. India, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, Yemen, Indonesia, Pakistan, Hong Kong, and many other countries were colonized and controlled by England. But while these nations were part of the British empire, they were not part of England itself—like a big house that had a lot of extra smaller houses scattered around the property. The Soviet Union just kept building on to the main house, incorporating its territories right into the country! Kazakh, Uzbek, Armenia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldavia, Belarus, Turkmen, Tajik, and Azerbaijan became republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. So did Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, known as the Baltic states because of their position along the Baltic Sea. In essence, Russia expanded and maintained its empire by incorporating the various pieces into the new country—the USSR. Geographically, this made the empire easier to control, but it also sowed the seeds of the country’s eventual collapse. The republics had different languages, cultures, and histories. Soviet leaders tried to force all of these different peoples to adopt a unified, “Soviet” identification, but they also knew that they couldn’t wipe out cultures that had existed for thousands of years. They allowed people to hold on to their ethnic identities, and they gave the republics a degree of autonomy (just as states within the US have separate governments and rights to make some of their own laws).
This map shows the territories that became part of the Soviet Union. Many of them entered the union when it was created in 1922. Public domain.

An informal empire?

Some suggest—and others disagree—that the Soviet Union had an informal empire. The eastern European nations that did not become part of the USSR became known as Soviet “satellites”. These were Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and East Germany. The USSR used them as a buffer between itself and Europe, since about 30 million people had died in invasions by European powers in recent decades. That buffer was part of what Winston Churchill would call the “iron curtain” symbolizing the western attitude toward Soviet expansionism. To Soviet leaders it was a defensive wall separating them from hostile western powers. So the governments of these “buffer” countries were thoroughly controlled by the USSR, who made it clear that any hint of rebellion would be crushed immediately. Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to violently put down movements toward autonomy [independence] for those countries. In the United States, popular opinion accused the USSR of attempting to expand its empire by supporting socialist and/or communist movements around the world. This is debatable, for while the Soviets did lend support to leftist movements in Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and other countries during the 1970s and 1980s, it’s not clear whether they wanted to control these nations, or just help them survive. After all, fledgling (new) socialist governments faced relentless attacks by the United States and its European allies.

Internal empire?

This brings up an interesting contradiction. Here was the USSR, supporting movements of national liberation and revolutions against tyranny around the world. At the same time they had no problem ruling their own people with an iron fist. Economist Richard Wolff claims that this was because an understandable paranoia gripped Soviet leaders. Fearing destruction at the hands of hostile enemies, it sought to stamp out all opposition to its socialist path. Dissidents—meaning individuals opposed to state policy—were imprisoned, exiled to Siberian work camps, or killed. Land that had been given to peasants after the revolution was taken back. The idea of freedom for women that had been embraced in 1920 was abandoned. Early attempts to respect and work with the many ethnic minorities in the nation were also cast aside. And perhaps most telling, given the foundational Marxian idea that workers should control factories and economic decisions, worker committees set up in the 1920s were abolished. Decisions were made by increasingly powerful bureaucrats and “central committee” members. They spoke the language of revolution, but acted like cogs in an ever more dictatorial machine.

From repression to liberation?

Resistance to Soviet power beneath the surface of society was probably pretty common, but it only appeared dramatically in an occasional way before the 1980s. After the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, people in several eastern European states tried to pull away from the Warsaw Pact. This was most dramatic in Hungary, where the government announced the country would allow additional political parties outside of the communist party and would be withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact in 1956. Despite widespread popular support, this rebellion was quickly crushed by Soviet troops. Czechoslovakia tried to go its own way in 1968. The government of Alexander Dubček introduced reforms aimed at creating a democratic government. But they, too, were ousted by armed force and more obedient leaders were put in place. It seemed the Soviet Union wasn’t going to allow any country to leave its sphere of influence, a policy known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine”.
Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991. He was responsible for initiating reforms that would ultimately lead to the country’s dissolution. © Getty Images.
However, things started to change when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the country in 1985. He knew his nation had big problems—economic stagnation, lack of individual freedoms for its people, massive expenditures to keep up with continued US nuclear proliferation, and further massive expenses to maintain its hold on eastern Europe. So Gorbachev put forth a two- pronged approach to changing the Soviet system: *glasnost *and perestroika. Glasnost can translate to “openness” or “publicity”, and it simply meant opening the Soviet system up to greater discussion, freedom of the press, permission of criticism, and government transparency. Perestroika means “restructuring”, which is what Gorbachev wanted for the Soviet economy and political system. These two programs brought major changes. Many companies were now allowed to decide what to produce and how much to produce, and some farmers were given the same freedom. Co-ops were formed, basically as privately owned entities. Companies were allowed to engage in foreign trade without permission. Workers were able to push for greater protections and rights. Newspapers could publish what they wanted, and citizens—hungry for information they’d long been denied—lined up for blocks to read the commentaries of writers who would have been jailed just a few years before. The first democratic elections since 1917 were held. The Soviet military would withdraw troops from eastern Europe, finally loosening its grip on Warsaw Pact countries. This loosening was what millions of people had been waiting for, and for the next six years they let loose like never before.
Many say Gorbachev thought he was saving the Soviet Union with a few minor reforms, and that he never imagined these reforms would get out of hand. But out of hand is exactly where they got! After decades of brutal repression, people finally got the right to criticize and protest, and they held back nothing.
As the Soviet system was unravelling within and without, Gorbachev could have taken a hard line and used his powerful military to crush both internal and external rebellion. He chose not to. In fact, Leon Aron of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote that it was actually the morality of Gorbachev and his closest allies that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Aron states:
On August 23, Crowd of demonstrators protesting Article 6 legislating dominance of Communist Party. © Getty Images.
Of course Mikhail Gorbachev deserves credit for moving his country toward democracy, but we can’t forget that the Soviet Union’s collapse also related to a more global movement for national liberation. What started with independence movements of Latin American countries in the 1920s and continued with African and Asian nations in the 1950s to the 1970s, finally worked its way to the surprising spasm of freedom in the Soviet sphere. Hopefully, this “arc toward justice,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, will continue with developing countries throwing off their economic shackles as they did their political ones.
Author bio
Jeff Spoden is a retired social studies teacher, having been in the classroom for 33 years. He taught US history, world history, sociology, international relations, and history of American popular music.

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