Analyze the political,social, and economic changes that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Collapse of Communism by Boris Mamecov, 1988-89, Moscow
Summary: Mamecov describes the chance to have open political discussions and real elections.
Historical Context: Previously, the Soviet Union did not have true democratic elections; leaders were chosen from the party and citizens did not have a say in who represented them in government.
The Change: moving from staged elections to democratic elections
Point of View: As a Russian court clerk, Mamecov likely had detailed knowledge of the election system before the introduction of democratic elections in 1988. His tone sounds overjoyed that now Soviet citizens will have a real voice in government.
“After Communism” by Robert Heilbroner, featured in The New Yorker, Sept. 10, 1990
Summary: Heilbroner explains that the reason for the failure of the Soviet Union is in part due to economic collapse. Simply put, central economic planning that the Soviets installed was unsustainable, leading to economic decline.
Historical Context: Early on in the Soviet Union, central government planning to increase output in agriculture and industry was rather successful. However, over time, the country could not sustain economic progress; capitalism was doing much better with increasing countries’ GDP and quality of life.
The Change: evolution from economic progress (1920s-50s) to economic failure (1970s-80s)
Point of View: As an American, Heilbroner is going to be biased against communism and point out its faults during the Cold War.
Speech by Vaclav Havel, President of Czechoslovakia, 1990
Summary: Havel criticizes Czechoslovakia’s government & economy for not improving the lives of citizens. He specifically points out issues with worker exploitation, the wasteful economy, poor education spending, environmental damage, and low life expectancy.
Historical Context: Communist nations failed to provide an adequate standard of living for citizens. Rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and unemployment skyrocketed as the economy failed, and governments did not provide for social welfare services as they had intended to in the ideal form of communism. The low standard of living caused societal unrest, where people revolted and called for change in the government, ultimately culminating in the collapse of the USSR and installment of democratic regimes.
The Change: democratically elected president; devolution from providing for social welfare services to neglecting human rights & fostering poor quality of life
Point of View: Havel was the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic after the split. As such, he would clearly be critical of the crimes communism committed against the citizens of the country and desire change to improve standards of living.
Summary: Brzezinski blames the failure of communism on its suppression of private property and neglect off creativity. He states that these things led to economic stagnation and underperformance in the economy.
Historical Context: One of the main reasons the Soviet Union collapsed was its poor economy, which led to poverty, low standards of living, and ultimately calls for radical changes in government (to capitalism/democracy). Here, Brzezinski suggests the reason for communism’s failure to maintain economic progress was that it did not allow people to be creative, innovate, or inspire competition to be better, as all people were to do as they were told by the government and remain equal, not competitive. He also suggests that the suppression of private property – as everything was owned by the state in communism – resulted in economic stagnation.
The Change: went from economic progress (1920s-50s) to economic stagnation/failure (1970s-80s)
Point of View: As an American politician during the Cold War, Brzezinski would definitely be biased against communism and seek to point out its failures.
“Millions Vote for Perestroika – A Vote of Confidence for the Policy of Regenerating Soviet Society.” Pravda, March 27. 1989
Summary: This headline describes the Soviet people’s support for Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika.
Historical Context: Mikhail Gorbachev, who became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, recognized the problems of the communist state and decided to install radical reforms to try to maintain the USSR. His policy of perestroika translates to “restructuring” particularly of the Soviet political & economic system. Essentially, the USSR would permit elements of capitalism (private ownership, competition, etc.) to promote economic growth. The problem, however, was that people ran with this idea & called for more and more democratic/capitalist style reforms, ultimately resulting in the collapse of communist states in the Eastern Bloc, which called for independence from the USSR, and installed their own democratic regimes.
Point of View: Based on the positive tone in the headline, it is clear that the author supported perestroika as well.
Speech from the Socialist Idea and Revolutionary Perestroika by Mikhail Gorbachev, late 1980s
Summary: Gorbachev asserts that although the government will be ‘restructured’ under perestroika, they will maintain the one-party system. However, through ‘glasnost’ (openness), the Communist Party will promote the development of opinions of the people & install elements of democracy into the political system, like voting and fair, competitive elections. The party will not, however, move totally away from socialism.
Historical Context: Gorbachev responded to the poor condition of living and societal unrest in the Soviet Union with two reforms: perestroika (see Doc. 5) and glasnost, meaning “openness.” Glasnost would increase transparency in the government and permit elements of democracy in the government, which was popular with the Soviet people. The problem was, like with perestroika, that the people in the USSR wanted more than just Gorbachev’s reforms & elected democratic leaders in the satellite nations, who then called for independence from the USSR, and led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The change: allowing some democracy, like open elections & political discussion, in a previously very communist state
Point of View: Gorbachev wanted to address and fix the problems of the Soviet Union in politics & the economy, so he installed glasnost and perestroika; however, he did not want to be seen as an opponent to socialism and be removed from power, so he maintained that the USSR would remain socialist and under one-party control in his speech.
The Declaration of the Commonwealth of Independent States, 1991
Summary: This document is like a constitution of the CIS, outlining the main principles of the organization. Essentially, all members of the CIS will retain autonomy, resolve disputes peacefully, respect human rights, and be treated as equals.
Historical Context: After the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIS was formed with the Russian Federation as its main leader. To attract allies, Russia stressed that in this new organization, all members would be treated fairly, unlike the conditions present when they were satellites of the USSR. Many states joined the CIS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; they worked together to foster cooperation & trade, but were not dominated by Russia politically anymore.
The Change: Oppressive Soviet rule of satellite nations replaced by a community (the CIS) with fair, equal treatment and respect for all members to foster progress, rather than to foster Soviet domination
Point of View: Nations in the CIS wanted to ensure they secured autonomy/sovereignty and promote progress in the social and economic sphere, so they installed those concepts in the Declaration of the CIS.
Newsweek Political Cartoon, June 13, 1988
Summary: The cartoon depicts a tour of the Soviet Union, led by Gorbachev. Gorbachev is yelling at Ronald Reagan to “Stay with the group!” as he opens a closet door and discovers human rights abuses.
Historical Context: In the 1980s, human rights abuses in the Soviet Union were being uncovered by leaders in the West, like Ronald Reagan of the United States. The Soviets obviously tried to cover up those abuses, depicted here as hiding them in a closet. Some particular concerns of the West were the Soviets’ repression of the people, lack of fair elections, restrictions on freedom of speech, use of secret police, suppression of ethnic minority groups, etc.
The Change: increased knowledge/awareness of human rights abuses by the Soviet Union; pressures by Western nations now on Soviet leaders to address the problems
Point of View: The artist who drew the cartoon is criticizing the Soviet Union for covering up its human rights abuses. Newsweek is an American magazine, so the artist was likely American as well and would therefore be skeptical of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.