To what extent was the breakdown of the Soviet Union by 1991 due to economic causes?
The breakdown of the Soviet Union by 1991 was to some extent due to economic causes. The arms race placed serious economic pressure on Russia, as they could not compete with the economically superior USA, leading to poverty and discontent throughout the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s policy of Perestroika saw economic reform throughout the USSR, giving the Soviet people more economic freedom resulting in economic hardship throughout Russia, accelerating the Russian people’s want for change. However, social causes also contributed to the breakdown of the Soviet Union and must be considered. Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost saw social reform throughout the USSR, ushering in a want for change amongst Russians. Social revolutions against communist governments in Eastern Europe further pressured the economically struggling USSR.
The arms race saw the USA and Russia spending large quantities of money on armaments. The economically strong USA could sustainably continue for the foreseeable future, however the economically weaker Soviet Union could not compete, placing considerable economic pressure on the Soviet Union. Therefor agreements to limit future armament production would be very beneficial to the Soviet Union. The USA used this as leverage throughout the various disarmament conferences throughout the late 1980s. This made the USA relatively stronger. Gorbachev and Reagan failed to come to an agreement because Reagan refused to compromise on his “Strategic Defense Initiative”. This disagreement placed even more economic pressure on Russia, leading Gorbachev to reform the Soviet economy through Perestroika.
The economic reform policies of Perestroika exacerbated the break down of the Soviet Union as it leads to discontent towards the government. Perestroika refers to the reconstruction of the political and economic system established by the Communist Party. Economically, Perestroika called for de-monopolization and some semi-private businesses to function, ending the price controls established by the government. Such an economy took time to thrive, and people found themselves stuck in a worn-out economy, which led to long-lines, strikes, and civil unrest. This was the first instance of citizens openly rallying against the government post Stalin, which eliminated the façade of unity and strength that Russia portrayed, leading to the Soviet republics and states perceiving it as weaker than previously thought. This perceived weakness, not only by the surrounding countries but also by the citizens themselves, lead to a situation wherein people expected and even rallied for change, and therefore paved the ground for the breakdown of the Soviet Union.
However, there were other factors that allowed the rapid break down of the Soviet Union that weren’t economic. One important dynamic was Glasnost, a policy that instated the social and political reforms to bestow more rights and freedoms upon the Soviet people. Its goals were to include more people in the political process through freedom of expression. This led to a decreased censoring of the media, which in effect allowed writers and journalists to expose news of government corruption and the depressed condition of the Soviet people. However, totalitarian state present since 1917 was difficult to dismantle, and when it fell apart, citizens were not accustomed to the lack of regulation and command. The outburst of information about escalating crime and crimes by the government caused panic in the people. This caused an increase in social protests, which yet again was a catalyst for change. This want for change spread to the Soviet influenced Eastern Europe.
The collapse of Eastern European regimes in 1989 played a key role in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. The emergence of a new nationalism in many of the Soviet Union’s European satellites saw political and economical dissatisfaction. This resulted in Poland legalizing solidarity in January and for elections to be held in June. Hungary carried out Gorbachev style policies, opening its borders and adopting multi-party elections. East Germany saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, seeing the beginning of new relations with West Germany under the new Egon Krenz government. This stimulated widespread protests in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria for reform, seeing the resignation of the communist government and a multi-party system established in both countries. Only Romania saw violent revolution, however resulted in the execution of communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. The lack of soviet intervention in Eastern Europe was a result of Gorbachev’s belief in democracy. This collapse of the communist bloc was a clear indication of the decline of the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence and strength. The Eastern European states were heavily indebted to the Soviet Union. The dissolution of their communist governments placed further economic pressure on the Soviet Union.
To conclude, the breakdown of the Soviet Union was due to economic causes however social changes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union via Glasnost must not be overlooked. Although the Soviet Union felt strong economic pressures from the USA, the social pressures from a globalizing society and a new Russian youth culture also aided in dissolving the Soviet Union.