Fall of the USSR: Four reasons the Soviet Union collapsed

Ussr flag of silk-3D illustration
The Soviet flag | Image: Patrice6000/Shutterstock

For much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world: a vast and seemingly permanent superpower locked in a Cold War with the West. But in 1991, it simply ceased to exist, pushing the world into an entirely new geopolitical reality.

But how did such a swift collapse happen? Events of this magnitude can’t be explained away in simple terms, and historians have offered multiple, differing interpretations of the events that led to the end of the Soviet Empire. That said, certain factors clearly played a part in what unfolded in 1991.

1. Gorbachev’s reforms

Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985 after his two immediate predecessors died in quick succession. Relatively young by comparison (he was the first leader to have been born after the Russian Revolution), Gorbachev was quite literally a fresh-faced reformer.

Determined to re-energise the Soviet economy after years of stagnation, he initiated a policy known as ‘perestroika’. This plan sought to loosen the previously tight restrictions on how enterprises ran and give more independence to workers’ collectives.

He also ushered in ‘glasnost’, a period of unprecedented cultural openness and freedom of speech. For the first time, citizens felt able to criticise the Soviet system, while some prominent dissidents were released from prison. It was all a far cry from the days of cover-ups, secret arrests, and the ruthless stifling of dissent.

These policies marked a major ideological shift. Just as crucially, the weakening of the Communist Party’s control over the Soviet Union would have international consequences, paving the way for the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc (the socialist states under Moscow’s influence).

2. The Sinatra Doctrine

Prior to Gorbachev, the Soviet Union adhered to the Brezhnev Doctrine. Named after former leader Leonid Brezhnev, this was a pledge to aggressively intervene if socialist/communist rule in any state was under threat. A notorious example of such an intervention was the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and its allies in 1968, which crushed liberal reforms that had taken place.

The Soviet Union’s iron grip on the Eastern Bloc was radically relaxed under Gorbachev. His ‘perestroika’ reforms emboldened socialist states to determine their own affairs, and, in 1989, Gorbachev explicitly declared that Moscow would not “restrict the sovereignty of states”. That same year, communist rule came to an end in key Eastern Bloc states like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, while the fall of the Berlin Wall paved the way for the reunification of Germany.

The Soviet Union’s foreign policy during this pivotal era was given an irreverent nickname by the country’s foreign minister, who said in an interview: “We now have the Frank Sinatra doctrine. He has a song, 'I Did It My Way'. So every country decides on its own which road to take.” The fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe heralded the imminent fall of the Soviet Union itself.

3. The Soviet-Afghan War

Throughout its final decade in existence, the Soviet Union was embroiled in a military mess in Afghanistan. The conflict had its roots in a Marxist-Leninist revolution that had taken place there in 1978. The new communist regime in Afghanistan ruthlessly cracked down on its political enemies, and its repressive policies triggered resistance from Islamic guerrilla fighters known as the ‘Mujahideen’.

The violent insurgency, along with bloody in-fighting between the ruling communists, led the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan and prop up a Soviet-aligned leader. The Mujahideen kept up their guerrilla campaign against the Soviet forces for years, supported by the United States and attracting volunteer fighters from other countries (among these recruits was a wealthy young man from Saudi Arabia named Osama bin Laden).

The ugly conflict has often been described as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. It finally ended with the USSR’s withdrawal in the momentous year of 1989, after the deaths of around 15,000 Soviet troops. Some historians believe the quagmire played a significant role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, while others downplay its importance. Either way, there’s no doubting it seriously dented Soviet prestige during a critical period of internal instability.

4. Chernobyl

The Chernobyl disaster is remembered as the worst nuclear accident in history, causing numerous fatalities and turning the nearby community of Pripyat into an eerie ghost city. But its historical significance is perhaps greater than most people realise. Mikhail Gorbachev himself is on record as saying: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Occurring in 1986, the Chernobyl meltdown came just weeks after Gorbachev had called for the spread of ‘glasnost’ at a major party conference. According to some historians (and Gorbachev), the disaster turned out to be a key catalyst for ‘glasnost’, exacerbating widespread anger and cynicism towards the Soviet state.

In Gorbachev’s words: “The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, to the point that the system as we knew it became untenable.”