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The causes and reasons for the decline and ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union are many and of a vastly varying nature. Yet, despite the various schools of thought on this issue, these causes can generally be placed into two differing scopes, those being the domestic and international arenas. Much emphasis is placed on the role that international factors played in the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But particular domestic factors that the Soviet Empire was faced with during its relatively brief historical existence, were possibly the most damaging elements when speaking in relation to the long-term endurance of the USSR. There is no doubt what so ever that international factors – such as the Cold War, or the US Government?s policy of ?containment? ? played a role in the dissolution of the USSR. But at the same time the Soviet Union faced huge domestic problems such as a rapidly failing economy and a one party political system that was not very adaptable to the political and social conditions that the country existed in. These elements, which placed a huge amount of internal pressure on the Soviet system, combined with these international factors and created a mixture of external and internal pressure that ultimately saw the USSR collapse under it?s own weight. In attempting to identify the main reasons behind the collapse of the Soviet Union, this essay will show that it was not a result of clear cut and definitive elements. The manor in which these elements influenced the Soviet Union made the political, economic and social environment in which the Empire operated quite inappropriate.
A stable and effective economy is a prerequisite for any country endeavouring to achieve world leader status. The main focus of the first section of this essay will subsequently be on the economic policies and systems that were implemented in the USSR in its relatively brief history. It will be shown that the main reason behind the collapse of the USSR was indeed the lack of a stable and proficient economy. As well as this, economic factors in both the domestic and international arenas led to other problems that made the probability of a long-term existence for the European superpower very unlikely. But these will be discussed later on.
The collapse of the Soviet Union was due in a large part to the poor performance of the country?s economy. Unlike the western democratic nations with free markets, the Soviet Union under the rule of Josef Stalin (who dominated Soviet political rings by 1929 until his death in 1953) pursued an economy that was completely controlled by a central governing body.
This particular model put an end to the market mechanism of prices fluctuating according to demand .
The Soviet leaders could control this rather fundamental economic component by way of The State Planning Committee (GOSPLAN). This committee controlled prices in an attempt to stamp out independent economic response. Since demand for a certain good could no longer effect the price of that good the success of this planned economy depended upon the successful state control over the factors of production. Miller argues:
Manufactures and farmers had to be made to produce exactly what the state ordered, not what seemed profitable or met demand .
It is already evident that there were fundamental problems associated with this economic model. Under this system the regulating of prices tended to lessen or remove the true value of money as a gauge of quality, costs or efficiency. Moreover the monopolistic nature of this economy would prove to remove decision-makers from the true economic market place. Subsequently, decisions made pertaining to the direction of the country?s economy were made under circumstances that distorted realistic economic views and would prove harmful to the longevity of the USSR.
Initially the Soviet Union?s economy didn?t falter under this system though. It did quite the opposite. In its primary stages Stalin?s radical policy saw the industrialisation of the Soviet Union on an unprecedented scale. The size of the industrial working class grew strongly, the dependence upon agriculture fell and urbanisation increased rapidly. Heavy industry was created in the Stalinist system by the devotion of all available resources, regardless of costs. This allocation of resources created extensive growth (as opposed to intensive growth ? the path that many capitalist nations were following at the time). Subsequently, national GDP became heavily dependent upon both coal mines and steel plants but this did not seem to matter as the USSR had an abundance of natural resources at its disposal and any shortage would be a problem faced much further down the track.
The industrialisation wave in the Soviet Union occurred at a time when many of the western capitalist powers were deep in recession. It seemed amazing that whilst stock markets around the world were plummeting, the Soviet Union was racing ahead in leaps and bounds. But this phenomenal rate of growth was due mostly to the fact that the vast resources of the Soviet Empire had up until that time been relatively ?untapped?. The only way, which the country and its economy could go, was up. But things would not continue in this favourable fashion. As was the case with much of the USSR?s economic planning, many in-built flaws became evident after a period of time. These flaws created fundamental problems within the Soviet Union and provide some of the best reasons as to why the Empire began to head down the road to dissolution.
There were numerous ?losers? within the Soviet Union due to the unfavourable economic situation. An element of society that suffered badly as a result of this radical economic system was the social environment within the country. The Stalinist system was reliant upon, amongst other things, the restricted allocation of social aid.
Spending on social welfare was limited to the provision of industrial training and of kindergartens, freeing women to work which directly helped industry, but relatively little was spent on housing or health .
Workers in most areas of production were required to meet huge output objectives. For the most part there was very little incentive and limited material reward for these workers, who toiled tirelessly to go home to houses in which approximately 25 percent were without hot water and about 15 percent were without baths. The agricultural sector was also hit very hard by the requirements demanded of it (food, labour, finance and many raw materials essential for industry). Workers within the country simply had no incentive to work beyond what was asked of them
But it was not just these areas that suffered as a result of the Stalinist economy. The Soviet Union never developed any substantial consumer industries or exports. These exports helped pave the way to economic stability for many countries in the post World War II period and without them the Soviet economy struggled. Another huge problem that the Soviet economy ultimately failed to get over was the fact that a large emphasis had been placed on the rapid mobilisation of resources behind heavy industry. There was no importance whatsoever placed upon the effective and efficient use of these resources. Subsequently cost effectiveness was not something that was given any consideration. This resulted in very low attention to detail and ultimately, as J. W. Young concludes, ?the Soviet economy became characterised by shoddy workmanship, poor production levels and a complete inability to compete in the world market? .
This long list of deficiencies and problems within the Soviet economy were a result, as stated, of a Stalinist economy. But even after the death of Stalin in 1953 the economy continued to suffer from inherent trends of the previous era. ?After 1953 a whole series of attempts were made to address the problems plaguing the Soviet economy (Khrushchev?s 1957 sovnarkhoz reforms; the Brezhnez ? Kosygin 1965 reforms; industrial reorganisation in1973; the 1979 Decree, etc.)? . But on the whole, these reforms never completely rectified the situation. The amendments made to the economic system during this post Stalin era were themselves distorted by the process and environment which they were formulated in. Generally the Stalinist model of the economy, as shown by Phillips:
Was not appropriate as a strategy for economic growth in a late twentieth century global marketplace ? one that demanded efficiency, productivity, declining relative costs of production, conservation of raw materials, improved quality control, and a build up of the infrastructure .
Subsequently, even with the vast resources and workforce that the USSR had at its disposal, the commitment to a centrally controlled economy and the inability of the country?s leaders to formulate effective amendments to an economy that was crying out for them sealed the fate of the USSR. For without a stable economy the phenomenal scale of waste that became synonymous with the Soviet Union and the glaring inefficiencies in manufacturing procedures would only do great damage to the country. The fact that the country followed a Stalinist economic model, would prove extremely damaging and the domestic problems that this would cause would ultimately be too hard to overcome. Not only this it would eventually see the Soviet Union become completely inept at competing in the global market place and would take the Empire to the brink of collapse.
At the same time that the Soviet economy was failing the superpower was involved in an extremely expensive ideological conflict known as the Cold War. Running from the end of World War II in 1945 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War placed a huge amount of economic strain on both the USSR and the US. The arms race that characterised this period required an astronomical amount of funding and the massive weapons arsenals that both superpowers built up required even more funding to develop and maintain. It is estimated that the Cold War cost the US an approximated $8 trillion in defence expenditure and estimates of the USSR?s costs vary greatly. Even still, the economic system within the Soviet Union was having huge trouble trying to support the basic infrastructure of the country. There was no possible way that the country could afford to participate in this extremely expensive war. But this did not deter the Soviet Union. Throughout its history misguided leaders had spent up to 25 percent of gross national product (GNP) on defence. Ultimately this would be to the detriment of the USSR, as Walter LaFeber shows:
The two superpowers each had spent trillions of dollars on defence to checkmate the other. But ultimately the Soviets found themselves much worse off than the Americans .
This is undoubtedly due to the previously discussed inherent troubles and problems of the Stalinist style economy. The Cold War can be regarded as an influential factor in the eventual economic ruin and subsequent collapse of the USSR.
The USSR was also involved in another costly conflict. This war was in Afghanistan was another factor behind the decline and fall of the Soviet Empire. The USSR entered Afghanistan in 1979 in what has been described as, an attempt to expand the Soviet Empire by direct force. No one in the USSR had a suspicion that this would result in a protracted and costly war: both in economic and psychological terms. It is estimated that the war in Afghanistan cost around US$5 billion. Obviously, this placed even greater strain on the economy already stretched to its limits. Afghanistan has been described as the Soviet Union?s, ?Vietnam? in that it was a great and mighty superpower against a ?backward?, Third World country. The USSR suffered heavy losses in this war and as was the case in the Vietnam War, the superpower was defeated. This defeat had a detrimental effect on the morale of the Soviet people as the mighty Red Army had been defeated by one of a third world nation. The Afghanistan issue can therefore be credited as one of the factors that lead to the ultimate decline and collapse of the Soviet Union.
Apart from the extensive economic problems, its involvement in the Cold War and the commitment to conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan, other elements certainly played a major role in the Soviet Empires decline and eventual collapse. One of these elements was the immense opposition of the Soviet satellite states to membership in the Union. Obviously without theses satellite states the Soviet Union would no longer function. It is evident therefore that any breakaway states and any opposition to USSR membership would have constituted a serious threat to the international prestige of the Empire and a complete failure of the satellite state system would almost have certainly resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result Soviet leadership would not tolerate any such uprisings. Opposition from several of the satellite states (who all were members of the Warsaw pact ? signed in 1955 as a counterweight to NATO) became more apparent as the collapse approached.
But examples of this opposition to the Soviet Union can be seen as early as the Hungarian (1956) and Czechoslovakian (1968) uprisings, 25-35 years before the eventual dissolution. Both of these uprisings were eventually crushed by the Soviet military and in the struggle for control in these potentially damaging situations (from a Soviet perspective) both Hungarians and Czechoslovakians were killed. Moscow had used deadly force to suppress these uprisings. This created an environment which bred hatred towards the Russians who it seemed had completely removed the right of self-determination for states with the Soviet Empire. The Czechoslovakian uprising resulted in the Brezhnev doctrine ? expressing that the USSR would reserve the right to intervene rule in any state within the Soviet Bloc in order to preserve a communist political system. The fact that the Soviet Union, and more specifically Russia, was imposing its power on the nation?s within its sphere of influence did not help it to become a popular ally of these much smaller countries. The subsequent hatred of the communist system and of those enforced its existence were enough to eventually topple the satellite state system and eventually the Soviet Union itself.
Solidarity in Poland provides another excellent example of the Soviet satellite states? objection to being members of the USSR. Hatred for the Soviet system and the resentment of the fact that communism was forced upon them was another were the reasons for the satellite states opposition to membership in the Soviet Empire. This hatred and resentment led to the deterioration of the satellite state system and became another main factor that contributed to the collapse of the USSR.
A final factor that influenced the decline of the Soviet Union was the erosion of the communist ideology throughout the country?s seventy-five year history. During the Brezhnev and Gorbachev years, the ideology behind Communism had a different meaning in comparison to earlier times. Seweryn Bialer was one of those who remarked on the disillusionment felt by the Soviet people in relation to their ideology.
Wherever the faithful looked, the traditional prophecies had failed to come through: world revolution had not occurred, crime had not vanished, nationalism and religion had not disappeared with the passing of capitalism, as had been predicted. .
This disillusionment and belief that Communism didn?t fulfil its promises to the people jumped to new highs when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power during the late 1980?s. His liberalised style of leadership allowed people express their views and generally the people of the Soviet Union felt wrong done by the ideology which they had be ensured would see the Soviet Union rise as the most powerful nation in the world. The Soviet system was not suited to the ideology on which the regime was based. This ideology turned out to be inappropriate to the end of the twentieth century. As technology changed and as society was transformed, the superstructure ? that is, the form of state and its ideology ? became a hindrance to further development. This hindrance became a burden on the society the economy and the system. This can therefore be considered another element leading to the decline and collapse of the Soviet Union.
This essay has given an overview of the key factors that brought about the collapse of the USSR. In conclusion it can be seen that the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed due to the poor performance of its economy. As shown without an effective economic system many other problems were generated. Also the Empire?s involvement in conflicts such as the Cold War and the war in Afghanistan stretched the budget beyond breaking point. The fact that the Soviet Empire chose to impose its power on other nations in the Soviet Bloc also played a role in its eventual downfall.
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