The collapse of the Soviet empire

The collapse of the Soviet empire, and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself, is probably the most surprising political event that has occurred during my lifetime. It raises a lot of interesting questions. Why did it happen? Could it have been avoided? How could it happen with almost no shedding of blood? Why was it not foreseen - or was it?

Below, I have compiled some facts, personal memories and speculations about this fascinating period.

Gorbachev assumes power
Perestroika, Glasnost and an end to the Cold War
The fall of the Berlin Wall
The failure of Gorbachev's policies
The collapse of the Soviet Union
Was the collapse inevitable?

Further reading

EU and Soviet Union 1985. EU and Russia 2007.
The European Union and the Soviet Union with its allies in 1985.
The European Union and Russia in 2007.

Gorbachev assumes power

In November 1982, I visited Saudi Arabia on a business trip. We were offering our services in setting up a Landsat receiving station and processing center. One evening I was watching the news in my hotel room in Riyadh. The first 10 or 15 minutes were devoted to the comings and goings of King Fahd. The King going to the airport in Riyadh, saying goodbye to his well-wishers, arriving in Dhahran, the ceremonies and festivities surrounding his arrival, including some kind of a ritual sabre dance with the King participating. Then the news reader dismissively turned to "other news": "It was announced today that the president of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev has died."

Andropov, Time cover.The news was greeted with a mixture of hope and fear in the West. Anytime there was a change in the Soviet leadership, there was the hope that a "softer" form of communism would prevail and would lead to reduced tensions between the two superpowers. - In 1982, there were roughly 50,000 nuclear warheads in the world. The U.S. at that time still had about 6000 nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. Although Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had had some success, the geopolitical situation was far from stable. The Soviet Union under Brezhnev had invaded Afghanistan just three years earlier.

Brezhnev's successor was former KGB chief Yuri Andropov, who had been implicated in the bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and whose most recent assignment had been as watchdog for ideological affairs within the party secretariat. Not the most promising of credentials! On the other hand, his conservative background might give him a certain freedom of action (just as Nixon was able to improve relations with China in a way that Humphrey could never have done, had he won the 1968 presidential election). Andropov started an energetic domestic campaign against corruption and lack of discipline, firing a large number of underperforming Brezhnev appointees. He began to publicize some facts about the inefficiency of the economy, previously considered state secrets. In Cold War politics he made no headway with his proposals to reduce the number of missiles in Europe. President Reagan branded the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire" and launched the "Star Wars" initiative in March 1983. Andropov was unable to extricate himself from the mess in Afghanistan, and the downing of a Korean civilian airliner occurred on his watch. - Of course, during his brief tenure, he was severely handicapped by his health problems. He died in February 1984.

Andropov's successor was 73-year Konstantin Chernenko, a throwback to the Brezhnev era. Chernenko had worked closely with Brezhnev for 30 years. His age and his poor health were signs that he was intended as a temporary solution while the Party made up its mind about its future direction. Chernenko died on March 10, 1985 without leaving much of an imprint. (His death recalls the bon mot attributed to Dorothy Parker upon the death of President Calvin Coolidge: "How can they tell?".)

Gorbachev was elected Party Secretary the following day. Clearly, the senior party leaders had come to realize that Soviet society needed an overhaul, and that younger and more dynamic leadership was called for. Foreign Secretary Andrei Gromyko had done his best to convince any doubters in the Politburo: "This man has a nice smile, but he has got iron teeth." It was generally assumed that Gorbachev would lead the Soviet Union for the next 20 years or so.

Perestroika, Glasnost and an end to the Cold War

Of course, Gorbachev did not materialize out of thin air. He had been appointed Party Secretary of Agriculture in 1978 - not the usual path to success in the Soviet Union, but he had made a name for himself as a reformer of collective farming. He was raised to the Politburo in 1979/80 and enjoyed the support of Andropov and Chernenko. He was already a familiar and visible figure in the Soviet Union, and he had made several trips to the West, making a good impression on Mrs. Thatcher and other Western leaders.

Gorbachev.My grandmother, who at 91 was a keen observer of international politics, and who had lived in fear of Russians all her life, was swept off her feet by Gorbachev. So was I, along with many people in the West. Gorbachev was saying all the right things: domestic economic and political reform, openness - what came to be known as Perestroika and Glasnost - and an end to the Cold War. It all seemed too good to be true, but gradually it became clear that he meant what he said. At heart, he appeared to be a left-wing Social Democrat, favoring free elections and a multi-party system, while advocating strict limits on private ownership.

The lowering of international tensions, and the promise of a better standard of living, made Gorbachev quite popular within the Soviet Union during his first few years in power. He made a point of encouraging open debate and of defending his policies in public. But domestic support soon began to erode, when his reforms actually led to worsening economic conditions: higher prices, longer queues, and a deterioration in the standard of living. No doubt, part of the problem was a lack of enthusiasm for reforms among the entrenched bureaucracy. But this was not much of an excuse when rationing of some basic food products had to be implemented for the first time since 1947.

In addition to his economic difficulties, there was another important factor that attracted less attention in the West: the ethnic diversity within the Soviet Union. Incredibly, even in Sweden the people of the Baltic republics were frequently referred to as "Russians" during the Cold War. - Significantly, I think, during WW2 many Soviet citizens initially greeted the German army as liberators. Blinded by his racist ideology, Hitler failed to exploit this. Many Ukrainians had suffered terribly under communism during the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were recruited by the German Army in supporting roles. They were not considered reliable by the Nazi leaders and were not allowed to form ethnically homogeneous battle units until right at the end of the war. - The reign of terror ended with Stalin, but undoubtedly widespread resentment of Russian domination persisted among ethnic minorities throughout the 1980s.

The fall of the Berlin Wall

Thursday November 9, 1989, I was in Rome for a business meeting with Telespazio. When the meeting ended, it was too late to return to Stockholm that same day, but I caught a plane to Hamburg in the evening. After spending the night in Hamburg, I would be able to reach Stockholm on Friday morning, where I still had some unfinished business in my office to deal with before the weekend.

The fall of the Berlin Wall 1989.It was in the taxi cab to my hotel in Hamburg that I heard the surprising news on the radio: East Germany had opened its borders, effective immediately! Later in the night there were incredible scenes on TV, showing kisses and tears of happiness as a hundred thousand people flooded across the border from East Berlin, many of whom had been cut off from friends and relatives in the West for decades. - Next morning, when I travelled to the airport, it became abundantly clear that the whole thing had not just been a hallucination. Overnight, the puttering, smoking East German "Trabbi" (Trabant) cars had invaded the streets of Hamburg!

The fall of the Berlin Wall took everyone by surprise, including the East German government, although dramatic changes were already underway in East Germany. The triggering events were the opening of Hungary's borders, the demonstrations in Leipzig in September-October, and the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic.

In the summer of 1989, Hungary had opened its borders to Austria. This had made it possible for thousands of East Germans to escape to the West. Hundreds more had fled to the German embassies in Eastern Europe. - In Leipzig, the relatively low-key Monday afternoon demonstrations outside the Nikolai church during September had escalated into mass meetings of tens of thousands of demonstrators in October, shouting "We are the people". - When Gorbachev arrived in Berlin on October 5th to participate in the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, he admonished party chief Honecker: "Life punishes those, who arrive too late."

Lacking the support of Gorbachev, the East German leadership decided against using violence to solve their problems. This led to Honecker's resignation on October 18th "for health reasons" and replacement by Egon Krenz, a relative moderate. But the demonstrations continued to escalate. Hundreds of thousands participated in Leipzig, and on November 4th half a million demonstrators gathered in East Berlin.

One has to admire the courage of the early demonstrators. The Tiananmen Square massacre had occurred just recently, in June. A female relative of mine who participated in the demonstrations, told me that there had been insistent rumors that the hospitals were on high alert, and were urgently seeking blood donors. This may or may not have been a deliberate attempt by the authorities to discourage demonstrations.

After November 9, events unfolded rapidly. Krenz was forced to resign in December, together with the entire leadership. Gorbachev declared the question of reunification to be an internal German matter. The first free elections in East Germany took place in March 1990 and resulted in a massive majority for those parties that favored reunification. (Some West Germans lamented: The worst part is that the right-wing press turned out to be right, after all!)

Gorbachev and Kohl 1990.
Gorbachev and Kohl, July 1990

Monetary union was agreed in May and implemented as of July 1. (Huge numbers of trucks were carrying West German banknotes into East Germany - what a missed opportunity for bank robbers!) During the summer of 1990, the so-called 4 + 2 talks were held and led to the grudging approval of German reunification by the WW2 victors, something that would have seemed unthinkable a year before. Undoubtedly, their acceptance came easier because of widespread popular sympathy following the touching scenes when the Wall was opened. - The key concession by Gorbachev was his acceptance that Germany would be allowed to make its own decision on the matter of NATO membership after unification.

Still, even the Social Democrats in West Germany were questioning the wisdom of rapid unification. The German chancellor Kohl is said to have explained the urgency of reaching an agreement: "Hay should be harvested while the sun is shining." The treaty between East and West Germany was ratified in September, and on October 3rd, 1990 the German Democratic Republic was dissolved, and the Federal Republic of Germany acquired five new states ("Länder"). All of this in just under 11 months after my stopover in Hamburg!

Just after the New Year's holiday in January 1991, I took advantage of an offer to make a weekend trip to Berlin. I had visited West Berlin by car a couple of years earlier for the first time since 1944, but this was my chance to see East Berlin before it was transformed after the fall of the Wall. The direct flight to Berlin was sold out, so I flew to Hamburg and took a train from there. This, by the way, is how I met my future wife - at a hamburger bar near the railway station! "He went to take in a hamburger but was taken in by a Hamburger", as my brother Rolf so aptly observed in his speech at our wedding.

During the earlier visit I had made sure to rigorously respect the speed limit of 100 km/h on the transit freeway. I had read that the ticketing of West Germans was a major source of foreign currency for the East German government! - On the outskirts of Berlin, there were Soviet barracks with large signs in Russian: "Tank soldier ('Tankista' or something like that), hit with the first round!" Easier said than done...

Two details from my 1991 trip to East Berlin have stuck in my mind. Although it was mid-winter, harvest combines had simply been left out on the fields on the collective farms, left to rust in the rain and snow. It seemed that nobody had bothered to bring them back to the sheds at the end of the harvesting season to keep them dry. And in East Berlin, just a few blocks from the main streets, apartment houses were incredibly dilapidated. It seemed that there had been no upkeep for decades. Even if the authorities did nothing, why on earth didn't the people in those apartment blocks get together to help themselves? In many cases, all that was needed was a bucket of paint, or a shovel and some gravel to fix a pothole on the sidewalk. Walking along those streets, I felt completely disgusted, not only with the decrepit neighborhood but also with myself for feeling smug and superior about living in an affluent society. But how could our own communists and left-wing intellectuals claim that the German Democratic Republic was an example of a country that had done well under difficult circumstances? Had they been blind during their visits?

The Failure of Gorbachev's policies

Bush and Gorbachev, Time cover.It would be wrong to assume that Gorbachev just did not care about the breakup of the Warsaw Pact. His vision was that the member countries would undergo the same process of reform as the Soviet Union itself, leading to democratically elected governments, and obviating the need for a Soviet military presence. The importance of military alliances would decrease with the end of the Cold War, but economic cooperation among the East bloc countries would remain intact.

It did not quite work out that way. The fall of the Wall opened the floodgates to fundamental political change in all of the Eastern bloc countries. "Die Geister die ich rief, werd' ich nicht mehr los" (Goethe). The communist parties were transformed into social democratic ones and/or were reduced to mere onlookers. And the weakness of the Soviet economy greatly limited Gorbachev's ability to influence events.

We all feared that the old-guard communists would strike back at Gorbachev after the Soviet Union began to lose its grip on Eastern Europe, and even more when some of the republics of the USSR started to demand independence. - The day after the Berlin Wall came down, the Swedish Foreign Minister claimed that "Esthonia is not occupied". A charitable interpretation is that he was just trying to avoid pouring gasoline on the flames. I remember being quite concerned about the various calls for independence. It seemed to me that Gorbachev was in the midst of performing an extremely delicate balancing act, and that any attempt to push him to move even faster was very likely to trigger a dangerous backlash. - The situation was reminiscent of a critical phase in the negotiations on Norwegian independence in 1905, when - according to legend - the celebrated chauvinist Norwegian writer Björnson sent a telegram to the Norwegian Prime Minister Michelsen: "Now the time has come to stand together!" whereupon Michelsen replied: "Now the time has come to shut up!"

What I did not fully realize at the time, was that domestically Gorbachev was under intense pressure to push economic reforms even faster. Glasnost had unearthed all the repressed frustration with old-style communism that had been building up during the Brezhnev era. If the Party was unable to deliver, people were ready to turn elsewhere. By 1991, most Russians were disillusioned with Gorbachev. He had brought an end to the Cold War, but he had also brought on a deep economic crisis, and he had "lost" Eastern Europe. Their hopes were now gradually transferred to Boris Yeltsin.

Yeltsin had become popular as the Moscow Party Secretary in 1986-87. He was fired by Gorbachev in 1987 after complaining about the slow pace of reform. Gorbachev's democratization of election procedures opened the way for his political comeback. Yeltsin headed the "government" of the Russian republic in 1990, quit the Communist Party, and had the Congress of the Russian republic declare its sovereignty within the Union. In the summer of 1991, he was elected President of the Russian republic. - Yeltsin had no interest in preserving the Union. His power base was the Russian republic. By getting rid of the Union, he would be getting rid of his former boss.

Mathias Rust landing at the Kremlin wall.
Defiant Yeltsin on tank.

Remarkably, the political conservatives, and among them in particular the military leadership, had not been able to mount any strong resistance to Gorbachev during the liberation of Eastern Europe. One minor incident served to illustrate their impotence. In 1987, a young West German pilot managed to land his single-engine airplane just outside the Kremlin after flying across the Soviet Union without being challenged! This gave Gorbachev the opportunity to get rid of several political opponents in the military. As late as 1990, he actually seemed to be consolidating his power in Congress. Late in 1990, his Foreign Secretary Shevarnadze resigned in protest over the slow pace of economic reform, warning of the dangers of 'dictatorship'.

What finally moved parts of the military leadership to take action in August 1991 was the imminent danger of breakup of the Union. Gorbachev was placed under house arrest in the Crimea. But their coup d'état was poorly planned and executed. They held a news conference where they seemed weak and tentative, when they should have projected strength and purpose.

This gave the karismatic Yeltsin the opportunity of his lifetime. He climbed on top of a tank and made a strong plea to the military to turn their back on the conspirators. With public opinion solidly behind him, he was able to take control without a single shot being fired. Gorbachev was brought back to Moscow, but the Union could no longer be saved.

The collapse of the Soviet Union

After the coup attempt, Yeltsin enjoyed tremendous prestige in addition to having a strong platform as the democratically elected President of the Russian republic. During the next month, ten additional Soviet republics declared themselves independent.

Yeltsin pointing finger at Gorbachev.Gorbachev desperately attempted to modernize the Union itself. A new agreement on economic cooperation was signed in October 1991, and a new Union Treaty was being prepared, but it was too late. Ukrainian voters supported independence in a referendum held on December 1st, and a week later the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus (White Russia) founded the Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable and resigned on Christmas day. The Soviet Union ceased to exist as of January 1, 1992. - This was not a mere formality, as it also entailed the transfer of control of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons to the President of Russia. (See "Further Reading" below. /SZ. February 18, 2014. )

Gorbachev was to make a last ill-advised attempt to regain power by running for President in Russia in 1996, when Yeltsin was facing great difficulties. (In early opinion polls that year, Yeltsin's support had dropped below 10 percent.) Gorbachev was eliminated in the first round, suffering the indignity of having won just 0.5 percent of the votes! - Yeltsin ultimately prevailed by defeating the Communist candidate in the runoff election.

Was the collapse inevitable?

In the years and decades that preceded the end of the Soviet Union, there were plenty of prophecies of impending doom, from Hitler's "We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come tumbling down" to Reagan's "Freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history". Almost all of them can be dismissed as just expressions of wishful thinking without any solid foundation. In emigrant groups, for instance, predicting the downfall of the oppressors tends to become something of a ritual. And even when somebody turns out to be right when predicting an improbable event, that does not by itself constitute proof of any special predictive power. There are enough fools making outrageous predictions that some of them (some of us?) are bound to get it right from time to time.

So the real question is this: Why were so few professional historians and political scientists able to foresee the course of events?

I seem to remember reading in New Scientist sometime in the 1970s about a sociologist who made very dire predictions about the future of the USSR. This may have been French sociologist Emanuel Todd, who in 1976 published "La chute finale" ("The final fall"), in which, at the age of 25, he predicted the "decomposition of the Soviet sphere". Todd's prediction was based on his own research into sociological indicators that could be extracted from the official population statistics: child mortality, suicide rates etc. Even when the statistics were highly unreliable, it was possible to deduce trends and patterns, pointing to an accelerating sclerosis in Soviet society. Todd also found insights in more doubtful data, such as anecdotal evidence about the weaknesses of central planning (a shipment of only right shoes...) and preoccupations expressed in science fiction stories (which were not usually subjected to censorship and therefore more illuminating than other forms of literature). - Todd has more recently attracted attention by predicting the decline of the United States, mostly based on trade figures and military overextension.

Another successful prophet was Soviet historian and dissident Andrei Amalrik, who in 1970 predicted that the Soviet Union would break up sometime between 1980 and 1985, pointing in particular to the ethnic rivalries and the shortcomings of the legal system. His work was discounted in the West but was widely circulated among dissidents in the Soviet Union.

Hammer and sickle, barbed wire.
© Paul Artus, New Zealand

I think that the difficulties facing the Soviet Union were well understood in the West, perhaps with the exception of the ethnic dimension. Few observers were impressed with its economic performance. The challenge was rather to explain how it could stay competitive in military matters, given the enormous inefficiencies of its economic system. - When I visited Moscow and the Crimea in a cooperative space project in the mid-70s, I was amazed to learn that paper copiers were forbidden, that some of my Soviet colleagues did not have security clearance to read their own scientific papers, and that trade journals were non-existent. How in the world could anyone carry out technical development under such conditions?

The bottom line is that, while most Western observers realized that the Soviet empire was based on coercion and the use of military force, very few anticipated that its leadership would abstain from repression and the use of force even when the very existence of the Union was at stake. It seemed inconceivable that the Soviet system would appoint and tolerate a leader with the courage and humane qualities of Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1989, the communist parties of Soviet Union and China took very different paths. In China, discipline was strictly enforced through repression, while far-reaching economic reforms were implemented. The result has been remarkable economic growth combined with severely curtailed civil rights. In the Soviet Union, political reforms outstripped economic ones, resulting in a decade of economic hardship. Significantly, perhaps, recent economic progress in Russia appears to have gone hand in hand with a consolidation of power of the ruling leadership. It is anybody's guess which direction these two great nations will take in the future.

Further reading

  1. "The Enigma of 1989 - The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe" by Jacques Lévesque. This is an online book from the California Digital Library published by the University of California. Lévesque is a well-respected Canadian professor of political science. His book makes for absorbing reading. Highly recommended! (Slow download, but well worth it.)
  2. Article by Ashish Kumar Sen 2021 on the diplomacy leading to German reunification. [Added February 2024.]
  3. Article by James Bindenagel 2019 on the NATO expansion issue. [Added February 2024.]
  4. Predictions of Soviet collapse (Wikipedia article).
  5. What happened to the Soviet superpower's nuclear arsenal? by Graham Allison. Harvard University 2012. [Added February 2014.]
  Last edited or checked May 22, 2007. Broken links fixed March 16, 2018. Refs 2 and 3 added February 21, 2024.

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