The Reasons Why The Soviet Union Collapsed So Suddenly

On December 25, 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev announced both his resignation as president of the Soviet Union and the communist state's dissolution after 79 years. The abrupt end of the regime was a shock to many at the time, but in the ensuing years, historians have identified several contributing factors both long- and short-term.

From the economic stagnation and ruinously high levels of military spending to the well-intentioned but highly destabilizing reforms Gorbachev introduced, this explainer looks at the real reasons the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. 

Photo: David Broad / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

  • The Death Of FDR In 1945 Altered Postwar Plans

    The wartime alliance between the US and Soviet Union from 1941-45 was more of a marriage of convenience than a union of equal partners. Such pointed differences in ideologies created a sense of mistrust been the two powers. However, the uneasy relationship between US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin thawed as plans for the postwar world formed in the closing months of the conflict.

    Roosevelt's ideas for postwar peace centered around cooperation between the remaining powers of the world, but he wouldn't live to see those plans through. Roosevelt passed in April 1945, just a few weeks shy of the end of World War II. His successor was former Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, who took a more hard-line stance on the Soviet Union that would be followed by his successors. From 1947, the US pursued a policy of containing Soviet influence abroad.

    The Cold War saw a massive build-up of conventional and nuclear weapons on both sides. While the US attempted to curb Soviet influence at home and aboard, the USSR tightened its grip on its satellite states and focused heavily on military production. 

  • The Soviet Economy Stagnated In The 1970s

    After a high point of economic growth in the 1960s, the Soviet Union suffered a long period of stuttering economic development in the 1970s, sometimes referred to as the "era of stagnation." The USSR was a planned, centralized economy that, despite some attempts at reform by Leonid Brezhnev (pictured) and his administration, suffered from its lack of flexibility and local control.

    The agricultural sector could no longer keep up with the demands of a growing population because of the drive toward industrialization. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union was forced to import much of its grain, which opened up a sizeable trade deficit with Western countries. Innovation was stifled by the inflexible five-year plans made from Moscow and change was slow to come. Production output was geared toward keeping pace with the US military rather than on domestic development. 

  • Unsustainable Military Spending Came At The Expense Of Living Standards 

    Living standards in the Soviet Union began to lag behind those of other developed nations. Military spending accounted for a high proportion of industrial output, which meant consumer goods were often of poorer quality and less available than in the West.

    Exact levels of Soviet military spending are quite difficult to calculate, as the true levels had been a carefully guarded secret since the 1930s. The reported figures and real amounts were probably off by a factor of 10.

    According to 1989 estimates, the USSR spent $250 billion on defense, more than 2.5 times the amount spent by Russia in 2016. That rate of spending was ruinously high for a country with a struggling economy. 

  • The Soviet Intervention In Afghanistan Was A Drain On Resources And Reignited Tensions With The West

    The disastrous 10-year Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan was described by Mikhail Gorbachev as a "bleeding wound." The Soviet presence in the country was limited to the 40th Army rather than a full-scale invasion. Nonetheless, the hostile terrain and determined enemy made it a difficult and grinding conflict for an army unused to such conditions.

    More significant was the impact the campaign had on the wider world, increasing tensions with the West and leading to the abandonment of the détente strategy of easing hostilities. In 1979, US President Jimmy Carter postponed talks on the latest nuclear disarmament treaty, SALT II, and called for a buildup of military readiness, which included the reinstatement of Selective Service in July 1980.

    A new era in the Cold War began with the Carter administration and would ramp up even further under Ronald Reagan. 

  • American Military Spending Could Not Be Matched
    Photo: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    American Military Spending Could Not Be Matched

    The election of US President Ronald Regan in 1980 led to a major increase in American military spending and funding of covert anti-Communist efforts around the world. The Reagan Doctrine, as it would be called, represented a shift from the reactionary policy of containment to a more aggressive, proactive posture. In his 1985 State of the Union Address, the president outlined the principal aims of the Reagan Doctrine:

    We must stand by our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives - on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua - to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.

  • Three Soviet Leaders Perished In Three Years

    Toward the end of his 18 years in power, Leonid Brezhnev's health was in dire straits. Addicted to sleeping pills and tranquilizers, his ability to govern was hindered even further by a stroke and heart attack, both in 1975. Despite this, he held onto power until 1982. Even after another stroke in May 1982, he refused to give up his authority. 

    It wasn't until November that his health finally gave out after years in serious decline. He was replaced by another senior party official, Yuri Andropov (pictured), the former head of the KGB and a nimble political figure in his rise to power. But like Brezhnev, his health soon got the better of him once he ascended to the summit of power. Andropov began a series of reforms aimed at cleaning up corruption and modernizing the Soviet Union, but fell ill and died before he could see them through. 

    After Andropov passed in 1984 after a little more than 15 months in power, he was replaced by another ailing leader, Konstantin Chernenko (age 72), whose time in power was even briefer than his predecessor. Little more than a figurehead unable to walk through the Kremlin unassisted, Chernenko succumbed to heart failure in March 1985 - the third Soviet leader to pass in three years. 

    At 54, Mikhail Gorbachev was a comparative spring chicken upon his ascension to power in 1985. The succession of old and sick men who'd proceeded him served only to magnify the problems he faced.