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Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse:
Understanding Historical Change

by Robert Strayer

Strayer lays out a variety of possibilities. Was the Soviet Union born with a flaw that created an inevitable demise? Did the Soviet Union collapse because of its failure to create workable reforms? Was the collapse the result of internal failures or determination by President Reagan?

Reading Strayer is a historian who provided me with details that sharpened my picture of what led to the Soviet collapse. It is an easy read — 210 pages — with bits of Soviet humor and added vignettes that augment.

The Soviet Union consisted of soviet republics, the largest of them the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Strayer sees the Soviet Union as more of an empire than a voluntary union. Modern empires have been short-lived. What killed the Soviet Empire, as described by Strayer, was a burst of nationalism that accompanied the reforms (Glasnost and Perestroika) of Michael Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since 1985.

Mikhail Gorbachev was surprised it, and he made an effort to reform how the republics were tied together — the union. But economic and political life in the Soviet Union became a shambles. The command economy had given way to more freedom, but there had not been the time needed to develop good relationships between production, distribution and consumption. By 1990 there were persistent shortages of food and consumer goods. Inflation reached 53.6 percent in 1990 and 650-700 percent in 1991. There was a rise in unemployment.

A part of the Gorbachev's new freedom became the Communist Party, in 1990, voting to allow multiple parties as a part of was the year the Communist Party voted to end one-party rule. By then, writes Strayer, "the Soviet economic crisis had produced an embittered and angry population." Gorbachev had won prestige internationally, including the Nobel Prize in 1990, but, writes Strayer, "he had lost the support of his own people."

According to Strayer,

Crime was on the rise... Prostitution and pornography, once viewed as capitalist decadence, now made an increasingly open appearance in major cities. The "mafia," shadowy networks of criminal businesses and protection rackets often in league with local authorities, emerged in tandem with the new economic freedoms.

Gorbachev tried to negotiate an agreement among the union's fifteen republics, but it wasn't going well, the republics demanding more and more sovereignty."As of March 1990," writes Strayer, "no republic has sought full independence." Then, in June, Russia declared its sovereignty, that republic's president, Boris Yeltsin, looking forward to an independent Russia within a liberalized commonwealth called the Soviet Union.

In 1991 a coup was attempted against Gorbachev by those wanting to re-establish a more rigidly controlled society. There was Yeltsin on a tank surrounded by supporters. Yeltsin banned the Soviet Communist Party in Russia and seizes its assets. He recognized the independence of the Baltic republics and Ukraine's independence. Other republics declared their independence. In September, 1991, the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies voted for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was no more.

Robert Strayer was educated at Wheaton College and the University of Wisconsin. In 1998 he was a visiting professor of world and Soviet history at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. Since 2002, he has taught world history at the University of California, Santa Cruz; California State University, Monterey Bay; and Cabrillo College.

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