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What conditions prompted changes in the Soviet Union?
increased productivity in Soviet industry
increased success in Western trade
a military victory in Afghanistan
food shortages and excessive military spending
Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States
Relations between the Soviet Union and the United States were driven by a complex interplay of ideological, political, and economic factors,
which led to shifts between cautious cooperation and often bitter superpower rivalry over the years. The distinct differences in the political systems
The United States government was initially hostile to the Soviet leaders for taking Russia out of World War I and was opposed to a state ideologically based on communism.
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Although the United States embarked on a famine relief program in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s and American businessmen
established commercial ties there during the period of the New Economic Policy (1921–29), the two countries did not establish diplomatic
relations until 1933. By that time, the totalitarian nature of Joseph Stalin’s regime presented an insurmountable obstacle to friendly relations
with the West. Although World War II brought the two countries into alliance, based on the common aim of defeating Nazi Germany,
the Soviet Union’s aggressive, antidemocratic policy toward Eastern Europe had created tensions even before the war ended.
The Soviet Union and the United States stayed far apart during the next three decades of superpower conflict and the nuclear and missile arms race.
Beginning in the early 1970s, the Soviet regime proclaimed a policy of détente and sought increased economic cooperation and disarmament negotiations with the West.
However, the Soviet stance on human rights and its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 created new tensions between the two countries.
These tensions continued to exist until the dramatic democratic changes of 1989–91 led to the collapse during this past year of the
Communist system and opened the way for an unprecedented new friendship between the United States and Russia, as well as the other new nations of the former Soviet Union.
Why Did the Soviet Union Collapse?
On January 1, 1991, the Soviet Union was the largest country in the world, covering some 8,650,000 square miles (22,400,000 square km),
nearly one-sixth of Earth’s land surface. Its population numbered more than 290 million, and 100 distinct nationalities lived within its borders.
It also boasted an arsenal of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, and its sphere of influence, exerted through such mechanisms as the Warsaw Pact,
extended throughout eastern Europe. Within a year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. While it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to
pinpoint a single cause for an event as complex and far-reaching as the dissolution of a global superpower, a number of internal and
external factors were certainly at play in the collapse of the U.S.S.R.
The political factor
When Mikhail Gorbachev was named general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) on March 11, 1985,
his primary domestic goals were to jump-start the moribund Soviet economy and to streamline the cumbersome government bureaucracy.
When his initial attempts at reform failed to yield significant results, he instituted the policies of glasnost (“openness”) and
perestroika (“restructuring”). The former was intended to foster dialogue, while the latter introduced quasi free market policies
to government-run industries. Rather than sparking a renaissance in Communist thought, glasnost opened the floodgates to criticism
of the entire Soviet apparatus. The state lost control of both the media and the public sphere, and democratic reform movements gained steam throughout the Soviet bloc.
Perestroika exhibited the worst of the capitalist and communist systems: price controls
were lifted in some markets, but existing bureaucratic structures were left in place, meaning that Communist officials were able to
push back against those policies that did not benefit them personally. In the end, Gorbachev’s reforms and his abandonment of the
Brezhnev Doctrine hastened the demise of the Soviet empire. By the end of 1989 Hungary had dismantled its border fence with Austria,
Solidarity had swept into power in Poland, the Baltic states were taking concrete steps toward independence, and the Berlin Wall had been toppled.
The Iron Curtain had fallen, and the Soviet Union would not long outlast it.
The economic factor
By some measures, the Soviet economy was the world’s second largest in 1990, but shortages of consumer goods were routine and hoarding was commonplace.
It was estimated that the Soviet black market economy was the equivalent of more than 10 percent of the country’s official GDP.
Economic stagnation had hobbled the country for years, and the perestroika reforms only served to exacerbate the problem.
Wage hikes were supported by printing money, fueling an inflationary spiral. Mismanagement of fiscal policy made the country vulnerable to
external factors, and a sharp drop in the price of oil sent the Soviet economy into a tailspin. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the Soviet Union
ranked as one of the world’s top producers of energy resources such as oil and natural gas, and exports of those commodities played
a vital role in shoring up the world’s largest command economy. When oil plunged from $120 a barrel in 1980 to $24 a barrel in March 1986,
this vital lifeline to external capital dried up. The price of oil temporarily spiked in the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990,
but by that point the collapse of the Soviet Union was well under way.
The military factor
It is a widely held belief that Soviet defense spending accelerated dramatically in response to the presidency of Ronald Reagan and proposals
such as the Strategic Defense Initiative. In fact, the Soviet military budget had been trending upward since at least the early 1970s, but Western
analysts were left with best guesses in regard to hard numbers. Outside estimates of Soviet military spending ranged between 10 and 20 percent of GDP,
and, even within the Soviet Union itself, it was difficult to produce an exact accounting because the military budget involved a variety of
government ministries, each with its own competing interests. What can be said definitively, however, is that military spending was consistently
agnostic of overall economic trends: even when the Soviet economy lagged, the military remained well-funded. In addition, the military took
priority when it came to research and development talent. Technological innovators and would-be entrepreneurs who could have helped support
Gorbachev’s partial transition to a market economy were instead funneled into defense industries.
The social factor
On January 31, 1990, McDonald’s opened its first restaurant in Moscow. The image of the Golden Arches in Pushkin Square seemed like a
triumph of Western capitalism, and customers lined up around the block for their first taste of a Big Mac. But such a display was not uncommon
in the final years of the Soviet Union; Muscovites queued just as long for morning editions of liberal newspapers. Glasnost had, indeed, ushered in
a flurry of new concepts, ideas, and experiences, and Soviet citizens were eager to explore them—whether that involved devouring essays about
democratization from leading political philosophers or dipping a toe into a market economy via Western-style fast food. In 1984 Eduard Shevardnadze
had told Gorbachev, “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.” The feeling was not an uncommon one. The Soviet public was disgusted with the
widespread corruption endemic to the Soviet state. Gorbachev’s goal with glasnost and perestroika was nothing less than a transformation of the Soviet spirit,
a new compact between the Soviet regime and its people. Gorbachev’s chief adviser, Aleksandr Yakovlev, described the challenge facing them:
“The main issue today is not only economy. This is only the material side of the process. The heart of the matter is in the political system…and its relation to man.”
In the end, the tension between the newly empowered citizenry and a Soviet state with ruined credibility proved too much to overcome,
and a last gasp coup attempt by Communist hardliners shattered the Soviet Union.
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