The Breakdown of the USSR

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

15 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Soviet rule and economic success

3. Soviet rule and economic failure
a) Social change through modernization
b) National awakening
c) The industrial cul-de-sac
d) Growing relative economic inferiority to the West and the loss of ideological appeal

4. Reform and Breakdown

5. Unanswered questions

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been one of the most controversially discussed issues among historians and social scientists throughout the last decade. Paradoxically the imminent collapse of communism had been predicted frequently by Western observers during the early years of the Bolshevik rule. With the victory of the Second World War those voices were muted and the West accomodated with the existence of an obviously stable, mighty and economically expanding country.[1] The breakdown of communism in 1991 had been anticipated by few contemporary scholars, although the majority were aware of the symptoms of a deep crisis.

In this essay I will argue that in order to better understand the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, a central role must be given to the economy and its effects on other areas. Most symptoms of the crisis and the ultimate breakdown of the system can in fact be attributed to the impact of economic failure. Whereas, economic modernization was the motor of success in the early decades, the economy became the weakest link of the Soviet system in the later period as its structural shortcomings deeply effected other areas as well.

The first part of this essay is intended to briefly outline the central role the economy played in the development of Soviet socialism. The second part analyses the far-reaching impact of the economic downturn, while the third part discusses the limits of reform before drawing a conclusion.[2]

2. Soviet rule and economic success

According to Marxist theory the economy plays a central role in the shaping of society. As the ownership of the means of production determines the superstructure, only equal distribution of the means of production and common ownership can create a fair and prosperous human society. When the Bolsheviks came into power a large-scale capitalist industry did not exist in Russia. Therefore economic development and its control through the party were seen as the key to the success of communism.

After the years of NEP as ‘a temporary but deliberate reconciliation with backwardness’[3], Stalin’s radical programme of economic modernization was started. Along with it went the build-up of the huge state bureaucracy for managing the new tasks the state had taken over, not only in the sphere of economic planning. For example part of this bureaucracy was the administrative structure created for the nationalities. Building and consolidating Soviet power in the Soviet periphery mostly meant overcoming ‘backwardness’ and creating the economic foundations for establishing classes with class-consciousness.

According to communist ideology state ownership and central planning was intended to prevail only for a transitional period until a classless society would be finally achieved. In the mid-1930 Stalin proclaimed the completion of socialism. The stage of a classless communist society seemed not far away.[4] Achieving this aim had been the major rationale for massive campaigns of economic centralization, collectivization in agriculture and rapid industrialization. Economic success was justifying massive mobilization and severe measures against real or perceived enemies as it secured a bright future.

At the same time, economic success was a substitute for the lack of democratic legitimacy. Probably with the only exception of the Great Patriotic War the communists never enjoyed majority popular support.[5] When the Bolsheviks seized power they had strong support from workers and soldiers. But very soon they resorted to terror in order to keep power when public support was fading.

Under the leadership of Khrushchev terror was reduced drastically also because economic success was materializing. After the long supressive years of Stalin and the war the biggest economic shortcomings had been overcome. Mobilization was increasingly achieved through material incentives rather than through the threat of terror. The population could for the first time profit from the results of rapid industrialization and modernization. Khrushchev’s rise and later his fall can also be attributed to a large extent to his economic achievements and later failure, mainly in the field of agriculture: the yields of the newly cultivated ‘virgin lands’ and the impact of his new planning structures.

The build-up of a huge industrial base also supported the Soviet Union’s efforts to match the USA as a great power. This was especially visible in the arms race and the space race. The Soviet economy was also applied as a model in the formation of the East European satellites and later in the developing world (Cuba, Vietnam, Africa). For some time it appeared as an attractive alternative to the crisis struck capitalism of the 1960s and 70s. Thus economic success was essential to secure the reproduction of the system. Catching-up with the West and overtaking it was the the major ideological aim, proclaimed in 1961 by Khrushchev[6].

The early Brezhnev years saw a maturing industrial society with still substantial growth rates. The overall Soviet standard of living, housing, welfare, education and the availability of consumer goods had clearly improved since Stalin. Petty private economic activities were increasingly tolerated, also in order to compensate the mounting problems of the state economy. Simultaneously, clientalism and corruption developed. Many surveys indicate that the Brezhnev era and the ‘little deal’[7] is seen by many former Soviet citizens as the most apprechiated period.[8]

Since the proclamation of the completion of socialist build-up by Stalin, the party and the state bureaucracy needed to redefine their function. Under Brezhnev ‘consolidating socialism’ was declared the official aim, while catching up with the west or even overtaking it became as unrealistic as building communism. In reality ‘consolidating socialism’ reflected stagnation, most visibly in the economy.[9] Growth rates went down since the mid 1970s. Only increasing oil prices secured very modest growth rates slightly above 0%, at least according to official figures.[10] Economic stagnation also created an ideological dilemma. The Party, the ‘vanguard’ was increasingly guiding the country into economic decline rather than into a bright future. Thus the ‘scientific’ historic determination of Marxist theory became highly questionable.

In a word, economic success was the most important ersatz legitimacy of Soviet power. Modernization and overcoming backwardness as a higher aim justified Soviet rule and the instruments it used in order to build a better society. After World War II, it secured super power status and an ideological appeal to many client states. In the Stalin period the prospects of future economic success were used to mobilize the population, and as a justification for terror against (often only perceived) alien or passive elements. With de-Stalinization economic success became even more important as a substitute legitimacy when terror was drastically reduced. Increasing passiveness, discontent or even dissidence were met with economic concessions.


[1] M Cox, ‘Critical Reflections on Soviet Studies’, in: M Cox (ed.), Rethinking the Soviet Collapse, L: Pinter, 1998, p 27.

[2] The author is aware that in the given scope of this essay only a minor and not necessarily representatitve fraction of the debates and works on the collapes of Soviet Communism can be touched on.

[3] Y Slezkine, ‘The USSR as a Communal Apartment, or how a Socialist State promoted Ethnic Particularism’, in: S Fitzpatrick (ed.), Stalinism: New Directions, L: Routledge, 2000, p 318.

[4] N Robinson, Ideology and the Collapse of the Soviet System, Hants: Elgar, 1995, p 62.

[5] C Read, The Making and the Breaking of the Soviet System, New York: Palgrave, 2001, p 20.

[6] J R Millar, The Soviet Economic Experiment, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990, p 185.

[7] J R Millar, The Soviet Economic Experiment, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. pp 252-267.

[8] E Bacon / M Sandle (eds.), Brezhnev Reconsidered, forthcoming publication, University of Birmingham, 2002, p 4.

[9] N Robinson, Ideology and the Collapse of the Soviet System, Hants: Elgar, 1995, pp 82-94.

[10] K Segbers, Der sowjetische Systemwandel, Frankfurt /M.: Suhrkamp, 1989, pp 179-180.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Breakdown of the USSR
University of Birmingham  (Centre for Russian and East European Studies)
Graduate Soviet Social and Economic History
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
436 KB
Discussed are the structural, primary socio-economical causes for the collapse of the USSR.
Soviet Union, Sowjetunion, UdSSR, USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, Michael Gorbatschow, perestroika, glasnost, Brezhnev, Planwirtschaft, planned economy, command economy, Stalinismus, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, Ide
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Maximilian Spinner (Author), 2002, The Breakdown of the USSR, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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