The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Was the main cause a popular revolution?

A short overview

Presentation / Essay (Pre-University), 2020

8 Pages, Grade: 10/10



To what extent was the main cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 a popular revolution?

The USSR was officially dissolved, and replaced by 15 independent countries1 on December 31, 1991, after Mikhail Gorbachev’s televised resignation of the presidency on December 252. The collapse of the Soviet Union was caused by a ‘number of internal and external factors’3 ; it is ‘impossible to pinpoint a single cause’4. The main factors include the liberalisation of politics; economic decline; changes in social consciousness; the loss of the Eastern European sphere of influence, nationalism within the republics of the USSR; and the August coup of 1991 as a short-term, final trigger. The collapse of the USSR was not primarily the consequence of a popular revolution. Such a revolution is defined as a ‘mass’5 uprising of ‘the people’6, described in Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 by Tony Judt to include a ‘mix of reform Communists, social democrats, liberal intellectuals, free-market economists, Catholic activists, trade unionists, pacifists, some unreconstructed Trotskyists and others’7. In 1985, the Soviet Union was arguably ‘at the height of its global power and influence’8. In absence of ‘sharply worsening economic, political, demographic, and other structural conditions’9 before 1985, its dissolution can only be explained by ‘liberalisation from above’10 as a result of Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika.

Glasnost, defined as ‘political openness’11, became Gorbachev’s most important political policy once he had become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in March 198512. By moving towards democratisation and addressing ‘personal restrictions of the Soviet people’13 such as ‘censorship, control and repression’14 or employment of the secret police15, Gorbachev hoped to reform the Party from within. Examples of such measures include: The Union of Soviet Film-makers and Union of Writers being allowed to elect independent- minded leaders in May 198516 ; a large-scale release of political prisoners taking place in December 198617 ; and Gorbachev calling for contested elections to the Congress of People’s Deputies in June 198818. These measures were supported by new media such as television and radio broadcasts. Glasnost was initially successful by creating a ‘public sphere for [...] debate'19 and ‘breaking the governing caste's monopoly of information'20, therefore ‘making it safe for hitherto silent reformers within the system to speak out'21. Nevertheless, it is best described as a ‘doubled-edged sword'22. Quoting Yakovlev, the ‘credibility of official ideology [...] held the entire Soviet political [...] system together'23, but glasnost had ‘opened the floodgates to criticism of the entire Soviet apparatus'24, thereby diminishing the CPSU's political control. By allowing some measure of independent public opinion, dissatisfaction already previously present now became ‘radically anti-Communist'25, ‘associating with misfortune a leader'26 - Gorbachev. In Seven Years That Changed The World, Archie Brown names several factors defining “Communism” to illustrate how Gorbachev's policy of glasnost dismantled the ‘pillars of the [political] system'27. One factor was the monopoly of power of the CPSU. It was consciously abandoned in March 1990 when Article Six declaring the Party's ‘leading and guiding role' was removed from the Soviet constitution28, formally underlining what had begun in 1989 by legalising independent parties and organisations29. ‘Democratic centralism'30 ended when Communists opposed one another in contested elections31. Summed up by Vladimir Bukhovsky, Gorbachev's ‘only interest of power was the Communist Party, but his reforms weakened precisely that instrument'32. The increased political freedom that facilitated the breakup of the USSR was therefore not a consequence of popular demand, but rather started a result of the initiative of Gorbachev and his supporters within the Party.

Gorbachev's primary economic policy was perestroika, which can be roughly translated as ‘economic restructuring'33. It introduced a ‘hybrid communist-capitalist system'34 to the USSR's economy through legislations such as the 1986 Law on Co-Operatives35, or the 1988 Law on Individual Labour Activity36. These permitted groups of individuals to establish co-operatives for the production of consumer goods37, introducing some level of market forces. The USSR's economy had been in stagnation even before 1985. The GDP growth rated slowed to an average of 1.9% per year from 1981-198538, particularly as a result of the sharp drop in oil prices from $120 per barrel in 1980 to $24 per barrel in March of 198639. International trade of Comecon countries accounted for only 9% of the world total after 1979. This did ‘nothing to cushion Gorbachev's reforms'40. In addition, perestroika, at least in the short-term, worsened the economic situation. Only a few social groups, mainly members of the new co-operatives, were materially better off as a result41. This facilitated ‘greater interclass differentiation'42 whilst at the same time opening up the possibility of job insecurity for ordinary workers.43 National income fell by 15% in 199144 because wages depended on output, and factories concentrated on producing more expensive goods rather than increasing the output of cheaper products. Nevertheless, Tony Judt argues in Postwar that ‘bankruptcy alone would not have brought Communism to its knees'45. Leon Aron states that the Soviet Union had ‘known far greater calamities and coped without sacrificing an iota of the state's grip on society and economy'46. It is therefore important to regard the interlinkage between economic and political reform. Firstly, because the economy depended heavily on subsidies and loans, economic reforms would have ‘immediate political ramifications'47. In addition, the transition to a market economy was halted due to some essential ingredients of reform, such as shift to market pricing, being ‘postponed for fear that the price rises [would] provoke popular discontent'48. In Mastering Modern World History, Norman Lowe indicates the opening up of politics as the main factor for the USSR's collapse. He suggests that economic hardship could have been overcome in a more repressive regime49. Aron goes as far as to state that ‘the actual deterioration of the Soviet economy became consequential only after and because of a fundamental shift in how the regime's performance was perceived and evaluated'50 (as a result of glasnost). To sum up, the USSR suffered some economic decline, which was exacerbated by Gorbachev's policy of perestroika, weakening the government. Nonetheless, this did not trigger popular protests within the republics of the Union.

Soviet society was heavily impacted by, and ‘interwoven'51 with, Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika reforms. These had ‘ushered in a flurry of new concepts, ideas and experiences'52 and opened up public discussion. In a meeting of the Central Committee in January 1987, Gorbachev described the societal changes taking place under his new policies as ‘a new moral atmosphere'53. Wide-spread subscriptions to leading liberal newspapers and magazines served as a testimony of ‘the devastating power of the most celebrated essayists of glasnost'54. The population became ‘only too well aware of the problems that remain[ed] to overcome'55. The democratisation of politics made the community sentiment important56: Public opinion was recorded in opinion polls; the first representative national public opinion survey conducted in 198957. Within the population and the Party, ‘ideological commitment to communism'58 (according to Archie Brown one of the defining features of “Communism”) disappeared because the Soviet Union had lost its ‘ideological appeal'59. Communism was discredited due to its ‘failure to bring about [...] social justice'60. However, public dissatisfaction as a result of a new societal consciousness did not turn into widespread protest, even though minor uprisings followed, such as the coal miner strike in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Donbass in July 198961, or the May Day protests against Gorbachev on May 1, 199062. Judt argues that ‘active, risk-laden resistance to authority was hard to justify because [...] for most ordinary people, it appeared unnecessary'63. Those speaking up were overwhelmingly intellectuals who ‘were a tiny minority of the population and represented only themselves'64. This reflected the ‘absence of [...] domestic opposition in the Soviet Union'65. Glasnost and perestroika therefore exposed disparities between the state's propaganda and people's daily lives,66 leading to ‘tension between the newly empowered citizenry and a Soviet state with ruined credibility'67.

Nevertheless, this different social mentality did not lead to widespread popular opposition - the USSR dissolved ‘almost without [domestic] protest'68.

By 1985, the USSR had a population consisting of 100 distinct nationalities69, and about as many non-Russian as Russian citizens. Non-Russian republics had achieved considerable cultural and linguistic autonomy.70 Nationalism was strengthened by the Soviet constitution, which ‘ascribed national identities to the residents of its separate republics'71. It encouraged the ‘emergence of institutions and intelligentsias grouped around a national urban center or capital'72. ‘National revival'73 was intertwined with perestroika.74 Glasnost in particular allowed ethnic groups to discuss ‘longstanding grievances'75 and made it possible to see the move towards democracy as a ‘right to self-determination'76. Consequentially, the period between 1985 and 1991 was characterised by ‘attempts by the republics to gain more autonomy vis-a-vis the centre'77, mostly due to nationalist aspirations. The move towards independence in the Baltic is an example. By the latter half of the 1980s, after decades of forced expulsions and an inflow of Russian soldiers, administrators and workers, only 80% of the population of Lithuania was ethnically Lithuanian, and only 64% in Estonia and 54% in Latvia, respectively78. The first stirrings of protest in the region were therefore ‘directed at questions of language and nationality'79. On August 23, 1987, simultaneous protests took place in Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, encouraging the emergency of Popular Fronts and National Independence Movements.80 A demonstration in Vilnius on July 9, 1988, attracted more than 100,000 people81. In a symbolic action to mark the 50th anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, a human chain was formed by an estimated 1.8 million (25% of the population), reaching from Vilnius through Riga to Tallinn.82 As illustrated in the examples above, the new politics of the Baltic republics ‘reflected a genuine and widespread national renaissance'83. Notwithstanding, moves towards sovereignty in other republics, were ‘typically a more variable mixture of national feeling and nomenklatura self-preservation'84. Nationalism was considerably weaker in those republics of the USSR. While some nationalist movements developed, such as RUKH (People's Movement for Perestroika) in the Ukraine85, or Adradzhenne in Belarus86, and brief protests occurred, for example an April 1989 demonstration in Georgia87, national identity was ‘uncertain'88 or ‘too ethnically complex'89 to be the basis of a popular movement. Communist parties remained in control, winning majorities in the 1990 elections to the republics' Supreme Soviets90. Communist governments ‘re-defin[ed] themselves as national independence movements'91. In Russia in particular, the boundaries between nationality and state were kept ‘deliberately blurred'92. Thus, Judt argues that ‘patriotism had re-emerged as a serviceable substitute for socialism'93 only in the ‘declining years of the people's republics'94. Nationalism was therefore a consequence, not the cause of the decline. Still, Gorbachev was ‘coming under mounting pressure from the leaders of the most separatist-minded republics'95. It had been a ‘major tactical mistake in domestic affairs'96 to encourage the emergence of national legislature and national visibility. Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika had allowed nationalist movements to succeed. Even so, most republics achieved independence with the respective Communist party's powers still intact. The Soviet Union had not ‘collapsed under the weight of a hitherto quiescent, newly reawakened nationalism'97.

The collapse of the Soviet power was, in part, a ‘consequence of the rapidity with which Communist regimes were removed in Eastern Europe'98. In Poland, the trade union Solidarity had over 9 million members (one-third of all workers)99. It orchestrated massive protests100 and lead round-table talks with the Polish government in 1988. In the June 1988 election, Solidarity won 99 out of 100 seats in the National Senate, and all available seats in the Parliamentary Assembly. This was, in hindsight, a 'negotiated termination of Communism’101 in Poland. In Czechoslovakia, protests started in August 1989, although they ‘lacked common objectives and no leaders had yet emerged to channel discontent into a programme’102. Examples include the student march on November 17103 or the gathering at the Letna stadium in Prague on November 25 (attracting over half a million people)104. Eventually, the opposition organisations Civic Forum and Public against Violence negotiated with the government105 and joined the Cabinet. Civic Forum leader Vaclav Havel was elected President on December 28, 1989106. The Hungarian Party officially condoned the appearance of independent political parties in November 1988107, largely without popular protest. Demonstrations in East Germany started in June 1987 during Gorbachev’s visit108, and spread nationwide in May 1989 after the official outcome of GDR elections was obviously fabricated.109 East-German protests culminated in ‘Monday gatherings’ of 90,000 people in Leipzig and other major cities110. Half a million Germans protested in Berlin to demand immediate reforms on November 4, 1989111. According to Judt, the German uprising of 1989 was ‘perhaps the only truly popular [...] revolution of that year’112. 'Neither the Party (as in Hungary), nor the opposition (as in Poland) [was able to] claim much credit for the course of events’113. Communist power in Eastern Europe was not terminated exclusively by ‘ordinary people’114. Popular demonstrations were possible (and successful) only due to Gorbachev’s ‘non-interventionist position’115 and his ‘loosening of controls’116. In Seven Years that Changed the World, Brown describes the USSR as the ‘regional hegemon’ that ‘determined the parameters within which political change could occur throughout Eastern Europe’117. He claims that ‘the pluralisation of the Soviet political system’ and the ‘conciliatory’ foreign policy changed the ‘entire context in which political developments occurred in the region’118. This is evident from the Soviet Union’s suppression of previous uprisings - Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1980 - by military intervention in the first two cases and veiled threat of intervention119 in the third. Changes within the Soviet Union and the removal of ‘direct oversight’120 from Moscow constituted the ‘essential facilitating condition and the most decisive impulse to democratisation’121 in Eastern Europe. A political transition could only occur ‘with Soviet consent’122. The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, although appearing to be the result of popular protests, was only successful due to internal changes in the Union as discussed above. The loss of Eastern European spheres of influence weakened Soviet influence. Even so, it was not the cause of the Soviet collapse, but rather a reflection of the change that had already occurred within the USSR's policy.


1 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019. The Soviet Union dissolved into 15 independent countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan (in alphabetical order).

2 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019.

3 Ray, M., 2018. Why Did The Soviet Union Collapse?. [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 May 2020].

4 Ray, M., 2018.

5 Judt, T., 2010. Postwar. Vintage, p.616.

6 Judt, T., 2010. p. 629.

7 Judt, T., 2010. p. 629.

8 Aron, L., 2011. Everything You Think You Know About The Collapse Of The Soviet Union Is Wrong. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: < know-about-the-collapse-of-the-soviet-union-is-wrong/> [Accessed 3 May 2020].

9 Aron, L., 2011.

10 Aron, L., 2011.

11 Editors, 2017. Soviet Union. [online] HISTORY. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 May 2020].

12 Judt, T., 2010. p. 594.

13 Editors, 2017.

14 Judt, T., 2010. p. 603.

15 Editors, 2017.

16 Lowe, N., 2013. Mastering Modern World History. 5th ed. Palgrave Macmillan, p.403.

17 Judt, T., 2010. p. 599.

18 Judt, T., 2010. p. 599.

19 Judt, T., 2010. p. 599.

20 Judt, T., 2010. p. 599.

21 Judt, T., 2010. p. 599.

22 Brown, A., 2007. Seven Years That Changed The World. Oxford University Press, p.92.

23 Aron, L., 2011.

24 Ray, M., 2018.

25 Brown, A., 2007. p. 228.

26 Brown, A., 2007. p. 92.

27 Brown, A., 2007. p. 188.

28 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

29 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

30 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

31 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

32 Vladimir Bukovsky, as cited in Lowe, N., 2013. p. 408.

33 Editors, 2017.

34 McDougall, W., 2020. 20th-Century International Relations - The Collapse Of The Soviet Union. [online] Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at: < international-relations-2085155/The-collapse-of-the-Soviet-Union> [Accessed 3 May 2020].

35 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

36 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

37 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

38 Aron, L., 2011.

39 Ray, M., 2018.

40 Brown, A., 2007. p. 215.

41 Brown, A., 2007. p. 148.

42 Brown, A., 2007. p. 149.

43 Brown, A., 2007. p. 148.

44 Lowe, N., 2013. p. 405.

45 Judt, T., 2010. p. 592.

46 Aron, L., 2011.

47 Judt, T., 2010. p. 583.

48 Brown, A., 2007. p. 149.

49 Lowe, N., 2013. p. 408.

50 Aron, L., 2011.

51 Aron, L., 2011.

52 Ray, M., 2018.

53 Aron, L., 2011.

54 Aron, L., 2011.

55 Brown, A., 2007. p. 57.

56 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019.

57 Aron, L., 2011.

58 Brown, A., 2007. p. 203.

59 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 226.

60 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 264.

61 Lowe, N., 2013. p. 405.

62 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 252.

63 Judt, T., 2010. p. 576.

64 Judt, T., 2010. p. 576.

65 Judt, T., 2010. p. 596.

66 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 196.

67 Ray, M., 2018.

68 Judt, T., 2010. p. 657.

69 Ray, M., 2018.

70 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 253.

71 Judt, T., 2010. p. 649.

72 Judt, T., 2010. p. 602.

73 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 253.

74 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 253.

75 Judt, T., 2010. p. 602.

76 The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019.

77 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 253.

78 Judt, T., 2010. p. 645.

79 Judt, T., 2010. p. 645.

80 Judt, T., 2010. p. 645.

81 Judt, T., 2010. p. 645.

82 Judt, T., 2010. p. 645.

83 Judt, T., 2010. p. 647.

84 Judt, T., 2010. p. 647.

85 Judt, T., 2010. p. 649.

86 Judt, T., 2010. p. 650.

87 Judt, T., 2010. p. 652.

88 Judt, T., 2010. p. 651.

89 Judt, T., 2010. p. 659.

90 Judt, T., 2010, p. 648-652.

91 Judt, T., 2010. p. 652.

92 Judt, T., 2010. p. 653.

93 Judt, T., 2010. p. 653.

94 Judt, T., 2010. p. 653.

95 Brown, A., 2007. p. 304.

96 Judt, T., 2010. p. 653.

97 Judt, T., 2010. p. 658.

98 Brown, A., 2007. p. 221.

99 Walsh, B., 2001. GCSE Modern World History. 2nd ed. Hodder Education, p.412.

100 Judt, T., 2010. p. 606.

101 Judt, T., 2010. p. 607.

102 Judt, T., 2010. p. 617-618.

103 Judt, T., 2010. p. 618.

104 Judt, T., 2010. p. 618.

105 Judt, T., 2010. p. 619.

106 Judt, T., 2010. p. 620.

107 Judt, T., 2010. p. 609.

108 Judt, T., 2010. p. 612.

109 Judt, T., 2010. p. 612.

110 Judt, T., 2010. p. 613.

111 Judt, T., 2010. p. 614.

112 Judt, T., 2010. p. 616.

113 Judt, T., 2010. p. 615.

114 Gaddis, J., 2005. p. 238.

115 Brown, A., 2007. p. 193.

116 Editors, 2017.

117 Brown, A., 2007. p. 221.

118 Brown, A., 2007. p. 221.

119 Brown, A., 2007. p. 193.

120 Judt, T., 2010. p. 604.

121 Brown, A., 2007. p. 221.

122 Judt, T., 2010. p. 640.

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The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Was the main cause a popular revolution?
A short overview
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This essay was written as an independent research essay in grade 6 of secondary school for a 4-period history course. Among others, it cites Aron Brown's 'Seven Years That Changed The World', John Lewis Gaddi's 'The Cold War', and Tony Judt's 'Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945'.
Soviet Union, Gorbachev, glasnost, perestroika, USSR, collapse, popular revolution, August coup
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Anonymous, 2020, The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Was the main cause a popular revolution?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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