Taking Any One ‘Empire’, Explain Why You Think It Collapsed? This essay will discuss the fall of the Soviet Empire, and how and why I believe it collapsed. The Soviet Union began in 1917 with abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the fall of the Romanov Dynasty in February and March of that year, and the Bolshevik Revolution led by Lenin in October and November, first establishing the Communist State. “For well over half a century the Soviet Union… was one of the most powerful empires in history”1 and during its most successful years, it spanned 15 national republics, and it existed until 1991 under the rule of Mikhall Gorbachev.
Many theories try to explain the fall of one of the greatest empires in modern history, however this essay shall focus on the rule of Gorbachev, and the changes he made that I believe caused the chain of events that led to the collapse of Communism and the USSR. It is clear that there has been opposition to the Communist regime from the very beginning of the Soviet Union, as illustrated by the Russian Civil War (1918-1920) which “would not have occurred without the presence of a large number of dissatisfied non-Communists in the country.
“2 Also, Stalin’s ‘purging’ of 40million Soviets to eliminate possible enemies, shows a certain amount of fear of a possible uprising. To this end, the peoples of the Soviet Union were given little or no freedom until the time of Gorbachev. Karl Marx originally envisioned the Communist State in the 19th century as a perfect society, one where people worked to provide for themselves, and not to provide for the owners of the means of production. In this society, Marx stated that everyone would be equal, regardless whether they were originally born of ‘noble’ heritage, or born to lower and working class societies.
In Marx’s state, there would be no class system. Lenin wanted to build this state in order to provide a fair and just society for everyone, free the proletariat and the peasantry from the autocratic bourgeoisie and to free the country from the repressive rule of the Tsar and the Romanov dynasty. As with all changes of this kind, it was necessary to cause a revolution, to overthrow the standing system and replace it with another, ‘better’ one. However, this better society never emerged. During the Cold War, and in the constant race to keep up with and overtake the USA, both economically and militarily, the needs of the people were neglected.
With those in power using all available resources for the arms race and the space race, instead of providing housing and food for the citizens they were claiming to protect, people longed for change. Even with the drastic measures Stalin had taken in his purging, people still tried to rebel. The Novocherkassk incident (1962) is one such illustration of this, also the Czech revolt in 1968, known as the Prague Spring, and the Solidarity labour movement founded by Lech Walesa in Poland (1980-81).
One possible reason for these uprisings is that the populace were becoming more educated. More and more people were “engaged in ‘the production of either new ideas or new things’ which add[ed] up to a total of ‘approximately 700,000 highly educated people formally engaged in creative activity’ in the USSR. “3 These educated people saw that communism in its current guise did not work and that it had not provided everything that it had promised, and these people began to lose faith in the system which is when the regime began to lose its legitimacy.
Gorbachev, elected as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985, was a firm believer in the ideologies of Leninism. That is, he believed that a Marxist-Communist state would provide a utopia for the Russian people. He saw that, although the Stalin way of doing things had been necessary to bring about Communism within the Union, reform was needed to achieve the ideal society that Marx and Lenin envisioned. He “realised that the old regimes were exhausted, and prepared for the transition into something new. “4
[T]wo leading Russian “democrats” Yurii Afanas’ev and Nikolai Shmelev observed that ‘Gorbachev, at the root of his being, is committed to the preservation of the Soviet empire and a Marxist-Leninist version of socialism… [H]e is trying once more to create a model of an ideal society and impose it in practice. ‘5 However, it is clear to see that Gorbachev’s reforms in fact accomplished the exact opposite. By imposing his changes he did the last thing he would have wanted, and actually caused a chain of events that led to the destruction of Communism and the Soviet Empire.
The first policy that Gorbachev put into play was ‘Perestroika’, which literally means ‘restructuring’, but during this time was a term “used by Gorbachev to describe his attempts to reform the Soviet Union between 1985 and 1991, suggesting plans to liberalise and democratise the Soviet system within a communist framework. “6 It was a system designed to fundamentally change the economy and the governmental system7 and aimed to introduce a system of democracy into the Communist administration. Gorbachev believed that people should have the right to choose to live in a socialist society.
As a firm believer in the ideals of such a system, Gorbachev thought that in such a vote, the peoples of the Soviet would opt to remain under such an administration. Part of this policy was ‘Glasnost’, which literally means ‘openness’, and as a part of Perestroika was a term “used to describe relaxation of censorship and cultural repression during Gorbachev’s time in power in the USSR. “8 “Gorbachev cited [the] Soviet[‘s] shortcomings in housing, foodstuffs, transportation, health, and education”9 and saw both Perestroika and Glasnost as a means of rectifying the situation.
However, “Gorbachev’s policies gradually became more radical as he embraced most of the agenda of the Prague Spring, to achieve a type of democratic renewed socialism. “10 This earned him a loss of support within the party, as seen by the failed coup in 1991 when eight party dissenters placed him under house arrest. “His clear signals that the East European countries could go their own way precipitated the various negotiated revolutions… mass movements… and popular uprisings… that put an end to the Communist experiment in Eastern Europe in 1989 and in the USSR itself in 1991″11
In conclusion, it is obvious that Gorbachev was undoubtedly unaware of the effects his policies would have on the system, and how many people longed for a move away from Communism and a socialist society. They had learned from experience that Communism was a system that did not work in a practical sense, but had seen, however, by looking to the West, that there was a system that worked, in the form of Capitalism. In essence, Communism and Democracy are incompatible systems, and by Gorbachev’s attempt to merge the two, to create the ideal Marxist society, he inadvertently caused its collapse.
Bibliography Dunlop, John B.(1995) The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, New Jersey, Princeton University Press * Sakwa, Richard and Anne Stevens (2000), Contemporary Europe, Hampshire, Palgrave * Watson, William E. (1998), The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union, London, Greenwood Press * Young, John W. and John Kent (2004), International Relations Since 1945: A Global History, New York, Oxford University Press 1 William E. Watson, The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union (London: Greenwood Press, 1998) p xiii 2 William E. Watson, The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union (London: Greenwood Press, 1998) p19.
3 Blair A. Ruble, “The Soviet Union’s Quiet Revolution” in Can Gobachev’s Reforms Succeed? , ed. George W. Breslauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp77-94, cited in John B. Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995), p68 4 Richard Sakwa and Anne Stevens, Contemporary Europe, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000), p11 5 Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, Gorbachev, Heretic in the Kremlin (New York: Viking, 1990) p390, cited in John B. Dunlop, The Rise of Russia and the Fall of the Soviet Empire (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995) p4.
6 Richard Sakwa and Anne Stevens, Contemporary Europe, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000), p44 7 William E. Watson, The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union (London: Greenwood Press, 1998) p22 8 Richard Sakwa and Anne Stevens, Contemporary Europe, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000), p43 9 William E. Watson, The Collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union (London: Greenwood Press, 1998) p22 10 Richard Sakwa and Anne Stevens, Contemporary Europe, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000), p12 11 Richard Sakwa and Anne Stevens, Contemporary Europe, (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000), p12.